Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is not a well-written book. Nor is it a good book: in particular, the author’s description of several minor characters relies on uncharitable, reductive stereotypes. The storyline takes awhile to get underway and then peters out, leaving readers uncertain of its main themes. I cannot recommend it. But I also cannot forget it.
The Book of Strange New Things is an entry in that supremely niche genre, missionary in space. (Another example includes the beautiful and heartbreaking novel, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.) Such works offer the reader a rare gift: the chance to see our faith as foreign. The world we inhabit and our lives here on Earth are knit together with stories that weave in God’s presence and make sense of faith. Move to a different world, though, and the threads in those stories begin to pull, the fabric of faith to unravel. Only by picking back up the threads, re-weaving them into a new story of faith, can we make sense of what it means to believe.
Set an indeterminate amount of time into the future, The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of Peter, an English country pastor who leaves his church and his wife, Bea, to share the Gospel with an alien people. A major corporation has established a colony on the planet they named Oasis; the local Oasan people have required the colonists to send them a missionary, someone who will read to them out of the “book of strange new things”: the Bible. Peter, having passed tests set to him by the megacorp, goes.
The Oasans he finds to be surprisingly receptive. Trained by a prior missionary, a Lutheran pastor who has mysteriously disappeared, the people already have a small congregation and have adopted new names in keeping with their religion: Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, and so on. The alien culture that Faber develops is among the most fascinating parts of the novel. Living among them, Peter swiftly expands the congregation, builds a church, and begins to translate the Bible. Everything seems to be going swimmingly.
Except on Earth.
There, things fall apart as soon as Peter leaves. As Bea shares with him, using a device nicknamed the “Shoot” to communicate across solar systems, the globe experiences disasters of alarming intensity and frequency. Further, she is pregnant, with a much-wanted child conceived right before Peter’s departure (without his knowledge). As the novel proceeds, she becomes frustrated by her husband’s apparent apathy towards events on Earth, particularly as she herself is increasingly, seriously affected by them. Ultimately, her own faith—previously strong—begins to strain and crack, even as the Oasans’ grows stronger.
The crises that Bea faces—that test her faith in a God who provides—are among the main reasons that the book haunts me. As the novel makes clear, many of these crises are due to climate change, made worse by the apathy and disregard of humans for the other creatures with whom they share the planet. Recent events this summer echo such crises.
In the novel, millions of people die in a tsunami off the coast of Spain. Here on earth, in mid-July, nearly two hundred people died in flooding along the border of Belgium and Germany. In the novel, a volcano in Central America erupts; more people die, along with plant and animal life. In late June, an entire town in Canada burned to the ground amid the record-setting heatwave. The heatwave also caused hundreds of human deaths and the deaths of billions of sea creatures.
Faced with such overwhelming tragedies, hundreds of people dead, and then hundreds of people dead again, it can be difficult not to feel, like Bea does about her husband Peter, that perhaps God does not care, that perhaps God has abandoned human beings to our own fate. That our own faith in a caring God who intervenes in the lives of fragile people may be shaken is reasonable and recalls Bea’s own internal upheavals.
Ironically, the ready reception that Peter finds among the Oasan people intertwines with and contributes to these questions about faith and doubt. As Peter relays to Bea, the Oasans are hungry for Christianity and especially for the Bible. Rejecting even his attempts to adapt its language to their phonetic capacities (they cannot pronounce sibiliants), they eagerly listen to him share from the Bible in a church they build together.
Yet this readiness to believe is a curiosity. Bea points it out herself, noting in a letter that the Oasans seem to be the ideal congregation, ready-made for any missionary’s satisfaction. While some resistance exists, it is mild and passive, meaning only that some community members do not (yet) believe; the little alien church grows day by day, challenging Peter’s ability to easily differentiate individual members. Peter himself remarks that the Oasan community does not even seem to be particularly sinful, an observation which as theologian Brad East notes, flies under the radar more than it should, especially since Peter’s evangelical proclivities should make this a very surprising revelation indeed. If the Oasan people are not in fact sinful, then what explains their interest in the Gospel? What do they find so compelling about the message of the Bible?
When this question is finally answered, late in the novel, the revelation is a thunderclap for Peter, calling his own faith into question. The Oasans have their own reasons for putting their hope in the Bible, this book of strange new things, yet their hope is such that (to Peter at least) it seems misguided and unlikely to be fulfilled. Though the Oasans’ faith remains strong, at root it seems to be a faith in nothing, like Bea’s: a wish for a salvation that never will or can come.
