The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation

It’s partly a theology book. Partly a personal meditation. Partly a Jeremiad. Partly prophetic.

That’s a lot of categories for a book just 95 pages long. Crisply written, provocatively presented, and compellingly argued, The Comforting Whirlwind by Bill McKibben offers an analogy between Job facing down the religious orthodoxy of his day, and modern-day western culture’s need to confront a similarly bankrupt orthodoxy.

For Job, the status quo is that “God is just, and therefore Job suffers because he is guilty.” The only problem with this simple calculus is that Job isn’t guilty. Yet “this pious orthodoxy is the baseline for the entire story,” writes McKibben. “It is the seemingly sturdy and immense castle that Job and God will totally demolish with the explosive force of their encounter at the end of the book.”

So what’s the orthodoxy McKibben is concerned about in the present-day? An orientation based on two assumptions: more is better, and growth is good. In the same way the formula of Job’s friends is inadequate to explain the facts of his situation, these modern tenets are called into question by the facts of our growing impact on nature. Structured simply in three chapters, The Comforting Whirlwind explicates both orthodoxies, then discusses their human-centeredness, then details the ways in which our impact on the planet might put us in a position to make different answers to some of God’s questions to Job — to our detriment.

Though Christianity has been accused by some (notably Lynn White) of encouraging environmental exploitation, McKibben emphasizes the biblical theme of God’s pleasure and love for all of his creation. (This reminded me of another more pointed discussion, Wendell Berry’s”Christianity and the Survival of the Creation.” It’s one of the essays in this book.) A main thrust of God’s response to Job is that the earth was not made for man. Most of the natural wonders he calls to Job’s attention have nothing to do with human life. Rather than answering Job’s questions, he calls him into a larger view of the world, one in which creation doesn’t exist for man’s pleasure or use, but for its own, and its creator’s, delight. This is a far cry from the anthropocentrism and conquesting attitude the Bible has been accused of having.

At its heart, though, this book is neither a theology book nor a defense of Christianity. It’s a celebration of the vision of the earth God puts forth from the whirlwind when he speaks to Job. McKibben suggests that this new paradigm is not just for Job and his friends, but for us. Central to God’s view, he writes, are two callings: a call to humility, and a call to delight. The book spells out ways we can fulfill both of these callings.

One of my favorite parts was McKibben’s description of an experiment he conducted for his book The Age of Missing Information. He recorded 100 channels-worth of television for 24 hours, then spent a year watching it. His questions and conclusions about American culture are fascinating, and helped me to think more carefully about my own life. Do our technological advances make us more, or less, happy? At what cost do these things come? Have our so-called advances made any truly significant improvements in quality of life over the last 30 years?

I also liked the book’s ongoing emphasis on the importance of wildness, of having aspects of the world that are not humanly controlled. One of the most important ways we’re made in the image of God, he contends, is that we have the power of restraint. Though at times I wasn’t ready to plunge quite as far as McKibben in his speculations about the future, his urgency about our increasing ability to alter our environment, and about what we lose if we replace all aspects of wildness and mystery with humanly-engineered “nature,” certainly resonated with me.

I’ve read McKibben’s The End of Nature, and this book shares its strengths. Reading it recalled to mind other fine nature writers as well, some of whom he mentions: John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry. His factual support is varied and interesting, his analysis is incisive, and his exact and loving description of nature makes me homesick for the hill behind the house I grew up in. This book raises awareness and introduces some ongoing questions sure to be beneficial to any of us who care about our own, or our children’s, quality of life in a consumer age.

I’ll conclude with McKibben’s own words. He’s usually identified as an environmentalist. But like other nature writers I admire, McKibben argues not for “environmentalism,” which implies an artificial separation between human life and the world we live in, but for at-one-ness with

something much larger. A planet, filled with the vast order of creation. It is a buzzing, weird, stoic, abundant, reckless, haunting, painful, perfect planet. All of it matters, all of it is glorious. And all of it can speak to us in the deepest and most satisfying ways, if only we will let it.

