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Book Review: Wrestling With Angels by Carolyn Arends

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If the cover matter and multi front-of-the-book endorsements don’t ratchet up your expectations for a fine read in Carolyn Arends’ (yes, the singer, songwriter) Wrestling With Angels, then reading the introductory chapter probably will. Arends, whose writing style has been likened to Don Miller's and Anne Lamott's, does just what the cover suggests – wrestles with God (in the mode of Jacob wrestling with the angel) over the stuff of her life. In 20 chapters’ worth of multi-layered essays she tells her stories and, using them almost like parables, extracts mysteries of the divine, letting us in on the uncertainties and certainties she has discovered along the way.

She relates her journey mostly chronologically. Her stories, which go from remembering how she puzzled over which shoe belonged on which foot in kindergarten to birthing her son, are easy to get caught up in – told as they are with humor, self-deprecation and a little hyperbole. It’s how she manages to wring life lessons from these everyday events that makes this book more than a light and entertaining read.

In this probe of her life she covers topics like doubt, prayer, God’s existence, death and life after death, God’s goodness versus the existence of evil, and more. Her own insights are fortified with end-of-chapter quotes by spiritual thinkers across the ages from Brother Lawrence and Lady Julian of Norwich to Malcolm Muggeridge, Frederich Buechner, and others. Followers of her music will also recognize lyrics from some of her songs included in appropriate places.

Wrestling With Angels made me feel like being honest – with God and myself. It gave me the urge to sift through the stories of my own life to see what kind of “Ebenezer stones” I could unearth. As a fan of Arends’ music, I also enjoyed this tour of her world and history. I now understand and appreciate where many of the themes that appear in her song lyrics have come from.

However, you don’t need to be a Carolyn Arends groupie to get something out of this book. If you’ve asked hard questions like, why do people get Alzheimer’s disease, what was with the year my family experienced one bad thing after another, and how can a supposedly good and loving God permit evil to win sometimes (in the world and in my own life), you will find in Arends a sympathetic fellow pilgrim who grapples with your issues. Though she never pushes her answers, or lack of them, as the only way to see things, she’s given these issues a lot of thought and is articulate and persuasive in defending her position.

Wrestling with Angels was first released in 2000 as Living the Questions (also published by Harvest House Publishers). This 2008 release includes current web site information about where to interact with the author for questions and discussion.

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About Violet Nesdoly