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The Book Against God: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
257 pp., 24.00
Thomas the Unbeliever
James Wood has established himself as one of the most influential critics in the English-speaking world. His first book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature on Belief (1999), included an account of his upbringing in a strongly evangelical British family and his loss of faith in his teens, and skepticism toward religion in general and Christianity in particular is a recurring theme in the brilliant essay-reviews he contributes to The New Republic and elsewhere. It is no surprise, then, that his first novel contains a strident polemic against religious belief.
Indeed, at first glance, The Book Against God may offer little to recommend itself to Christian readers. It depicts no conversions and answers none of the profound and unsettling questions it poses. Yet it presents a compelling and powerful portrait of religious belief.
We are introduced to Thomas Bunting, the novel's narrator, four months after the death of his father, an exuberant Anglican priest. Thomas' wife, a talented pianist, has left him, and he has abandoned a Ph.D. program that he had begun at University College, London, eight years earlier. He has little to show for himself, besides four large notebooks of theological and anti-theological arguments and the story of his unhappy life. He considers the notebooks, a sprawling treatise he calls the "Book Against God," his life's work. But his story isn't as much an argument against God as it is a memorial of his father, Peter.
Thomas grew up in the cloistered, northern English village of Sundershall, "barely more than a single corridor of low cottages opening out onto the green release of a lawn shaded by three or four unremarkable trees." Here, in the small parish church, his father dispensed "a Christianity that was inseparable from life. The rhythms of the village, and of the seasons, were also the rhythms of my father's ministry: rising Easter, and sun-favoured summer, and census-gathering Christmas, when, as if in mimicry of the story of Caesar Augustus, ...