Journalling Job III: Big Picture

When all is said and done, this is a baffling book to me. For years I’ve settled for bits and pieces of what others have said about it, and though I’ve read it several times myself, I’ve never truly faced my bafflement. Now I’m acknowledging it.

It’s a tremendously rich book, one with many doors into it. I’ve thought of it often this year in relation to the slander my husband has had to endure, and the way his integrity isn’t being vindicated while the nitwits and liars seem to be getting what they want. Last night at a Bible study, Job came to my mind when the discussion turned to the question of how believers should go about confronting each other. Then, a few minutes later, someone else brought up Job in connection with patience. Someone else spoke of him as steadfast. Someone else spoke of the book’s forecasting of Jesus. Someone else said they weren’t quite sure what to do with God’s tone in responding at the end. All of this took place in a discussion that wasn’t even focused on the book of Job.

I’ve always thought of it as the quintessential validation of questioning God, and the most honest acknowledgment in Scripture of the way God’s justice fails to be borne out the way we may expect or want it to. Good people suffer; bad people make out like bandits. After thoroughly discrediting our idea that if we follow a sort of Ben Franklin style of righteousness — “hard work + virtue = success” — God will bless us with an easy life, the book concludes with a happy ending in which “Job the righteous” is restored to being “healthy, wealthy and wise” (to stick with the Ben Franklin chipperness).


Job’s main question throughout is, “Why am I suffering?” As a reader, I’ve been given the answer to this at the outset: God is testing Job, at Satan’s suggestion. What I wonder is, why is he restored? It looks like both the suffering and the restoration are arbitrary events with no connection to anything Job does or doesn’t do. If God doesn’t want to be seen as a cosmic gumball machine, then we can’t read the ending as Job’s reward any more than we can read the suffering as Job’s punishment. I don’t feel comforted by this.

What I don’t understand:

Why does God say to Job’s 3 friends, “I am angry with you because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”? In what way has Job’s characterization of God been more “right” than his friends’? Though he’s often described as steadfast, what I see is a man who’s all over the map in his response to his condition. Sometimes he’s noble: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Sometimes he’s hopeful: “When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” But in other places, he’s simply wallowing in self-pity. He’s often quite loud in proclaiming his righteousness and purity. And he sees God at some points as the most malevolent of enemies. It makes “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” look like child’s play. I wanted to reread some parts, so I listened to the audiobook of chapter 16 while I was running on the treadmill yesterday. My daughter came into the room and asked in awe, “Who is he talking about?” I’m not sure what part of this God is commending in chapter 42, unless it’s simply Job’s refusal to reduce God to the humanly conceived terms of justice.

What I do see:

Job maturing. At the start, I mentally lumped him together with the narrator of one of my all-time favorite stories, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who describes himself as “an eminently safe man.” Thanks to the combination of horrible things happening to him, and friends who infuriate him into pressing far more deeply and clearly into the real nature of his complaint than he would otherwise have done, he exhibits a tenaciousness and honesty that enable him to hang in there until he has a face-to-face encounter with God. This is anything but “safe”; after all, “he’s not a tame lion.”

Argument as a good thing. I hate arguing; I hate the frustration of “If I could just say this again more clearly I KNOW you’d agree,” the anger of it not working, the tendency of argument to go off track and become personal. All of those things happen in this story. But because of this, Job is forced to articulate his complaint better than he ever would have been able to do in isolation. Presumably the discussion at the human level moves Job to the place where God can respond. This is what iron sharpening iron looks like, and God sees to it that the mess is cleaned up afterwards; he tells Job to pray for his friends, and tells them to make a sacrifice.

Nature as an invitation to delight. Several times, the beauty and awesomeness of nature are referenced in the four-way argument between Job and his friends, but God places it before them again when he finally speaks. His description of nature as evidence of his own power, and his obvious pride and delight in it, is the only answer he gives; he never addresses the questions about justice. But his description of creation attacks the foundation of Job’s complaint: a man-centric view of the universe. (I would have noticed this, but I’m indebted to Bill McKibben for helping me to understand its importance. I’m about halfway through The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation and will review it soon. I wanted to get through Job myself before doing any reading on it, but there was this book on my shelf, where it’s been for years, unread, and I couldn’t help myself: I picked it up and read in it last night.)

