Annie F. Downs. Perfectly Unique: Praising God from Head to Foot. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 240 pp. $9.99.
Two years ago, Annie Downs published this book under the title From Head to Foot: All of You Living for All of Him. The new title and cover suit the contents well. The title colors match the purple Converse sneakers, worn by shaven tan legs, crossed at the ankles, with cuffed blue jeans—all accurately promising that this book speaks to teens. When my elder teenage daughter saw it on my desk, she exclaimed, “Cool cover! Are you reading this? I know someone who dresses just like that with those shoes.” This book is an intimate, coffee shop-teen-girltalk devotional about daily Christian living by someone who understands their world.
Downs, an author and speaker based in Nashville, writes what our teens long to hear and need to know: that they are one-of-a-kind, deeply loved by God, and able to respond to him daily and authentically in concrete ways (just the way they are, attitude and all). The gospel pervades every chapter, with the indicatives of who we are in Christ empowering the imperatives to obey God’s commands. The principles and convictions for godly living resonate in Downs’s personal stories. Without slipping into legalism or moralizing, she pushes the reader toward discernment. For example, in the chapter on eyes, she writes:
I still don’t watch many R-rated movies. I don’t want to fill my mind with that stuff, so I don’t fill my eyes with that stuff. What are your personal convictions about what is okay and not okay to see? Pray about it, because it’s very important.
She then summarizes, “Just do whatever you know in your heart it takes to make God your focus, knowing that you are His focus.”
In addition to a grace-based approach to the work of sanctification, Downs regularly includes the important effect of godly living in reaching others with the gospel. She also pushes against our culture of individualism, reminding her readers to pursue family, friends, and trustworthy mentors in their journey toward righteous living.
Why Doesn’t the Title Read 'Head to Toe'?
Because Annie Downs is clever and very funny. She wrote a chapter for each of ten body parts: mind, eyes, ears, mouth, shoulders, heart, hands, stomach, knees, and feet. There is no chapter about how we can praise God with our toes—though I imagine if anyone could write one, she could. Her goal is to describe “what it looks like to make our body parts instruments of righteousness that glorify God.” Downs uses each body part, literally and figuratively, to serve as a reminder of the details of her practical advice for daily, godly living.
For example, in the chapter titled “Heart,” she appropriates the human heart’s anatomy to provide four lessons on monitoring what desires and loves we’re pumping in and out of ourselves. In “Shoulders,” she makes four metaphorical connections: standing with good posture and building self-esteem, taking a hit like a lineman on the football field and trusting God with challenges, keeping our hands lifted up and persevering, and sharing a shoulder and providing comfort.
Should I Buy It?
Yes, if you're giving it to young teens. The book provides devotional reading in a non-linear, unpredictable, intimate, humorous, challenging, and practical collage. The pages are full of Downs’s experiences of trials, failures, and sin; as well as her reflections on Scripture and some pointed advice. At the end of each chapter, she includes a page of creative reflection questions, Bible verses to examine, and an activity to try. These could help a small group study actively respond to the book together.
I am not confident about how well older teenagers (or those not from the dominant U.S. middle-class culture) would relate. Some of the stories and concrete behaviors Downs stresses might seem overly simple and naïve. If studies are right about the number of teenagers in church who are sexually active, then Downs’s wise advice against literally placing one’s head on a boy’s shoulder might not be sufficient to help with their relationship challenges.
Is This Book for Young Women Only?
Yes. Downs writes as a young woman to younger women, with the hip cultural lingo and emotional transparency of their world. She often addresses the reader directly as “girl” or “sister,” and assumes on the reader’s part basic socialized gendered behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that might be quite foreign to young men.
Christian Piety, Spiritual Disciplines, Identity Formation, or Cultural Engagement?
All are intentionally woven into engaging storytelling and witty reflections. Downs navigates these four approaches to Christian living with winsomeness and conviction. She encourages devotion, humility, and godly practices in daily living with punchy, practical, and heartfelt advice. Although her use of Scripture is slim and without detailed exegesis, it accompanies her storytelling well.
Our young people are known, and sometimes shamed, for having identity crises. “How can you think that! How could you do that!” we say, or think loudly, when our well-churched teenagers really mess up. But identity formation is key to this season of life—learning what it means not to be their parents. Unfortunately, teen culture and media define whom teens should be. Downs takes this painful pressure seriously, responding with compassion and humor. She draws out the cultural lies and challenges the reader to replace them with the truths of God’s Word. “Wear some makeup,” she suggests, but do it only “to show the beauty outside that you have from Christ on the inside.”
I hope teens will deeply engage with Downs’s message: “Choose to love yourself not because of who you are but because of Who made you. And then live in a way that honors Him.”
Tasha Chapman lives in St. Louis with her husband, who is a New Testament professor, and two teenage daughters, who keep her culturally engaged. She serves as dean of academic services and adjunct professor of educational ministries at Covenant Theological Seminary.