Rambling: Two Great Books, and a Deep Question about Fate

I’ve had the opportunity to read (mostly listen) to 25 new books and watch about 120 Curiosity Stream (science) movies this summer during my tango with the devil (stem cell transplant). My book genre of late has been fiction. However, I just read two back to back non-fiction books that were outstanding, and I wanted to share those here.

The first was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. This book is a highly researched historical work, following the high drama of the failed voyage of the USS Jeannette, in its attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. The day by day (sometimes hour by hour) details that kept me so captivated that I laid awake night after night listening to the MP3 audio book.

The second book, very different from the first, is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Anne Dillard. It is hard to describe this book. It is called, by some, a narrative non-fiction. Anne calls it a work of theology. To me, it is a book of poetry. It reminded me a lot of Thoreau’s Walden.

It has been a while since I’ve read Walden, but in some ways, Dillard’s book seems better. At least the pace is faster than Walden, and the observations of nature is at least as rich. I think Dillard had access to more information about nature in 1973 (the year she started writing it) than in the mid-1800s when Thoreau wrote his work. She also is a master of that information, so much so, that I had assumed that she had a PhD in Entomology at one point. But it is a book that is well worth the read.

As I have attempted to write, non-fiction is the most difficult, because of the research that is required (and the lawyers demand precise facts). As I read Anne Dillard’s words, her descriptors and syntax, I felt like a small-town mediocre high school basketball player who thought he was decent at the game… until he watch a NBA team practice.

An Exercise in Thinking about fate, from In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.

I don’t want to give away too much from the book, but one big question was raised. I don’t have an answer but would like to see what others think. It is a tragic story about an attempt to reach the North Pole. In one part of the book, one group of sailors are stranded in the very northern tip of Siberia, in the dead of winter. They are trying to make their way south, 1,000 miles, to some civilization. They are sleeping outside in the elements and the nighttime temperatures are in the minus 40-degree range. The year is 1881. They have no food, having finished off their supplies and the native animals have all but disappeared during these cold and stormy months.

These men appear to be very religious (typical American Christian of the 19th century). Their leader, commander George W. De Long, was a devoted Christian man, who led the sailors in daily devotions. As they were starting to starve, he had a devotion from Matthew 6:25-34

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?


28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

The commander told his men that he felt confident that God would provide for them in this moment of crisis and felt like this was a promise from scripture.

However, over the next few weeks, the suffering intensified, and the men had nothing to eat. They boiled and ate their shoes, their seal-skinned coats, yet one by one, the suffering emaciated men succumbed to starvation and died. The last man alive, the doctor, attempted to eat his own hand. Little did they know, the natives had caches of abundant food (deer meat and dried fish) hidden throughout the tundra and forest.

So, the big question to think about is, where was God in all of this?

Some of you know of the story about the Rugby players whose plane crashed high in the Andes in 1972 and the book and movie about it called, Alive. They were stranded for weeks and in the end, some of the survivors cannibalized the bodies of their dead friends. I was in college the next year and had a discussion (as a new Christian and evangelical) with my pastor, asking him if this was sin to eat part of someone’s body. The survivors, most who were catholic, described it as like communion, where you eat Christ’s body.

This pastor said it was sin because they did not trust God. If they had trusted God, 1) they would not have crashed and 2) God would have provided food or a way off the mountain. That answer was not reassuring to me.

I will give several viewpoints that someone might have. I do not mean to stereotype any group here.

  • An atheist might say: There is no meaning in this. They took a real risk in the real world and ended in a place where food is scare in the wintertime. It is simply a case of cause and effect with a lot of bad luck (there were several issues of bad luck including bad maps, wrong information about currents, one of the worst winters in years, and some of the worst ice on the Bering Sea).
  • A pantheist might say: All things work together for the good. If it is not good, then it is not the end of the story. That these men will come back as new people and in a better place because of their sacrifice.
  • A Buddhist might say: These men had the opportunity to have the ultimate experience in denying the desires of this world and will transcend that fatal outcome.
  • A Muslim might say: Apparently these men were struck down by almighty God for their arrogance in trying to find the North Pole, to make themselves like God (or for some other sin.)
  • One Christian might say something very much like the Muslim.
  • Another Christian might say: It was a problem of faith. Commander De Long may have prayed for God’s help, but he, nor his men, did not trust God, therefore their prayers were not answered.
  • Another Christian might say: This was clearly an attack by Satan as these good Christian men were living in a foreign land, a land of wild native people who believed in witchcraft and spells (the natives did have their own superstitions, but, were considered Christian and members of the Russian Orthodox Church).
  • Another Christian might say: God doesn’t do miracles on a regular basis and this was a very risky undertaking, where bad things can happen to good people because it is an imperfect world.
  • Or . . . write you own conclusion.











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6 responses to “Rambling: Two Great Books, and a Deep Question about Fate”

  1. That’s a hard issue. I look at stories like this and have been trained to look at two stories. What is Mans storage or the lower one and what is the upper story or God’s. What is he trying to teach us from the lower story. That’s where the gift of discernment comes in. We may never know but God always has a plan. Why did you or Margaret get sick which is the lower story. How is God using that for kingdom purposes.


    • Really good thoughts to ponder. Maybe the thought is we live in a imperfect world with imperfect people who make some choices that can bring about consequences that are not always expected or prepared for. Who can know the mind of God. I’ve heard it said, life is like a tapestry, and we only see the bottom of all the knots and slipped stitches, but someday we will see the top side and then we will understand the mysteries hidden for now.


  2. Here is the believer’s dilemma. They want to imagine a God who has omnipresence and omnipotence. To do so, they imagine a God who mirco-manages every detail of the cosmos. Then, we also imagine a God who is full of mercy and loves us. Yet, when we see stories of great suffering, suffering which could be easily avoided; for example if the men of the North Pole expedition had stumbled on one of the caches of food, all their problems would have been solved. However, their suffering was tremendous despite their prayers. To think that God orchestrated the entire experience leaves two possibilities, that He does micro manage our lives and is very cruel and unloving at times, or He does not mirco manage and allows some things to play out (as with Job) without His direct involvement, and does love us and is not cruel. Yes, there is great mystery and I know less about God now than 30 years ago.


  3. When I have faced death or other difficult situations I have never believed the interpretation that God would save me now – He very obviously doesn’t save us from most of these things unless it serves one of His purposes. So in trying to hold two apparently opposing truths in my hands I have concluded that God does not see these situations in our concept of time and space. In the continuity between current life and “life after life” I will be saved, healed, made whole and will thrive – maybe now, maybe later, but my current sufferings will seem a blip in my whole life when I get to see the big picture. I – the person I am – will survive. I have experienced Him attenuating my suffering, though not taking it away. And I have heard him howl in agony that He must let me go through it, and that He is experiencing it with me.

    As you know, reality is so much bigger than we see.

    Mike – the special person you are – will survive. And in the “life after life” God will enjoy debating with you face to face.


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