Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: Something Other than God

Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It by Jennifer Fulwiler

Usually I wait about five years after a book comes out before I read it, not because I believe a book is better with age (though some are) but because I have this list and I like to add books to the list and then read them in that order. It keeps things nice and tidy for me. The blogs were all buzzing about this book, though, and I do occasionally drop by Jen's blog, so I feel like I know her. That's the beauty of blogs. You'd all read my book if I wrote one, right?

Jen's book describes her transformation from an atheist to a Catholic, and it's fascinating. Jen read widely from Church fathers and church history in addition to the Bible. If I had ever been an atheist, it's exactly how I might have come to know and love the faith. (I suppose it's just as likely I would have listened to lots of rap, as she did, as I am to have been an atheist.)

One of the most interesting facets of Jen's journey to faith is how important an online community was early on in her explorations. She visited an atheist website and selected a few Christian commenters she thought were thoughtful and considerate, ones who used reason to make cogent arguments rather than blind statements of faith. Then she invited them, by email, to read her new blog, to comment on her posts as a way to help her work through her questions, to offer recommendations and advice. If nothing else, Jen's story shows us that Christians who comment on blogs can make a startling difference in someone's life. You never know who might be reading (so be kind and truthful!).

She is startled and a little disturbed when she later discovers all of the commentators who respond to her invitation were Catholics. Even as she contemplated the bizarre turn of her life toward Christianity, she had never considered Catholicism viable. Then these people she'd never met in real life started to challenge her.

One of the scenes I found most powerful was when Jen contemplated the life and music of rapper Tupac Shakur.
I weighed the Catechism in my hands. The idea was that this Church's teaching was divinely inspired. If it tried to tell me that Tupac Shakur was in hell, that God didn't factor in his upbringing amidst violent radicals and his life amidst poverty and street warfare, that was going to be a problem. Even I, as someone who only knew him through his art, saw some goodness in him--a goodness that counted for something--despite all of the horrible things he did. And if this book told me that there was no hope for him at all, I didn't think I could believe that its ideas came from God.
She spent hours pouring through the Cathechism, reading everything she could find on hell and salvation, as she listened to Shakur's music.
In a move that was both frustrating and respectable, the Church didn't make final proclamations about who goes to hell. It simply said that people who choose to turn their backs on God completely, in their hearts or in their actions, can expect to end up there; God respects our free will and won't make us hang out with him forever if we don't want to.
So there's no way to know if Tupac Shakur is in hell, purgatory (on his way to heaven), or in heaven. The Catholic church offers us an action, though, something we can do for those who have died, as we hope. We can pray.
The living sent their love for the deceased into the spiritual world, like adding water to a stream that would eventually float their lost friends home.
That's one of the best descriptions of the tradition of praying for the dead I've ever read. In some ways, I think it applies to sacrificial acts for those who are alive as well. I often pray for people I know who are ill or laboring as I exercise, for example, offering my sweat for those who cannot exercise their bodies but who long to be healthy (or to give birth to a healthy child). I don't understand how my prayers and sacrifices can benefit others, but I believe it does.

In the end, Jen prays.
I slid off the bed and dropped to my knees. I pressed my eyes shut as I waited for a wave of pain to pass through my leg. When it had gone, I folded my hands, leaned my head forward, and poured out the most sincere prayer I had ever said, for the soul of Tupac Shakur.
I think it's amazing that a rapper, one who at the very least sang about doing some horrible things but who always wanted to be closer to God, so clearly and powerfully impacted the faith journey of a woman he never met.

There are some other powerful moments in the book as well, but I don't want to ruin it for you. This is easily one of the best conversion stories I've ever read and I highly recommend it, especially if you are an atheist and willing to wonder.

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