This gifted writer, has as an atheist, given those of us who serve in Christian ministry, a rare gift. Without spoiling this novel for those who’d like to read it, I’d like to share a few reasons why pastors and ministry leaders are wise to notice the mirror Faber offers us.
The title, The Book of Strange New Things, refers to the Bible. The story sympathetically portrays a pastor and his wife.
As a writer, Faber blesses us with the gift of skilled artistry and the blessedness of neighbor love. That he does not believe in God or the “delusion” of Christians, and yet, has sought to portray these of his neighbors with dignity and beauty is a kind thing. Such kindness requires extended restraint and earnest effort. While other-than-religious artists often portray Christians in caricature, according to our worst representatives and moments, we Christians are often guilty of the same misshapen portrayals in return. Whether as artists or otherwise, the teaching from Jesus that we love our neighbor, even our enemy is on display in some small but true way here. The old theological term, “common grace,” which reminds us that each of us human beings is created in God’s image and will display this wondrous fact, even when we deny it, offers us fresh air to breath and common ground on which to stand.
Faber remarkably portrays the flaws and beauties of genuine married love including the lovely strength and nurture of married friendship, partnership and sexual intimacy in ministry. Whether he is mindful of his weaknesses in the felt absence of his wife’s strengths, or he is remembering the various and multiple constellations of her always appeal and allure to him, or he is mindful of his many worries and prayers on her behalf, or is sickened with his own sins or selfishness with which she has had to bear, this pastor and his wife/friend/lover/partner offer us many pictures of imperfect but intimate graces and delights that are meant for a husband and wife to tenderly share in ministry (or otherwise). Their story together is wonderfully-imperfect, humorous and lovely.
Faber soberly portrays the misguided way a pastor can immerse himself in the success of his gospel mission while forgetting the mundane mission of his prior vows before God to love his wife and children. This season in the story represents the most painful chapters in the book to read. But the subtle truths found in these “letters” between this pastor husband and his wife are worth the price of this fictional story, as a sort of morality tale of warning. Particularly poignant is his default tendency during this season of his life to relate to his wife’s pain and suffering as her (trite) pastor or constant preacher quoting bible verses or giving talks in sermonic tones rather than as her pained lover and sacred friend joining her in the soiled devastation of a brutal unfixable circumstance.
In this we see a fictional but accurate resemblance to Job’s friends until the pastor finally (but perhaps too late?) comes to his senses.
He searched his mind for words that might give her hope, maybe something along the lines of “Hope is one of the strongest things in the universe. Empires can fall, civilizations can vanish into dust . . .” But no, the rhetoric of a sermon was one thing, his wife’s grim reality was another . . .Bea was scared and hurt, and she didn’t need his preaching.
Faber helpfully points out the equally flat and empty responses to suffering that those who aren’t religious can promise and pursue. Secular notions of Utopia also leave us empty and wanting. The picture of true love and ministry, set in contrast and comparison with its hackneyed counterparts, both secular and religious, leaves us longing for a third way forward. Something other than secular and religious banalities are needed if we are to wisely and lovingly navigate the brutal realities of this fallen world. Faber doesn’t leave us with an answer. But he rouses our longing for it.
Faber continually speaks of the dignity of his characters as persons with souls and bodies. His attentiveness to physicality, its constant role in ministry, along with its goodness and limits, wonderfully delivers us from an other-than-Christian and immaterial view of ministering to souls. Ministry to souls is a physical thing. Temptations rise here, yes. Fatigue in ministry shows up here this mundane boredom, true. Faber doesn’t shy away from these facts. But he insists that neighbor love isn’t found in generalizations about humankind, but rather in detailed attentiveness to noses, freckles and tones of voice, to sweat and to food, or how the presence or scarcity of food can effect each human being differently, depending upon the day. Physical details often reveal clues to the stories of souls, like one character in the story who has scars on her wrists. True gospel ministry recognizes the dignity of these bodily clues. But human love for its own sake requires this too. Married love involves details known only to those who share life together. Commonalities alone cannot enable us to see a person as he or she is. When asked to describe his wife, the pastor says:
“She has brown hair,” said Peter, ” Auburn . . . She is tall, almost as tall as me, brown eyes, slim.” These details were generic, unevocative; they would fit a million women. But what was he to do? Describe the mole under her left nipple? The precise shape of her navel? “She’s very fit, she’s a nurse. We met at the hospital where she worked.”
Faber enables us to see how a pastor on mission, if he actually loves those he serves, will begin to advocate for and defend their dignity and cultural ways of life when they are misunderstood, caricatured or slandered by others.
Throughout the book, Faber, from various angles, raises the ancient and relevant question about God and suffering. This is no academic question for this author as his own dear wife died of cancer during his writing of this book.
“In every Christian’s life there comes a time when he or she needs to know the precise circumstances under which God is willing to heal the sick . . . Why did God do it for some but not for others?”
Such questions humble us pastors into simple prayers.
“Dear God, please don’t let Lover Five die.” It was such an infantile prayer, the sort of prayer a five-year-old might pray. But maybe those were the best kind.
Faber pictures forgiveness palpably and attractively, not only in its individual and fractured forms, but in its communal expression. This scene is also worth the price of the book.
Faber also pictures the necessity and ache of forgiveness needed but not yet found.
Finally, Faber raises an important question for Christians, that we would do well not to answer quickly or tritely.
“The holy book he had spent so much of his life preaching from had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious.”
What about those who have no faith or lose their faith, not because they are hell-bent on hedonism or the pleasures of meanness, but because of the cruel absences of God amid the merciless and miserable horrors that human beings or nature can inflict upon us?
(Note: When Faber describes the beautiful intimacy of sex in marriage he discreetly and elegantly but honestly portrays these sacred moments. For some readers, be advised)