I have just finished reading Growing Sideways, by Jay McNeill. This autobiography tells the story of Jay’s relentless pursuit of meaning in the context of abuse and hypocrisy. Jay is a PK (pastors kid) whose father was a relatively prominent Pentecostal preacher in New Zealand and Australia in the 70s and 80s. This was something of a unique period in Pentecostal history, a time when charismatic experiential Christianity – tongues speaking, faith inspiring, laughing, crying, dancing, demon chasing – influenced mainstream Protestant and Catholic movements. Pentecostal Christianity was radically transformed as a result, and once relatively conservative and marginalised churches experienced rapid growth and change. It was a period in which charismatic preachers confronted the traditional liturgies and structures of church and encouraged congregants to open their hearts and minds (and bodies) to the life changing power of the spirit. For many people, these charismatic revivals stimulated new life. But the excesses of this experiential spirituality sometimes masked a dark underside – and Jay was to suffer as a result.
On Sunday Jay’s father was a funny, engaging and seemingly spiritual preacher. For the rest of the week he verbally and physically abused his family. He planted churches, attracted crowds, prayed for miracles, drove flashy cars … and beat his children, had numerous affairs and when events at church turned against him moved on to the next town and started again.
Growing sideways is not the story of a bastard father, but it is the story of a man who grew up as a victim of abuse and in the shadow of Christian hypocrisy. Because this is so, Jay has a perspective on the church that must be heard. There is a tendency for people of faith to try and put the best possible spin on everything that goes on in church, to be blind to the superficiality that too often colours the culture of Christianity. In the telling of his own story Jay forces us to look at ourselves and our churches, to turn on our “bullshit radar” (his words not mine, Mum, honestly!) and set aside the false and self-serving in pursuit of the real and substantive.
Jay ends up recovering his faith – or perhaps it would be better to say finding it for the first time – but it is a very different faith to his Pentecostal father. It is an open and generous and doubting faith. He finds it in the love of the woman who was to become his wife. He finds it in the friendship of Christian people who turn out to be very different to his dad. And he finds it in the birth of twin daughters, Jasmine and Sunshine.
These beautiful girls are born premature and, as a result, Sunshine ends up with extreme cerebral palsy. It seems strange but Jay, who has spent most of his life angry at the church, finds God in the beauty of his perfect daughters:
And my ‘faith position’? I don’t really have one. Some people would like me to have a more refined position on faith because it would make them feel more comfortable, but the only thing I know how to do is to keep asking God to do something. Praying that the cerebral palsy will go away seems a ridiculous idea. I feel better accepting reality than to live in a deferred state of hope. I wrestle with my responsibility as a dad to pray, but I can’t allow myself to be distracted with the idea that something magical could happen.
My reluctance to pray for healing has gone hand in hand with an ongoing conviction that Sunny is wonderfully complete. Some people of faith may criticise me for not being more consolidated in my resolve to pray, but in reality there are very few people who have a child with cerebral palsy and still have the energy to believe that God will bring complete healing. When life-changing events like cerebral palsy enter your world, you are confronted with a truth that leaves no room for nonsense. It confronts the western notion that we somehow deserve everything to be perfect, despite the sufferings in the rest of the world.
I am always grateful for people’s prayers and encourage them with expressions of deep gratitude, but once everyone has finished praying for healing, the reality remains that Sunny is still barely able to hold up her head. People would do better to pray the way Helena and I do: to give us strength and teach us to take delight in who Sunny is.
I think you should buy the book. It will make you angry and it will make you laugh. You will appreciate its honesty, even though it is clearly a one-sided account of charismatic Christianity. I do have to say that, as a work of literature, it is not without its problems. It is self published and available on Amazon for $5 (click here). The difficulty with self published works is that they have not had the red pen of an editor who, in this instance, might have sharpened the narrative. It is, at times, repetitive, and I would have liked more space devoted to his parenting joys and challenges (the story of Jasmine and Sunshine comes very late in the book – perhaps there is a part 2 coming later). But in the scheme of things these are small matters and really, $5 is nothing, and his story is worth hearing. And if we can give a few dollars to his family and learn something from his narrative, then it is time and money well spent.
If Jay McNeill interests you, he is also blogging at http://jaymcneill.blogspot.com.au/.
Disclosure: it is important I note my bias as a reviewer of this book. I have never met Jay but I am privileged to know his beautiful mother. Also, my first experience of church at age 16 was in Nowra when Jay’s father was associate Pastor. Three months later he had an affair with another church member, and the ramifications of that impacted the church for years afterward. I was too young to know or care about what was going on – but I do have some connections to the story of the book I have reviewed above.