Windblown Media, 2007. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)
The two mega-themes of this novel are the love of God and human suffering. Those are about the two biggest topics around. As such, this book is an attempt at theodicy, that is, justifying the ways of God in the face of suffering and evil in the world. It is no small task.
Before I share my assessment of this book, let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I am not a great fan of fiction. Probably 97 per cent of my reading is non-fiction. Thus the literary merits of the book will not here be discussed. Also, I happen to think that theology is quite important, especially today when so much of the church is anti-intellectual, ahistorical and theologically illiterate. Thus I read this book with a careful theological eye as much as with an eye to an intriguing novel.
Finally, as mentioned, this book is in fact an exercise in theodicy. Since my PhD is actually in an area of theodicy, I have read a fair bit on the subject over the years. And with at least several millennia worth of material written on the topic, one can ask whether anything new or substantial can be said about it all. Does this book contribute anything new or of value?
So these three factors obviously colour how I have read this book. And I realise that different books will grab people differently. Some would rather get their theology and biblical understanding through a work of fiction than a large tome of systematic theology. And some people are gripped more by their emotions than by their intellect. God is able, in other words, to speak to us in different ways through different means, and we must appreciate such diversity.
Many people have found this to be a life changing book, a mind-blowing experience, and a spiritual stick of dynamite. So what about me? All in all I think it is a helpful volume that may well speak to many, bring about healing and understanding, and minister in pastoral and spiritual ways. By using the medium of fiction, complete with a gripping and emotive story line, it may be able to convey truths that for some would not be forthcoming in a work of nonfiction.
The plot quite simply is this. Three and a half years after a man – Mack – loses his young daughter to a vicious serial killer, he gets an invitation to meet face to face with God; indeed, with all three members of the Godhead. The weekend encounter takes place at the very same secluded shack where the attack on his daughter took place.
The encounter with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will forever change his life as he directly challenges God about the pain, grief, bitterness and anger which he is carrying, along with the millions of unanswered questions he has had to struggle with for so long.
So what does one tell a devastated father who has had about the worst thing that can possibly happen to him? Or more specifically, what can God tell such a person? How can God break into this man’s life, and both comfort him as well as help him to make sense of his nightmare?
That in part is the stuff of theodicy, and is as old – at least – as the book of Job, penned perhaps three millennia ago. And just as Job did not have all of his questions answered, or at least not in the way that he expected, so too here with Mack. In fact, he experiences an encounter with God which in itself is much, if not most, of the answer.
Indeed, God’s presence in times of trouble has always been a large part of the answer. Individual whys and how comes are often not answered, but a bigger understanding and awareness of who God is tends to be the more important outcome. Job could say that before his troubles, he had heard about God, but after his suffering, he had seen God.
So what then is God’s answer to Mack? Or more specifically, what is God’s answer as understood and represented by the author, William Young? As I said, it is hard to come up with anything radically new on such age-old questions. And Young generally reiterates some basic Christian truths that evangelicals for quite some time have tried to present. He just may have done this in a new, more forceful and moving fashion.
The heart of this is that God is overwhelmingly a God of love, and everything he does is done out of supreme love. There is an eternal love relationship between the three members of the Trinity, and that love oozes out toward us, his creatures.
Of course love by its nature cannot be coerced or forced upon someone, and it can be rejected. Somehow, as theologians have tried to argue over the centuries, the God of the Bible is a God of love, and yet is also a sovereign God. Thus He is in charge of all that happens, and nothing surprises him or is outside of his knowledge or purposes.
But he is not directly the author of evil. God hates evil and injustice and cruelty far more than we ever will. Yet somehow he is able to work his purposes out of what seem to be the most dark and hideous situations. God can and does bring good out of evil.
And as the supreme example of this, consider the worst horror ever to have happened in human history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It in fact turned out to be the greatest good ever undertaken by God. It is an unfathomable mystery, yet a clear teaching of Scripture.
Why did Mack’s six-year-old daughter have to go through this hellish abduction and murder? We may not know the specific answers to such questions, but we can know of God and his character, as revealed in Scripture, and as revealed in his Son. The incarnation gives us a God who is close to every one of us, and who shares our grief and sorrows.
Suffering is something which God knows all about. Any questions we might have about the presence of evil and suffering in this world are questions which God himself has dealt with, as the eternal Trinity was somehow temporarily broken up, and in some way, put to death, for our wellbeing.
These are deep truths which none of us mere mortals can begin to understand, but somehow God had been there and done that. Jesus is a man acquainted with grief and familiar with sorrows. Why particular tragedies and horrendous evils occur we cannot know, but we can know that a God of infinite love never leaves us, never forsakes us, and is with us during every moment of our tests and trials.
Indeed, the incredibly, unfathomably, deep, deep love of God for us is a major theme of this book. Again, it is an old Christian truth, but one vividly rendered even more real in the form of this work of fiction. God is absolutely crazy about us. Even if I was the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have died in my place to save me from my sins and to restore me to an intense love relationship with God.
But knowledge and awareness of this love is greatly distorted and clouded by our own selfishness, sin, and sense of independence. We think we can find joy anywhere but with our creator and redeemer. But that is just not possible. Only in Him is life in all its fullest. And often it is the hardships and agonies of life that drive us away from self, and to the source of true joy, peace and happiness.
Thus suffering has a real soul-making function, as many believers have argued over the centuries. It is often in our greatest pains that we draw nearest to God. God of course has not drawn closer to us – he has never left us. But we stray from God by our selfish striving for complete independence. But that only makes things worse.
Only by surrendering to his love, and renouncing our own waywardness and spirit of independence, can we experience the love relationship that God so much desires for us. That is unfortunately perhaps the hardest thing we can do: to let go of self and selfish ambitions, and surrender to the one who made us and loves us, and knows what is best for us.
Of course all this is a mere broad brush theological summary of the traditional Christian understanding. These points are made much more vividly, powerfully and directly in this moving and transforming novel. Thus I am not doing real justice to the book here. One will have to read it for oneself, and see what impact it might have.
But an important part of the book’s value, I suppose, lies in something almost all Christians must have desired upon many occasions: to have a face to face encounter with the living God. Not just a dream, or a vision, or a meditative communion with God, but an actual, in the flesh meeting, just as the early disciples of Jesus had enjoyed. Imagine just what that would be like!
Indeed, the hiddenness or seeming absence of God is a very real dilemma for most believers. We follow a God who is spiritual, while we are material. Thus we meet with God in prayer, or reflection, or the Sacraments. But it often seems that in our daily walk, we must hold on to his presence by faith. And that faith is sorely tested in times of grief, sorrow and tragedy. Indeed, it often seems that during these dark times God is most absent, or at least appears to be.
Thus we may all long to have such an encounter as Mack had. And of course one day, in the next life, we will. But Young seeks to paint a picture of what such an encounter might look like here and now. And thus the value of the fictional approach – to make more real certain spiritual realities which we already know through works of non-fiction.
For many this book will bring them much closer to God, by revealing more carefully what the wonderful triune God we serve is really like. It is hoped that many will benefit from this book, and that it will indeed serve a purpose much as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did over three centuries earlier.
This then is my general positive endorsement of the book. But that is not to say that it is without problems, or areas of concern. I thus invite the reader to peruse the second part of my review for some particular critical assessments of this book: