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Book review: Home – The quest to belong

The struggle to find a sense of belonging in our rootless contemporary world

Where is Home? Jo Swinney’s book Home: the quest to belong is an interesting mixture described by its author as “a kind of hybrid memoir, biblical theology and pop psychology”.

The author is the writer of several books and married to an Anglican clergyman, originally from the US. She has lived in the UK for more than 15 years now, but during her earlier life lived in a lot of different places in five countries and three continents. During her lifetime she has lived in around 30 different houses. She says that moving house is something that she knows how to do.

Jo describes herself as a third culture kid’, someone whose parents came from one culture but who was brought up in another and does not immediately feel at home in any one culture. She records that feeling at home in any one place has been a painful thing but that she has made the most of being a citizen of the world, detached and uncommitted. She recalls that she had to make her own peace with this lack of roots in her early 20s. Her book, however, provides an account of the author’s struggles to feel a sense of belonging in the various situations in which she has found herself.

In an interview Jo explained that it’s not necessarily that I need to stay forever in one place, but I’ve come to understand home. It now consists of people and significant objects. Bricks and mortar are important as this allows you to sleep without worrying and invite people in, but it’s not the only thing. Being in a job that I love [is also important]. My book Home came from me wrestling with this idea. A lot of people also feel that they don’t know where home is.”

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Jo explains that developing a sense of belonging is a crucial issue for many people, not least the children of military personnel, missionary kids, and the children of oil executives. She notes that there’s a vast cultural mixing pot in the UK and I think people want to feel they have a place where they are understood and their roots are valued and acknowledged. A whole lot of people are wondering whether they belong here.” 

She argues that the recent controversies over Brexit have brought these concerns to the surface, and she remembers a conversation with a Polish boy, the son of a friend, on the day the referendum result was announced, who asked Why don’t they want us anymore?”

Jo’s parents were the founders of the Christian environmental group A Rocha, creators of a wildlife sanctuary in Portugal, and she recalls in her book spending some of her formative years in a community which had a lot of birds and animals”. A period spent in a boarding school back in England was not altogether a happy experience and was followed by a gap year spent teaching in African schools. University followed, and then studies for a masters degree in theology in Canada, during which time she met her husband Shawn whose family background was very different from her own happy family circumstances.

Jo proceeds to discuss a number of contexts in which people may find themselves at home and successive chapters touch on marriage and the family, culture, the local community, the church and the workplace. Much of what she writes is based on her own life experiences, but she also examines biblical narratives and, in particular, the story of King David, tracing his varied experiences in childhood and as an adult.

Jo points out that David’s early life included time living in Saul’s palace, followed by years in the wilderness, living in caves, before he eventually became King of Israel. At that stage he had a palace built for him and became settled while building a city, family and nation.

Jo explains that I chose to feature David’s story for a couple of reasons: as well as getting the narrative of his inner-life through the Psalms, his story offers an intimate look into how he talked to God about the things he was experiencing. I have always felt an affinity with him; his story mirrored mine. There’s so much texture to his story and we have so much detail about it.”

Jo writes very much as a Christian, but she explains that I had in mind the desire for my book to be accessible regardless of readers’ beliefs. I’m not making an argument that you can only find home in heaven. I‘ve opened it up and hope it’s helpful.” 

Despite this she recognises that there’s a theology around belonging and commitment to God’s real, present earth. Culturally we’ve gone in an independent direction, which has resulted in loneliness and isolation … people are realising what we’ve lost along the way”. Although she does not mention Tom Wright, Jo’s understanding of the ultimate Christian hope of a new heaven and Earth, rather than a disembodied existence in heaven, echoes the thinking of the noted New Testament scholar. 

Jo’s book is refreshing in that it acknowledges the struggles that she has undergone in her attempts to feel at home in various settings. Although she made a Christian commitment at an early age, she admits that she kicked over the traces during her African gap year, getting drunk as often as possible and smoking a brand of cigarettes with a high nicotine content. She has also suffered with depression during her later life and acknowledges having undergone therapy in the past.

I enjoyed reading Jo’s book. My own experience has been very different, and I have lived in the same house for more than 50 years. I have lived in East London and attended the same church for many years, but my parents came from the very different culture of the Isle of Wight. 

I have lived on the borderland between two London boroughs for these five decades, and I was a commuter for most of my working life, so perhaps I am less deeply rooted in my community than others who have always lived and worked within the borders of the same local authority.

I would recommend Jo Swinney’s Hometo a wide readership, and not least to those who have shared her struggles to find a sense of belonging in our rootless contemporary world.

About the author

Graham Hedges is the Secretary of Christians in Library and Information Services and a trustee of the Christian Book Promotion Trust.

See more from Graham Hedges

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