A caustic response. Job wanted to hear from God, and hear he did. Wow. The relentless sarcasm never lets up. When I got to Chapter 42, where God refers to Job as one who has spoken rightly about him, I found it confusing. The fact of God’s response indicates a level of love and respect for Job, and a divine approval of his persistence and his — audacity? — in questioning God. But the actual words make me shiver. It’s kind of like Job stuck a stick into a dark corner to flush out a woodchuck, and a roaring lion came charging out.

So now I’m back to my uncertainty. Does God like to be questioned? Or not? Was it Job’s questions that God approved of — or his repentence, and withdrawal of his questions?

Knowing when to stop. Though I’ve thought of this book as an endorsement of questioning, Job appears to be as much about knowing when to stop asking questions, and how to respond to God’s answers. One of the interesting things about Job is that though few of us endure the level of loss that he does, we share his tendency to question. Even I, sitting comfortably in my house with a healthy family and food on the table, have asked similar questions. Is this part of my sinful nature? Frankly, I’m ashamed that from such a comfortable position, I would wonder about God’s justice, or feel resentful about the way he’s doing things, or feel I deserve better. Once when I was wrestling with whether God was good and trustworthy, a wise mentor told me, “Your questions are good, and God isn’t threatened by them. He welcomes them, because they bring you closer to him. But every time you start down this road, I wonder whether you’re going to come back.” The questions Job raised, which God didn’t dignify with an answer, may be located less in the external world than in our shared humanity. The effectiveness of God’s response to Job was to raise his eyes to the external world, in fact.

Obviously I need to study the book further… But the best part of my reading of it this time is that I’ve finally begun to wrestle with it myself, rather than go belly-up and accept others’ interpretations. Now that I have an authentic reading under my belt, it’s time to seek out what others have to say.

Journalling Job II: Emerging Themes

Here’s my Job journal through Chapter 20.

The inadequacy — or adequacy? — of speech: Over and over again, Job’s friends chastise him for his words. Some examples:

  • “How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” (Bildad, 8:2)
  • “Are all these words to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated?” (Zophar, 11:2)
  • “Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, not mine.” (Eliphaz, 15: 5, 6)

Job gives it right back, complaining bitterly that they are mere speech-makers:

  • “If only you would be silent! For you, that would be wisdom.” (13: 5)
  • “Will your long-winded speeches never end?” (16: 3)
  • “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (19:2)

It becomes the predictable opener for each person’s speech, and it’s so bitter I can almost imagine a few punches thrown. The frustration rises as the words increase. No one’s soliloquy is satisfying; no one’s “angle” on the problem seems to be bringing either comfort or understanding. As single speech-makers, they’re spinning their wheels.

However, the conversation as a whole is accomplishing plenty. We’ve moved from the silent agony of the opening chapters to a debate that probes ever more deeply into the real questions at stake. The book seems to be making a point about the need for dialogue. (Among the points of discussion, by the way, is the wisdom of the ancients. Several times Job’s friends tell him to read what the old books say. Reading is another form of dialogue.) God lets this discussion among the clueless go on for quite some time, and though it’s not arriving at an ultimate resting place, it’s getting somewhere.

Cut his friends some slack. Their wisdom isn’t perfect, but neither is Job’s. Theirs is no better or worse than the book of Proverbs, actually. We can’t have it both ways, extolling Proverbs and despising these verbose comforters. Their words don’t give final answers, but they do what they’re supposed to: keep Job engaged in his own search.

“I am not inferior to you.” What’s emerging to me is not the story of Job as a static good guy, but of Job’s coming of age. The temptation is to see him as an innocent victim, and to ignore the book’s opening emphasis on “testing.” But as Job endures his trials, he is changing and growing. At the beginning of the book, he is someone who’s nice, prosperous, well-liked, and who does the little extras, just in case — making sacrifices for his children, for instance, just in case they’ve sinned. He’s eminently observant and lives safely. But as the story proceeds, he moves to the margins and edges of his faith. He wants an audience with the Almighty, and will settle for nothing less. “My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it,” Job complains to his friends. “What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I desire to speak to the Almighty, and to argue my case with God” (13:1-3). Several times he expresses doubt that God will answer (9:16, for instance), but ultimately he gets his wish. (How different my experience of the book would be if I didn’t know what was coming.)

