June 10, 2008

Book Review: God's Problem

Yes, I do read books. In fact, lately I've had the opportunity to read quite a few. I just haven't felt like writing reviews. However, this book was so intriguing, I just had to.

In 2005, Bart D. Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus was published; it became a New York Times bestseller. That book's main idea--that the Bible was altered, sometimes drastically, by early scribes--is old news to anyone who has studied the ancient texts. However, the way in which Ehrman explained his point in an easy-to-read, non-scholarly style helped me discover ways to better present those ideas to my parishioners.

So I was excited to get my hands on Ehrman's newest book: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer (Harper Collins, 2008). Ehrman's style is still easy-to-read, even though the subject matter is not; and the questions he explores are many of the same questions that arise in the minds of all Christians who think seriously about their faith. They're the type of questions we don't always like to think about, but we should, and Ehrman forces us to.

For example, Ehrman writes that:

When I was growing up, my family always said grace before dinner. Often,it was just a little prayer that we kids took turns reciting when we were
little: "God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food...." But there came a time in my life when I found that I simply could not thank God for my food. And the irony is that it was because I came to realize (or, at least, came to think) that if I was thanking God for providing me with my sustenance, and acknowledging that I was fed not because of my own good efforts but because of his gracious actions toward me, then by implication I was saying something about those who didn't have food. If I have food because God has given it to me, then don't others lack food because God has chosen not to give it to them? By saying grace, wasn't I in fact charging God with negligence, or favoritism?

Everyone, it seems, has their own explanation for suffering. In his book, Ehrman points out that there are, in fact, numerous explanations for suffering in the Bible itself. One section of the Bible explains that suffering is God's punishment for sin. Another says that it comes from human beings as a consequence of sin. Other sections insist that suffering has a positive aspect to it, that God brings good out of evil, while still others point to suffering as a test of faith. A few biblical writers say that suffering just is, while others explain how suffering comes from evil forces in the world, forces which God will ultimately destroy. Ehrman explores each of these explanations in depth.

As I mentioned, one of Ehrman's strengths as a writer is his ability to make difficult ideas and concepts easy to understand. However, in this book, he sometimes tries too hard to appeal to a mass audience, as when he uses sentence fragments for emphasis. An example: "Every five seconds a child dies of starvation. Every five seconds. A child." These sections read like a fifteen year-old's page on myspace.

Nevertheless, the reader of God's Problem can't help but think deeply about his or her own understanding of God and scripture. The questions raised in my own mind after reading this book will stick with me for a long time. They are the type of questions that either force one to develop a bigger view of God, or to lose one's faith completely. It's the struggle I talked about in this post. Ehrman himself lost his faith as a result of the question of suffering, something that he touches on in the book. For most Christians, though, reading this book will be a good struggle, one that may be a little painful, but in a good way, like the growing pains of one's childhood.

1 comment:

Adam Gonnerman said...

I dunno, I distrust Ehrman's scholarship.