Monday, August 06, 2018

Book Review: Cultural Savage by Aaron J. Smith

All of this is my reality of living with mental illness. I hope it gives you some insight into the lives of people around you who live with these illnesses. But listen to their stories. Mental illness is different for each person. Don't assume that I can speak for the entire population affected by mental illness. Still, I hope you will hear my words [and] they will help you see those of us suffering. We deserve to be seen. - Aaron Smith, Cultural Savage

The world needs more personal stories about living with mental illness. And the Christian community is in special need of such stories that wrestle with how to reconcile faith with such illnesses. While many in general hold conscious or unconscious stigma, there tends to be an extra layer of misunderstanding and cruelty in the church, as the message many receive is that it is a sign of weak faith or needing more prayer. While faith and prayer may assist one in pursuing health, it is not the only thing that one needs. Therapy, medication, patience, and basic acknowledgement also often factor in to one's need for recovery and management.

Thankfully, books such as Sarah Lund's Blessed Are the Crazy have emerged in recent years to aid people in understanding what this struggle really entails, including its spiritual implications and what constitutes truly helpful behavior on the part of people of faith seeking to aid in someone's mental health journey.

Later this month, Cultural Savage: The Intersection of Christianity and Mental Illness by Aaron J. Smith will join the growing chorus of stories and experiences so crucial to helping others--Christian or no--understand what such a journey really involves.

Smith is a blogger who has long chronicled the ups and downs of his health at a blog from which the book derives its title. The contents of the book appear to be a collection of these posts, signaled by each essay's relative brevity but also because I recognized a few from their original online appearance.

That itself is not a knock on the content: while edited, most retain a raw quality that makes the stories they share more vivid. Smith shares his difficulty to remain employed when the worse days of his illness hit, how hard it is some days to take his medication, and the lack of understanding that he faces from others. Several of these include a call to people who claim the term "Christian" to be better at listening and slower to offer platitudes and quick fixes, as he finds neither helpful. He shares this with a necessary honesty that helps convey how he and others receive such sentiments.

While the bulk of Cultural Savage addresses these issues, Smith also occasionally offers commentary on how Christians view sex, human trafficking, self-doubt, the importance of addressing one's feelings, and body image. Like his essays on mental illness, each of these are engaged with a confessional tone reminiscent of a journal entry. They retain their blog origins in that sense, but also make them personable for the reader.

Cultural Savage is a highly personal and reflective contribution to the discourse both the church and the world needs to have about mental illness. It will release around August 15, 2018.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)