Have a Little Faith
by Mitch Albom
Hyperion, 254 pages, $23.99
I would be very surprised if Mitch Albom still sleeps with a teddy bear or saves his money in a piggy bank or believes that the stork delivers babies or does math on his fingers. But of this I am sure: If he exhibited any of these childish behaviors, he wouldn’t write a book about it. He has, however, written Have a Little Faith, a book about religion that is founded on childish ideas, naivete, religious stereotyping, and downright ignorance.
Quite remarkably, he is even proud of all this. The book begins with an “author’s note” in which Albom says, “while this is a book about faith, the author can make no claim to being a religion expert.”
Religion expert? I would be happy with a modicum of religious literacy, but there is none to be found here. Can you imagine a book about physics or government or medicine or science or history beginning with a similar disclaimer? (“Read my book about X even though I don’t know the first thing about X.”) Can someone tell me why ignorance is a virtue when it comes to writing about religion?
Have a Little Faith is being billed as Albom’s first nonfiction book since Tuesdays With Morrie, his best-selling 1997 book about his friendship with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was slowly dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. To his credit, Albom is a good friend to people whom others might more readily forget and abandon. There is no ulterior motive to his visits with Morrie, which began in the 1990s when Albom was a relatively little-known sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
One can’t help but wonder, however, whether Albom saw another writing opportunity when Rabbi Albert Lewis, the spiritual leader of the New Jersey congregation where Albom grew up, asked him a question: “Will you do my eulogy?” Tellingly, this question came after Albom spoke in the congregation about his books.
Perhaps the rabbi saw an opportunity there, too. I am sure it entered his mind that there could be more than a eulogy—perhaps even a best-selling book. (And, yes, Have a Little Faith has put Albom back on the best-seller lists.)
In any event, both author and subject go in with their eyes open. Albom agrees to be the eulogizer and embarks on a series of visits to the congregation and later to the Lewis home to speak with the aging rabbi. The big difference between Tuesdays With Morrie and Have a Little Faith is that Morrie Schwartz lingered just eight months before he died. Rabbi Lewis hangs on for eight years, and there are times in reading Have a Little Faith when one wonders whether this life—and this book—will ever end.
One gets the feeling that Albom also got a bit bored with the wait and had to develop a subplot. As he makes his regular visits to Rabbi Lewis, he also befriends Henry Covington, the pastor of a struggling black church in Detroit, and writes about his life and his ministry. Albom interweaves the life stories of Lewis and Covington throughout the book as if there were parallels, which there are not.
Covington is a troubled street crook, drug dealer, and ex-con who, given an unexpected second chance, credits Jesus with his salvation and goes on to open a remarkable church that feeds and inspires Detroit’s poorest. Rabbi Lewis, on the other hand, is the grandson of a rabbi and goes straight from rabbinical school to a sixty-year career at one suburban New Jersey synagogue. Despite Albom’s efforts to mix and match, the two stories remain separate and quite different.
Albom grew up in Lewis’ synagogue and has memories of the rabbi as a tall, imposing, and articulate man of God. Childhood awe is understandable, but Albom can’t quite get over it or, if he does, doesn’t know how to write about his true adult feelings. Early in the book, he goes to the rabbi’s house to interview him for the eulogy. “I rang the doorbell,” he writes. “Even that felt strange. I suppose I didn’t think a holy man had a doorbell.”
In the pages that follow, he is surprised to find that the rabbi sometimes wears Bermuda shorts and black socks, is something of a pack rat, likes to sing show tunes, and has a corny sense of humor. He is dumbfounded when the rabbi, whom he calls the Reb, laughs at one of his jokes. “It felt strange, making the Reb laugh, sort of special and disrespectful at the same time,” Albom writes. Even if one could excuse Albom for this attitude at the beginning of Have a Little Faith, he seems incapable of ever growing beyond his mental stereotypes.
In one anecdote toward the end of the book, the rabbi tells Albom about conversations he has had with his Hindu caretaker about reincarnation. Albom is aghast and writes these remarkable words: “‘How can you—a cleric—be so open-minded?’ I asked.”
