A Smile on the Face of God (by Adrian Plass)

While there are many modern Christian writers whose works I enjoy - Yancey, Ortberg, Miller, and others - I always come back to Adrian Plass for books which are both inspirational and encouraging. Whether he's writing fiction - often extremely funny - or non-fiction, his writing is excellent. He makes points in a low-key way that is far more thought-provoking than pushing them strongly - and he has a gift for characterisation.

'A Smile on the Face of God' is the biography of Philip Ilott. Never heard of him? No, neither would I have done if I hadn't read this book. He made some guest appearances on a late-night regional TV show in which Adrian Plass and his wife were involved, which is how they met. But it didn't exactly reach national fame, let alone international.

Philip Ilott would have been known and loved by his many parishioners - he was, for much of his life, an Anglican minister - but without this wonderful book, he would otherwise most likely have drifted into obscurity. I last read Philip Ilott's biography in 2004 so it was quite time for a re-read.

The early chapters are the story of a small boy who was neglected, unwanted and abused by his mother when his father was away. The only light of his childhood was his grandmother, who dearly loved him, and who talked to him about Jesus. Philip longed to please his mother, and almost did so when he was admitted to a choir school. But she really never wanted a child, and certainly not an awkward, often messy little boy.

This isn't a self-pitying book at all, however. Events are glossed over quite lightly, without any gory or explicit details. That made the situations very moving, with Philip emerging as a hurting young man, hoping to find his way in the world. He joined the army, became a committed Christian, and then went into the Church Army for a while. But the evangelical nature didn't really appeal to him, so he returned to the Anglo-Catholicism of his childhood. He fell in love, and expended a great deal of effort in courting Margaret, and then - eventually - becoming a priest.

Illness dogged Philip Ilott's life, and he was often near to despair. People around him sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, and he needed a great deal of healing from his childhood memories. He combined his high church Anglicanism with a deep and abiding love for people and a strong belief in God's power to heal, words of knowledge, and other 'gifts of the Spirit', making him something of an enigma to those who would have liked him in a tidy box.

That's just an outline of a little of the story which, having forgotten most of the details in six years, I found both moving and inspiring as well as extremely well-written. It's not remotely preachy, and I would recommend it highly. I'm sorry to see that it's currently out of print on both sides of the Atlantic, but it can often be found second-hand. Well worth the effort of finding it.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 14th January 2010


Anonymous said...

I know Philip Ilott well. my mother and father knew them well and looked after one of the children. Its sad to tell you that my friend Philip passed away last wednesday. rest in peace dear friend, my hero!

Mel Ilott said...

As Philip's daughter I always threatened to write a sequel called "Behind the Smile "which always raised an eyebrow from him and a knowing smile from me .
He died at 2am on the 18th march 2010
and will be missed by us all !

Sue said...

I'm so sorry to hear that. I'm sure he will be sadly missed. If you ever write the sequel, Mel, please write a comment to let me know as I would love to read it.

Mal said...

Philip's story has greatly helped me personally. Since first reading "A Smile on the Face of God" I have often referred to it in gatherings (in far-away Canberra, Australia).
It was a beautiful life....and a wonderful family.

Mal said...

Philip's story has greatly assisted me. Since first reading "A Smile on the Face of God" I have often referred to it in gatherings in far-away Canberra, Australia. It was a beautiful life....and an wonderful family.

Anonymous said...

I've just read this amazing book, about a life fully committed to God through many difficulties and the power of God in such a life. Im so glad I found it in a charity shop and will be sharing it with all my friends. Thank you.