Foreign Bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan

Sometimes a book grabs you at the right moment in your life, and it just doesn’t let you go.

I first read Foreign Bodies when I was in grad school, right after Cori died, when my faith in God was something I had because I couldn’t think of a better option. If that seems horrific, I’m sorry.  Death and loss felt  forced on me by Someone I couldn’t just stop loving, but I felt abused and I carried a lot of anger and mistrust. I hid parts of this pretty well from a lot of people, but when it came right down to me and God, there wasn’t a lot of great emotion there.

Hwee Hwee Tan’s book is ostensibly about three young adults living in China. Mei has just become a lawyer, and her childhood friend Eugene’s university buddy Andy gets arrested for gambling. Written from all three perspectives, alternated, Tan seeks to uncover what leads us to the choices we make:

“All the problems that came up on this present Sunday, they all arose because of the foreign bodies within us  – things that happened in our childhood, some big, some small, but all significant; things that happened ten years ago, but still control our lives today; things from our yesterdays that will decide what we drink, dream and doubt, till the day we die. But you can’t see those things, because they’re not on the outside.”

It’s a well-written book, strong characters and good narration, but it’s the description of Christianity that led me to read and re-read this book during my grad school years. Mei’s Christianity is born out of fear at her grandfather’s funeral when she is just a child. She witnesses to an increasingly panicked Andy, an athiest skeptical of a faith he saw characterized in university as:

“…filled with posters of Bible verses, soft-focus rainbows and fluffy kittens.”

And yet, Andy comes to face Him:

“In the end, it was embarrassingly simple…I wished the answer wasn’t just ‘Jesus Christ’. I wished it was something that could only be expressed in French or German or Latin, or maybe even a combination of all three, something like ‘je ne lait achtung Spiritus Sanctus’ – something that sounds really profound…Life is complicated, why should the solution be so simple? If I were God, if I had my way, I’d make the answer so obscure, so incomprehensible that you could only grasp it after fasting under a tamarisk tree for a century or so.”

This is the part of the book that fed my sorrowing soul:

“Like a cold, black coal on the altar, I suddenly spurted to life. My soul caught fire, leapt like a spark, flew upwards towards the heavenly desire, towards the fountain flame. I changed. God created a new world in me. Bleeding like dawn on my soul, He touched and healed the cracks, and this deserted temple roared to life.”

And the end of the book:

“His love fills me – not the soft, cuddly, sentimental, Santa Claus, let’s-all-get-along, flower-power type, but God’s love, a love beyond reason, blind and obsessive, dangerous; a love that devours and destroys, a love that is lethal. I could never desert Him, because He put that love in my heart, the howl Solomon felt for his Bride – Love as strong as death, as cruel as the grave.

That’s how I felt about God at that time in my life, and it rings true even now. It reminds me of the part of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  where Lucy asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if Aslan is safe and Mr. Beaver scoffs, “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I recommend this book. Whole-heartedly, without reservation. It is a realistic picture of Christianity not as we market it, soft and gentle and with clear-cut delineations, but gritty, and real, with grey areas and unutterable truth.


2 thoughts on “Foreign Bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan

  1. so beautiful…both your journey and the quotes…

    i live a country of severe brokenness where everyone believes in god. but no one asks questions, no one doubts, no one flings their anger and fear and helplessness into the face of their creator. instead they accept, everything, from him. and so at every injury and injustice they mechanically, obsessively repeat that all is god’s will and god is good, to themselves, to each other, to god, until their crippled spirits are no longer able to love or interact with god at all. they no longer grapple with incongruities, or god. and in a way they have unwavering faith. but it is a faith that is dead and directionless.

    and sometimes, i think their way is easier. and on the surface it seems more ‘holy’ to just blindly obey and submit. but i would not trade for the world the jesus that i know. the one i barely trust at all. the one who i follow through doubt and resentment and questions. the one i love because i am hurt and broken and unsure. i would not need him if he had not broken me, allowed me to be so crushed. i would not love him if i did not scream and sometimes hate him.

    the world is a violent, horrid place, and if his love were not wild and passionate and uncontrollable enough to stand up to our abuse and questions, then he would be a useless god.

    you are completely right, coral, i think people need to be more honest about how harsh and encompassing the love of god is… and thank god for that…

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