The story is of a stuffed rabbit made of velveteen given to a little boy as a Christmas present. One night the rabbit finds himself talking to the oldest and wisest toy in the nursery, the Skin Horse, who shares a secret with him:
‘What is Real?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?’
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
I’ve never quite been able to decide what I think about this. It is shared almost as a parable – ‘To become Real, you have to be loved (which, the horse goes on to explain, is a long, slow, painful process). We are loved by God, and that is what makes us Real, over time.’ What the author is describing is something like sanctification – the gradual process of our hard edges being rubbed off as we spend time walking with and being shaped by Jesus. But is that ‘real’?
Catherine Parks has a much more satisfying picture of what it means to be real in her forthcoming book, Real. For her it means…being real. Being truthful, being honest about our sin and vulnerable about our struggles. Only then can we show our friends and family the real us as we are right now.
What is holding us back from being real with one another, Parks argues, is not that we’re not yet perfect, but that we’re not yet assured of our forgiveness.
If we truly grasped the depths of our sin, and if we took that sin to God and repented of it, and if we believed and accepted his forgiveness, the freedom we would experience would be so great that we would no longer have to hide behind our façade of perfection.
Real is marketed as a book about finding true, deep friendships, and in a way it is, but that is just the ‘hook’ to entice readers to buy it. It is really a wonderful study of repentance. I can see why a book called Repent might not sell so well, though, even with such beautiful cover art as this has. Yet the promise of repentance painted in the book is one of “deep joy”. Perhaps my favourite chapter is chapter 4. In it, Parks leads us through Psalm 51 – the psalm we are told David wrote after Nathan had confronted him with his sin over Bathsheba. (The previous chapter, on confronting others – humbly and appropriately – with their sin is also hugely helpful. As is chapter 6, on some things to avoid saying in response to confessions of sin…)
Anyway, in chapter 4, we go chunk-by-chunk through the psalm looking at how David repented, so that we can learn from his example. “By approaching God as David does,” Parks explains, “we can grow a habit of healthy confession that draws us from sorrow to joy – wherever we’re coming from and however we’ve sinned.”
But does it work?
As you can probably tell, I loved this book. It was short (only 146 pages, with wide margins) and easy to read, but oh so deep, with lots to mull over. I did find myself thinking, though, that some of my friends might find it a bit too good to be true.
I’ve written before about the need for vulnerability within the church family, and some of my friends were courageous enough to tell me that they had tried that, but had found it an uphill struggle. They had felt that rather than building a culture of honesty and vulnerability, their brokenness just led to them feeling ostracised and judged. I hear that. I’m sure that not everyone is ready to have their carefully-constructed façade shaken and shattered, and when one person starts to be real like this, it is a challenge to others – that, after all, is what caused the book’s author to start to reveal her true self. Here’s how she addresses that concern:
You may be in a place where you can’t imagine being accepted or feeling free to confess. Many churches and Christians have failed at this, myself included. … If we’re frustrated with our local church, our instinctive response is often to run away… [But to build the kind of community we want in our local church] we need to be the people who ask the awkward questions. … When we’re willing to make these first moves, we will slowly start to see the Lord move and bring about repentance and joy in our churches and communities.
I love the motivation implicit in that last line – the focus has shifted from finding good community and deep friendships to bringing joy to others in our churches. We might go into it seeking the friendships we long for, but as we practise a lifestyle of repentance, God changes our hearts to be more like his, and we find ourselves instead longing for others to find the joy we have in him. What a wonderful outcome!
Real: The surprising secret to deeper relationships, by Catherine Parks is available to pre-order now from The Good Book Company and all good bookshops. Publication date: 1 October 2018. I received a free advance copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
 Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (William Heinemann Ltd, 1983) p. 4, quoted in Mike Pilavachi and Andy Croft, Lifelines (David C Cook, 2018), pp 34-35.
 Catherine Parks, Real (The Good Book Company, 2018) p. 75.
 Ibid., pp. 140-141.