Something Other Than God: Jennifer Fulwiler's New Memoir

Converts like to talk about their past lives, before they found God. A good many professional converts make a tidy sum out of shocking people with their former depravity, and then dazzling them with their current sanctity. It's almost as if they want to drive home the point: I used to be subhuman, before I found God. But look at me now!  I'm human! I'm a real boy.

If you have ever read Jennifer Fulwiler's blog or heard her speak, it will not surprise you that this is not the story she tells in her debut book, Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It (Ignatius).  Instead, one of the threads that winds through this spiritual memoir is the idea that we are all real -- atheist or Catholic. We all have stories. 

She does paint in vivid terms just how she used to see the world: as a piggy bank of pleasures and distractions which the clever person should raid continuously. She fled from the dread she felt when she first realized that we will someday die, disappear, not even leave a mark like the fossils she and her atheist father hunted when she was young.  Over and over, she made the conscious effort to seek pleasure. "It might not be a solution," her eleven-year-old self thought, "but chasing those moments of happiness might be all I had." (21)

Fulwiler continued this chase throughout her teenage and early adult years. I won't spoil the story by telling how she begins to change -- but by the end of the book, her life has changed drastically. Instead of pursuing wealth, glamour, and prestige, and championing a right to abortion with a cynical, mocking attitude toward believers, she finds herself juggling babies, uninsured, scrambling to find a housing her family can afford, and battling serious medical problems which thrust her way beyond the realm of normal struggles with natural family planning.

But despite these radical changes, she is still herself. She has not become a different person -- she has become the Jennifer Fulwiler who sees life differently. A small distinction, you might think, but this willingness to see and respect the person, rather than reducing him to a tidy story or message, is one of the most appealing hallmarks of Fulwiler's writing, and of her approach to Catholicism in general. She is open to the stories of everyone she encounters, from her favorite rap star Tupac Shakur, to the fervent strangers she argues with online, to the Apache warrior Geronimo, to her beloved atheist father, to St. Paul in prison. They are all treated as real people with real stories as valuable and meaningful as her own.  

It is, in fact, her willingness to treat strangers as real people that makes a significant stumbling block to her belief, as she struggles with the idea that her ancestors suffered so much, losing children to disease and horrifying accidents. 

But it is the realness of the person of Christ that rescues her. At the point where she and her husband Joe realize that they're really going to become Catholic, she says, "I did believe that God was real now; I just didn't know we were going to act like God was real."  Her husband calls her on this game: "'[Y]ou've been following the rules as part of an intellectual investigation," he says. Are you seeking God like he's a person, or like he's a concept?'"

And she thinks, "A concept,  of course. Until now it had never occurred to me that there was any other way." (196) 

But it does occur to her, and she can't evade the idea. The rest of the story is only the beginning of how the Fulwilers invite the real person of Christ into their lives.

I'm kicking myself for not having more quotes to share, but the truth is that I devoured the book, and didn't want to stop and take notes or even hunt for a pencil; and since the book is being released today, I wanted to get this review out right away. It's a thoroughly delightful read, with no slow passages. Even more remarkably, it has no insincere passages. Fulwiler sees with clear eyes and reports with honesty, humor, and hope. This book will speak to Catholics who have forgotten just how compelling our Faith really is, and to unbelievers who believe that thinking, research, and honesty have no part in religious conversions. Highly recommended!