Justice vs. mercy. I’ve keyed into this theme in my own life this year, as my husband has been under Job-like attack at work. I want to pray for justice, but something always stops me. Do we really want God to give us justice? Are any of us blameless enough? We need mercy, and we need God to credit our good intentions where we’ve sinned unknowingly. Amen to Job when he says, “How then can I dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy” (9:15).

Journalling Job

I haven’t written anything about my Bible-reading for a long time, for two reasons: one, my posts didn’t say much of anything worth saying; two, my reading has been extremely dry and dutiful. But now that I’m up to Job, I want to try writing a bit to see if it revives the dialogue between me and Scripture/me and God. This book has a different character than the history books. It’s not a journalistic reporting of facts and events, but an exploration of one man’s experience of baffling suffering. I don’t want to blow past it without engaging; it’s too closely related to the struggles I have lately with understanding pain and suffering, with doubt, with God’s mysterious permissiveness and silence, and even with the unmanageable things in my own life.

I’m only through chapter 7, so here are a few initial reactions.

I’ve read Job before, more than once. The standard line is that Job is good, his friends are bad, God is marvelous and powerful. In fact, I remember my Old Testament professor in college presenting his view that Job’s friends were legalistic, brittle, shallow counselors as if it were the renegade interpretation. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different, including in the notes of my current Bible. As I’m reading this time, though, I don’t see what’s so bad about them. Or — brace yourself — with Satan’s question. Satan asks the obvious question we all ask when we look at others’ lives from the outside in: why do they have it so easy? It’s a question that’s naive, but not illegitimate. Usually when we get to know others, we see that they don’t have it as easy as we thought. But my point is, what makes Satan the bad guy is that he wants to strike Job, and the universally agreed-upon question of Job is, why does God allow it? If this is going to be an honest reading journal, I have to say that my greatest indignation as I read isn’t over Satan’s badness, but over God’s permission of it. In the story, Job’s testing is even presented as Satan’s idea that God goes along with, rather than simply a means of accomplishing a purpose God already had in mind.

Job’s friends seem like friends to me, not pompous windbags. When they first hear of Job’s suffering, they come to him and are shocked by how bad he looks. They simply sit with him in silence: “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (2:13). They don’t speak until Job does, and then Eliphaz responds. Isn’t this what friends do? When I’m struggling with doubts and questions, and I express them to a close friend, I welcome the corrective supplement their perspective gives. Eliphaz makes sure Job is ready, too; he asks, “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?” (4:2)

As for the content of Eliphaz’s speech, well, it’s a little naive at times. But this is because he’s trying to comfort someone who’s been an idol of sorts. “Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands,” he urges Job. “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” I find this psychologically truthful. When our idols suffer, and respond with questions, it shakes our world. I see Eliphaz as begging Job to stay perfect, and to put his confidence in his own righteousness in the same way Eliphaz has admired Job’s righteousness. Not good advice. But also not advice that comes from a brittle heart. Eliphaz is just trying to encourage someone he sees as higher than himself, and I admire him for trying.

Further, though his idealistic view of Job puts pressure on Job, his words, at least in spots, sound a lot like God’s own response at the end of the book. (I may change my mind when I get that far, but I’m going by my memory of God’s response at this point.) Eliphaz says, “I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted” (5:8, 9). Then, “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal” (5: 17, 18). Granted, Job’s sufferings have not been presented in the story’s opening pages as God’s “discipline.” But Job’s response after God finally answers him later in the book is repentence. If I remember correctly he says “I retract; I repent in dust and ashes.” It seems some kind of discipline is certainly accomplished, as well as the healing Eliphaz predicts; Job’s wealth is ultimately restored.

