An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God: Is Anybody Really Listening?, by Paul C. Hale
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/WestBow Press in exchange for an honest review.]
From time to time I get the chance to read a memoir from someone with a religious background or history that is different from my own, even with a personal background that shares a lot of similarities . In this particular case the author has written a deeply detailed memoir that only lives up to about a third of its title, at least as far as this reader is concerned. The life of the author is not an ordinary one, even if he may not feel it is particularly remarkable apart from his understandable appreciation of God’s providential will working out in his life despite his own openly admitted flawed human nature. Neither is this the sort of book that is easy to ignore for those who are reading it, although it is a pretty long memoir and its length may deter many would-be readers. Nevertheless, this is a book about an extraordinary God written by an evangelical Catholic with a complicated set of geographical and religious travels in the course of his life, written by someone who is clearly approaching old age, bragging about his grandkids. This is a memoir worth reading despite its length.
The contents of this book are divided into roughly four sections and are mostly chronological. The initial story of the book takes place, as is common in a well-constructed account, in media res, at the point where the author’s life takes a decisive geographic shift from the Kansas City area to the Southeastern United States, specifically around the base of Atlanta. The author then goes back to a bit of family history, including struggles with alcohol and poverty and broken families and other family problems in the background of him and his wife, including the story of his mother’s ferocious loyalty to his father despite his alcoholism and the urging of many people to leave him and his growing up as a poor white boy in an increasingly black neighborhood. The author, throughout his life, appears flawed in a different way–he was certainly a workaholic who lacked a certain political skill and writes himself as being someone who often forgot during his adult years the blessing of God in the face of frequent health and career crises, including years spent as a supervisor of bus drivers in the midst of intense racial politics. The account includes some dramatic tales–children being instructed by their parents to try to hide from bus drivers in order to collect a hefty settlement from the bus driving company, numerous family deaths from various types of cancer, the fragile reconciliation between the author’s frail and bigoted mother-in-law and the children she abandoned as she approached her own demise, religious drama induced by the tension between the author’s ecumenical interests and the increasing doctrinal liberalism of the diocese into which he was born, an experience buying a house that included narrowly missing discovering a couple of corpses in the basement of the house, which became a crime scene as the author and his wife were closing on the house, the experience of being cheated in an attempt to own their own business in a mini-mall, and the fact that he and his wife kept on having child after child despite some pretty harrowing circumstances. These are not the stories of an ordinary or dull life, despite the author’s desire to show modesty towards his own experiences.
To be sure, this is not a perfect book. In some ways, the author is not the most sympathetic of people with his apparent lack of compassion towards the well-being of his wife and children through his working, semi-nomadic lifestyle in middle age, and through his possibly excessive devotion to fulfilling the dominion mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Despite the seeming intense insensitivity of the author and his obvious driven nature, which may be off-putting to some readers who do not understand the drives of the author’s family background and austere faith in driving him onward, this is a book that really bares the author’s life and soul out before others. It is almost an act of penance, seeking to lay out one’s life as an example of God’s graciousness to sinners, and a reflection of the author’s looking forward to home and his gratitude to the life and the blessings he was given by God. The considerable virtues of this book both as a literary artifact, the account of a worthwhile life, and the exploration of a somewhat unfamiliar religious tradition of born-again Catholics make this a book well worth reading even if the author’s emotional and spiritual maturity can leave something to be desired at times. The book’s considerable virtues more than overcome the occasional flaws. The fact that each chapter ends with a bible reference or the citation of excellent authors only adds a bit more to this book’s pleasures.
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