Tag Archives: Suffering

Quick review: Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you like a book that’s listed as a classic, you’re simply following the crowd. But if you dislike the listed classic, you’ve got no taste. Catch-22.

If you enjoy the writing in a novel that narrates awful events, and even looks somewhat amoral, that must make you unfeeling. But if you dismiss a novel that refuses to hide the grizzly nature of life, you’re still unfeeling. Catch-22.

I wanted to read Catch-22 for some time, because it’s a classic. And reading it created my own cases of Catch-22 – the ‘catch’ that is impossible to escape, no matter what you do.

Here are two examples of my catches: the humour is enjoyably off the wall-but I kept wondering if black humour is merely stylish cynicism; there’s great compassion for this world of suffering-but I hated the way women (in particular) were treated in the book.

Catch-22 is so well known that there’s no point me recounting its content or themes, you can find great summaries on the web. So here’s my take on the whole theme of the book: this life is a crazy yet hopeful struggle.

The crazy struggle is everywhere, especially war: horrible deaths, innocent suffering, racketeering, apathy, selfishness, … And Heller captures all this and more.

It’s the hope in Catch-22 that surprised me. The lead character, Yossarian, has most of his friends die. One death in particular is referred to again and again, with increasing detail until we read the whole awful story. I expected a bleak conclusion. Yet Catch-22 ends with the excitement of an unexpected survivor, and a crazy plan for Yossarian to survive. (And in this edition, Heller’s 1994 preface confesses that he could never kill Yossarian.)

How odd that the novel of honest hopelessness cannot give up on hope. Paradox-22, anyone? The persistence of hope even when people don’t know why: people will always need the hope-filled news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

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Politics, change & wishes

In Albury-Wodonga, the weekly free newspapers used to include a column of reflections. They were written by local  ministers, or similar (authors included a local Baha’i leader, as well as someone from the local humanist society branch). I don’t know why they stopped. Equally, I don’t know if they achieved anything!

Cleaning up my computer, I found a few of mine. In the interests of recycling, I will re-release them on this blog.

How did your vote go? Did it count for something? Are you happy with the outcome, do you think you made a contribution?

I write this before the federal election, but am already sure of one thing: no one will be completely satisfied. You might prefer things a little different, or completely different. Either way, our dreams have not been met.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who wanted things different. As a Christian minister in Germany, he opposed Hitler, and during the war was imprisoned and executed. He wrote something very helpful about our desires, what he called ‘wish dreams.’ His claim: we need to give up our wish dreams.

So there’s no point saying, ‘If only our politicians were fully trustworthy.’ Or, ‘If only my family had more patience.’ Or, ‘If only the church was perfect.’ (Bonhoeffer was writing specifically about churches.) We need to get past the ‘wish dream’, and work with the reality before us.

As Bonhoeffer put it, “What may appear weak and trifling to us may appear great and glorious to God.”

God proved that appearances aren’t everything by working through Jesus and his execution on the cross. These look feeble and empty. The unjust execution of a poor Jewish teacher 2000 years ago does not sound impressive. It sounds positively shameful. Yet the Bible says that Jesus mocked this shame and weakness and chose to endure the suffering. Why? Because the cross is real power: it is where God changed the world, offering forgiveness to anyone.

Perhaps you have had wish dreams about God. That he’d do something spectacular and showy. That he would suddenly change everything about life that you don’t like. Forget the wish dreams. The reality is much better. It’s trusting Jesus that changes life. He may appear weak and trifling, but is great and glorious to God.
October 2004



Dead end questions

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13 collects a number of Jesus’ parables together. They’re all provocative, but I’ve always been fascinated by the parable of the weeds.

Jesus’ story is of a man who sowed good seed, but the field was later oversown with weeds among the grain. The owner forbids his servants from eliminating the weeds, ‘lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’ (verse 29). The servants must wait until the harvest.

In Jesus’ explanation (verses 36-43), he tells that the harvest is the close of the age. Until then, the kingdom of heaven is growing, but not at all marked by purity.

In other words, until the final judgement of God, this world will be marked by a mixture of good and evil. There will certainly be a division between the good things of the kingdom and the weeds of the evil one. Yet God’s judgement is delayed for a purpose: to provide safety now for those who will be be safe at the judgement.

In a very short story, Jesus directly addresses the problem of on-going evil. Jesus agrees that the presence of evil is awful. Evil remains evil, and must be ‘gathered and burned with fire’. Evil intrinsically prompts God’s servants to ask, ‘Shall we get rid of this now?’ At the same time, the delay in elimination of evil serves a divine purpose.


For Christians, this is just one passage from the Bible that we draw on to consider the real difficulty known as the problem of evil. It’s one passage among many. Christians have a long history of admitting the pain of persistent evil.

So Christians have many valuable ways to talk with our friends who ask, ‘How can there be a God if evil exists?’

But there’s a surprise. When I hear  people ask this, it’s usually sounds like a an attempt to stop that conversation. Your experience might be different – I hope so. All too often, the question is not asked to seek wisdom. Instead, it’s a question to close down the topic. It’s a dead end question.

When translated, the statement becomes, ‘Look, we all know that evil makes you and God irrelevant, so don’t try to trick me into talking about it.’

That’s sad for so many reasons, but I want to ask one thing: how an we help open this closed door?

Of course, if a friend really is saying, ‘Don’t talk to me’, that’s fine. I am sure, though, that some people would love to talk further. They might have a genuine question, or they might be ready to be intrigued. So here are some ideas about keeping the conversation happening.

  • Be direct. ‘Are you asking that to have more conversation, or because you’d prefer not to talk about it right now?’
  • Be intriguing. ‘It surprises me that people accuse Christianity of ignorance about suffering, because at centre of our faith is a violent injustice.’
  • Be honest. ‘I can tell you how suffering has touched me. And how knowing God was the biggest help of all.’
  • Suggest the future. ‘I feel you don’t want to talk about this now, but I hope one day will will. I’d love to be there for that conversation.’
  • Be caring. ‘Has you been hurt by this kind of pain? Or by people telling you to get over it?’

What would you suggest? Have you had conversations on this topic? I’d love to hear what you learnt. Please add your comments or questions below.