Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Prodigal Son

The Book Against God, James Wood, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 272 pages.

This novel is an unexpected delight. The Book Against God reads almost as if Evelyn Waugh were alive again, and had decided to write in his graceful, fluid prose about one of Walker Percy’s heroes: the distracted, contemporary sons of comfort whose search for religious meaning is indirect, halting, and thoroughly believable. Wood speaks in the voice of Thomas Bunting, a youngish, intellectual skeptic religiously obsessed with disproving the existence of God. Bunting is not a conventional unbeliever. As the son of a jovial, learned, and blissfully confident Anglican vicar, Bunting wrestles continually with God—leaving his dissertation to molder, ignoring his beautiful wife, forgetting to bathe, smoking incessantly, and spending his days ensconced with stacks of theological works, scribbling refutations in a notebook. The latter he calls his “Book Against God,” or “BAG,” which he intends to craft into a comprehensive critique of Christian faith—a counterpart to the grand apologetic Pascal once hoped to write.

Pascal couldn’t finish his work; he left behind instead the luminous notes we call Pensées. Nor does Bunting complete his magnum opus—at least not in the form he’d intended. The novel, which he narrates, is what he produced instead, and it’s far more compelling than the short fragments of counter-theology from the original project that appear occasionally in the story.

Full of wry observations about contemporary life and mores, and unwitting self-revelations, the tale Bunting tells of himself rings with psychological truth and carries the reader along in sympathy with a protagonist one might expect to dislike: a spoiled, self-destructive intellectual idler in a dirty silk dressing gown. Our fondness for Bunting at first is only what we’d feel for a loveable rogue, someone who for a while “gets away” with breaking the rules that bind most of us, whose jabbing wit keeps us entertained.

But Woods is stalking bigger quarry, and he wields his considerable talents to make Bunting particular and plausible—while still serving an allegorical purpose. Step back, and one can see in Bunting a figure of modern Western man—an unwounded, pouting Prometheus whose only fire is a cigarette, too caught up in the ruins of his childhood to father any offspring of his own. In the book’s most telling scene, Bunting risks dooming his marriage by deceiving his wife in order to avoid conceiving a child.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, although its chronology twists and turns according to the narrator’s reticence: Bunting, the gifted son of benevolent (if sometimes inattentive) parents, drifts through an undistinguished academic career and into a marriage—which he proceeds to starve with neglect and poison with compulsive lies. He fails to complete his Ph.D., flubs freelance assignments, spends himself into penury, and ends up leading a solitary, almost ascetic existence—with only his old expensive tastes, the memory of fine meals, and a few pairs of fancy shoes to attest his devout worldliness. Throughout most of the story, Bunting hides his religious doubts from his priest father—a man he loves with childish devotion tainted by adolescent rebellion. In fact, from a blankly psychological perspective, here is the nub of Bunting’s problem: he never completed that rebellion, never summoned the nerve to state his doubts and differences openly and forge for himself an independent, adult identity. Instead, he sneaks around like a smart but dirty-minded 13-year-old, a perpetually impure altar boy. When his marriage collapses, Bunting even returns to his childhood home, where for months he sleeps in, lets his mother cook for him, and hides from his father his liquor bottles and irreligious books. The suspense that drives the book—and it’s a surprising page-turner—is whether (and how) Bunting will ever amount to anything more.

In his explicit reflections on whether God exists—and if so, whether He is good or simply powerful—Bunting follows the well-worn path trod by Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and other precursors of existentialism. His favorite objection to God’s existence is the widespread evil and suffering in the world. When arguing with his mildly theistic friends, Bunting invokes these phenomena—from the casual cruelty of a tavern keeper towards his bartender, to grand-scale evils such as genocide—arguing passionately that a God who loved us as sons would never permit all this. When he finally, towards the end of the book, raises this argument to his father—in a wrenching, touching scene—he receives an intriguing answer. It comes in two parts.

First, the Rev. Peter Bunting points out, “[I]f you take God away from the world, the world is no less horrid, no less painful or sinful or unsaved. It is simply painful and sinful without God, without the hope of salvation or succour.” In other words, the rebellion against God, fueled (it seems) by compassion, ends by undermining the grounds for empathy and hope. Depose God, and you begin to make of man a beast. (As another character observes, the behavior of anti-religious governments from 1789 through 1989 seems to bear this out.) This argument doesn’t move Thomas much; he has little experience of personal suffering and not much genuine sympathy for those who do. Throughout the book, his protests about the evils of human suffering are belied by his lack of interest in suffering humans. He doesn’t give to beggars, offer needed help even to friends, or concern himself with the needs of his own wife. (He never washes a dish.) It’s clear that Thomas invokes the problem of evil mostly as a debater’s tactic.

Father Bunting’s second answer strikes closer to the heart of the matter. As the priest explains,

[T]he creation of something out of nothing is an act of love. Even the creation of pain, the creation of evil. For this reason: we do not know why evil exists. We do not know the largest scheme of things, we cannot know God’s plan. We know that evil is evil. But do we know that the existence of evil is evil? Do you see my point? In other words, do we know what evil exists for? We do not. And this is for the same reason that we do not know what the opposite of evil exists for. Why does goodness exist? Why happiness? … And life is love. That we would rather be alive than dead, even if life is painful, is proof that there is more love in the world than pain.

Here the old man has discerned what really troubles his son—and, by extension, Western man: the problem of goodness. (It’s telling that religious faith is stronger in the Third World than in the West; suffering seems less an obstacle to belief than comfort and leisure.) From his youth, Thomas has felt bitterly inadequate beside the towering figure of his father—a sophisticated believer, a kind-hearted wit, a faithful, beloved priest. Unable to resolve his ambivalence, Thomas allows it to form his stance towards the world. He becomes, as it were, the accuser, always looking for the worm in the apple, the poisoned apple in the garden. Faced repeatedly throughout his life with the fruits of abundant goodness—a generous family, loyal friends, abundant leisure, and a beautiful, amazingly forgiving wife—Bunting is overwhelmed and appalled. The very plenitude of creation and the magnanimity of other souls fill him with anxiety and resentment—a reaction that recalls Sartre’s hero Roquentin in Nausea, who sees the beautiful objects of nature as

soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness … All these objects … how can I explain? They inconvenienced me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve.

By the end of the book, Bunting is forced to admit to himself that it is goodness that he dreads and plenitude, not emptiness, that threatens him. That all through his life he has taken refuge from the particular goodness that surrounded him everywhere—from his parents’ patience to his wife’s almost inexplicably enduring love—in abstract negations, pursued to preserve his desolate, solitary “freedom.” (Recall Sartre’s infamous assertion that man’s freedom consists in his “nothingness” in the face of suffocating, inert “being.”) Bunting even botches an attempt by his wife to reconcile, abstracting himself from the romance of the moment in pursuit of a dry, theoretical point.

As he contemplates what’s left of his life, Bunting turns once again to the pastoral idyll of his childhood, wondering aloud what ruined this Eden, what introduced the “worm” into the garden. In bringing his hero back to this primal scene, Woods has made of Bunting a figure of Adam, the archetypal man who—once in the past, and ever again—chooses his own will over God’s, an empty “liberty” over happiness.


J.P. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture, and theology.