I’ve been reading a lot more memoirs lately, thanks to some memoir loving friends and NPR’s This American Life, which features several humorous memoir writers, including my all time favorite, David Sedaris. Shalom Auslander also occasionally reads portions of his books on the show, and I found his tale of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family bitingly satiric and downright funny. It also had a painful edge about it that made me want to read the book, to find out more about this guy’s relationship with the God of Orthodox Judaism.
Shalom Auslander, ironically named “peace” in Hebrew, was raised in New York, in an Orthodox Jewish community. He chronicles his growing antagonism from his childhood faith, intermixed with stories of his contemporary struggles to decide whether or not to circumcise his firstborn child.
Auslander’s god is an angry, vindictive, petty god, who demands legalism to ward off evil. If Auslander doesn’t obey the Sabbath, his favorite hockey team will lose. If Auslander eat’s pork, his grandmother will die. Or at least, that’s how he sees it.
His faith (or perhaps we should call it anti-faith) journey is one that ebbs and flows from extreme zealous conservatism to extreme liberalism. While living in Israel under court and parental order to clean up his act, he grows out his sideburns (Leviticus 19:27) and begins to routinely visit the Wailing Wall. But, like all religious attempts to white knuckle it, he eventually backslides, and ends up slipping a “F-you God” note into the wailing wall.
I think one of the reasons that I found this book so funny is because I sympathized with him in the times where I too can get angry with God. In my sin, I get petty, and think that God is out to get me. It’s mostly when I get caught up in a works mentality, when I think it’s all up to me to earn my salvation. I lash out and do sinful, immature things, hoping to send God my own form of a “F-you” message.
But the difference between my God and Auslander’s god is extreme. Jesus is my God, and he offers grace and mercy. I don’t have to white knuckle it, to follow all the rules to earn my salvation. Jesus did all that work for me. He’s not out to get me; he’s out to save me, from myself, from my sin, from my own evil inclinations.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)