I recently finished Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." Dubbed with the accurate moniker "instant New-York Times bestseller" because of the author's former critical success, I had seen this book at the top of several must-read lists around the internet for the past couple of years. I think I finally decided to pick it up after an interview with the author on an NPR show.
The 2 sentence synopsis of the book is that it tells the parallel but separate tales of two young children living in WWII France. Marie-Laure, a blind daughter of a museum locksmith has her life upended by the war in unspeakable ways, and yet proves astoundingly resilient and resourceful. Werner, a German academic and engineering prodigy is conscripted into the German war-effort. The two stories finally collide in the closing scenes of the book which is near the end of the war. The novel is relevant both as a modern reminder of the lingering and overlooked effects of war, but also as a portrait of how children live through ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences as named recently by authors and researchers).
Aside from the many messages and ideas the story communicates, I found it to be simply a delightful and engrossing read. Doerr's technical ability as a writer is excellent. Of course, perhaps it could be argued that a blind protagonist lends herself to the medium of writing because to paint the world from her viewpoint requires very careful descriptions. The other side of that coin is that if an author's protagonist is blind, the writer better well be dexterous, careful, and descriptive because the risk otherwise is high. Doerr pulls the reader into the world particularly of Marie-Laure and for certain also into that of Werner.
For me, a mark I look for in identifying good storytelling is whether or not, by the end, I care about what happens to the characters. If I'm disinterested or dis-impassioned, for right or for wrong, I lay that at the feet of the author. Perhaps I ought to judge myself as not being empathetic or loving enough - as I analytically believe that every person is of the utmost value and has a story worth telling, celebrating, protecting, and learning from. However, it's possible to undersell, to under appreciate, to do disservice to an otherwise inspiring and powerful story. In this case, Marie-Laure and Werner were served well by Anthony Doerr's masterful work, I was drawn in emotionally to their lives - and by the end of the story, I cared about the outcome (which I will not reveal here :).
The most striking line in the novel for me came near the end of the tale as Werner finds himself in a state of existential (and literal) hopelessness. Starving, waiting, alone, and abandoned, the author makes the observation (which to me seems to come from the little boy inside him): “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”
I have felt this kind of despair in my life before. Hopelessness is its own kind of grave. Dark and stifling.
I have experienced this kind of doubt at times before. Where my worldview is called into question, where even the notion of the spiritual or the divine is in the air, hanging in the balance. There is something freeing about admitting it; and also something terrifying about it.
As a theologian, I can't help but critique the implied conception of God in this utterance. I realize it may just be the despair underneath taking hold of the philosophical wheel, but this notion is something I come into contact with often as a pastor. God is not, in my mind, nor I would argue in the portrayal of the scriptures, an old man in the sky as this quote envisages. God is not, another being, like a human or a fish, a tree, a planet, a could of ions, or even sub-atomic particles moving through dimensions. God, as David Bently Hart writes in his book "The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss," is being itself, not a being alongside others, but the source, essence, and beginning of being. As he writes, sometimes those who would take the role as evangelists for non-belief set up the same kind of straw men that unscrupulous Christian proselytizers do, casting down any notion of the divine, let alone Theism, on the basis of incomplete pictures of God. Doerr's quote, while true to human experience, is not true to solid orthodox Christian theology, that criticizes a theodicy that paints God as a kind of superfluous puppet master who controls all that happens on planet earth, good or bad, and thus purports to claim no responsibility. Any robust philosophical system, in my mind, dismisses this childish picture at the start.
We can certainly say and believe that God is all powerful; but I don't think we can flippantly say it in the sense of God as a genie. All that happens is decidedly NOT according to his will. This is the story of the Christian scriptures, which in the broadest brush strokes paints a picture that has God working with, shaping, molding, creating in a world that resists his influence at just about every turn. Trusting this God, who is in control and yet who is not, is perhaps the most recurrent motif in the Bible. God is not a white old man staring down like the moon, entirely able to set every evil right in every moment, and yet coldly, unsympathetically, mysteriously, refuses to act.
Of course, at the core, the point of the observation by Werner (or the author) isn't to make a theological treaties about the nature of God. He simply is being authentic. He is stating what is true for him in that moment. And this is what is tragic to me, as a pastor. While I might come across as all attached and intense about theological hair-splitting, the reality is that I care about people - and certain notions of God create real and avoidable suffering. Our worldviews matter - they shape how we think and feel and move through the world. Inferior perspectives on God as the bringer of all good and all evil into our lives do not make the world a better place to live in. And in that sense, I couldn't agree more with the critique of non-belief.
The conversation could, and does, continue on. I highly recommend "All the Light We Cannot See" despite my critique/triggering illustrated above. Quite obviously, it is deeply thoughtful, stirring, and powerful reading.