Every month the moon grows to fullness, wanes to nothing, then grows back toward fullness again. That’s how it looks from here, anyway. In fact, the moon is just the moon, always there and always the same size, however it appears to us.
This conceit is the jumping-off place for Janna Barber’s new memoir, Hidden in Shadow. From where we sit, God is often hidden in shadow. Nevertheless, God is always there.
“I’m afraid my faith cycles through similar phases,” Janna writes, with characteristic frankness (and this is only the tip of the frankness iceberg). She continues:
When it’s strong and healthy, its light pervades every corner of my heart, and I can’t picture it any other way. But shadows of darkness and doubt show up pretty often, and little by little, I lose sight of my faith altogether. This cycle repeats itself more often than I’d like, or more often than I’d like to admit, anyway.
Most of the chapters of Hidden in Shadow run through this cycle: the faith of the memoirist wanes in the midst of sorrow and trouble, then waxes again—also in the midst of sorrow and trouble.
Each chapter title is a place and a name: “Highway 17 — 1988.” “Silver Creek Drive — 1989.” “Julianne St. — 1990.” That seems innocuous enough, except that each of those place names represents another stop for little Janna as she grew up the daughter of a preacher who moved from difficult church to difficult church across Arkansas, staying only a year or two or three. We see young Janna learn to cope, largely by making herself invisible. We see her learn to cuss and learn to doubt and learn to keep her feelings to herself.
Hidden in Shadow is one woman’s honest reckoning with the truth that even as our faith waxes and wanes, God is constant, and he loves his children even when they don’t know what he’s up to—which is to say, he loves his children all the time.Jonathan Rogers
In one scene, an eleven-year-old Janna arrives home to an empty house and jumps to the conclusion that the Rapture has come and she’s been left behind. The scene could easily have been played for laughs, but it is surprisingly moving, encapsulating all the insecurities of a preacher’s kid who believes the stories but has a hard time believing that God loves her—and not just a preacher’s kid, but a preacher’s middle child, who has come to expect to be overlooked and left behind.
As she moves into adulthood, the memoirist’s difficulties grow more difficult. She struggles with depression, she lives through miscarriages. She reconciles with her mother, she struggles with her children, she learns to let her children go. She takes up writing as a kind of self-care, then battles writer’s block. She learns to be angry at God, and she learns that God can handle her anger.
In the end, Janna Barber spares us the tidy conclusion. Faith, as she says, is cyclical. Hidden in Shadow is not the story of one woman’s march from misery to triumph, or a guidebook to a faith that only waxes and never wanes. Instead, it is one woman’s honest reckoning with the truth that even as our faith waxes and wanes, God is constant, and he loves his children even when they don’t know what he’s up to—which is to say, he loves his children all the time.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.