In his deeply personal memoir The Blurred Cross: A Writer’s Difficult Journey with God, biblical scholar, theologian, and poet Richard Bauckham invites readers on a profound journey of faith, doubt, and resilience in the face of adversity. The book blends autobiography, theological reflection, and poetry to present a raw and honest account of Bauckham’s struggle with deteriorating eyesight and the spiritual challenges that accompanied it.

Part of what sets The Blurred Cross apart is its unconventional structure. Bauckham’s story unfolds across 15 short chapters, each offering a distinct perspective on his journey.

The book opens with “A Memory of Tobit,” a chapter that invokes an ancient book—recognized by some Christian traditions, though not Protestants, as part of the Bible’s canon—whose main character loses his sight. Bauckham draws parallels between his experience and that of Tobit, setting the stage for a narrative that is at once deeply personal and universally resonant.

In the chapters titled “Always Reading” and “Writer and Scholar,” Bauckham lays down the foundational problem underlying the book: When reading is fundamental to your identity, what does it mean to be threatened with losing this ability?

These chapters give readers a vivid impression of the centrality of reading to Bauckham’s sense of who he is in the world and before God. As an academic, he has had a lifelong passion for deep research and careful writing, and the prospect of laying aside this work on account of failing eyesight strikes at the core of the person he assumes himself to be. Bauckham’s understanding of this identity as a reader, both personally and theologically, sets the foundation for everything else to come.

The core of the memoir lies in the chapters clustered under the title “The Story.” These chapters chronicle the worsening of Bauckham’s condition—macular degeneration—and the emotional toll it has exacted. His candid reflections on the fear and frustration that accompanied his diagnosis are powerful and moving but are always held in critical tension by moments of profound spiritual insight and grace.

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With unflinching honesty, he describes the anguished dread of losing the ability to read, the sense of isolation and helplessness that followed the diagnosis of macular degeneration in his second eye, and the existential questions that arose. These sections testify to Bauckham’s vulnerability and courage, inviting readers to share in his struggles and triumphs.

However, while the ordeal of losing sight is deeply troubling for Bauckham, this is not a story of doubt in God, although the possibility of doubt does run through his reflections. The question is never “Is there a God?” Instead, Bauckham takes pains to ask where God is amid his suffering.

This is neatly laid out in his chapter on God’s providence. Here he delves into the concept of providence in the context of his own struggles. Drawing upon extensive knowledge of biblical and theological sources, Bauckham grapples with the age-old question of how a loving and omnipotent God can allow suffering and adversity.

He begins by acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling the idea of a benevolent God with the reality of human suffering. He examines various theological perspectives on providence, from the Calvinist notion of God’s meticulous control over every aspect of creation to the more open-ended view of God’s self-limitation and respect for human free will. Bauckham ultimately argues for a nuanced understanding of providence that recognizes both God’s sovereignty and the genuine contingency of the created order.

Image: Illustration by Eoin Ryan

Central to Bauckham’s reflections in this vein is the biblical story of Job, which he sees as a paradigmatic example of the mystery of divine providence. Like Job, Bauckham has experienced a profound loss that raises questions about God’s purposes. Yet also like Job, he chooses to trust in God’s goodness and wisdom, even in the face of his own seemingly senseless suffering.

Bauckham recounts moments of unexpected blessing and support from friends, family, and even strangers, interpreting these as signs of God’s faithful presence. At the same time, he is careful not to treat God as directly causing or orchestrating every event, recognizing the complex interplay between divine will and human agency.

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One of the most powerful aspects of Bauckham’s reflections on providence is his emphasis on the redemptive potential of suffering. Drawing on the apostle Paul’s writings, he suggests that adversity can be a means of spiritual growth as we learn to depend more fully on God’s grace and strength. He sees his own struggles with vision loss as an invitation to deepen his faith and cultivate a more profound sense of gratitude for the gifts of sight and insight.

While Bauckham’s perspective on providence may not resonate with all readers, particularly those who hold to a more deterministic view of divine sovereignty, his reflections are marked by humility, nuance, and a deep respect for the mystery of God. He does not claim to have all the answers but rather invites readers to join him in the ongoing struggle to discern God’s hand at work, even in the darkest of times.

Alongside being a theologian, Bauckham is also an able poet. Interspersed throughout the book are poems that serve as lyrical interludes, framing his experiences through a different lens. Poems such as “The Colour of May” and “Christ in Three Sightings” are accompanied by commentary that illuminates their context and significance. These poetic reflections add depth and texture, demonstrating Bauckham’s gift for distilling complex emotions into evocative verse.

Central to the book is the theme of gratitude. Despite the hardships that he has endured, Bauckham consistently returns to a posture of thanksgiving, acknowledging the many blessings in his life and the ways in which his struggles have deepened his relationship with God. This spirit of gratitude permeates and sustains the whole memoir, serving as a powerful reminder of the transformative potential of hope and thankfulness during adversity.

In an age when many are grappling with unprecedented challenges and uncertainties, The Blurred Cross offers a timely message of hope and resilience. Bauckham’s story is a testament to the enduring power of faith in the face of adversity and a reminder that even in our darkest moments, we are never alone. His honesty about his doubts and fears is refreshing, providing a model for authentic spiritual grappling that eschews easy answers in favor of deeper truths.

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While the memoir’s unique structure and theological complexity may not appeal to all readers, those who engage with it will find a work of rare insight and beauty. Through his honest and vulnerable reflections, Bauckham invites readers to join him on a journey of faith, doubt, and discovery, one that leads ultimately to a deeper understanding of God’s presence in our lives. For anyone seeking wisdom and guidance in the face of life’s challenges, this book is an invaluable companion.

John Swinton is professor of practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and founding director of the school’s Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability. His books include Dementia: Living in the Memories of God and Finding Jesus in the Storm.

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The Blurred Cross: A Writer's Difficult Journey with God
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Book Title
The Blurred Cross: A Writer's Difficult Journey with God
Author
Publisher
Baker Academic
Release Date
July 23, 2024
Pages
208
Price
21.99
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