[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1601425082″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51VmKVJhCTL.jpg” width=”213″ alt=”Holly Burkhalter” ]Painfully Aware of the Abyss
A Review of
Good God, Lousy World and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith
Hardback: Convergent, 2013
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Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar
I once read a novel in which the protagonist divided humankind into two categories: those who are always aware of the “abyss,” and those who are not. “The abyss” referred to the darkness and suffering that pervade human life, the agony that screams from newspaper headlines and whimpers in lonely corners. I immediately recognized myself as one who is painfully aware of the abyss. Holly Burkhalter, author of Good God, Lousy World & Me, is also one of us. For many years, her intimate knowledge of the world’s darkness, particularly the hideous ways that human beings can treat one another, made her an angry atheist.
Burkhalter’s career in human rights work brought her face to face with the craven depths of humanity. Her book opens with a scene in West Africa in 1990, where she and her fellow aid workers heard eyewitness accounts of atrocities taking place in Liberia. When a fellow worker publicly thanked God for carrying the workers safely through the African bush and sparing them flat tires, Burkhalter
…thought I’d vomit…Praising God for our spectacular privileges, right down to our intact tires, in the face of the hunger and trauma we’d just witnessed, struck me as downright obscene. I wasn’t a Christian at the beginning of the trip, and by the end of it I could scarcely tolerate the sight of those who were.
Burkhalter, who grew up in an observant Mennonite family, goes on:
I’m not sure I was an atheist. No self-respecting atheist would bother to curse God daily for misery and injustice as vigorously as I did for forty years. I must have believed in something good to have felt so betrayed and heartbroken by every day’s fresh load of cruelty and suffering around the world.
Alongside the mass suffering she witnessed as an aid worker, Burkhalter’s belief in a loving God was further eroded when she witnessed her devout grandmother having a “mental breakdown” after her husband’s death. Her grandmother appeared to have been utterly abandoned by the God whom she had so faithfully worshipped and praised. For Burkhalter, “God’s absence when my grandfather died demolished by childish and puny faith. I flung it, and God, aside in disgust.”
Good God, Lousy World & Me is the story of Burkhalter’s gradual reclaiming of the God whom she flung aside, first as a child horrified by her grandmother’s suffering and later as a professional witnessing such events as the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her conversion comes about through several experiences: Burkhalter got to know Christians working for International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights organization for which she would eventually work. She noted their joy and confidence in a loving God who despises injustice and cruelty even more than we do, and was moved by the absurd but biblical notion that a just, loving God is working intimately to right wrongs and heal the wounded. It’s just that, rather than waving a magic wand and fixing things through blinding-light miracles, God chooses to work through the limited, fallible hands of human beings. While she “didn’t stop wondering why God permitted gross cruelty in the first place, and I don’t understand it to this day….IJM’s theology of justice allowed me to imagine that God might possibly exist and that he could be good in a way I can only partially understand.”
Burkhalter’s tentative faith, in which she “stumbl[es] around while clutching my sippy cup,” was further bolstered by experiences of answered prayer and “little miracles,” ranging from a trainer’s ability to read her dog’s mind to a child’s bravely identifying her rapist in a fraught courtroom drama.
In Good God, Lousy World & Me, Burkhalter is not setting out to prove anything. She is telling a story. She continues to ponder hard questions about how exactly God works in the world and answers prayer (or doesn’t). An atheist or agnostic looking for proof that God exists will not find it here. A Christian looking for a fellow believer’s watertight testimony, clearly delineated for ease of understanding, will likewise not find it here. As with any true story, Burkhalter’s is marked by complexity, paradox, and questioning. Her honesty about those questions and complexities is Burkhalter’s greatest strength as an author, with her humor a close second. Among the stories of genocide, forced prostitution, and HIV/AIDS, Burkhalter includes stories about her daughters, her dogs, a relative with an intellectual disability, and her own bout with heart disease. In one memorable section, Burkhalter—this Christian who has willingly traveled to the world’s most dangerous, most desperate places—struggles to keep a promise to regularly visit a sick neighbor in her D.C. neighborhood. (She points out that, unlike the Good Samaritan, we can’t always get up and leave once we’ve helped our neighbor. The darn neighbors expect us to stay and chat, then return again tomorrow to do it all over again.)
Throughout her book, Burkhalter returns again and again to the tension between a loving God and a world full of hurt. She turns to theologian Paul Tillich’s notion of divine providence, forged as he “tried to make sense of God in a world gone mad during the Holocaust.”
[Tillich] wrote, “Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event….we can boast in that time [of hunger and persecution], and just in that time, that even all of this can not separate us from the love of God.”…[B]elieving that there is a possibility of some higher goodness in all situations has allowed me to think about the world differently and to start to reconcile the polar opposites of a loving God and a wretched earth.
Burkhalter’s story, which leads the reader to contemplation and more questions rather than solid answers, witnesses to Tillich’s “saving possibility” in situations both life-threatening and mundane. By including relatable stories of being a parent, neighbor, and dog owner alongside tales of death and danger in the world’s suffering places, and engaging with every part of her story with humor and honesty, Burkhalter avoids coming across as a preachy world changer whose accomplishments I can’t possibly match, which is how I frequently feel when reading memoirs by Christians who have done hard work to respond to terrible human suffering. I can’t say how an atheist would respond to her story of faith regained, but this Christian is grateful for the story of a fellow seeker whose doubts are familiar and whose faith is faltering but genuine.
Ellen Painter Dollar is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She also blogs at Patheos.