This is a little early. Normally I save my book reviews for the Reading Challenge monthly round-up, but I feel this particular book deserves its own post. Excerpted from the draft of the upcoming November book reviews, I bring you less of a book review and more of a personal response to Coming Clean.
Coming Clean by Seth Haines (A book that scares you)
Okay. So I'm really having to stretch here. Really. I've struggled with which book to read for this category all year. I don't want to read anything scary. Why would I do that to myself? I haven't enjoyed scaring myself since I was a teenager. I tried to pick up some truly scary books and had to put them down. I'm all for expanding my horizons, but I'm simply not the least bit interested in reading something scary.
So I'm doing a little creative interpretation.
This book wasn't one that scared me, but the thought of reading it did fill me with something close to dread. Maybe it was a little scary in that I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. Yet, I did want to read it, knowing what I know of the background.
I went to college with Seth's wife Amber (also an author). We were in multiple creative writing classes together. I've studied for tests and eaten meals in her house. I've met Seth, even though it was a long time ago. During the time I was in Scotland, I kept up with Amber's blog, so I remember a lot of this happening (from Amber's point of view). Their infant son was failing to thrive, and I wept with them from a million miles away, I prayed for her baby boy who was slipping away. When I heard that Seth had written this memoir - a diary of his first ninety days of sobriety from alcohol - I wanted to read it. I wanted to know his side.
But I also dreaded reading it, and I couldn't figure out why.
I knew I wasn't looking forward to the God slant of it all. Christianese still rubs me the wrong way. But why would that fill me with dread? Was I worried that this book might wrinkle the bedclothes of my finally comfortable atheism? Was I worried that after all this time, God would speak to me? (Too little, too late?) Was I afraid the fear of hell might rise up within me again, threatening me with its red flames and pitchforks, the laughter of Satan as his claws close around my wrists, and the crossed arms of God looking down, head shaking but not moving to rescue me?
As I started reading the book, several realizations took place. The first explanation for my dread came up almost immediately. It was "too soon". I'm not as far removed from Christianity as I sometimes think I am. Sometimes, it's just too much, too soon, like a horrible break up. You think you're over it until you re-read your old love letters. I'm not far enough away from it yet to give it the disconnected but respectful deference I can give to other religions. If it were a book by a Muslim or a Jew or even a Mormon, I'd be okay. But this was too close to an almost-healed wound that appears scarred over on the surface but is still tender when pressed.
Very early in, I pinpointed another source of my dread. The fear of jealousy. The prickling feeling of "this guy experienced the silence of God, yet by the end of this book, I'm willing to bet God makes himself known to him." Would this book be a re-visitation of the old Why him and not me? Might there be a jealousy lingering deep down that this guy's faith did not get shaken beyond its breaking point? (To it, yes. But not beyond.)
Despite all these reservations I read the entire book and shared a few tears with him as one who's felt similar darkness. I know the silence of God. I know the doubt, the disillusionment, the pain, the need to numb. I've met the same cast of characters - played by different actors but reading from the same script - the "faith-healers" who make promises they can't keep, the churchgoers who place the fault on your faith (or lack thereof), the trite and glib assertions of "sovereignty" and "God's glory" and "never give you more than you can bear". I know the same theologies that grind against simple faith like tectonic plates and the systematic studies that box up life's complexities (sufferings, dichotomies, mysteries) with pretty Scriptural exegesis ribbons.
We are not that different, this Christian writer and this atheist writer. Not that different at all.
I'll admit here that nestled up with the potential jealousy and the dread and the still-tender wounds was a second-guessing, a head cocked to the other side, a furrowed brow. What I really didn't expect to get from this book was a genuine reconsideration of my own experience. Had I given up too soon? Did I commit the ultimate fail - the Give-Up that scores an F and detention in hell, instead of the Keep Going Despite Everything Rational that warrants an A and heavenly applause?
I wondered that with utmost sincerity - and again, dread. I've been through this before. I've gone there. I've questioned all these things to death and back. Is there something to this, after all this time?
I kept reading. I kept wondering. I questioned my (un)faith along with him questioning his (unsure)faith. The story went on, through the first month, second month, third month of his abstinence from alcohol and his doubt and his desperation to hear God and the silence and the anger and the needing to forgive and the "cave" as he called it where all the darkness hides, and I just couldn't help but think: Why?
