by Ruth Everhart
Tyndall House, Carol Stream, Ill. 336 pages
Reviewed by Rachel Landers Vaagenes
“I wanted to write a book that would stand as one woman’s testimony: We are all more than what happens to us.”
Though sometimes it feels like we can’t stop talking about sex in church politics, actually talking about sex in church is a different matter entirely, especially when the focus is on sexual assault. Pastor Ruth Everhart’s memoir “Ruined” is an unflinching but tender testimony of her struggle to find faith — and find herself — after enduring horrific violence and violation.
Testimony is a concept that we are just introducing into our worship service here at the historic Washington, D.C., church I serve. Every month (three months so far), someone comes up to the front of the church and tells a part of their story of faith. Being Presbyterian, we don’t use a lot of dramatic language, but that hasn’t stopped these stories from being powerful, moving witnesses of courage, vulnerability and faith. Each time we learn a little bit more about someone we thought we knew, and in turn we learn more about the members that make up the body of Christ.
In that same spirit, Everhart has stood up to testify before her faith community, before her family, before herself and before the world. In this book, she speaks about the unspeakable. She puts flesh and bones on a story of survival and casts an honest light on her own journey of healing. Integral to that story is her struggle to understand God’s will. She grew up in the Christian Reformed Church where the sovereignty of God was emphasized at church, at school and at home. She writes, “Looking back, I can see the influence of [the doctrine of Sovereignty] quite clearly. My question was never ‘Did God will this to happen to me?’ My question was ‘Why did God will this to happen to me?’”
As Everhart grows up, endures her assault and strives to heal, her understanding of God’s will changes with her understanding of herself. “Even in high school … I had wrestled with this interplay between divine will and human free will. But the matter was no longer academic. … Two criminals had invaded our house and robbed us and raped us. Who willed that, exactly?”
Her book is one woman’s testimony, but it raises questions for the whole church. Where is God in suffering? How can the church be present for victims of sexual assault? How does the church react to victims of rape? How is a woman’s value tied up with her sexual status? Her journey from Christian Reformed catechumen to Presbyterian minister offers practical and pastoral insight on all of these questions.
With honest and compelling writing, Everhart navigates the difficult waters of sin, salvation and self-worth. After reading her story, we can all be a little bolder when telling our own. Our testimony of faith doesn’t have to be squeaky-clean, full of right choices and perfection, free from suffering or doubt. Honest testimony reveals God’s work in our lives, especially when it was needed most. Sharing our brokenness has the power to bring healing to ourselves and strength and comfort to others. This is a hard and hopeful book. It is well worth reading.
Rachel Landers Vaagenes is pastor of Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.