Last observation: usually when I’ve heard “What is man that you make so much of him?” (7: 17) quoted, it’s been as a statement of wonder and gratitude for God’s attention to human life. But that’s not at all how Job means it here. He means something more like, “Will you just go bother someone else for awhile? Why are you wasting so much energy on me?” It makes me wonder if there’s a layer of this discomfort with being scrutinized in Psalm 139 too, where David asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?”

So much for my initial reactions. Maybe I’ll write more as I work through the book.

Another Herd of Horse Books

Curious about what kinds of comparisons might emerge among the many horse books I’ve read to my 7-year-old daughter, I’ve started keeping track. I want to do one more post about them, then wait till a few more accumulate before doing another. One qualification: we also read books on other topics! These are ones that relate to a particular interest of hers, but she has other interests too, as does my 4-year-old daughter.

Cover ImageKathy Wilmore’s Horses! has been a great resource for my older daughter to learn about different breeds of horses. It’s loaded with beautiful photos, and it’s been perfect for her to read in the evening during her designated “read in bed time.” It’s a factual book, not a storybook, great for young sponges who want to absorb as much as they can about horses. She gave a presentation on her horse collection for a hobby exhibition with her Brownie troop, and I was caught by surprise at how many breeds and their distinctives she was able to name. I’m sure this book is a big reason why.

This book is a source of information about the different types of horses and their respective roles and talents. Each chapter is narrated by a different girl who tells the reader about her horse and the work they do together. The table of contents is here. It contains a collection of tear-out trading cards in the back, and my daughter has learned a ton about the different breeds this way.

I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes is another favorite informational book. It’s a slim paperback with lots of illustrations, organized according to questions. It accompanies us many places because it’s easy to carry and useful for young information hounds.

Flip, and Flip and the Cows, are paperbacks that survived my own childhood. Flip is a young colt learning about life as a horse, and he was my first acquaintance with Wesley Dennis as an illustrator. Later I would discover his illustrations in many Marguerite Henry books. The stories are simple and good for young children. My 7-year-old has outgrown the stories, but not the illustrations.

Sometimes I Dream Horses, written by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson and illustrated with beautiful pencil drawings by Eleanor Schick, is about a young girl who dreams of horses on her grandmother’s farm in the Southwest. We found it at the library. It’s a nice story about horse-lovers in two generations.

Winter Pony is Jean Slaughter Doty’s sequel to one of my childhood favorites, Summer Pony. This story follows Ginny through a winter with her pony Mokey, who learns how to pull a sleigh and then is discovered to be in foal. There’s more of Pam and Ginny’s developing friendship as well as lots of description of this exciting new chapter of life for Mokey. The story culminates in the foal’s birth, with Ginny supervising. It’s very readable and enjoyable, and we finished it in under a week.

This one was given to us by my friend JW. It’s about a Native American girl who prefers horses to human companions, and eventually gets her wish to live with them, with the blessing of her family. The illustrations are lovely, simple and stylized. Our other book about a Native American child who longs for a horse is Indian Two-Feet and His Horse, a book saved since my own childhood. It’s written by Margaret Friskey and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and tells the tale of a boy who longs for a horse, finds a wounded one, and builds a lasting friendship by caring for it. Both these tales offer an alternative to the conquering notion of ownership, and present instead a vision of friendship with the natural world.

One other book we found at the library is about a Native American boy with a love for a horse: Black Kettle: King of the Wild Horses by Justin Denzel. Though the initial picture of Native Americans isn’t flattering — Little Bear, a 9-year-old, is part of a raid on settlers, and he steals the black colt — the relationship between Native Americans and settlers quickly fades into the background. However the theme of the Native American valuing wildness and freedom more than the white man remains at the forefront of the story; Little Bear frees the colt, who becomes famous as “king of the wild horses” and is targeted for capture more than once by a shopkeeper named Lockard. I have to believe this is a main source of the story in Disney’s movie Spirit. It’s interesting that none of these three stories identify their main characters as belonging to a particular tribe.