If there is a God and he is this God of the Bible, why on earth does he constantly make faith in him so bloody difficult? When Sunday School tells you to "just believe" and you will be saved, and Gospel preachers say, "you only need faith to be saved" and even the theologians insist "it is by grace and nothing of yourselves", then why would God make faith so impossible to achieve? If it's this gift that only God can give, why does he give it so freely to children and then withhold it so tightly from adults?
Why would he make this simple believing such an impossible mountain to climb, one we have to write books about to even remotely comprehend?
What good does it do to make climbing the mountain of faith so utterly difficult that so many of us eventually lose our grip and crash to the rocks below? What is the truth then, that it is by faith we are saved but by surmounting the insurmountable (the silence of God, the problem of pain, the inconsistencies of Scripture) that we finish the race, make the grade? Does that mean we must do more than just believe to be saved, that there is something we must do of ourselves - a desperate striving, perhaps, while a silent God stands back and observes, clipboard and checklist in hand?
I applaud Seth's journey, and I applaud his resolution. I truly mean that. I loved this book; I loved his writing style, his beautiful imagery, his perfect rendering of the ache of the faith crisis. If I'd read this book two or three years ago, would it have changed the direction of my journey? Maybe, maybe not. My dilemma came from the inconsistencies of Scripture, his from the problem of pain. Our dilemmas might not have crossed paths closely enough for his to affect mine. His denoument, though, is beautiful and enlightening, and I am so happy for him that his faith did not ultimately waiver, and that it is getting him through his struggle with alcohol.
I fear that might come across as patronizing, coming from one who decided that faith is an illusion and God a figment of our imagination. How do I explain that my joy for him is not patronizing at all but genuine?
For I believe he is on the right path. I also believe I am on the right path. I believe all of us who are doing our utmost to find truth and goodness and light and love in this brokenest of worlds are on the right path. I'd have dismissed that kind of talk once as highly new-agey and relativistic; I'd have called myself "deceived" with a sunken heart and a sorrowful sigh. I feel almost Buddhist saying it now. Om.
I truly mean it though. I never rooted for atheism while reading this story. I hoped the truth would set him free. And unexpectedly with each turn of the page, as he baked bread to satisfy the hunger of his readers' doubts, tiny crumbs of respectful deference dropped onto my plate of cynicism towards Christianity. While the loaf in the end was not for me, the crumbs have given me a warm reminder of what it tasted like to live off that bread.
I remember that a person who lives off that bread is not delusional, any more than a person who does not live off it is deceived.
We are all on the same path. We are all approaching truth, just from different angles. Call it Eastern and new-agey, call it whatever you want, but this is the truth that I found - most surprisingly - in this book.
It is a little scary. Going from an all-or-nothing faith (or unfaith) to something left of center is new to me. It's easy to say "you're wrong and I'm right"; to say "we all have fingers touching on the truth here" is harder and often more easily dismissed by everyone from all sides.
I made a good choice on a book that scared me. It did wrinkle the bedclothes of comfortable atheism, it did briefly rekindle the fear of hellfire, it did spark a moment or two of jealousy, it did reopen the wounds of once perceived silence and abandonment. In the end, however, after tearing through so many layers of doubt and pain and forgiveness and disappointment alongside the author, I kept returning to the conclusion that if God were real - and loving - he wouldn't make it next to impossible to believe in him. He wouldn't make it so difficult that only a select few - the strongest of the strong, the most emotionally intelligent - make it to the end. For people like Seth have emotional intelligence overflowing in buckets, but it's not only people like Seth whose sons fail to thrive or who suffer the silence of God or who question the childhood experiences of faith. Not everyone has the depth of introspection required to dig far enough into their own caves of darkness to find that one tiny seed of doubt and to root it out like a deeply embedded wart. "Childlike faith" shouldn't take a PhD to achieve. Faith shouldn't require books upon books to explain.
However. Just because it is not the path I am on does not mean it is the wrong path. There are many trails to the top of the mountain. To everyone trying to get there, I recommend exploring all of them. Including Seth's.
an atheist author and reader
P.S. Yes, I capitalize the G in God, just as I do the A in Allah or the Z in Zeus. This is grammatically correct, religiously respectful, and also incurably habitual.