Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: When Bad Things Happen To Good People

In my review of The Shack I mentioned that it was a Christian version of Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen To Good People, which was kind of a silly thing to say having never read Kushner's book. It was on my book shelf, but I hadn't yet read it. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled it down and thought I might give it a read. And for weeks, it just sat. Finally, I cracked it open - and once I did, I couldn't put it down.

Wow, just wow. Kushner's book is far more than a witty title. He does indeed tackle the most important question a religious person can raise: why do bad things happen to people who don't deserve it? His answer was shocking (from a religious perspective that is), and yet profoundly logical. Instead of the fantastic explanation provided by The Shack (which really does tackle the same question), a down to Earth answer is given.

The extremely short version goes like this: Why does G-d give cancer to children and let buildings collapse on orphans? (Or even allow orphans in the first place!)? He doesn't. Not only that, but G-d can't do these things.

What? How can a Rabbi possibly suggest that G-d can't do something? And yet, he deftly explains why.

Once Kushner's done with this explanation, he's now got himself in a bit of a pickle. What good is a G-d that can't actually cause things to happen? Heck, is there even a G-d at all? And so Kushner spends a good portion of his book explaining why a G-d who doesn't interact with our lives like we'd so believe he would (Please, oh please, G-d, give me the winning lotto numbers!) is a critical force in our lives.

For the most part, I found his arguments remarkably sound. He's heard all the usual explanations for why bad things happen (you're being punished, G-d wanted to send you a challenge, etc.) and he's able to punch holes in them with ease.

In many respects, I think it boils down to this: there are two types of people in the world. Those who have encountered massive tragedies, and those who haven't. I thank G-d daily that I'm in the second group. When I look at my life's ups and downs, I see that the trend is towards justice and fairness. For example, growing up dyslexic no doubt served in the long run to be a strength, not burden. But if you've been hit by a real tragedy - like Kushner himself went through (he lost a child to a birth defect) - that trend toward justice isn't there. It's in this context that Kushner's book really makes sense.

If you're struggling with G-d, this may be just the book you need to reconcile your feelings. Also, I would suggest pairing this book with The Shack. They're both well written, quick reads and provide for interesting contrasts. Ultimately, I found Kushner's book more appealing, but I suppose there's no big surprise there. It's actually one of the few books I've ready that has surpassed its reputation.

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