Every now and then, I read a book that I would be remiss if I did not spread the word about it. Novelist friend Sophfronia Scott invited me to write a review of her newest book, which she co-wrote with her young son, Tain Gregory. As I say in the review below, I wish I had had it on my bookshelf during my days as a parish pastor to give to all those parents who came to me seeking advice as to how to instill faith in their child or children. As a matter of fact, I wish I had had a copy when my wife and I were raising our own two sons. Sophfronia and Tain tell the story of his initial growth in faith as a young child.
At the same time, the book is an account of Sophfronia herself grew in her own faith while talking about God with Tain. The book deals with Christian faith specifically, but I am sure that Jewish parents and those of other faiths will find inspiration and assurance here as well. A shorter version of this review can be found on http://www.goodreads.com:
It has been said that any of the world’s religions, including Christianity, is always just one generation away from extinction. As an ordained clergyman, I was approached innumerable times by parents who felt one degree of urgency or other to help their child or children develop religious or spiritual faith to guide and direct their lives, and especially strengthen and uphold them with life’s challenges and inevitable disappointments and tragedies.
I sincerely wish I had had copies of this excellent book on my office bookshelf to give to such parents. Novelist and essayist Sophfronia Scott (All I Need to Get By, Unforgivable Love) has recruited her young son, Tain Gregory, to co-write a sensitive, insightful and loving book. She is emphatic that it is “not an instructional how-to book”; rather, she describes Tain’s journey of faith formation, the genesis of which is Tain’s own questions to her about God as a pupil in a pre-school housed in the local Episcopal church.
That, in fact, is what makes this “coming of age to faith” book so refreshing to read and so helpful for parents and families. Scott is wise enough to understand that as a mother, she cannot simply fill her son with faith as one would an empty vessel with a liquid. Rather, she would have to “be in a place to recognize the truth” when her son asks questions and “makes requests that come from a place of authentic desire or even divine guidance.”
Interestingly, Tain’s first questions related to God begin as queries about death. Why did his grandfathers die? “What does that mean?” And then, he utters the statement that launches him on his journey of spiritual and religious discovery: “I don’t want to die.”
It turns out, to be Sophfronia’s spiritual journey as well. Each of Tain’s questions and experiences takes her back to her own childhood and wonderings about God. She relies on such memories and her own feeling as invaluable resources for insight into her son, and his readiness for answers to his questions. Sophfronia describes her few experiences of church during her nominally-churched childhood and youth, which makes for interesting enough reading in itself. But after each narration of events in Tain’s and the family’s life and developments in his spirituality, she inserts a short section entitled “Tain’s Take” in which he describes and reflects on his new experiences in worship and church school.
Though Scott doesn’t quote the verse herself in the book, as one reads, one is made to recall the biblical verse, “A little child shall lead them.” One chapter is entitled, “Who is the Teacher and Who is the Student?” That applies to the whole book, in fact. Because Sophfronia and her husband Darryl make the decision to accompany their son on the journey of spiritual and religious discovery rather than simply abdicate the task to their church and its pastor, each of Tain’s breakthroughs along the way sparks insights and spiritual growth in Sophfronia herself.
The authors live in Newtown, CT, which ought to ring an ominous bell for readers. At the beginning of his third grade in 2012, Tain asks to transfer from his private school to the local public school, the name of which is Sandy Hook Elementary School. That reality, though unnamed until the ninth of ten chapters, affects the reader deeply much as moviegoers were forewarned of an impending shark attack by John William’s hauntingly menacing oscillation between two simple notes in his soundtrack for the movie Jaws. As a gifted novelist, Scott has given the book the structure of a page-turner novel.
Indeed, disaster does strikes at Sandy Hook School on December 14, 2012. In the years before 12/14, Tain had grown substantially in his faith and understanding when he and his family endured the death of the father of one of his close friends, Scott’s sister, and Darryl’s mother. While grieving herself, Scott treated each instance as a “teachable”, and equally significantly, a “prayable” moment. Then, Tain experiences news of the violent death at Sandy Hook of the first-grade son of his godmother, Ben, whom he calls his “godbrother”. It turns out that all the conversation about death between mother and son prior to that were a source of strength and hope for both of them in the wake of 12/14.
This Child of Faith is not a “new-agey” tract about a generic spirituality. Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown plays a vital role in both Tain’s and Sophfronia’s spiritual growth and health. The congregation is particularly helpful to them in providing emotional and spiritual support in their grieving, especially after 12/14. Sophfronia and Tain discover that the journey of faith is not taken alone, but in community.
The authors are featured in the film documentary Midsummer in Newtown, available on Amazon Video and iTunes. The documentary deals with a creative artist’s project of helping survivors of the school at Sandy Hook heal from their trauma.