Now for some more oldies: Little Black, A Pony by Walter Farley is about a boy whose small black pony is relegated to semi-retirement when the boy learns to ride a larger horse, only to rise to heroism when the boy falls through the ice later in the story, and Little Black pulls him out. This one is good for an early reader. There’s some tension, but also a subtheme about importance and friendship not being determined by visible things. Both the boy and the pony learn this; the boy learns that riding a big horse doesn’t make him independent or all-powerful after all, and the pony learns that there are some things his small size enables him and him alone to do.

Last but not least, there have been a number of C.W. Anderson books that offer adventure and mild tension, equestrian knowledge, and great drawings. It’s been nice to follow Billy and his pony Blaze through a series of picture books. Stories like The Rumble Seat Pony, A Pony for Three, and The Lonesome Colt round out the collection, building on the winning theme of children and their horses. My daughter knows which shelf these are on at the library, so we’ve brought them home more than once — well-worn pieces of history that have been loved by many before us.

Horsebook Riding: Weekly Roundup

A Pony for the WinterHelen Kay’s A Pony for the Winter tells the tale of a pony who gives rides at an amusement park boarded to a young girl for the winter. Deborah, who’s 8 years old, learns the ropes of pony care and wrestles with the moral choice of whether to hide the pony from its owner when he returns in the spring. It’s not a picture book; text outweighs pictures. But there are still plenty of illustrations, and though the reading level is perhaps 3rd grade, younger children can read it with no problems.

Cowardly Clyde has been a real favorite this week. Clyde, a “cowardly” horse belonging to a bravado-filled knight, ends up saving the day (and the knight) from a rampaging ogre. When I came back from my morning walk yesterday, both girls were lying on their stomachs in my 7-year-old’s bed, reading and discussing, admiring Clyde, pointing out their favorite features of the pictures, dreaming what they would do in such a situation: “I’d bite him in the tail, then run around and around till he got dizzy and fell down!” was the best solution I heard.

The Mare on the Hill is a beautifully illustrated book about a white mare who fears people (kind of like Ginger in Black Beauty) who eventually comes to trust the young boys who long to befriend her. The text and paintings are by Thomas Locker, an acclaimed Hudson River painter. Gorgeous book.

Leah’s Pony is about a young girl living in the Dust Bowl during the great Depression. Her family’s farm is about to be auctioned off “the year the corn grew no higher than a man’s thumb,” and Leah makes a decision to sell her pony so she can bid on her father’s truck. (I’m tearing up just writing about it, actually.) It’s a wonderful story that inspires young children with a vision of the power their choices can have. (Good site here.)

Last but not least, Robert the Rose Horse… I’m very tired of this book, but my girls never seem to weary of it. We’ve checked it out of the library several times now. My older daughter read it through earlier in the year, and it was one of the first books she was curious enough about to push through as an early reader. It’s about a horse with an allergy to roses whose itchy nose ends up saving the day during a bank robbery. He’s a lovable equine, albeit one who walks around on his hind legs at will….

God in the Dark: Probing Doubt

When I was in 8th grade, I found myself assailed by questions about the faith I’d been raised in. How would I prove God’s existence to my friends? What does all the church-speak mean? How could I know this was real? At the time, my Sunday school teacher heard my questioning and took it to heart, organizing the class around it. She had us all write down our questions, and she dealt with one each week.

I’m not sure how fully mine were answered. Sometimes living and gaining experience is required before things make sense. But the affirming respect and responsiveness she dared to offer us on her maiden voyage as a Sunday school teacher meant — and still means — a great deal to me. Os Guinness’s God in the Dark has been a fitting sequel to that first experience. Whereas the 8th grade class laid a foundation of viable Christian love and relationship, this book is a rigorous intellectual voyage that tackles exhaustively the nature of doubt in all its dimensions and varieties. It was a good read for me now, almost thirty years later, with a fuller range of experience under my belt and therefore different kinds of questions.

My only other experience reading Guinness was Fit Bodies Fat Minds, a much more witty and fast-paced book dealing with anti-intellectualism in the church. This book is written more reflectively and sensitively. A glance through the other reviews posted at Amazon shows that it’s unanimous: this book is a profound, unflinching tour through a difficult subject. It’s structured in three parts: first, an overview; second, a survey of seven “families” of doubt; and last, a look at two specific doubts, “Why, Lord?” and “How long, Lord?”

