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Rachel Mann is an Anglican parish priest and Resident Poet at Manchester Cathedral.  Her book Dazzling Darkness reflects upon gender, illness and sexuality, outlining her experience of what she called “the Dark God” or “the Hidden God”.  She describes this as the God “who comes to us beyond our comfortable categories; who meets us in the darkness, who is most alive in those things we commonly associate with the Dark – failure, loss and brokenness”.  It’s a remarkable and emotionally draining book, but one which also provides a lot to think about.  Mann’s combination of bluntness and intellectual verve leave particular passages lodged in the memory – I’ve already found myself quoting Dazzling Darkness to students at unexpected moments.  I’d heartily recommend it, both as a fascinating read in itself and a book which will provoke conversations: part of the reason I’m giving such an enthusiastic “BUY” report is because I want more people to discuss it with….

One of the book’s central themes is the various “deaths” which may be part of human life; as a trans woman with a serious and chronic illness, Mann has experienced a number of these.  Its structure presents a series of them – conversion, gender reassignment, medical emergencies – as fractures which genuinely transform the self, or destroy it in order to recreate it.  Perhaps unexpectedly (or perhaps that’s my lack of knowledge), Mann resists the tendency to speak of trans people as “X trapped in a Y body”.  Instead she insists on the genuine existence of Nick, the boy and man whom she was, and whom she destroyed.  She can regret, mourn and seek reconciliation, but that will not un-do the past, or render it unproblematic.

This insistence seems to stem partly from her commitment to an embodied understanding of the self.  It makes no sense to her to frame mental and physical states as distinct from each other, both because it would “expose trans discourse to the philosophical problems generated by Cartesian-influenced mind/body distinctions” and because it does not do justice to her own experience, which was felt through the body as well as about the body.  Dazzling Darkness presents knowledge – and self-knowledge – as a deeply physical matter.  It stresses the way experience takes place within the body, and thus cannot see spirituality as an escape or elevation from the physical.  “Beautifully grubby bodies”, as one chapter title puts it, are “the theatres of our lives”.  The theatrical metaphor doesn’t imply a shallow illusion: the influence of Butler and Foucault on Mann’s writing means that she sees gender as partly performative, but affords the performative a great deal of importance.  The book holds in tension the two meanings our language ascribes to the verb “to act”: it is both to inhabit a role, and to make a definite and meaningful intervention in the world.

Embodiment appears at intriguing moments in Dazzling Darkness.  The experience of conversion it describes was partly erotic, even sexual, and Mann relates this to the phenomenon of “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship songs in more Evangelical youth groups.  Rather than dismiss them as crude sublimation, she generously suggests that there may be some truth attempting to find expression here, even in a form which many find trite, risible or misleading.  Her commitment to embodiment stops her from applying a Freudian hermeneutics of suspicion to these songs for a temptingly easy score, despite the attitudes which drove her out of a conservative Evangelical congregation.  It also makes an appearance in her account of the Eucharist, where she declares “there is a deep physicality about the act and mystery of communion”, and calls it “an act of resistance to theorising”.  This stress on incarnation and embodiment does not lead to a glorifying of the body as perfect or complete in itself, but to taking its fragility and fractures seriously.  If bodies matter this much, then their problems and inadequacies aren’t proof that they are an illusion to be escaped via transcendence.  Rather they are a call to live in brokenness, and to seek reconciliation which does not deny that brokenness.

Throughout the book, Mann sketches a series of fractures in her life, and attempts to explain how they brought her closer to “the Living God”, who is also “the Dark God”.  There is another tension here: despite her reference to the book aspiring to be “a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, with all the tasty and dodgy bits left in”, there isn’t a linear development to be drawn.  The breaks are felt as genuine “deaths”, not as way-posts along a retraceable route.  The reader’s attention and emotion is not directed forwards towards a glorious explanation and expunging of all this suffering (Mann is resolutely scornful of attempts to ennoble and glorify pain in itself), but held at the experience of conversion, or rejection, or illness.  Reconciliation, in narrative or emotional terms, is not made simple in Dazzling Darkness.  But there is a recurring insistence on “God’s solidarity”, “the love which stands besides us, which bleeds with us, and will not walk away”, the “God in Christ” found “squatting beside me in the darkness”.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book.  About its demand that queer Christians have their experiences understood as valid in themselves, and as helpful to understand the more “mainstream” Church better.  Or the way it helpfully brings together two rough intellectual traditions which a lot of people spend their time in: that of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Ludwig Wittgenstein and that of T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, Rowan Williams.  But I suspect I shall, if only because this book will find its way into my writing on other topics.  Dazzling Darkness is a book to think with, and a book to think about.  I’d love to hear what you all thought about it.

Rachel Mann tweets as @metalvicar, and blogs here: http://therachelmannblogspot.blogspot.co.uk/

Other reviews of Dazzling Darkness:

Chris Fewings at Lay Anglicana

Jill Seeger at Ekklesia