Book Review: Rachel Mann’s ‘Spectres of God’

Rachel Mann has become one of the most prolific Christian authors of the last ten years. She has written autobiography (Dazzling Darkness, 2012), poetry (The Risen Dust, A Kingdom of Love), fiction (The Gospel of Eve) and theology in many different forms, from a Lent course on the film The Greatest Showman, to reflections on the Great War, to this most recent book summing up her theological outlook. Her work should be of great interest to all who support Inclusive Church, as she has written about all aspects of her life, from being a trans woman to being a feminist to being chronically ill and disabled, and her lived experience informs her theology in fascinating and important ways.

‘Spectres of God’ is part of a series of books published by Dartman, Longman and Todd (DLT), who also published the IC series of books. Each book is a short exploration of the theology of ‘the world’s leading Christian thinkers’ (taken from the back cover). If you enjoyed this one, which I very much did, you can also read similarly accessible books by Keith Ward, Robert Beckford, Ilia Delio and Alistair McGrath, among others. Just Google ‘My Theology – DLT’ to find out more and see who’s written for the series.  

Rachel Mann’s books are always so poetic, whether she’s writing poetry or not. They also bring in, as I said, all of her experience of life, as well as the theology and theologians she loves and admires (who are listed in a handy appendix at the back entitled ‘A Short and Absurdly Self-Indulgent List of my Parents’). The book is written in three sections: The Spectre of the Body, The Spectre of Love, and the Spectre of Time. Don’t be confused by the term ‘spectre’ – I personally found the concept intriguing. This is how Rachel herself describes the concept:

‘I have come to understand my theological thinking as a concerted engagement with a series of spectral and ghostly manifestations and traces centred around God’ (p. 9).

These ‘traces’ or ‘spectres’ are important today because, despite us being a nation of sceptics, many of whom are atheist, we still live in a world which has echoes of Christianity and Christian ideas contained within it. More than that, the world still has traces of God and God’s kingdom, sometimes not because of but despite Christianity and its failures to follow Jesus. These traces of God and of Christian ideas can be both harmful if they are false ideas which have taken hold and helpful ideas, if they heal and encourage compassion. This is the word Mann chooses to use when unpacking the ubiquitous Christian word ‘love’: ‘compassion’, she says ‘means to ‘suffer with’’, and so it is more concrete and practical than the ‘highfaluting’ language of ‘love’.

All three chapters are brilliant in their own way, but I think my favourite has to be the final one, because I have always been fascinated by the concept of time and how it can change and stretch (some of my favourite films play on the themes of circular time- Lost Highway, Donnie Darko, Arrival). I am especially interested in time as it relates to God and God being both within and without created time. I’m very pleased that the author used John’s gospel to illustrate this concept, as it is probably my favourite gospel and I’ve recently taught a course on it with Stuart Masters at Woodbrooke. In John’s Prologue, ‘the Word’, as Rachel puts it ‘was before, is now, and shall ever be’. John understood the concept of circular time and God’s time, I think.

These concepts about God can sometimes ‘fry our brains’, as Mann puts it succinctly, but that’s ok. We are held by God in the great mystery: ‘As we dare to live the absurdity… As we become what we already are – which is human – we become what we already are – which is divine’ (p. 73).

Thank you, Rachel, for another brilliant book.

Ruth Wilde is the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church.