Nothing to Be Frightened Of [Buy Now]
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 244 pages, $25
Where's Your Jesus Now?: Examining How Fear Erodes Our Faith [Buy Now]
By Karen Spears Zacharias
Zondervan, 218 pages, $19
One night, when I was 15, a strange and disturbing thought snapped me out of sleep. One day — not soon, but inevitably — I was going to die.
Death, so they taught us in Catholic school, was transcending this fallen world into the welcoming arms of God, where everything wrong was made right, where every tear was wiped away.
On the other hand, if you were among the most horrible, sinful kinds of people imaginable — an ax murderer, for example, or an unwed mother — death was a door that led straight to the Devil.
Despite years of instruction by well-meaning priests, nuns, and lay ministers, as well as my own family, on that dark night of the soul long ago, it occurred to me that as nice a story as that made, it was a bit far-fetched.
I realized that not only was death absolutely real and directly applicable to me, but that death most probably meant, well, death.
As in lights out. Game over.
It meant you no longer were.
And, when I was young, that thought bothered me terribly.
I suspect most of us have experienced similar thoughts, whether we're willing to share that with the congregation on Sunday morning or not. And therein lies one of the greatest disconnects of Western Civilization: the way we shove death (and even the aging process, really) away. But death is part of life. You cannot run from it without sacrificing something of life.
Fear of death lends itself to spiritual discussion, but in his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes of the irrationality of that fear.
The opening line — "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" — wonderfully foreshadows what follows in stories about his life and family. Barnes walks us through his struggles to make sense of losing people he loves and that one day he too will be lost.
He speaks not only of bodily death but also of the part of us that lingers on, for a while, in the memory of others, or perhaps in books or works of art.
Barnes' intelligence and good humor makes the walk worthwhile. As he aged, Barnes became an agnostic after years of being an atheist. With maturity comes understanding that one's own lens of life may be limited.
Karen Spears Zacharias addresses another side of doubt, especially the pitfalls of believing in an absolute, unquestionable truth.
In her book, Where's Your Jesus Now? Examining How Fear Erodes Our Faith, the crime reporter-turned-author tackles fear-based religiosity like a gardener hunkering down to hoe once-good earth now overrun by weeds. Zacharias is no outsider come to undermine the foundations of faith. Rather, this insider is deeply troubled by how power brokers have usurped faith and its foundations. She provides example after example, from her days as a journalist, of lives torn asunder by fear and of lives restored by faith.
Faith, she argues, should not be rooted in fear. Yet look around us — we're hip-deep in fear. And some of the most vocal proponents of faith call for more fear on a regular basis.
Zacharias clarifies the underlying causes of this fear-based doctrine: "Fundamentalists always see themselves as under siege. They need religion for the power it provides, not the hope. They gather their strength by identifying enemies — there is always an enemy, and if there isn't, they'll make one up."
In an easygoing conversational style born of her roots in the Okefenokee Swamp, she identifies one of the strangest coups in the history of Christianity: how a humble teacher and carpenter became the poster-child for those who cast the first stone with a smirk of self-righteousness.
The tendency of religious fundamentalism to make a play for worldly power, using fear as its weapon of choice, is one of the perennial bugbears of mankind. Dostoevsky laid it bare in the Grand Inquisitor digression of The Brothers Karamazov; countless historians and philosophers have dissected the abuses born of it; religious leaders of every age have inveighed against it.
Yet it persists, because it's effective. Fear is a straight shot up the limbic system. In advertising lingo, it gets results fast. As Zacharias writes, "Without an enemy, there is no fear, and without fear, there is no power."
Given the hypocrisy and abuses of power, there are those who see religion as generally flawed, the enemy of reason, but Zacharias holds on to hope.
She sees the good in Christianity — in particular, she sees the good in the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the New Testament.
As she says in the dénouement to Where's Your Jesus Now?, she believes faith can fix what's ailing our potential for goodness.
And that ailment is fear.