It’s an excellent book, though I had my usual struggles grappling with nonfiction. The unrelenting focus on its subject is a strength of the argument, but plowing through the many kinds of doubt was slow going at times. I also had to guard against the “That’s me!” syndrome of thinking I suffer from every single variety of spiritual doubt in the book.

However, I value it in two ways. First, it legitimizes — almost blesses — doubt as a stamp of authenticity on faith. “The world of Christian faith is not a fairy-tale, make-believe world, question-free and problem-proof,” writes Guinness, “but a world where doubt is never far from faith’s shoulder.” I’ve gotten whiffs of a spiritual gestapo mentality from some quarters where doubt is viewed as unbelief or sin, so I found this refreshing air to breathe. I also value this book for its incisive, constructive discussion. It’s not a book that wallows; solutions are proposed, and they’re complex, not simplistic.

On the whole the varieties of doubt that I could relate to best were the doubt of disuse and the doubt of injury (not Guinness’s names for them, but my shorthand). By the doubt of disuse, I mean the uncertainty that comes of not activating faith through choice, but waiting in the wings, safely outside the fray. My life at present is pretty insulated, and faith can take on an air of unreality except as a verbal thing. The doubt of injury has to do with the kind of deep-seated mistrust that comes of old wounds, the pain of which is attributed to God rather than the real offender. I know this is an area I need to give more thought to. I have a great suspicion of authority, and the cultural atmosphere makes me right at home in that. But some authorities are trustworthy, and need to be trusted, not hidden from, if faith is to escape being stunted. I’ll probably refer to this book along the way, because it sharpens focus and gives a language for thinking through a potentially paralyzing subject.

Summer Pony

Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty is the latest in my read-aloud syllabus for my horse-loving 7-year-old. It’s a story about Ginny, a middle-school aged girl whose family rents a pony for the summer. Though she has dreams of a sleek and beautiful pony, the one she ends up with is an underfed, shaggy, unimpressive pinto with unmatching eyes, rented from a pony farm that badly neglects its animals.

The story has lots of great ingredients: rescue and restoration of an animal in poor condition, a heroine who’s learning the ropes of pony care along with the reader, and the overcoming of first impressions to form a friendship (as Ginny does with her neighbor). Best of all for the young horse fan is the winning combination of understanding parents, and the conversion of a garage into a pony stall. What pony-lover hasn’t entertained that dream? I know I did.

Ginny, the story’s heroine, is plausible. She has her issues with negative attitude and self-doubt, but she grows a lot over the course of the story and gains confidence in the process. The reading level of this book is probably 3rd-6th grade, but my first-grader was able to work through the text herself. I read it aloud, but often she’d get the jump on me by taking it to bed with her and reading before lights out. (So far she hasn’t discovered reading under the covers with a flashlight…)

The question now is where to go from here. I found this list of 30 best horse books, of which we’ve read four: Summer Pony, Old Bones the Wonder Horse, Misty of Chincoteague, and Black Beauty. What next? I notice Ruffian is on this list, and it’s out of the question… I’m still wrenched every time I think of Eight Belles put down after her second place finish at the Derby last week. I dimly remember a book called A Pony for the Winter; maybe that would be the next logical choice. I’m open to suggestions. Meantime it’s back to watching my daughter pore over her well-worn Breyer’s horses catalogue, checking the boxes of… well, pretty much every model ever made and making plans for saving her money.

One Writer’s Beginnings

This book has been on my shelf for years, but though I’ve read pieces of it (my tagline comes from it), never before this week have I sat down and read it all the way through. It’s an autobiography of Eudora Welty’s writerly persona, but this doesn’t mean it’s a dry, theoretical treatise. Far from it. She explores her family history, complete with photographs and early childhood memories recounted with wonderful clarity of detail. It’s a short book, organized simply into three sections: “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice.”

