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I’m very pleased today to announce a new venture, Reformed Journal Books, and to reveal the cover of our first book: Telling Stories in the Dark: Finding healing and hope in sharing our sadness, grief, trauma, and pain. (And I feel great sadness in the midst of my excitement to note the link I just shared is one of the last projects the late John Hwang helped prepare for the Reformed Journal, and to remember John’s enthusiasm about all of this.)
Reformed Journal Books is done in partnership with Front Edge Publishing, a company co-founded by David Crumm, former religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. David has served as editor on this project, and has reported on religion, spirituality, and cross-cultural issues in the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and also edits Read the Spirit magazine.
I started working on Telling Stories in the Dark over two years ago as I considered the amazing losses caused by the pandemic and wondered how we would find the resilience to move forward. I was guided by Frederick Buechner’s concept of the “stewardship of pain,” and felt this book would be a natural follow-up to Reading Buechner.
At first, I set out to read everything I could to make myself an expert on trauma and loss. I discovered we’re making amazing progress on understanding how our brains work and what happens to our brains during trauma. I also discovered I would never be a brain scientist. After about six months of reading I gave the project up. (Among the most fascinating books I read was Bessel VanderKolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, which I highly recommend.) I set my project aside, knowing I was not about to become brain science expert in my 60s.
After a few months, inspiration came out of the blue. Instead of trying to be an expert, I changed my point of view to that of an investigator. After all, I was a journalism major a lifetime ago at Michigan State University (and editor of the Flint Southwestern High School Hoofbeat before that, he wrote with a wry smile).
The book came together in my mind immediately. I decided to interview people who had not just faced tremendous loss but had made Buechner’s move toward the stewardship of pain. I would tell their stories. I love telling stories and believe strongly in the power (for good and for ill) of stories. I’m guided by Rebecca Solnit’s belief that our stories can be both the prison we lock ourselves into and the key that unlocks the prison door. At this late point in my life, I can hardly read the sorts of books I used to read, books that are nothing but collections of propositional arguments. I need stories. I devour stories. “Old men ought to be explorers,” T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, a poem that’s referred to more than once in my book. I decided to become an explorer.
The other idea that came to me once I abandoned trying to pass myself off as an expert was to interview people who actually are experts. Each chapter of Telling Stories in the Dark not only contains a story, it also includes processing of the story with a subject matter expert. I interviewed a couple of psychologists, a writer who has a specialty in medical humanities, a theologian, a pastor, a therapist, and an artist to help gain wisdom and insight into each story.
The stories are about heavy topics, yet I don’t think it’s a depressing book. I tried hard not to be voyeuristic, but to focus on things like resilience, hope, and healing. Still, the stories deal with murder, medical error, cancer, dementia, suicide, and accidental death. Some of the people involved have recognizable names: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Marilyn McEntyre, Makoto Fujimura, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and Chuck DeGroat are all involved. The author Sarah Arthur wrote the foreword. But others involved are everyday folks, people like you and me who don’t have Wikipedia pages or websites, but who have experienced life and loss and somehow have done redemptive things with their pain.
I have two great hopes for this book, both of which involve you. First, I hope this book is of use to the church. Mark Hiskes and I have created a discussion guide that will accompany the book and be available for free downloading from the Reformed Journal site. This book is made for conversation, and my wish is that small groups, book clubs, and adult education classes will engage with it. I’d love to be a part of those conversations, either in person or through Zoom.
Second, I hope Telling Stories in the Dark is the first in a long line of Reformed Journal Books. A generous couple got behind this project and seeded the creation of our publishing imprint. Every copy of Telling Stories in the Dark we sell will pay it forward for our next book. You know that we have an amazingly talented group of writers at the Reformed Journal. As much as I love our digital format, and as much as I appreciate its flexibility and all it helps us accomplish, there is no object in the world I love more than a good book (quirky baseball cards are a close second). I want to spend the last years of my working life as a book midwife, bringing books by our great Reformed Journal writers into the world.
Telling Stories in the Dark will be available for pre-order next month, and will be officially released early in 2024. We’ll be sharing more as those dates approach.