I am grateful to Elsa Lewis at Lioness Writing Ltd for a review copy. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I have known the author since we studied together at King’s College London in the 1990s. I have sought to be as objective as possible in this review.
While the Bible rightly remains the central text for Christian faith, very few Christians are likely to deny that the Holy Spirit might use non-canonical stories to strengthen or challenge a person’s faith. This is because stories do not simply entertain; they arise from a need to explain our place in the world and to shape our individual and communal identities. And the best stories penetrate the walls of our hearts and burrow deep into our souls, often revealing to us previously undiscovered (and sometimes unwelcome) facets of our character in the process. Thus stories, crafted by the human imagination, are a means by which the Spirit can transform us into the image of Jesus—if we are prepared to listen to what the Spirit is saying through them.
The need to listen to God’s voice is the foundational concept of The Listening Book, a collection of twenty-five short stories ranging from one to five pages each. In the introduction, James Webb indicates that the twenty-five stories are intended to be places where readers might hear God speak:
So here are some stories. Read them and listen. This is not a place to find doctrine, but it may be a place to hear a still, small voice. This may not be a place to find answers, but it may be a place to have your curiosity aroused and to start you off on a life-changing quest. I can’t guarantee that God will show up while you’re reading them, but it may be a place for the Holy Spirit to confirm something that He has already been whispering to your heart. It may be a comfortable place. It may be an unsettling place. It may just be a place that brings a smile to your face. They are just stories after all. God does the heavy lifting, as long as we are paying attention. (p. 2)
Webb proves himself to be a skilled and often inspired storyteller. Some of his tales are evocative of folklore or fantasy, featuring throne rooms (‘Urges to be Killed (One)’, ‘The Sister and the King’) and talking animals (‘Rufus and the Troll’, ‘On the Perils of Having a High Estimation of Artistic Talent’). Others imply allegory with characters having names such as Misfit (‘By the Riverbank’), Easy Life (‘Knock and the Door shall be Opened’), the Artist (‘The Soul Painting’), and Dogma (‘Lunchtime’). Quite a few stories employ imagery drawn from the natural world (‘Mustard Seed’, ‘Old Fool’, ‘Flowers and Weeds’), while others are first-person narratives (‘The Note’, ‘Hidden Things’, ‘Treasure’). There are also a couple of pieces that seem more like commentary than stories proper (‘Sofa’, ‘Un Dieu Défini est un Dieu Fini’). Three stories particularly stand out to me: ‘The Boy who Held God’, which suggests value in maintaining faith in God’s presence even when God seems absent; ‘Gifts’, with its important message that ‘a gift is supposed to be a burden’ (p. 61); and ‘Pride’, about not being obsessed with our deficiencies. Of course, these things may not have been what Webb sought to communicate in these particular pieces; but, if I have been listening attentively, these are the meanings it seems God has spoken to me through these texts.
As The Listening Book is a collection of short stories, the initial temptation is to consume quite a few of them in one sitting. But this is a mistake as all the pieces have a similar texture and taste. Webb’s aim is surely not for readers to gorge on the stories but to savour them, regarding each one as a satisfying and nourishing meal in its own right. The book itself is unusually shaped (square!), well presented, and contains a number of high-quality original colour photographs by Mark Lewis. I am pleased to commend The Listening Book to anyone who appreciates good tales and believes that God can speak through them.