Elizabeth Oldfield is a failed atheist.

She originally lost her faith while working as a religion writer for the BBC. Yet she found herself dissatisfied with the bleakness of modern, irreligious life. She craved the communal meaning and moral vision of Christianity, despite her intellectual doubts.

Eventually, Oldfield accepted the welcome of intelligent, kind-hearted Christians who were unafraid of her questions. They showed her a way of life and a quality of love that drew her back into the Christian faith through practices and postures that helped her become more human. In her book Fully Alive: Tending to the Soul in Turbulent Times, Oldfield extends the same welcome to her readers, especially those who are allergic to religious dogma but are nevertheless hungry for meaning and luminosity, longing to be “free, resilient, joyful, brave.”

Oldfield, now host of The Sacred podcast and a member of an intentional Christian community outside London, offers a vision of human flourishing through a surprising paradigm: the seven deadly sins. She makes a fresh, literate case that the stubborn old vices of wrath, sloth, avarice, lust, pride, envy, and gluttony are still with us. In the words of her first chapter title, language borrowed from the Christian author Francis Spufford, we still have a “human propensity to f— things up.”

And yet, each of these sins offers an opportunity to embrace a more connected human life of peacemaking, community, belovedness, and even ecstasy. Oldfield keeps the book lively with hilarious, self-deprecating confessionals, humbly admitting her own struggle to leave self-sabotage behind and become “the kind of person that is needed at the end of the world.”

As a friend to many non-failed atheists, Oldfield is careful to stay in conversation with people of little to no Christian faith. Her approach is gentle, calibrated to avoid putting out a smoldering wick or breaking a bruised reed of spiritual curiosity.

Her invitation is this: If you yearn to become a more loving and generous person, to mend our world with justice and healing, try the Christian path. It’s useful, even if you aren’t sure about some (or even all) of its truth claims. Lay down the burden of knowing exactly what you believe and take up some life-giving behaviors instead. And if God surprises you with love, then let it be.

For instance, in one chapter (“Wrath: from Polarization to Peacemaking”), Oldfield recounts a miserable experience she had speaking to a leftist political gathering where she had been asked to represent the religious perspective. Reacting to rude and dismissive treatment, she found herself reaching for categories coined by author Jon Yates, writing off people who are “Not Like Me,” or NLM for short, in contrast to “People [who are] Like Me,” or PLM. She illustrates how prevalent this dynamic is within human relationships, no matter which issue, cause, or belief is in play.

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By giving in to base us-and-them instincts, we form tribes and reduce people to less-than-human objects of contempt. Yet when Oldfield tried practicing the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, she found a way to return to the conversation and bless those who cursed her.

As she observes, “these people who looked like the enemy, who perhaps saw me as an enemy, turned out to be walking worlds of meaning, bruised and beautiful and as endlessly fascinating as humans always are.” Oldfield then commends peacemaking practices that Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and others have found helpful, such as loving your enemies, standing your ground, and interrupting cycles of retribution with a simple question: “Can we start again?”

Throughout the book, Oldfield shows herself to be a generous social weaver. She treats the Christian tradition less as a homeland to protect than a well-worn hearth of hospitality, where neighbors of all stripes can sit around the table and yearn for the same transformation of soul and society.

Fully Alive is a lively conversation with poets, social scientists, cultural critics, philosophers, and psychologists, with Oldfield at the head of the table, making sure everyone has a chance to contribute before she elevates it with her eloquent prose. In an age of ideological echo chambers, we can all take cues from this work of bridge-building.

There was, however, one subject that Oldfield didn’t mention often enough: the Cross. In a book about sin and its cure, especially written from a Christian perspective, this was a missed opportunity. Near the end of the book, Oldfield explains her reticence:

You may have noticed I haven’t talked a lot about the crucifixion in this book. … I don’t think I can make it “useful.” This is a book designed for those in search of spiritual core strength and curious about what the practices, postures and principles of Christianity might have to teach them. It’s not primarily for those actively seeking faith. … The crucifixion, for me, is Holy Ground, a place to approach only if you fall into the latter category.

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How “useful” is the cross of Christ in addressing our deepest human ills and making us fully alive in turbulent times? We could do worse than pose this question to members of the global, suffering church, including the Anglican Dalits of India, the evangelicals imprisoned in China, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and the Catholics in Myanmar. They might explain how the Cross offers a model of reconciliation amid conflict, an icon of Christ’s generosity in response to treachery, and a crown of humility before the preening pride of this age.

Yet those voices, with their examples of moral beauty from the margins, were missing from the book’s table conversation. To her credit, Oldfield, in her chapter on envy, devotes a paragraph to the significance of Christ’s bodily suffering for Black theologians. And she shows us what repentance and lament look like in response to the climate crisis. I only wish there had been more examples like this.

I agree with Oldfield that the Crucifixion is holy ground. Yet from the beginning, it was equally a public scandal, open for all to see, not just because it was God’s greatest gift but also because it put the human condition on perfect display. Scoundrels and soldiers, including at least one centurion, all watched the debacle up close. They were up to their ears in deadly sins, yet there they stood on holy ground, spitting distance from the Son of God. Some of them believed, despite themselves.

Believe it or not, this kind of thing still happens. Oldfield, using her considerable gifts of communication, could have brought her readers there without insulting their intelligence or violating their well-earned trust.

Toward the end of each chapter, Oldfield offers readers a practice or two that will help curb darker impulses and ground them in virtue. She downplays theological distinctives in favor of an ecumenical approach, identifying some resonance with other faith traditions and, notably, the world of psychedelics. By inviting us into practices like gratitude, charitable giving, “begin again” conversations, and technology sabbaths, Oldfield is betting that they might open minds, souls, and communities to God’s love.

Spiritual practices are good as far as they go. Yet readers willing to face their darkness as honestly as Oldfield has faced hers will need the stronger medicine she’s keeping in her cabinet. Sin, after all, is deadly. It draws real blood and destroys real lives. And no amount of gentle adjustments will ultimately curb its power.

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I’m reminded of a critical moment in the life of Dorothy Day, the journalist turned founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. After the birth of her daughter Tamar, she wished to leave behind her bohemian, hedonistic life for the Christian faith of her childhood. But the love of her life, Forster, forbade it:

It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man. I chose God and I lost Forster. I was baptized on the Feast of The Holy Innocents, December 28, 1927. It was something I had to do. I was tired of following the devices and desires of my own heart, of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do, which always seemed to lead me astray. The cost was the loss of the man I loved.

This pivotal act of self-denial and obedience led to many smaller ones in an imperfect yet luminous life of love and mercy. Like Day, we must in the end take up our cross in daily defiance of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Strangely, the way of death becomes for us the very path of life.

Oldfield is correct that the Cross is not a math equation to solve. Yes and amen. The Cross is a mystery to live, by grace, as we cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, from one degree of glory to the next.

Aaron Damiani is pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago and author of Earth Filled with Heaven: Finding Life in Liturgy, Sacraments, and other Ancient Practices of the Church.

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Fully Alive: Tending to the Soul in Turbulent Times
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Book Title
Fully Alive: Tending to the Soul in Turbulent Times
Brazos Press
Release Date
May 28, 2024
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