ISBN 9780664232047 (0664232043)
Westminster John Knox Press, 2008
This short book is a useful introduction to exploring the issues of pain and suffering and our questions about where God is in the midst of them. The sub-title “A theology of grief” is somewhat misleading as it suggests the loss of a loved one, whereas Garrett’s scope is much broader, tackling suffering, tragedy and loss generally.
It is written in an engaging and readable style, weaving together experience from the author’s year working as full time chaplain in a hospital in the US and reflection on the stories which emerged. I got the sense of the author approaching suffering (his own and that of the people with whom he was working) in a very human, sensitive and at times humorous way.
Narrative is very much central to the book. It is an account of the author hearing other peoples’ stories of grief and suffering. Woven in with this is an exploration of some of our culturally accepted myths about God and how this affects our understanding of those painful situations. Garrett suggests that these stories often collapse when faced with trauma because they are not able to encompass what is happening to us.
One of the master narratives which he seeks to challenge is what he sees as an underlying belief in American culture that if people of faith act in the correct way then God has an obligation to act to protect them from grief and suffering. If we are faced with suffering then this story inevitably shapes how we approach the question of “why?” and begins to break down. He argues that by examining the stories we’ve taken in unquestioned through cultural immersion we can begin to see where they fall short and evolve our own stories and understanding.
Our lives are shaped by loss from the moment we leave the warmth and security of the womb; it is inevitable. What is important is how we deal with those losses: we need a resilient story that incorporates this continuing change. Garrett offers no simplistic “one size fits all” answers but draws on stories of grief from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels to shape a story which may be able to contain the pain of grief and suffering. He draws from the Psalms the Jewish tradition that grief is a normative experience worth staying with, that it is right to question and argue with God in such difficult times, and that life does not always make sense in ways which we can understand rationally. He therefore challenges our cultural assumption that suffering should be relieved or evaded rather than confronted and accepted, and the scientific / medical narrative which allows little space for any notion that growth and wholeness might come through illness or injury.
Garrett moves away from the hope of a God who is able to or wishes to intervene miraculously to prevent suffering and explores a theology of weakness; a belief that if we yield to the events of life God can transform even the painful times into something sacred. It is no naive optimism in a God who miraculously intervenes but a real and enduring hope in a God who walks alongside us through the difficult times; a God who knows and loves us but who is not controlled by our wishes and pious behaviour.
I would have liked to know more about how the people in these vignettes engaged with re-writing their stories though I imagine this would be beyond the scope of this book.
If you are concerned to explore the questions about God related to grief and suffering either for yourself or to help others, and are not happy to settle for simplistic answers then this book is an excellent starting point.
Áine Ryan, May 2009
Áine Ryan is a counsellor/psychotherapist in the NHS, and studied theology with Exeter University.