What’s most endearing about Even in Our Darkness, the new memoir from theologian Jack Deere, is also what’s most difficult: its rawness. Before picking it up, be warned: You will hold your breath for pages at a time, even to the last page. The reader never really gets any sort of break, which, I suppose, is fitting, seeing as the author has never seemed to get one either.
Deere was born the child of drinkers and drifters. Suicide and substance abuse, violence and anger, were the fabric of his life. And yet this book reads less like a tell-all or “Ten Excuses for My Dysfunctions” and more like the kind of story that reminds us Jesus came for the sick, not for the well.
Balancing the Scales
Deere grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. He regales us with stories of youthful escapades and sexual conquests; with examples of good discipline by his father and abuse by his mother. He does not shy from coarse language, a fact for which this reader was grateful. In an endnote, he explains, “To tell my story any other way would have been to diminish its authenticity and power.” (Instead of punishing Deere for calling his mother derogatory names, his father takes a moment to truly explain what these expletives mean, a moment of discipline that becomes more important as the story goes on.).
As Deere endures this whiplashed childhood (literally and figuratively), we can see the internal tension with which he wrestles. He knows there is something innately unjust, something not right, about his family life, yet he lacks a firm example of what is right. Except for the presence of his “Nonnie,” his maternal grandmother who is married to the wildly abusive “Poppa,” Deere has no role models of faithfulness or lives marked by the gospel—that is, until Bruce, his childhood friend, turns into a good Christian boy in their teens.
Deere doesn’t sugarcoat the sin of others in his formative years: his father’s suicide by shooting, his “Poppa’s” foulness, his mother’s abuse, the rampant racism, the drinking, the sexual conquests of his mother, or his family’s financial struggles. Nor, however, does he sugarcoat his own sin. He writes extensively about struggles with masturbation and sex—long after his encounter with the gospel and his entrance into Christian ministry. He writes about his selfish desire to succeed, to become rich, to dominate others, and to build his own kingdom. He writes about how he neglected his family, sacrificing them on the altar of his success.
Chronicling his salvation narrative—from his early start in ministry through Young Life, to his mentors and co-laborers, into his time as a student and then teacher at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in the 1970s, and up through his marriage and children—Deere never stops leveling his scales of goodness and badness. His sin is peppered throughout his success. He confesses anger at fellow ministers alongside stories of becoming a pastor. He writes of anger at his wife while building his ministry as a professor of Hebrew at DTS. After a conversion out of dispensationalism and into the belief and practice of the gifts of the Spirit, he begins to speak and write prolifically about the gifts—while at the same time feuding with his friends on the speaking circuit and co-laborers at his church. He teaches his congregants about walking with substance abusers while keeping his wife’s alcoholism a secret. Every time you feel a surge of hope, Deere brings you back down to reality with another litany of his sins. It is almost as if we’re not allowed to think of him as better than he knows he is. He admits, “Although I loved the poetry of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I remained oblivious to its truth. People who already feel righteous don’t hunger and thirst for it.”
Near the conclusion of the book, Deere uses an illustration sure to resonate with his readers: “Every time I put my right hand on the doorknob, fear pricks my heart.” For this reader, it was what C. S. Lewis called a “me too” moment: You mean, I’m not the only one who has such clear memories of trauma that they still rise within me in the presence of certain scents, sounds, or actions? Mere paragraphs from the conclusion of his story, Deere is not saying, “This was something I dealt with,” but “This is something I deal with.”
This rawness is rare in the church today. We are often told by leaders that they sin, but Deere’s memoir is refreshingly full of his sin. It is not gratuitous in any form. We never get the sense that he wants to gain our pity or empathy to manipulate us into thinking he’s better or worse than he is. He is simply factual (to our knowledge) and unapologetic to his reader, while increasingly more repentant toward those against whom he has sinned—God foremost among them.
In a world where, all too often, leaders present themselves as one-dimensional characters (primarily speakers, teachers, pastors, musicians, or writers), Deere shows us we are irreducibly complex beings. Our bodies matter. Our souls matter. Our minds matter. Our emotions matter. Our histories matter. These together form the whole of who we are, and any true ministry we do out of the whole is going to be wholly complex. Otherwise, it will be anemic, one-dimensional, and devoid of power. Deere recognizes this now. But it took hell to get him there. I haven’t even mentioned the half of it in this review.
The Unfinished Feeling
Even in Our Darkness is profoundly readable, accessible to the prodigal son and the older brother alike, and, at your discretion, perhaps even appropriate for teen readers. Deere’s years with Young Life shine in his ability to speak to a young audience about sex, lust, masturbation, fitting in, standing out, substance abuse, suicide, and more. All of these are real struggles for teens today, and the story of Deere’s life might be helpful for them as they navigate these temptations.
I don’t know Jack Deere. I don’t know where he is today or what his tenuous relationship with the local church is (he admits a struggle there and never wraps it up nicely). I don’t know if he’s gone back to reconcile with everyone against whom he sinned. I don’t know how his family is doing as a whole or how they’re continuing to walk and to heal. But I do know Even in Our Darkness was a welcome read for me. The unfinished, raw feeling of this book—this story—is actually the best part of it. It says to every one of us, “We’re not there yet. We still have further to go, but praise God, he’s with us.”
As A. W. Tozer once said, “Christian literature, to be accepted and approved by evangelical leaders of our times, must follow very closely the same train of thought, a kind of ‘party line’ of which it is scarcely safe to depart. A half-century of this in America has made us smug and content. We imitate each other with slavish devotion.”
I lament with Tozer. There is a dearth of Christian literature willing to escape this “slavish devotion.” I want to read fewer tell-alls and more tell-mines, fewer heavy-handed theological how-tos and more vulnerable proofs of theological truths. Jack Deere has done that in this book, and he has done it well. He stopped tipping the scales of his good versus bad deeds and simply tipped the scale over completely, finally “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2, KJV).
Lore Ferguson Wilbert is a writer who blogs at Sayable.net.