I’d like to know when cleric became a dirty word synonymous with close-mindedness, but it certainly is in Albom’s lexicon.
Of course, Albom is entitled to his opinions, but he’s not entitled to his own facts. He talks about “twelfth-century scholars like Rashi and Maimonides” even though Rashi lived in the eleventh century. He writes about reading on his bar mitzvah from the Torah scrolls, when he more likely read from a single Torah scroll.
Albom’s interreligious analyses are all wrong. How about this paragraph:
Like Catholicism, with its vespers, sacraments, and communions—or Islam, with its five-time-daily salah, clean clothes, and prayer mats—Judaism had enough rituals to keep you busy all day, all week, and all year.
There may indeed be some comparison between the daily rituals of a devout Muslim and a Jew, but the Catholic rites he mentions are the task of the priest, not the layman. The comparison is glib and inaccurate.
Can you spot all the mistakes in this sentence? “No matter what you call it—Paradise, Moksha, Valhalla, Nirvana—the next world is the underpinning of nearly all faiths.”
Paradise means very different things in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and it is hardly the “underpinning” of any one of them. Moksha is a Hindu term and Nirvana a Buddhist one, and both refer to a “letting go” or “release” from the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. A goal, perhaps, but not an underpinning. Valhalla is from Norse mythology and not really relevant to this discussion at all.
Whatever you call the afterlife, Rabbi Lewis clearly doesn’t want to go there. After six years of conversations, Albom learns that the rabbi has had a stroke and rushes to his side. But the rabbi rallies. In a conversation typical of the ones we find in this book, Albom asks what his descent into illness was like.
“A fog,” he said. “Like a dark hole. I was there, but somehow I wasn’t there.”
Did you think it was . . . you know . . .
And what were you thinking at those times?
“I was thinking mostly about my family. I wanted to calm them. But I felt helpless to do so.”
You scared the heck of out me—us, I said.
“I am sorry about that.”
No. I mean. It’s not your fault
In short, the rabbi lives, and we are treated to two more years of this kind of superficial chitchat. Finally, at the age of ninety, the rabbi succumbs, and Albom is called on to deliver the eulogy, eight years in the making.
In truth, it’s a pretty damn good eulogy, even if this is not a very good book. My advice is to skip most of Have a Little Faith and go right to the eulogy. Like the good journalist he is, Albom summarizes the rabbi’s life and career, talks about his achievements, and recalls his influence with a nice turn of phrase and the right touch of humor. “You were a clergyman of the people, never above the people,” he eulogizes, “and people clamored to hear you, stuffing in for your sermons as if to miss them would be a sin in itself.”
Finally, in the closing pages of the book, Albom gives us a bit of a theological insight, and we feel that he perhaps has learned something from his foray into religion writing.
“So now you are with God,” Albom says, addressing the rabbi’s casket. “That I believe. You told me your biggest wish, after you died, would be that somehow you could speak to us here, inform us that you had landed, safe and sound. Even in your demise, you were looking for one more sermon.”
At last, after all these many pages, Albom gets beyond the stereotypes and clichés and marches right to the heart of the matter: faith.
Rabbi Lewis cannot speak to us now, here, at his funeral, Albom says, “because if you could, we might not need faith.” “And faith is what you were all about.”
It’s the emotional highlight of the book, but Albom won’t let us stay there. The book ends, not with this call to faith, but with a cheap trick. “Dear friends, this is the voice of your past rabbi speaking,” comes a voice over the microphone. Unbeknownst to all but his Hindu caretaker, Rabbi Lewis prepared a tape-recorded message for his own funeral. On the tape he offers an answer to the question that he had most asked in life: Is there life after death?
On the tape he answers, “yes, there is something. But friends, I’m sorry. Now that I know, I can’t tell you.”
Albom concludes the funeral scene with these words: “The whole place broke up laughing.”
It seems he can’t sit too long with a serious thought.
Ari L. Goldman, author of The Search for God at Harvard, is a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and directs the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism, and the Spiritual Life.