I’ve only read one of Welty’s novels, The Optimist’s Daughter, and both my great liking for it and its alleged autobiographical nature compelled me to pick up One Writer’s Beginnings. The two books truly do bear a close resemblance to each other. I find it interesting that Welty quotes a passage from Optimist in the concluding pages of this book. Apparently she wrote Optimist first, and in One Writer’s Beginnings she’s following in the footsteps of the heroine of that story, Laurel Hand. I love the idea of a writer who’s inspired by her characters, rather than always implanting her own already-lived experience into them.

The commonalities between the two books are many and substantial. The characters, the locales, the events, and even the central, organizing situation of a woman returning to explore her family’s past are identical. I was glad that along with other aspects of writing and the genesis of stories, Welty touches on character creation, a discussion that’s invariably provocative and discerning. On the subject of her own autobiographical explorations she has this to say:

Through learning at my later date things I hadn’t known, or had escaped or possibly feared realizing, about my parents — and myself — I glimpse our whole family life as if it were freed of that clock time which spaces us apart so inhibitingly, divides young and old, keeps our living through the same experiences at separate distances.

It is our inward journey that leads us through time — forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.

These fascinations with time, different kinds of time, overlapping experience, and the function of memory, run through both this story and Optimist. Welty’s ideas about a transcending ”confluence” of experience are what give her exploration of the past meaning, and resolve the story. Through memory, we can reach into the past and access the truths of our own “beginnings.” What Welty wasn’t aware of as a child, she can uncover in this book, writing in her seventies, through memory. Her perspective reminds me very much of Wendell Berry’s, which surfaces over and over in his stories and poems, and includes like Welty’s not just the importance of memory, but the equally important tempering influences of faith and love.

This all sounds very abstract, so I’ll conclude by handing the microphone back to Welty herself as she links art and life and memory far more succinctly than I seem able to do:

It seems to me, writing of my parents now in my seventies, that I see continuities in their lives that weren’t visible to me when they were living… Could it be that I can better see their lives — or any lives I know — today because I’m a fiction writer? See them not as fiction, certainly — see them, perhaps, as even greater mysteries than I knew. Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.

Old Bones the Wonder Horse

We read Mildred Mastin Pace’s Old Bones the Wonder Horse as a read-aloud. I remember my mother reading it to me many years ago. It’s the true story of Exterminator, a racehorse dubbed Old Bones because of his ungainly appearance. Bought as a “work horse” to challenge Sun Briar, a more favored thoroughbred in training, Exterminator instead begins a long and illustrious racing career of his own when Sun Briar is unable to run the Kentucky Derby. Exterminator races in his place and wins.

This book follows his racing career until he retires at the age of 9; his adjustment to retirement and attachments to Peanuts and Peanuts II, two ponies bought as companions for him; and his lifelong friendships with Henry McDaniel (his trainer), Mike Terry (his groom, who meets him at his first Derby and never leaves him), and others. The book does justice to this remarkable animal, developing his intelligence, his steady personality so unusual in a thoroughbred, and his sociability. My 7-year-old (and I) laughed aloud at times over the characterization of this distinctive horse who embodies a combination of wisdom. playfulness, determination and physical giftedness. There’s more information about Exterminator here, here, and here.

My daughter has been listening to Black Beauty on cd alongside our reading of this book, and there’s a marked contrast between the two stories. Black Beauty is a tale I’d never survive as a read-aloud because it’s so desperately sad. Its arguments against vice and cruelty gain their momentum from the tremendous hardship Black Beauty and his fellow horses have to endure at the hands of their human handlers. But this story is poignant without being heart-breaking. Its reading level is 3rd-6th grade, but as an adult I enjoyed it every bit as much as my daughter did.

Interestingly enough, in reading about Exterminator I’ve discovered two interesting facts about him: first, that he was born on Almahurst Farm near Lexington, a few miles from my alma mater in the heart of bluegrass country; and second, that my daughters were born in a hospital located on property that was once part of the Kilmer farm at which he lived out his last years. He’s buried at a pet cemetery close by. When I talked this over with the librarian, he told me he visits the gravesite every year, because Exterminator was “one of the greats.” This book makes a convincing argument that he’s right.