Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

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Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781922330208

28 thoughts on “Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

  1. Interesting about certainty and control; it’s something I wonder about as well in the sense that while I don’t expect everything to be certain, sometimes not finding answers or feeling out of control can be frustrating as well. Is there a balance or midpoint, one wonders

    • Thanks Mallika. Yes, good question. I think there is, but I reckon it’s like a continuum and people ‘s comfort levels can be at different points on the continuum, and probably even different points for different circumstances?

  2. FASCINATING, ST ! – many thanks (as so often). 🙂
    I share your lightbulb moment, even at a remove, re Krasnostein’s citing the “Science” article. Gobsmacked, you might say.
    And the Mennonites – how fundamental, to the point of childlike, that fear of higher education !
    Being the intolerant old fart I am, I wouldn’t even pick up a book called “The Believer”; so your review also serves to remind me of my many failings, through some of which I’m missing out badly..

    • But you can’t fit everything in M-R. I miss out on things because of my reading biases too. I’m glad you read the review and got something out of it. There really are some fascinating stories and people in there.

  3. Right now, people whose immature need for certainty leads them to create an alternate reality exasperate me. I used to think that I didn’t care what people believe, but now, with a PM who believes in the Rapture and anti-vaxxers round the world hampering control of the pandemic, I am finding it harder to be tolerant.

    • It’s certainly a worry isn’t it, Lisa. I find the need for promises, for example, impossible to understand when all reason tells us that this is an entirely new situation for all of us. And not only new but changeable. I don’t feel intolerant but I am currently a bit stressed, and that’s not good! In other words, for all my fine words, I am human and there’s a limit to the uncertainty I’m comfortable with!

  4. I love the quote, “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. As you wrote, there is so much to unravel about ourselves in that thought.

    • Thanks Carolyn … glad it spoke to you too. I loved the flashes of insights in this book, and they all came together more as I was writing this review. I had this one and the Anthony ones in my notes, but writing this post helped my get my thoughts together better – which is on of the main reasons I decided to write this blog in the first place!

  5. I borrowed this a while back and didn’t get round to reading it, so you’ve inspired me to try again Sue! Our Anglican cathedral here which was a moderate church (women priests!) & had lovely Evensong services (I went for the music!) has been taken over by fundamentalists who don’t allow women to preach in church and teach the woman is subordinate to the man. I understood them better once I realized this is all about fear of change and attempts to exert power over a minority group that threatens the (all male) clergy. (I should add here I’m not religious). So yes, social change leads to uncertainties = fear and an attempt to re-establish previous power relationships.

    BTW, there is an article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald online about the money made by the people who organize the anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown marches in Melbourne. I think you would find it worth reading!

    • Oh wow, Sue, I’ll see if I can get that article. Sounds well worth reading. Thanks for the heads up.

      And yes, fear is mentioned in the book as one of the drivers for the need for certainty and control. I agree with your point that understanding why people do what they do helps. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier but it reduces at least some of the stress about it!

      • I found it helped me to be less angry about it Sue – I understand in this case it’s not about religion actually but about power and the need to control other people. In this case they try to control gay people and women – both vulnerable groups. Interesting.

      • I run into so many people here who are opposed to the vaccine Sue – and who tell me people overseas are not dying from the virus, they are dying from the vaccine – unbelievable. They only follow facebook I think and there’s no reasoning with them. I’m sure they would think the article in the SMH was part of some conspiracy too! I really don’t know the solution, except to teach more critical reading skills in schools perhaps? What do you think?

        I find it incredible that churches should bring back rules against women and gay people in this day and age, but when I understand it’s about exerting power over vulnerable minorities it at least gives me an angle from which to view it. I’m afraid I have expressed my opinion about it rather loudly to the particular Bishop in question!!! I doubt I am in his good books. I will cope! (grin)

        • I’d like to think teaching more critical reading skills in school would help, but I’m coming to the opinion that teachers can teach till they’re blue in the face but some people just aren’t interested. How do you “make” someone learn skills they don’t want to learn? I think about things I wasn’t interested in learning – or, perhaps, wasn’t particularly good at learning (like sewing – I never was that interested and couldn’t make myself). Good teachers will find ways to enthuse and engage, but there will be limits. I heard someone say that many of the conspiracists are highly intelligent lateral thinkers. That made me stop and think a bit too. I think you can be intelligent but not sensible or rational? Oh, I don’t know – I’m rambling.

          Anyhow, good on you for speaking your mind to the Bishop!

  6. Hi Sue, I think I am a bit like your book club members. I expected more, but I don’t know what I wanted – probably belief. I thought the overall content was excellent in portraying the beliefs of different groups. I suppose my belief is ‘hope’. Louis Theroux, presents documentaries on many topics, and has produced several on strange beliefs of people. They are always entertaining.

    • Thanks Meg. It was certainly an interesting read and hard sometimes to know exactly where it was going.

      Interesting that you say you belief is hope, as I’ve just come in from our annual street party, where my neighbour and I were saying pretty much the same, ie that hope is our preferred approach to life.

  7. I’m glad to hear you got lightbulb moments out of this book, Sue, they are wonderful when they come.
    I wonder how the author narrowed the book down to those particular six sets of beliefs.
    Your review and the comments reminded of a training course I did many years ago when I worked in a customer service role. I was taught one of the most valuable things I’ve ever come across, that angry people are just scared and loud.

    • Yes, I wondered too, Rose, about how many stories/people/groups she researched and how she made her decisions.

      It’s great when you do a course and come away with something so useful. Fear is such a difficult emotion to handle, as I think we are seeing through COVID aren’t we?

  8. I’m sure the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” is just one impetus for books that explore the nature of belief, but it feels like a theme that’s surfacing even more than usual, these days. In fiction and otherwise. As you’ve said above, I find there is some comfort to understanding a process behind the ranting; if I can imagine how someone has come to think/feel a certain way, that’s better than a whole-lotta-head-shaking in wonderment/fear.

    • Yes, it seems to me to be more common too at the moment Marcie … or, are we just noticing it more? But I do think it’s more because the issue is in the zeitgeist.

      And yes, I think it’s really important to try to see behind opinions, particularly those you don’t agree with or that seem patently illogical or irrational. It helps a lot.

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