I have been following Jennifer Fulwiler’s blog since the days when it was titled “Et Tu? Jen” (referring to the betrayal her friends from her atheist days felt when she joined the Catholic church!), and I couldn’t wait to read her memoir, released on Tuesday and titled: Something Other than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It. It showed up on my Kindle when I went to the gym at 6am that morning, and I dived right in and couldn’t stop reading. I was finished by the time I put Teddy to bed that night. So…it was great! I don’t usually read an entire book in one day! And I didn’t want to wait until next Wednesday to review it.
The title comes from C.S. Lewis:
All that we call human history…[is] the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
and provides the theme for the book, which is Jennifer’s own history of searching for something, anything, other than God to make her happy. She begins with her childhood, growing up as an only child of atheist parents. Her parents are good people and tender parents, and they teach her to rigorously question claims to truth and discount arguments based on subjective experience. They also teach her to appreciate the wonders of the natural world, with her father reading to her nightly about astronomical discoveries and digging for fossils together on the family land.
The sections about her childhood–contrasting a peaceful, loving family with no apparent need for a god or institutional church to teach them how to live with an overbearing Bible belt culture among her peers who criticize and ostracize her for not going to church–were very poignant and well written. I would have read an entire book about her childhood.
However, despite her happy home life, Jennifer always felt a certain uneasiness with the end result of her family’s atheistic worldview. If there’s no God, this world is all there is, and there’s nothing making Jennifer’s life more meaningful or lasting than that of the ancient crustacean whose fossil she and father discover together. She decides the best way to deal with the crushing meaningless of the universe is to eat, drink, and be merry, since what else is there to do?
Fast forward 15 years and she and her husband Joe are an intelligent and successful newly married couple, with a gorgeous condo and their own law firm. They have a new baby and great plans to expand their business and their social life. But still, things don’t feel right. In a bookstore one day Jennifer picks up a book about Christianity and finds she can’t stop reading. She starts reading more and more–Lewis, Augustine, the Bible, and Internet forums where Christians answer the various objections atheists have to the faith. She even starts a blog called “The Reluctant Atheist,” with hopes that these some of these folks online will respond to her own personal questions. To her great surprise, it turns out that the most intelligent voices on the Internet forums turn out to be Roman Catholics. Jesus is one thing, but the great big, bloated, corrupt Catholic Church? That’s just too much.
And then hardship strikes. Jennifer becomes pregnant again is diagnosed with a very serious blood disorder that endangers her pregnancy and is going to cost them a fortune in medical bills. I don’t want to give everything away, but basically the closer they get to coming to Christ, the more difficult their life becomes. And it turns out that the Catholic church offers the moral guidance they are looking for. The section on contraception–when she is struggling in real life with a potentially life-or-death reason to avoid pregnancy at the same time she is learning about the historical Christian teaching against contraception–was the strongest part of the book. The Fulwilers truly walked through fire on this one, and the reader does too as the story develops!
One of the things I love most about Jen’s writing (on her blog and in this book) is her ability to gently poke fun at herself while tackling serious moral and emotional issues. There are a lot of really funny parts in this book. I couldn’t help but laugh when they were admiring the cream-colored carpet in their new house, knowing how many times on her blog she has bewailed the choice of carpet color with their now six children!
Her writing is also never sentimental or pretentious. At one point, when she’s experimenting with prayer and receives some immediate and generous answers, she doesn’t skip a beat. Why would God give a suburban mom in America a new refrigerator when there are mothers in many countries who don’t even have food to eat? What about their prayer requests? In particular, she struggles with a terrible family tragedy that occurred before she was born, and this turns into another very moving strand in the story.
To find out how it all works out, you will just have to read the book! If you’re interested in purchasing it, she is offering a number of prizes on her blog–so do check it out. You’ll be glad you did!