The Book Against God by James Wood

by Sarah Tan

4 May 2004


A Critic's Acclaim

Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things, Though great ones are the object .
— Shakespeare, Othello

It is a rather tricky endeavour for a literary critic to cross the threshold into the author’s domain and become the victim of his own devices. Following a collection of essays, The Broken Estate, James Wood enters into the world of fiction and produces an enjoyable read for thinking men and women everywhere. For all those writers who got rather stinky reviews from James Wood, I’m sorry to say that you should stop holding your breath and hoping for the worst, because Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, is finely crafted.

cover art

The Book Against God

James Wood

(Farrar Straus & Giroux)

Born in 1965 in Durham, England to evangelical Christians, Wood draws on his experiences with faith, and the eventual loss of it, to concoct a story that flows within the context of anti-theological sentiment and general pathetic behaviour.

Thomas Bunting has a problem with faith. He occupies himself by reading anti-theological philosophers and copying anti-religious quotations into his notebooks. He makes passionate claims and finds minute reasons to prove that God doesn’t exist. He sees God as one who inflicts pain and wants to watch you beg for mercy. To Thomas Bunting, God is not “a creator worthy of worship, love or comprehension”. To Thomas Bunting, God “is a Satan”.

However, Thomas talks about God all the time. One could even say that he is pre-occupied with God. He fashions plans to prove God wrong as if God were an existing enemy. Thomas claims to be an atheist, but God exists for him, yet he is too distracted to see it. Sadly, this is the theme of Thomas Bunting’s life. He is too distracted, always fighting off ghosts from his childhood who he imagines still haunt him, until the things that matter decay with neglect.

The ghosts in Thomas Bunting’s life come from a moment where the Eden of his childhood, created by the religious beliefs of his parents, had no place in a world of cynicism and failure. It was the end of disillusionment, as Thomas saw it. A moment of liberty to be free from the shackles of his parents. Unfortunately, the opportunity to be himself is doused with the fear of rejection from the man he loves the most, his father. In adolescence, resentment starts to build over this until a full-fledged rebellion is constructed. It is the Book Against God that Thomas is writing that will guarantee that final release.

In The Book Against God, James Wood chronicles Thomas Bunting’s reflection, on what is, the worst period in his life. Instigated by the death of his father, Thomas reviews the events of the past couple of months to try and understand what has brought him to this point in time. An academic with a floundering career, Thomas has an uncompleted Ph.D. (still unfinished after seven years) and is now working in telesales to pay off his accumulating debts. To top it all off, his wife has separated from him because of his inability to tell the truth.

“I felt imprisoned by my father in those days. Ah, he was so sure that I would ‘see the light’. But not if I put huge drapes up against the windows! That was where the lying began, you see. My instinct was to hide myself, to hide my thoughts about God. A lie was necessary to protect the truth, that was obvious, as clothes hid the truth of the body.”

This is a familiar experience for many people who hold their parents’ approval in high esteem, and yet who feel that what they are drawn to is unacceptable. In this, Wood alludes to parallels between the relationship of Thomas and his father, and that of humans and God, as father. Fear of consequence leads Thomas to tell lies as attempts to conceal and to deny his real nature. We keep ourselves separate from the deity so we will feel free to live with the absence of guilt and punishment.

In reality, Thomas Bunting has no reason to lie. The consequence of telling the truth and revealing himself, in his case, does not mean excommunication or being disowned. However, if Thomas were to believe in acceptance and forgiveness though “sinful”, he could not completely disregard the Christianity of his parents, and therefore, will have to relinquish his freedom (which has actually become his prison).

James Wood has written thorough and understandable arguments for both religious and anti-religious sides in this debut novel. He strikes a cord with such poignant thoughts and explanations that delve deep into the human consciousness and exposes life’s beauty and uncertainty. They are questions that we all ask sometime in our lives.

“And why has He [God] made us so very flawed, and then just disappeared? The most charitable image of this particular God I can produce is that of a father who breaks his son’s leg just so he can watch his son learn how to appeal to his dad for help in mending it.”

“God so loved—loved – the world that he sent His only son to die on the Cross. Jesus suffered on the Cross, and suffers with us, and so God suffers with us every day, every minute. Our suffering is our love, our brotherhood.”

Contrary to its title, The Book Against God is not a work about atheism and anti-religious sentiment, like its title suggests. Rather, it chronicles human preoccupation with things of insignificance, and the plight of a relationship between a father and his son. As humans, we so easily focus on the negatives and fail to acknowledge the positives that it takes misfortune to shake us out of our blindness. Reading The Book Against God, one can be filled with doubt and hope in human existence. Doubt, because in reality, there are so few fantastical changes and metamorphoses. Hope because even though it is unfortunate, this human condition, we are not irredeemable.

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