When God Isn’t There: Why God Is Farther Than You Think, But Closer Than You Dare Imagine, by David Bowden
[Note: This book was provided by BookLook/Nelson Books. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
How does one know one is reading a book by a Calvinist? Well, there are a few signs. The author spends his time alternatively flagellating the audience and himself, makes plenty of positive references to the overrated John Piper (particularly his work on Desiring God), and even approvingly quotes the Westminister Assembly. One can also tell by the way that the author casually tosses around unbiblical phrases like total depravity and makes the book probably about 50% longer than it need have been in the hands of a skillful and less repetitive author. My own thoughts and reflections on the negative nature of Calvinism in our political and religious discourse is sufficiently extensive that it does not need to be repeated here . Suffice it to say that this book is the justification of the absence of God by someone who writes without the sort of graciousness and Christian charity that one would expect. It is a classic example of “feel-bad” Christianity, one that prides itself on a certain erudition and has a lot to say against contemporary Christian practice but does not itself come from the sort of heart that is right with God. It reads like the killjoy Pharisees of the Gospels claiming to be near God and castigating the crowds for their superstition and emotionally-focused worship.
That said, despite the defectiveness of the religious worldview of the author, the contents of this book are deeply interesting and thoughtful and clearly the author is one who has struggled with the absence of God and the problems of reconciliation with both God and man, a subject of obvious and serious personal interest. In these pages one gets a sense of knowing the author for who he is, someone a bit insecure about his place among the elect, someone who feels it necessary to be compulsively honest about his courtship with his wife and his struggle to relate to his father, and his candor is something that must be counted highly in his favor, even if there is a lot about this book that rubs the reader the wrong way, like the bad poetry that begins every one of the book’s sections. The book’s chapters seek some sort of humor, but the book’s sections make the contents of the book plain. The first section of the book talks about when God isn’t there, looking at the types of presence and absence that are the case for God simultaneously. After that the author looks at our pursuit of an absent God through a discussion of a couple of layers of the Song of Solomon. The author has some harsh things to say about contemporary Christianity in his discussion on God’s presence and the Church, and offers a mea culpa for a misuse of the discussion of congregational discipline in a previous book. Section four of the book discusses areas of affliction, abandonment, and absence, while the fifth section of the book discusses the gospel of nearness and contains a great deal of speculation about the afterlife before ending in acknowledgments and notes.
How is one to think about this book? A patient reader will see in it a celebration of the workings of God among the elect in granting us nearness by covering over our sins with the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, so that we may be viewed judicially as being without blame. The author, for all of his faults, clearly has wrestled seriously with God’s absence both in life and in scripture, even if his discussion of the matter is highly colored by his own Calvinist thinking. For example, towards the end of the book he discusses hell in a way that is not biblical but is clearly colored by the hellfire and damnation sermons of the Great Awakening, discussing the torments of unbelievers and of Satan the devil himself in the absence of God. Perhaps his deepest insight with regards to absence in the life of believers is that what hurts the most is when there is absence given the history and the expectation of presence. When we are close to people whose hearts are far from us, when we see others act close with those around them but pointedly ignore us and act like we do not exist, it is hard not to feel a great deal of pain about that if we are sensitive to such matters. Whether or not one agrees with the perspective of the author, and I do not, this book is worthwhile in bringing to light a matter of genuine and frequent concern, and that is the way that we are often absent in our relationships with God and with others, and that because of our sins and corruption, God makes himself absent from us. That is something worth reflecting on often and deeply, in the hope that we may find reconciliation with God and man.
 See, for example: