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Thoughtful but Unsatisfying
on December 3, 2012
As an agnostic atheist, I picked up this book in an attempt to look for understanding. I don't understand religion, or belief in God, but I can see how someone raised in a religion might cling to what they were taught into adulthood. What stumps me is when an unbeliever like me makes the transition to Christianity, of all things. Knowing that not even a disbeliever is immune, I picked up this book to see what the appeal was, where belief comes from, what could possibly cause a mind to shift from rational to irrational.
Having finished it, I feel just as confused and insightless as I did before I picked it up. The writing is decent, to be sure, and the story is unique and interesting - we follow the protagonist (who I assume is the stand-in for the author) through some excruciatingly traumatic experiences, and past that, through the psyche of a severely emotionally troubled human being. I also like the fact that the author attempts, at leasts, to gear the book toward unbelievers. He is always saying "we atheists," as if he is on their side, although his generalizations about atheists grew more and more cynical and non-inclusive as the book went on.
Although the writing is eloquent in its way, what the author definitely lacks is attention to detail. He will go on for pages, describing his emotions, thoughts, experiences, and beliefs in the abstract. When it comes to events themselves, he is as vague as possible. I still don't have a definite grasp on what happened to result in his restraining orders - either of them - and even when he goes to prison, it is entirely unclear of what he was convicted. Despite the introspective nature of this book, this lack of description gives the strong impression that the author himself lacks self-knowledge - or at the very least, feels too much shame about the events to offer an honest account of them.
On top of all this, when the ending comes around, and the protagonist is (spoiler alert!) converted to Christianity, I found myself reading and re-reading the final chapter, looking for a clue, for anything remotely relatable, that could help me understand his dramatic shift in perception of the world. At this point, he lives a life similar to mine - steady job, relationship, possessing existential angst - who doesn't feel the kind of empty confusion he describes? That "Now what?" question that leaves us reaching for meaning and something substantial in a life that can only be described by its impermanency. I get that. I understand it.
To be frank, I feel a bit robbed by the ending. Part of this is because it feels like I was meant to. The author states at the beginning of the last chapter: "This is the signal that the serious bullcrap is about to commence. Our hero is about to forsake us." And it does feel like it. Up to this point I have been able to understand, at least conceptually, why the protagonist feels the emotions he does, given his experiences. But this one escapes me, not least because it is so sudden and dramatic: one moment he does not believe, and the next he does. That's all the explanation we are given. How are we meant to respond to that?
I have a suspicion that the religious readers of this book will find satisfaction at the end. That everything will click into place and they will feel like all is as it should be - through all his suffering, the protagonist finally found the Truth. They might also say, in response to my frustrations, that faith isn't something rational, that can be explained logically, but is something one can only feel. That certainly fits with the sudden unexplained conversion he experienced. And maybe that's all this book is meant to be: less of an explanation and more of a confession, and one that only fellow believers could ever hope to really grasp.
Be that as it may, I still find the book abstract to a fault and ultimately unsatisfying. I appreciate the attempt, and the writing style itself is lovely, but I don't expect most unbelievers, if they are like me, to get anything from it.