Radical Normalcy: A Review of "Fierce Convictions" by Karen Swallow Prior

(Eds. Note: every once in a while, we review an album or book that we think might be both overlooked and helpful for both Redeemer Church specifically, and the church more generally.  Our most recent review covered "Prepare Him Room", a Christmas album by Sovereign Grace.  Today, we look at "Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More -- Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.")

“The traces of her pen offer glimpses into the revolutionary questions of her age. The forces of her convictions leave traces in our own.” Those were the concluding sentences of the prologue to Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior. If you want to read a biography of a truly radical, extraordinary, and thoughtful Christian abolitionist,  poet and reformer by a truly gifted and witty writer, purchase this book.

I could end the review there. Part of me thinks that I should – honestly, just read the book. Anything I say in support of that suggestion would be reductive. Better reviews have already been written. But I want to situate the book within the grid by which I read it.

In recent years, evangelicalism has seen two distinct types of book-titles that, at first glance (and sometimes at first read) seem contradictory. On one hand, you have books like Radical by David Platt and Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris, which point out that the cost of discipleship means something more than the brand of cultural, careful Christianity we have become accustomed to. On the other hand, you have books like Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung (and many other titles) that point out that the Christian life doesn’t always mean running off to other countries or doing crazy things, but about the day-to-day, often mundane decisions being oriented around a faithful conviction to serve God in everything we do.

Many of these books, of course, are not necessarily contradictory, but they can be confusing nonetheless. Am I supposed to give all my money to the poor, or work hard and try to become successful and invest money so that I can be a consistent, faithful giver to my local church? Am I supposed to spend a year in a foreign country trying to reach the unreached, or spend years developing close relationships in the community around me so that I can eventually introduce the Gospel in the context of a previously established friendship? Am I supposed to be crazy or totally normal?

Ms. Prior uses the (unfortunately) overshadowed life of Hannah More, a contemporary of William Wilberforce who also fought to eliminate the slave trade, to effectively answer the question. The two notions are not contradictory; Hannah More’s life was one of radical normalcy. It was normal in that Hannah More, in one sense, lived a normal, Victorian life, full of all of the British stereotypes – visitors, tea, letter-writing, polite company, intellectual conversation and pretention. But in doing so, Hannah More did something that is all-too-radical. She found injustice, and she fought.  She found the limits imposed on her as a woman in a patriarchal society, and she rejected them.  She fought and wrote and imagined with conviction, imagination, wit and winsomeness. She also succumbed to many of the temptations we all face. As Mr. Prior put it, in a sort of Chestertonian dismissal of a supposed paradox, “[Hannah]…was at once ordinary and remarkable.” Not that she was sometimes ordinary and sometimes remarkable. She was both at once.

There is much more to be learned from the book. Much more that modern evangelicalism would do well to learn, and much more that I’m seeking to apply to my own life. As just one example, Ms. Prior points out that being agreeable and winsome does not equate to compromise and that Hannah More “belied the stereotype that equates dourness with devotion.” Ms. Prior quotes Ms. More as saying “You are serving God by making yourself agreeable upon your own views and principles…to worldly but well-disposed people, who would never be attracted to religion by grave and severe divines…Those who can adorn the doctrine of God their Savior by cheerful manners, defeat the end of the Giver by assuming a contrary character. It is an honest bait, by which they will at last be attracted to like you for some better part of you.”

More also had insightful, contextualized things to say about thoroughly modern problems, such as patriarchy and microaggressions (although, of course, she never used the second term). Although later criticized as being cut from an outdated, Victorian cloth, More rejected the social expectation placed upon women at the time. It might seem quaint to imagine a time when women were not expected even to write, but Ms. Prior points out that female writers were often compared to prostitutes. More was subversive simply by writing – that she used her writing, at times, to critique the men “and women, too” who were “afraid of [female] scholars” and writers was more significant still.

After Kristie Anyabwile wrote a piece for Christianity Today about how Christians can and should respond to microagressions, the reaction was depressingly predictable. A significant number of evangelicals suggested that microagressions is an unhelpful term, and is usually simply characterized by an overreaction to perceived, but non-existent, slights. Perhaps that viewpoint can be challenged by the knowledge that hundreds of years ago, More saw the implicit insult in being told that her writings were “extraordinary for a woman.”

But those are just a few examples. As I said, there are many more. And they are skillfully and subtly woven into the general narrative of More’s life by one of the most gifted Christian voices in evangelicalism today. Ms. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University (DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK, JERRY!) and a research fellow with the ERLC, and her insightful cultural analysis is unique and desperately needed. Her pieces on the new “political correctness” and the church’s call to “love the whore” (not to mention her analysis of the blue & black v. being wrong debate) are personal favorites in the blogosphere context, and she has done the Lord’s work here. I highly recommend that you find our for yourself.

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