Book Reviews

Book Review -Holy Hot Mess: Finding God in the Details of This Weird and Wonderful Life by Mary Katherine Backstrom

I follow Mary Katherine Backstrom on social media. At a time when so much of the Christian faith is shown in the media as hatred, it’s refreshing to find a voice of reason that I can draw inspiration from. Her posts are often irreverent and self-deprecating, a refreshing departure from the holier-than-thou gatekeepers out there.

Holy Hot Mess follows much of the same format as her social media posts. Backstrom uses her own experiences to show how the messiness of life helped her draw closer to God. She seems to be making the argument that God is more present in the craziness of life and in those “perfect” moments people try to portray. Indeed, many “perfect” families have dark secrets they are covering up. Think of Backstrom as the anti-Duggar.

It’s not your responsibility to tone yourself down so you can fit in at somebody else’s table.

Most of the book narrates Backstrom’s life and the ups and downs in it. She seems to focus mostly on the downs to reveal where she’s coming from. She married her high school sweetheart and they struggled for a long time while he was in medical school. She also struggled with the after-effects of being abused by her stepfather. One truly revealing moment is when she spends time with girls she knew in high school and finally gets answers to one of the nagging questions from then, only to reveal that the reason they chose a certain course of action that hurt her was a misunderstanding. In that way, I could relate even though our high school experiences were nothing alike.

She’s also honest about the messiness of marriage and how people have to work at it. She and her husband were caught up in the rat race, trying to have it all, and in one of those moments they both took a breather and found that neither of them was happy. They needed to step back and discover what was important and make changes that gave them better lives, not just more money and social standing.

I think most people can see a little of themselves in her life and her reflections. However, the target audience for the book is most definitely Christians. Backstrom spends a lot of time talking about God and how God draws her in during those “messy” times of life. I can appreciate that.

Here’s where I departed from her a bit. She seems to be of the belief that “God has a plan.” That’s not something I believe. If she’s saying that when the bad things happen that’s God’s way of trying to teach us something, I can’t believe that. It might be okay when you are talking about the minutiae of daily life, but if you’ve ever experienced losing someone close to you, it’s difficult to fathom. That’s asking me to believe that God let me have a beautiful baby girl who would one day grow up and commit suicide to teach me some sort of lesson. Or that God allows children to starve around the world to somehow teach us a lesson. Who would want to follow a God like that? A God that is deliberately cruel… Does that make spending eternal life with God seem like a good thing? I see it more as there is sin in the world. We have the tools to change it. There are plenty of resources on this planet for everyone to be comfortable, but the sins of avarice and greed have us in a world with billionaires while children starve to death.

That leaves me with a slight hesitation after reading this. I do appreciate what she says, that in the crazy, messy everyday part of our lives, God is there. I just don’t think he’s directing it. I think he can help us see a way to turn something positive like I have helped humanize addicts and try to stop the sense of “shame” people have in conjunction with suicide.

The tragic irony of trying to conform to the world by lessening who we are is that in an effort to avoid society’s rejection, we are rejecting the very people that God created us to be. Your authentic self, your weirdness, your silly jokes and bold personality—those are things that honor your Creator. Don’t you dare shove it down inside.

That said, Holy Hot Mess is still a great book, especially for us imperfect Christians. Backstrom drives home the message that “God made you” and that is key to accepting you as you are and how the world should see you as well. Now, do I think God engineered certain chromosomes so I turned out a certain way? No. But there’s something about the human soul that is the key. Backstrom talks about this as well, and she’s a good writer.

If you are a Christian who has no use for right-wing fundamentalism and the false Gods there, I think you’ll enjoy Holy Hot Mess. There’s a lot here that’s good about faith and will make you hopeful again.

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