There is no way to fully discussion Children of God without spoilers. So this review is not really going to discuss the plot. The first book in the series, The Sparrow, was a devastating book. The Sparrow started at the end, knowing that Emilio Sandoz was the only survivor of the first mission to Rakhat. But it takes that whole book to really understand Sandoz’s role in the trip and why he is so devastated.
Children of God starts soon after the end and the two books really need to be thought of as a whole. I spent nearly two years between the two books because I was so impacted by the first that I was not sure I was ready to read the second. I should have read them closer together because, apart from length, they probably should have been published together. (And there are a ton of characters and reading them together would have helped in keeping the characters in order in my head.)
It was not until the end of the book that I realized that in many ways this is a meditation on the book of Job. Mary Doria Russell is Jewish. Although most of the characters of the books are Jesuit priests, there is one Jewish woman in the original mission to Rakhat, but regardless, both faiths include the book of Job and theologically grapple with the problems of evil.
The problem of evil, simply is the discussion of how there can be evil in the world if God is good and omnipotent. The problem of evil can be formulated in a number of ways, but it is a problem that cannot be solved finally because, as in the book of Job, we are not God. We are finite and we can only see ‘darkly’ as Paul hints at in the New Testament.
I am someone that has a good life. I have my struggles and sin, but I cannot point to great tragedy personally. I have come to my own equilibrium with the problem of evil. It cannot be solved neatly. But knowing I do not have great tragedy in my life, I have not had to grapple with it in the way that others have and I anticipate that my current equilibrium will be challenged in the future.
Part of what I love about reading, and blogging about books, is that I have come to ‘know’ authors. These are all virtual relationships, I have some interaction with a number of authors. In the past week, three authors that I know have all faced tragedies of one sort or another. One was literally hit by a bus and suffered multiple broken bones, including her pelvis, and a collapsed lung. She has a lot of healing to do yet, but will be heading home from the hospital today. Another was diagnosed with cancer last August and was scheduled for exploratory surgery yesterday to develop the next stage of the treatment plan, but the surgery was postponed because of someone else’s cancer surgery was more pressing. A third author, in a freak accident with a water balloon and a whiffle ball bat is going into surgery this morning after having lost a tooth and broken four bones in her face and jaw. And for all three of these authors, these most recent tragedies are probably not the great tragedies of their lives.
I think we as Christians, especially for those of us that have not directly faced a lot of tragedy, need to read fiction books directly grappling with the problem of evil in order to abstractly think through pain and suffering. Because at some point, we likely will have our own pain and suffering.
I am not going to discuss the ending of Children of God. But broadly there are two types of discussions of the problem of evil in fiction. One ends badly and one types ends neatly. Books like Silence or The Power and the Glory end with death or tragedy. The evil was not redeemed or made nice. Other books like Absolute Truths trace the evil and even if you cannot see why God allowed the evil, you can see the good that came of the evil.
The redeemed problem of evil books are the ones that we tend to like to read. And I think we should read those books. We can trace how God works and we can see that God does work. But the first type are just as important. Even though the book of Job does give resolution to Job’s suffering, God would have still been God even if Job had died in the middle of his torments. We cannot expect to see God’s hand in every movement. So while I am for the redeemed problem of evil books, I think the unredeemed problem of evil books are more essential to grapple with.
I am nearly finished with Alan Jacobs’ Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life. Part of the discussion of the book is about how we naturally as humans seek patterns in our lives. We want to see God working. There is a tendency to follow communal patterns in our testimonies, regardless of the variances that are in our lives. But it is still an essential part of Christian faith to see God working, even if some of that understanding of the working is tentative. Jacobs is pushing back a bit against Narrative Theology that tends to focus on communal stories of God. Jacobs is not diminishing the need to see how God works communally, but is suggesting that we cannot forget the individual aspects within the communal story.
All of this is part of Children of God. There are communal and individual stories of God. There is tragedy and unmitigated, and mitigated, pain. And there is loss, loss that cannot be made up for regardless of whether God is working there or not. And we should be asking why God allows that type of pain. It is essential, not to find a pat answer, but to grapple with the reality that people around us are in pain. If our Christian faith cannot speak to and hear about actual pain, then it is not much of a faith.
One note on format. I originally picked this up on sale as an audiobook. There is some real content warnings, discussions of sex and rape, violence, war and a fair amount of bad language. Because I often have audiobooks running in the background while I work, and while my kids are nearby, I wanted to move to print. I checked the kindle version out of the library and predominately read the rest of the book, although I did listen to parts of it. The audio is fine. There is nothing wrong with it. But both because the structure of the story moves back and forth in time and because it includes a number of alien names and a lot of characters overall, I think print makes the book easier to read and follow.