James Wood’s brilliant novel, The Book Against God,
self-absorbed and ineffective Thomas Bunting undertakes to
write a book—entitled The Book Against God or BAG as
he refers to it—that will refute his Anglican priest father’s
religiosity and establish the irrefutability of his own atheism.
Separated from his wife, unable to complete his dissertation
and obsessed by his father, it’s not entirely clear why Bunting
is a sympathetic character. But somehow he is. And that’s
why toward the end of the novel, when he gives an unintentionally
offensive eulogy at his father’s funeral, the reader wants
to put a gentle arm around him and lead him away from the
microphone—which, fortunately, his estranged wife does.
Standing at that pulpit he says:
One of the arguments I make in my Book Against God is that
life is what I call a bowl of tears. In some people, the bowl
overflows; in others, it hardly seems full at all. Yet all
suffer. Now, my father did suffer, I think, even though he
used to joke that he was absurdly happy, that unlike most
men he was seeking the key to unhappiness. . . .
The achievement of Wood’s The Book Against God is that
he portrays Bunting’s insistence on atheism—the author’s own
position, I believe—as being equally as spurious and indefensible
as the faith he seeks to debunk.
This matters because it seems as if Wood gets right what writers
of screeds pro- and con- religion consistently get wrong:
That words are never up to the task of discussing divinity
or the lack of divinity. Words simply fail.
Words point toward a divine order or disorder in the hope
of comprehending that which is unknowable. Atheist and believer
together are equally stranded in the cloud of unknowing.
Now Wood has written an op-ed piece for The New York Times
in which he points to the way earthquakes, perhaps even more
than other disasters, have always given rise to the interpretation
that they are a result of sin and a sign of divine displeasure.
the 18th century, the genre of ‘earthquake sermon’ was good
business,” he writes. “Two small shocks in London, in 1750,
sent the preachers to their pulpits and pamphlets. In Bloomsbury,
the Rev. Dr. William Stukeley preached that earthquakes are
favored by God as the ultimate sign of his wrathful intervention.”
He cites the sermons following the Lisbon earthquake in which
human sinfulness was met with cataclysmic punishment. He gives
us the father of Methodism’s own take on tremblers: “There
is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general
an influence upon sinners as an earthquake,” wrote John Wesley,
And, of course, he cites Pat Robertson’s absurd pronouncement
that Haiti’s history of woes was the result of making a pact
with the devil escaping French control. The earthquake, he
said, was “a blessing in disguise,” because it will give the
Haitians a chance to re-build.
We all know how heinous that is: to justify catastrophic events
by saying they are God’s will.
But Wood goes a step further.
He writes, “We should expect nothing less from the man [Robertson]
who blamed legal abortion for Hurricane Katrina. But even
when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in
a completely secular context, theological language has a way
of hanging around earthquakes.”
In his speech President Obama observed that “we stand in solidarity
with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the
grace of God, there we go.”
Wisely, Wood points out that, however well-intentioned the
sentiment, the actual content of what President Obama said
was not that far removed from what Pat Robertson’s view: that
God had something to do with it. That God spared some people,
but not others.
The same kind of God is operative in both statements: a God
who punishes, a God of judgment and condemnation.
Since we live in a post-Enlightenment world in which we know
that natural disasters are natural and not divine acts
of chastisement, it’s strange and unsettling that theological
language creeps its way into our response to them.
And, for people of faith, it’s a reminder that the God most
people create in their minds is one of wrathfulness and capriciousness.
Particularly in the midst of Haiti’s crisis, it is important
not to theologize—however benignly—the event. It perpetuates
the notion of a vengeful God and it ends up blaming the victims.
Wood writes, “We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether
believers or not, might reflect…that in this context no invocation
of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological
As Thomas Bunting might put it: The bowl of Haiti’s tears
is full, is overflowing. But that is not God’s doing.
And perhaps the grace of God is in our hands. And what we
do with them.