This book review was recently featured on The Gospel Coalition.
“If anyone else wants to live this life I’ve created for myself, they’re more than welcome to try. But I’m done. I need a new way to live.”
This is the state of Shauna Neiquist’s mind in the opening scene of her newest book of memoir style essays, Present over Perfect: Leaving behind frantic for a simpler, more soulful way of living.
Niequist is the author of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, and Savor. She has been putting out books in this genre (Inspirational/Christian Living) for nearly ten years.
She sets out to describe and reflect on a three year process in Present over Perfect, calling it “the single most profound life change I’ve yet encountered.” It is the process by which she sheds obligations, misconceptions, and belongings that have been screwing her life up to a fever pitch. The book promises to lead us along through this process, helping us discover the same peaceful lifestyle and self-acceptance that she’s currently enjoying.
“If I’m honest, I let words like responsible and capable govern many of my years,” says Neiquist. “And what good are they? Words that I’m choosing in this season: passion, connection, meaning, love, grace, spirit.”
This Zondervan release debuted at #2 on the New York Times Advice and How-To bestseller list in August, as well as the #1 on Publishers Weekly, #1 on The Wall Street Journal, and #8 on USA Today’s list. Since August, it has sold over 60,000 copies. The book is endorsed by authors like Donald Miller and Jen Hatmaker, with an introduction by Brene Brown. Niequist spoke at the Global Leadership Summit as part of the book release and is currently a headliner on The Belong Tour, a live event marketed to women in 12 major markets this fall.
American woman are tired and hungry
The wide appeal of this book, as well as its implicit assumption about its readers, should tell us something: American women are both tired and hungry.
Throughout the meandering essays in this book, Niequist describes herself repeatedly in these terms. She is tired of being in over her head, tired of being on the road, tired of feeling like she has to keep pumping along in order to earn her place in the world. She is also hungry—hungry for connection, hungry for meaning, and hungry for peace and real fulfillment.
The fact that she can write with the assumption that her readers feel the same way—despite the fact that few of them have ever been full time writers and traveling speakers—should tell us something. They seem to agree with her. Mainline evangelical women are turning out in droves for The Belong Tour, they are running up blog numbers, and they are keeping books like this one (see related titles such as Lysa TerKeurst’s Uninvited, Christine Caine’s Unashamed, and Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love) on bestseller lists.
What we can learn from Niequist
In the very first chapter of the book, Niequist diagnoses her root sins more clearly than at any other point: gluttony and pride. Gluttony has caused her to keep saying ‘yes’ to experiences and commitments even when she was already overwhelmed. Pride has caused her to believe she could handle more than humans were meant to handle.
Her response, throughout the book, is to generally simplify and slow down. Watching her say ‘no’ to things is helpful to us. If she can turn down a major career opportunity, surely we can say ‘no’ to that extra work project, or to letting our kids take up soccer.
She is not proscriptive, really, and not even overly descriptive. Besides a few work commitments, and cleaning out some extra clothes and dishes that were cluttering her house, we are never given a lot of detail about what, precisely, she is doing differently. But she does talk about taking trips to a favorite lakeside spot with her family, about spending time in nature more deliberately, about praying with more honesty and less of a sense of duty, and about spending more money on trips and less money on stuff.
She writes, “What’s changing everything for me is a new understanding that we get to decide how we want to live… you can live on a farm or out of a backpack. You can work from your kitchen or in a high-rise… isn’t that beautiful? And exciting? And so full of freedom?”
One can see how these ideas would be attractive to the tired American woman, from any religious or nonreligious tradition. It is full of permission to start slowing down and stop feeling guilty about it.
The spiritual dimension of the book deals mainly with the feeling of inadequacy and self-loathing that Neiquist struggled with even during the height of her career.
“What if all my life I’ve been trying to walk with a Jesus who reprimands me while I’m drowning and grabs me at the last second, rolling his eyes? No wonder I don’t tell him when I’m scared or fragile,” she writes. Her new way of thinking, she says, allows her to see God as a rescuer who delights in rescuing.
What we can ask ourselves
It may be hard for some readers to understand the appeal of Present over Perfect. It doesn’t have the tight, tactile descriptive power you find in some of Niequist’s other books, and it doesn’t have the humor or sharp observation that you find in the work of somebody like Hatmaker or Miller.
There is also a bit of a missing spine in this book. Niequist’s newfound peace feels a little tenuous. One wonders how long she’ll be able to keep up this practice of slowing down (after all, she’s back on the speaking circuit even now). One wonders whether her vision of God as rescuer has been soaked in scripture for long enough to be swallowed, digested, and operative in the long term. Her language is often vague, such that it is not offensive to the unchurched or moderately churched.
Anyone who believes that scripture is the most transformative meat for the hungry, tired stomach is going to wonder whether this particular book of essays will offer any long term relief.
Niequist gets so close to addressing her problems with gluttony and pride at the beginning of the book, but doesn’t seem willing to come back to these again, choosing instead to focus on the fact that she was leaving her “truest self” behind in favor of what others wanted her to be. Not only does this feel like a loss of logical thread, it feels like we’re watching the issue slip right out of her hands.
So one should ask, at the end of this book—what can I take away from Niequist’s experience that will help me to prioritize my life in a godly way? Am I neglecting times of quiet, with my savior and with my family, because it’s simply too hard to say ‘no’ to other things? Am I getting mixed up about what my responsibilities actually are in God’s economy, and what they aren’t? What are the things about God that I can dwell on, pray on, and read about that will reinforce this message of slowing down, but in a way that gives me full scriptural comfort?
Clearly, this book and others like it are striking a chord, and the church as a whole needs to ask itself honest questions about what women are finding so needful about them. Why are they feeling so unable to stop, and so inadequate for the imaginary tasks they’ve set before themselves? Are books like these actually helping? What can we be doing better, to present a God who allows women the motive that they need to continually give up all other striving in the pursuit of his worth?
The Christian publishing industry should also ask some questions about whether books like these—contemplative, personal books of essays—could also be produced by some of our stronger, more scripturally driven writers. We are used to seeing excellent, expositional nonfiction from the bulwark publishers like Crossway and P&R. As a woman who values many styles of writing, but wants to feel scriptural muscle beneath the words of my favorite Christian writers, I would be overjoyed to see the marriage of these two generally separate approaches in Christian publishing.