This book isn’t categorized as a memoir, and yet it has that flavor --- a strong narrative voice carrying a specific thread through a life story. Many compelling Christian memoirs are “prodigal” stories: a person returning to faith after years of raucous living. There’s a hint of that journey here, but Stephen Simpson’s ASSAULTED BY JOY feels a bit different --- and refreshingly so.
Here’s a hyperactive child, then teen, then grown man, who wants and has a relationship with God but who wrestles with a church youth leader’s rigid rules, a peer’s sudden death, a girlfriend’s goodbye. After college he gets a first job, as a church youth group leader, only to be terminated with little cause and no warning. This is a young man who didn’t know how to assimilate the hard knocks that are part of life. Where to lay the blame? It must be God’s fault.
Later, at critical junctures, especially in grad school (Fuller Theological Seminary, where he earned concurrently a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master’s in theology), Simpson senses God’s intervening grace. A well-placed word by a fellow classmate who, like Simpson, doesn’t seem to fit the school’s stereotypical profile. A helpful Christian counselor. A journey begins, “trying to feel good about God again.”
Most of Simpson’s chapters focus on a specific person who complicates a particular area of his life. Much of the chapter presents the person as an irritant; Simpson tells the story from a young cynic’s viewpoint. But then the chapter turns around, as he looks back with a broader view, appreciating the lessons he learned through that particular season.
As the book progresses, as a former cynic he defines and analyzes cynicism. “Beneath the surly and sarcastic exterior of a cynic lies a broken heart. Most cynics once believed in something with all their hearts and minds.” And he personalizes it: God “showed me, one more time, that cynicism doesn’t really keep me safe --- it just keeps me from joy.”
In this book, Simpson journeys toward joy. But, as the title promises, there’s an eventual “assault” that comes by means of fatherhood, not of a single child but of quadruplets --- three girls and one boy. Their initial arrival does not bring the turnaround; in the short term the children seriously strain his marriage, prompting an overload of stress and work. Rather, the joy breaks out when the kids are about a year old (he finishes the book when they are two years old) --- after marriage counseling and after being forced to “slow down” by a physical ailment.
The resolution of the book is a spiritual breakthrough, a gift of God’s. But it is so closely tied to the gift of young children that I would not recommend this book for someone struggling with infertility. And yet, this is an engaging, redemptive read. It’s a good narrative that slips in a psychologist’s advice for mature and faithful living. Recommended for restless or cynical men --- and women --- who wonder if they’re ever going to find a place of rest or joy.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on September 30, 2008