Sometimes, I’ll read a book synopsis and wonder if the author started the project by hanging up a picture of me in their office. “It’s all for you, old chap,” they whisper while gently punching out prose. Some plots just feel like they were tailed specifically to my interests.
That’s certainly how I felt when I heard about Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Faber includes most of what I love in a good novel. It’s a religious story (*nods head*) about a pastor (*pulls down glasses*) who becomes a missionary (*loud siren*) to aliens (*galaxy brain*). I mostly like the book and Faber’s greatest strength comes when developing the main character, Peter.
We soon learn that Peter was once a homeless drug addict who lied and stole to support his habit. Upon becoming a Christian, his life changed dramatically. He now shows just as much devotion to God and the Bible as he did to crack and heroin. Eventually, he’s chosen by a mysterious organization to proselytize a group of indigenous people on a planet named Oasis.
Here’s where Faber’s construction of Peter really rolls. While Peter is generally a kind, honorable man, we begin to wonder if his faith functions as a new sort of addiction. In other words, does he live for a spiritual high? Is his faith just a way for him to feel good about himself? Throughout the book, Peter borders on cliché. He responds to his wife’s troubles with words that amount to little more than “Trust God and everything is going to be fine.”
In one particularly emotional moment, Peter counsels a troubled co-worker by saying:
He [God] cares about us very much. So much that He became one of us. He took human form. Can you imagine that? The creator of everything, the shaper of galaxies, got Himself born as a human baby, and grew up in a lower-class family in a small village in the Middle East” (332).
Reading through the scene, it’s obvious that Peter botched his opportunity to provide comfort. There is a time to talk about the incarnation and there is a time to express empathy. Peter’s co-worker laughs off his awkward grab at a quick conversion.
Faber’s story is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, even though he’s an atheist, he manages to write about religion like an insider. He also doesn’t look to humiliate the faith or point the finger at people who believe it to be true.
Second, Faber seems to acknowledge the good within Christianity while also realizing the potential for it to be highjacked for selfish reasons. A look at Peter displays this much. How often do we follow the commands of Jesus not because we want to glorify him, but because it brings with it a hit of endorphins? (Doing good feels good, but is that our only motivation?) There’s the prosperity gospel (“Trust God and he’ll make you comfortable”) and then there’s the callous gospel (“Trust God and you don’t have a reason to be sad for more than a short period of time”). Like drugs, religion then becomes a way to escape from the real world (figuratively and literally in this book).
The Book of Strange New Things forced me, as a Christian, to consider the relationship between hopeful certainty and present pain. I know that one day God will set the world to rights, he’ll wipe away every tear. I also know that sometimes that makes me oblivious or apathetic to the pain around me. The story also considers how easy it is to view people as mere projects. I meet (and read) some people who have great theology, but ultimately lack the ability to express basic empathy to others around them. Certainty functions like a drug if we don’t handle it with care. Conversely, true love means something deeper, something more intrusive. Maybe that’s a line I’ll use again someplace. Love is intrusive. All of these ideas are rather beautifully—and with complication—explored in Faber’s book.
I’m making more of an effort to read good fiction. I haven’t always done this in the past, but I want it to happen with greater frequency now. I’m learning that great fiction (and art in general) “coats flesh to the bones of truth.”