Not many books grab me like this one did. Even with books I like, it will take a week or two to read them, but I blazed through this one in a couple of days.
I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s work for years and followed this story when it was unfolding in real time on his blog. Those were among the most memorable posts I’d ever read, so it didn’t surprise me when he decided to do a book about his little sister, her untimely death, his hometown, and his own search for meaning.
Given all cliché potential in the subject matter – the sister as a simple country girl; the urbane sophistication of the brother who left the stuffy oppression of the small town; the search for reconciliation between semi-estranged siblings; the definition of true success in life – Dreher does a great job of telling a story that isn’t neat and tidy and doesn’t have a classic happy ending, all the while avoiding the many sentimental traps along the way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a tear-jerker. It certainly jerked more than a few tears from me, but not in the Hallmark movie sort of way that leaves me annoyed at falling for their tear-trap. On the story telling score, Dreher scores a solid five-star rating.
On the lessons for life score, I don’t think he did as well. The book isn’t a Christian book or a religious book as such, but god is ever present in Ruthie’s simple faith and in Dreher’s much more philosophical and complicated faith. As is often the case in tragedies, people try to understand god’s plan and to find the good in all the sorrow. They try and answer the classic theological question of why a good and loving god lets bad things happen, especially to good people. Dreher might say that Ruthie’s death and the town’s reaction to her death showed him the importance of family and roots and community and faith to the point of actually moving back to his home town with his wife and kids.
But if it were god’s plan for Ruthie to die, leaving behind a grieving husband and three young daughters, so that Rod and his family could feel fulfilled by moving back to his extended family and hometown, is that what a just and loving god would do? Is that trade-off worth it?
If that’s how god works, he’s a jerk.
I thank Farley for this review, and don’t blame God for his not giving me five stars!
Seriously, I’m not bothered either by Farley’s last line, because it’s a good and serious question, and it comes from an honest place. There are no truly satisfying answers to the question, How can an all-good and all-powerful god allow the innocent to suffer? It is, to my mind, the most serious objection to theology. As you know, an entire branch of theological inquiry, called theodicy, arose to address this question.
Besides, if you’re going to condemn Farley, you might as well condemn Job, who wrestled with the same question.
The Christian theologian David Bentley Hart, in The Doors Of The Sea, his book-length meditation on theodicy in the wake of the 2004 South Asian tsunami, does not mince words when talking about the outrage of the mass death occasioned by the event. The book was inspired by this essay in First Things, in which Hart rejected rationalistic Christian responses to great suffering, e.g., the idea that somehow, God required the death of 200,000 in the tsunami to show forth His glory, or somesuch thing. Note this passage in particular:
There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality — in nature or history — is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, [Emphasis mine. -- RD] of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Those familiar with The Brothers Karamazov will remember Ivan’s fable of The Grand Inquisitor , in which Ivan rejects belief in a God who would require the suffering of innocents to work out the salvation and redemption of mankind. For Ivan, it’s not so much an issue of whether or not God exists, but rather a matter of if such a God exists, Ivan wants nothing to do with Him. Remember, though, how the fable ends — with the Inquistor having lectured the Prisoner (Jesus, returned to the world) about how there’s no place for him in the world, because he’s interfering with the mission of the Church — the mission of giving people lies to make them happy in exchange for their freedom. This is Ivan speaking:
“I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”
Notice that Jesus did not respond to the Inquisitor’s rationalizations with argument, but with a gesture of love. The Inquisitor, who had everything logically figured out, recognized the effect of this kiss, but held on to his categories, his rationalizations, in the face of love. It was more important for things to make sense than to be transformed by love.
I think of this, and the way Ruthie faced her own cancer as a believing Christian. She never doubted God’s goodness, and His love for her. She believed, though, that it would be pointless to waste her time and her energy trying to figure out why He allowed it to happen to her. As she told our mom, she never thought to ask Why me?, but rather Why not me? – her point being that bad things happen to good people all the time. What mattered to Ruthie was not that she try to make sense of it, but that she respond to it with love. Remember, beyond the Sunday School level, Ruthie knew very little theology. She wouldn’t have known what theodicy was. She believed profoundly in God’s reality, and in His goodness, in part because she accepted what she had been taught, but mostly, I think, because she had seen so much evidence of it, and had lived it out in her own life.
And she was a Christian, a believer in a religion that teaches that in some mysterious way, suffering is tied to the divine gift of freedom. She was a Christian, a believer in a religion whose central figure, the incarnate God, went to his cruel death unjustly, but willingly, out of love. Nobody understood it at the time, not even his closest companions. And Jesus did not die in some bloodless way, but with barbs piercing his flesh, and spikes savaging his bones and nerves. He died naked, nailed to a tree, tortured and humiliated. This was God himself, who could have taken himself down from the cross, who had the radical freedom to refuse the cup of suffering offered to him. But he didn’t, because he knew that suffering was in the nature of this fallen world, and in order to redeem it, he had to endure it, even unto death, so all things could be made new.
He gave us the example to follow. He did not make arguments. He did not explain himself. He acted, and acted out of love.
In the case of Ruthie Leming, a follower of Christ, she let love and faith guide her response to the cross of cancer. When someone who has never suffered like she suffered says, “It just must be God’s plan,” that sounds cruel. But Ruthie said things like that all the time — and they had real weight, because she was living with the consequences of God’s permissive will (= that God, who cannot will evil, did not will Ruthie’s full healing). Ruthie wanted to live, and believed God would restore her body, but more than anything, she wanted to submit to His will, as her Lord had done. Maybe some greater good would come out of what she was enduring, she figured. Mostly, though, she didn’t figure; she didn’t think there was any point in it. The point, Ruthie thought, was to respond to suffering and adversity with love. This is what she did, and why so many who saw her suffer and die were transformed by what they witnessed (I know; I was one of them). This is why Ruthie’s oncologist remembers how she was at the end, all skin and bones, in constant pain and too weak to lift her feet, only shuffling across the floor of the chemotherapy room at the Baton Rouge General, stopping to visit with new chemo patients, to comfort them, to smile at them, and laugh with them, and show them love.
In the end, Ruthie met death, and responded with a kiss. It is not a satisfying answer to many people, I know. But the gesture glows in my heart, and in the hearts of others who saw it, and by its light we have seen a new and better way to live in the shadow of death and suffering.