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Coping with Life and its End in “The Believer”

Coping with Life and its End in “The Believer”

  • A review of Sarah Krasnostein’s new book, "The Believer."

I’ve heard people claim that they wish that they were religious in the fundamentalist mode, because it would be so much easier. Easier, they mean, because while the non-believer is a grown-up person who understands that God—like Santa; or like notions of fairness and romance—is dead, the believer still trusts with childish naivety in a organized universe in which being good is rewarded, materially and predictably. Easier, they mean, because it would be nice to be extremely well-lied to. When talked about like this, the believer is an endangered creature, isolated from the truth of a world that would eat her up in an instant, were she not protected from it by the cage that is indoctrination. The non-believer muses that she wishes to be a believer in the way that a wild tiger, free but imperiled, wishes to be a zoo tiger, un-free but safe—which is to say, the un-believer does not really want belief. This way of talking about faith—patronizing; dishonest—peaked among the Dawkins atheists I used to see at parties in college; it remained common among the leftist boys I once dated in Brooklyn.

This is not all the style of The Believer, Sarah Krasnostein’s newest book, and which alternates between profiles of six different believers with different beliefs—in U.F.O.s, in ghosts, in God, in a different type of God; or, seven, if you include Krasnostein, a secular Jewish journalist who is agnostic about some things, but very sure of others, like the value of looking at lives not our own (her previous book, The Trauma Cleaner, followed a house cleaner who specialized in cleaning goop from crime scenes and hoarders’ homes). Divided into two parts, loosely themed first around coping with the end of life, and then with coping during that life, Krasnostein’s believers include the Christian Fundamentalist staff at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, who wish that people would live as if two choices of afterlives awaited them, in anticipation of which it would be prudent to marry someone of the opposite sex and eschew all sex before that, among other directives. Yet the book’s other believers include a death doula named Annie, who believes that people should live as if there was no afterlife at all. It’s Annie who introduces Krasnostein to a woman, terminally-ill, who is doing just that by planning a living wake—that is, a final party, at which to say goodbye to her life; for it, she chooses a pink and gold theme, a heart-shaped cake, and, for the venue, the beach club at which she married her husband. “I do not feel I can stand it,” writes Krasnostein, as the woman’s friends, child, and husband mourn and celebrate her, days before she does indeed die without the safety net of what Krasnostein calls “distraction and deception, insistence and belief.” 

Adjoined side by side like this, belief looks not easy at all, but very hard. The stories that we tell ourselves about who or what gave us this life, and what it is for, are glassy. Look too closely at them and you might see through them; let them fall to the ground, even for a second, and they break; hold them up to each other and—spotting yourself in the mirrors of other churches—you might find that, born otherwise, you might have believed something else to be for-sure true. For some faith groups, like very conservative Christians, belief is “an arrangement of facts so contingent that one misstep [is] death,” writes Krasnostein. For others, the facts are more durable, yet trouble persists in that many other believers also make compelling arguments—many others consider themselves “the believer,” with a definite article. It’s a Mennonite father who perhaps best summarizes this problem when he tells Krasnostein, “I hate saying this is definitely the way it is because then you might meet somebody who seems to be living a very Godly, Christian lifestyle who actually believes something a little bit differently. What do you do with them?”

One way to answer him would be to throw up your hands and declare the world a mystery, full of many correct beliefs. This would be a very different, and less compelling book, if Krasnostein feigned agnosticism about who is more right then wrong, which she does not. Krasnostein does not see herself at all in the Fundamentalists, who explain that dinosaurs, boarded on an ark, peacefully acceded to a vegetarian diet, so as not to eradicate kittens and hamsters (“it’s not an issue,” explains a microbiologist who works for the Creation Museum). “We may be the only animals who can think about our thinking,” Krasnostein writes after an encounter with the museum staff, “but that doesn’t mean we can be relied on to do it particularly well.”  Likewise, she does not believe in U.F.O. abductions, as much as she might wish to see the world so wondrously expanded, as it is for those who believe in sophisticated alien life. 

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In the book’s third part, Krasnostein revisits just three believers from the previous two parts: the death doula; a formerly incarcerated domestic abuse survivor, who, having spent decades in prison, must simultaneously believe in the beauty and value of her former constricted life while also committing to her new, less restricted one; and a group of Mennonite men and women who first led Krasnostein to the project when she saw them singing in a Bronx subway station. “My love for the sound of it arrived fully formed,” she writes, “like the discovery of a second heart underneath what was – yes, at first – an ironic amusement.” Here, in Krasnostein’s evident respect for all three of these believers, we see Krasnostein’s own beliefs find shape. The Mennonites have built their own world, and while many of its furnishings are appallingly ugly to Krasnostein—like the denial of the experiences of queer and trans people—its basic structure, in which community members care for each other, is astounding in its beauty: Mennonites don’t have health insurance because when a church member gets sick, everyone pays for their treatment; meanwhile, Krasnostein observes, the world that we non-Mennonites have built, in which the fluke of birth zip code determines how long you will live and how painful that life will be, is so grotesque as to be hellish. Mennonites create their own heaven, and it is hard work. “The Christian life isn’t just a bed of roses,” says one Mennonite mother of six sons. “No life is. Adult life just isn’t.” I believe it, then, when Krasnostein writes that she is jealous of the Mennonite woman and her family—specifically, of the way that they “hold themselves separate from this kingdom of broken things….where the rest of us will die one day and forever, and where there’s very little, perhaps, that can be done with that.”

The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle
By Sarah Krasnostein
Tin House Books
Published March 1, 2022

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