The American dust jacket of God is not nearly as compelling as the UK edition. Same William Blake portrait of the Almighty crouching in front of the moon, with clouds in the back and foreground, same flowing gray beard pushed to one side by some mighty wind, same lightning bolts leaping from God's split fingertips, all set against a stark black backdrop. The difference is, the U.S. edition squeezes a Karen Armstrong quote in between lightning bolts.
Not to denigrate Mohammed's favorite ex-nun biographer, but I'm guessing her blurb will cancel out the mesmeric effect that the cover used to have. This reviewer found the volume in a bookstore in British Columbia and simply could not stop ogling it. I finally bought it because I had to go home sometime.
The quote also speaks to how very differently books are marketed in the UK and the U.S. On the other side of the pond, there is a concentrated reading public for publishers to pitch to as a whole. In the U.S., the market is spread out and segmented, especially as regards religious books. A Karen Armstrong endorsement signals what kind of book this is, inviting readers of a more liberal, progressive bent and shooing most traditionalists away. But is it, in fact, that kind of a book?
Hard to say. First, it's British, and was written in and for that highly ironical non-churchgoing context. I'm as much an Anglophile as the next bloke, but sometimes I lack the right sense to tell if the author is having us on. Second, it's written by a Waugh, and they're always up to something. So when Evelyn's grandson discusses sexual ethics and Onan, well, I'm not sure how to take it when he refers to Catholic moral teaching on the subject as an abject embarrassment: typical snobby British putdown, or something else entirely?
This book is so-titled because it's about the great high God—"the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen," as the Nicene Creed would have it—who peeks through not only in Judaism and Christianity but also in Islam and a few other scattered faiths.
Waugh's intention was to paint a composite picture of this most strange and elusive character who created the world and dallied with his greatest creation—that is, man—for a while, but who then appears to have receded. Waugh fixes the high point at God's two whirlwind speeches to Job, after which the Almighty seldom put in an appearance in the Bible, opting instead to speak through his prophets and then (as Christians believe) through his son.
A problem that Waugh struggles with through the book is one of definition: how to make the ineffable effable. His grandfather and father understood that the things of God are, at some level, a mystery. But the aptly named Alexander is undaunted. He seems genuinely shocked that (a) God evades most attempts at proof or explanation (four of Aquinas' five proofs of God's existence; Anselm's ontological argument; and Kant's sixth proof are all dismissed with a snort); (b) holy books attribute to the Almighty many contradictory statements and actions; and yet (c) at least a large plurality of men have for the longest time believed in one God who is, in some ultimate way, good.
The book has many madcap digressions about everything from a note discovered in Pascal's coat after his death to Mohammed's encounter with a pushy angel who wouldn't shut up. In fact, the digressions are usually the best parts, as they allow this Waugh display his wit and learning.
When Waugh gets around to sort-of making an argument, it is that Christians are crazy for believing that the Gods of Old and New Testaments are one and the same, or, for that matter, that God is love. Waugh tries to keep his distance in the set-up exchange between Nietzsche and Christian theologians, but he gives the German madman all the best lines. The book ends with a composite speech, not so very different from Job's, in which a cocky Deity boasts of his great accomplishments and then casts scorn on pious attempts to tame him (including, one assumes, the Crucifixion).
It's a pity that Alexander's late father Auberon left the Catholic Church over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, because it appears to have rendered religion as nothing but an intellectual experience for his son. If young Waugh had bumped up against the actual traditions and rhythms of regular churchgoers, he might have learned that they don't think of God exclusively as meek or mild, safely domesticated. They look into the same swirling cloud that baffles and fascinates Waugh. The difference is, they see beyond the whirlwind to something on the other side.
Jeremy Lott is assistant managing editor of The American Spectator.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
God is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Mystery and Message | Must they compete? (May 10, 2004)
Celebrating Faith in Writing | A dispatch from Calvin College's biennial event. (April 26, 2004)
Shabbos, Sheitels, and Yarmulkes | A novel set in the world of Orthodox Judaism. (April 19, 2004)
The Naked City | The story of the 1977 blackout in New York-the occasion of widespread looting and destruction-has some surprisingly timely lessons for America in 2004. (April 19, 2004)
A Curious Contingency | Confessions of a wordsmith. (April 05, 2004)
"Trust but Verify" | Ronald Reagan's faith. (March 29, 2004)
Baseball Preview 2004 | Plus a look back with some Negro League veterans. (March 29, 2004)
How Do You Live with a Torturer? | A novel of Haiti by the brilliant young writer, Edwidge Danticat. (March 08, 2004)
God Is in the Details | A scientist affirms his faith. (Feb. 23, 2004)
History Repeats Itself, Sort of | How the fate of Eugene McCarthy's insurgency against LBJ sheds light on the 2004 presidential campaign. (Feb. 16, 2004)
The Worst President Ever? | Former Nixon aide John Dean attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Warren G. Harding. (Feb. 09, 2004)
Wholly, Wholly, Wholly | Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (Feb. 02, 2004)
The Doom of Choice | Fate, free will, and moral responsibility in Tolkien. (Feb. 02, 2004)
A Rose Among Thorns | A new novel by the author of Father Elijah illumines the spiritual consequences of our simplest decisions. (Jan. 26, 2004)
Baptized in Fire | A new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasizes his spiritual transformation. (Jan. 19, 2004)
O'Connor v. the Antichrist (Jan. 12, 2004)
Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism | A cautionary tale. (Jan. 05, 2004)
A Few Coming Attractions from 2004 | Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks. (Dec. 29, 2003)
The Top Ten Books of 2003 | Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music. (Dec. 22, 2003)
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)