Hell or High Water 

When the going gets tough, writers wrestle with God.

What with being invoked by heads of state and by beheaders, what with Darfur and the creationism debate, these days God has a lot to answer for. Not to the nonbelievers. They aren't listening anyway. They've got a booming industry afoot, God bless 'em — wait, scratch that — based on dissing the devout with best-sellers such as Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming and Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy. But to be a believer right now must feel like one long dark night of the soul. (Dude, that's a Saint John of the Cross reference.) Several new books find the faithful wrestling with ... their faith.

In her memoir The Water Will Hold You (Harmony, $22), Lindsey Crittenden walks into a Berkeley Episcopalian church wondering why her brother was shot to death and why three years later she still feels like hell.

In her memoir Infidel (Free Press, $26.95), Ayaan Hirsi Ali wonders how Allah could countenance the slaying, in his name, of her filmmaker friend Theo Van Gogh, or her own circumcision at age six.

In her similarly titled memoir Now They Call Me Infidel (Sentinel, $23.95), Nonie Darwish wonders why, in the Cairo of her youth, jihad pop songs urged "armed struggle against anyone who is not a Muslim," and why her family's maid was murdered by relatives after being raped. Darwish's recent planned speaking engagement at Brown University was cancelled because Muslim student groups protested. Hirsi Ali is the target of frequent death threats.

In her memoir Laughing in the Dark (Howard, $17.99), Christian comedian — yes, they do exist — Chonda Pierce recounts crawling into bed and staying there for six weeks, sleeping and sobbing and phoning her pastor: "So we prayed. But it didn't work ... it was as if an Out of Order sign had been thumbtacked across my heart."

In Tova Reich's novel My Holocaust (Harper Collins, $24.95), an Auschwitz tour-company operator rages at the divine comedy by which his only child has become a nun, "so that makes her a Christian, I guess, a goy, a shiksa, even worse, a Catholic" who "abandoned the Jews for the ultimate martyr religion, complete with ... a tortured skinny guy on a cross." Oh, yeah, and the Holocaust: What was up with that?

A skeptic who had "always been literal-minded, analytic to the point of tedium," Crittenden overcame prayer's "squirm factor" to brave the psalm-recitation suggested by the Berkeley priest who, like Crittenden, also mourned a sibling. Belief yielded uncanny prizes: a disembodied voice on a deserted slope soughing I love you. And "a vision of a bearded, dark-skinned man. Jesus?" Crittenden freaked out. "Was I going to turn fundamentalist?" No. But with a Lonely Planet Guide clarity, she orienteers that isthmus between the urbanite cynic she was and the churchgoer she is now.

"Who," Darwish demands, "gave my people the right to destroy the world in the name of Allah?" Her guerrilla-organizer father, killed by a bomb, was hailed as a hero — and Darwish grew up watching bitter friends and relatives sharing their husbands in polygamous marriages, warning tots that "God will curse you if you misbehave." In a world where "you can certainly take a Muslim woman to jail if she has premarital or outside-of-marriage sex ... we were never taught consideration, compassion, and empathy toward nonbelievers." Rather, she stood listening to an imam's voice proclaiming through loudspeakers, "May God destroy the infidels." After emigrating to America, which she calls "a place for becoming a human being," Darwish was chilled by a radical sermon at a Los Angeles mosque she attended with her husband and children. Now she's a Christian.

My Holocaust is one of those only-in-the-free-world artifacts: a black comedy that savages everything, in this case with Zyklon B. A moneygrubbing father and son — père a US Holocaust Memorial Museum director who lies about his partisan high jinks, fils a nebbishy tour leader — milk the shoah: "There was nothing like the Holocaust to bag a straying Jew — it was the best-seller, it was top of the line, it got the customer every time." Go on, you're supposed to laugh as they perform "fund-raising foreplay" on potential donors, wolfing sausage and pork roast bought with American tax dollars. The donors, "broiled red faces" awobble, are pigs too. In this cowardly new world, victim groups battle over whose holocaust hurts worst: nations, ethnicities, "the ferret holocaust, the mad-cow holocaust, the right-to-bear-arms holocaust, the Confederate flag holocaust, the Falun Gong holocaust ... the Gynecological and Menstrual Holocaust." It's a futuristic fantasy filtered through the New Brutalism: monstrosities lushly rendered. The flinching is reflexive as Reich indicts anyone who ever trivialized a bloodbath: all those latter-day gleaners who "have corrupted and befouled the sanctuary ... grown fat and depraved on the gifts and the offerings, despoiling the holy place." Who's laughing now?

After her preacher-father drove her family into trailer-park poverty — and her mother to electroshock therapy — Darcey Steinke decided she was done with God. As recounted in her memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury, $24.95), she and he had a rapprochement, but only after she hit bottom. After the abortion. After being left for another man by her nihilistic Irish lover: "Fucking Colin was like fucking a current of warm water ... his inattention had a holy quality." After her husband, with whom she'd collected thrift-shop Jesus paintings as a joke, pointed out her postnatal sags. Isn't that always the way? "My soul, long dormant, had woken and was starving, crying out like a famished infant," Steinke reflects. "I am not able to break with Christianity." As did Anne Lamott in another book, Steinke, who is white, found hope in an African-American church where the spirit-stricken flail as "ushers gather around ... like agitated seagulls." A new friend confides: "God is the man who brings the food!"

When the going gets tough, the faithful get ... God, but not right away, not like IM-ing him and hearing right back. That would be too easy. Certain elements recur in these books with jarring frequency, and one of them is clinical depression. Crittenden, Steinke, and Pierce all plunged into it. Crittenden and Pierce subsisted on Ensure. Steinke starved and dry-heaved. All three found redemption in medication: "A new bottle made me cocky with the thrill of access," Crittenden confides. Steinke remembers: "I paid for my drugs and stood outside the pharmacy, ripped open the prescription bag, unscrewed the childproof cap, and held the small pink pill." Pierce "folded the little white prescription notes in half and handed them to my husband. 'Here, honey,' I said. 'Better get these filled.'"

But behold: Maybe God made Zoloft, too.


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