For readers, then, these intertwining narratives prompt the question: What are our own reasons for belief? Is our belief reasonable? Will our hope be fulfilled? As the last summer of catastrophe, and indeed the entire last year, has made clear, there are no easy answers to these questions. Perhaps there are no answers to these questions.
A few weeks back in church, we sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” A much-beloved old hymn, the lyrics nonetheless hit differently these days:
Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
What does it mean to sing of God’s new mercies, as hundreds of people lose their homes in the wildfires consuming the West or the floods consuming Europe? Or to remember God’s faithfulness after more than 600,000 souls in the United States and more than four million people around the world lost their lives to Covid? Such deep tragedies prompt us, with Bea, Peter, and the Oasans, to ask whether the hope we have in our faith, in the Bible and the promises God delivers to us there, will truly be fulfilled.
Yet the answer may lie in “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” after all. Intriguingly, the scriptural passage that the hymn is based on comes from Lamentations (3:22–24). There, right in the middle of a book full of mourning and betrayal, Jeremiah stops to remember God’s faithfulness and mercy to the people of Israel.¹ The passage testifies of the prophet’s enduring wish that “there may yet be hope” (3:29) that God will withdraw judgment, that God will forgive. As Peter remarks of the Oasans, near the end of the book, “belief was a place that people didn’t leave until they absolutely must” (492). There is always something we need. Faced with the grief of human life, we wish that God has the answers, that God will rescue us from disaster.
Yet the same tragedies also stress-test our faith, weakening it and perhaps killing it. By the end of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s faith wavers; he is no longer assured of God’s mercies or convinced that there is any hope:
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
Renew our days as of old
Unless you have utterly rejected us
And are angry with us beyond measure (5:20–22)
Jeremiah is at the end thoroughly cast down. He replaces his earlier confidence in God’s mercy and faithfulness with an abiding fear of God’s rejection and permanent anger. Faced with tragedy like Bea, Jeremiah can only imagine a world in which no compassionate God is looking out for them. For Jeremiah, the downfall of Israel is such that it empties out his experience of faith, leaving him without hope.
The Book of Strange New Things is not, ultimately, a book of faith. The characters fall back on gratitude for the present moment and on human connection, rather than on the tenuous threads of faith.
But the echoes of the story with Jeremiah speak to the reality of faith in a world of tragedy and apocalypse. The truth is, faith is not a single consistent thing, abiding with us unchanged even in grief. We experience faith as a fluid, changeable thing, swinging from confidence in God’s mercy to fear of God’s abandonment; it is God who remains faithful, not (necessarily) us.
The Sparrow (which I do recommend, with the caveat that the crisis upon which the whole novel turns is horrific) better captures the back-and-forth nature of faith, this tension between recognizing the reality of grief and apparent absence of God and confidence in God’s mercy to people. Written by a Jewish woman, the novel’s conclusion weaves together Hebraic teaching with a passage from the New Testament to speak to how people of faith make sense of all this. In it, three Jesuit priests seek to locate God amid the novel’s central tragedy, one so great it seems a divine betrayal:
“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
“So God just leaves? . . . Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes! Good luck!”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine . . . ‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your faith knowing it.’”
“But the sparrow still falls.”
As I have noted previously, what The Sparrow suggests is that in tragedy, God cares for us by bearing witness to our reality and remembering us, by making us part of the divine story. But importantly, knowing that God remembers and cares for us amidst tragedy does not mean our experience of faith is consistent. We do not always feel faithful; at times, we perceive God to have abandoned us, we laugh at God, we become bitter with a God who has left us to ourselves. We know the reality of God’s memory of us and care for us, but we experience very great grief: the sparrow still falls.
Contemporary Christian discourse, caught up in assuring people that God knows every sparrow who falls to the ground, can at times too swiftly gloss over the sparrow’s fall. Yet the reality of the world we inhabit presses that fall upon us, daily. Both in our lives and in the lives of those who surround us, great grief and hopelessness is a much more common occurrence than we would otherwise pretend. Acknowledging the reality of this tension, that sometimes we believe and sometimes we waver, is as The Sparrow in particular suggests, a form of hope.
Ultimately, this is what The Book of Strange New Things does: it invites us to reckon with the reality of our shifting, ever-uncertain faith. It provides a touchstone for our experience of how faith intersects with tragedy, whether global or personal. Wrestling with a novel like this, or like The Sparrow, makes it possible for us to be honest about the lived experience of faith and to hope that even as our own bright confidence flickers, as it surely will, the flame of divine love remains steady.