Warning: this isn’t really a standard book review. It’s just me, having finished reading this book, sharing how it felt.
And there will be spoilers in abundance.
Now that these caveats are out of the way, here goes:
The book is called Keeping Faith, which is an interesting play on words as the main strand of the plot is about a divorced mother trying to keep custody of her daughter, whose name is Faith; but faith is also a subject that features strongly in the story.
I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading this book. On the front cover it said: “You don’t believe in God. But your daughter is talking to angels. What would you do?” As someone who does believe in God, I was expecting the book to be an attack on my beliefs. I was expecting the tone to be: oh dear, our daughter has gone crazy, we have to cure her from this.
Jodi Picoult surprised me by not going that route. She did include that kind of attitude – but only amongst a whole load of different attitudes exhibited by different characters in the story. We were shown reactions from all sorts of different people with different backgrounds, different religious affiliations (or none) – including some kneejerk reactions but also some people who paused to think deeply about what was going on, who even dared to reconsider their views.
I found the very end of the book a bit baffling, and don’t feel sure what the author was actually trying to convey. And some of the story bugged me because of details which don’t go with my own understanding of what God is like – but it is only a work of fiction, and the details weren’t the main thing. The main thing on the faith front was: when confronted with stuff that’s actually happening in front of your very eyes and which you can’t explain in any other way, even a staunch atheist may begin to wonder and consider that maybe, just maybe, there is a spiritual dimension to life.
What was the stuff that was going on in front of people’s eyes? A little girl who had had no religious upbringing at all, not exposed to Bible stories or anything like that, was not only reporting that she’s having conversations with God but she was suddenly quoting Bible verses out of the blue. She told her mother something that her mother had never shared with anyone in the whole world, so how could she know about it? And then the miraculous healings started – an AIDS patient being totally cured after just touching her; her grandmother dying and coming back to life; etc etc etc. (And the grandmother incident happened in a hospital, with medical staff around to witness it.) And the stigmata, which the doctors investigated and couldn’t find any explanation for other than the religious interpretation. (It was kind of interesting how there were two different guys trying to disprove the whole thing, for totally different reasons: one was the atheist journalist who was on a mission to prove there’s no such thing; the other was a Catholic whose job it is to check out these sort of claims and who was sure it couldn’t be true because the girl was saying stuff about God that didn’t go with Catholic doctrine.) (And there’s me reading it and feeling sometimes uneasy about what the little girl is saying because it doesn’t go with what I believe, but at the same time feeling uneasy about some of the Catholic stuff coming out there.)
The atheist guy (I said there’d be spoilers) ends up not as a believer but as, I guess, an agnostic, no longer fighting against religion but not embracing it either. He has seen that there is stuff that can’t be explained away – but he hasn’t found the truth about God for himself, which I suppose is the best I could expect in a non-Christian novel, and, in a way, it says something about the limitation of miracles in terms of their impact on people who see them happen: it makes me think of that saying about how miracles are not necessary for a believer and not sufficient for an unbeliever. Realising that there’s stuff you can’t explain away – that’s just one clue that there’s more to life, a clue to the existence of some power you can’t scientifically explain, but it’s not enough to cause someone to…
I’m struggling with how to complete that sentence. Because if I say “to believe in God”, some would read that as “believing that God exists” – that’s how a lot of people use that terminology. Just like you might believe in Santa Claus, or in green-eyed aliens making crop circles – it’s “believing in X” in the sense of “believing that X really exists”. Whereas when I talk about faith, I’m thinking about something much bigger than that: I’m thinking about believing that God is good and loving and trustworthy, believing what the Bible tells us about God’s character, believing that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is all we need for our salvation, believing that Jesus is the only way to the Father – that’s faith on a much deeper level than the “maybe there is someone out there” kind of thing that a lot of people mean when they say they believe in God.
And sadly, it’s that “maybe there is someone out there” kind of faith that I see in this novel. Which isn’t really faith, it’s just a not totally anti-faith kind of agnosticism.