Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?
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Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?

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by Reynolds Price

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In April 1997 Reynolds Price received an eloquent letter from a reader of his cancer memoir, A Whole New Life. The correspondent, a young medical student diagnosed with cancer himself and facing his own mortality, asked these difficultQuestions. The two began a long-distance correspondence, culminating in Price's thoughtful response, originally delivered as the Jack


In April 1997 Reynolds Price received an eloquent letter from a reader of his cancer memoir, A Whole New Life. The correspondent, a young medical student diagnosed with cancer himself and facing his own mortality, asked these difficultQuestions. The two began a long-distance correspondence, culminating in Price's thoughtful response, originally delivered as the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at Auburn Theological Seminary, and now expanded onto the printed page as Letter to a Man in the Fire.

Harvesting a variety of sources -- diverse religious traditions, classical and modern texts, and a lifetime of personal experiences, interactions, and spiritual encounters -- Price meditates on God's participation in our fate. With candor and sympathy, he offers the reader such a rich variety of tools to explore these questions as to place this work in the company of other great tetsaments of faith from St. Augustine to C. S. Lewis.

Letter to a Man in the Fire moves as much as it educates. It is a rare combination of deep erudition, vivid prose, and profound humanity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Boston Sunday Globe Deeply thoughtful...Price's own faith underlies the whole argument, while his intelligence probes the sources of that belief....comforting and consoling.

Craig Nova The Washington Post Book World What is inspiring about his book...is the dignity and honesty of Price's beliefs....The solace comes...in his sensibility, which is one of concern, empathy, and dignity....At once inspiring and profound.

Edward Hirsch The New York Times Book Review Courageous, learned, intuitive...a small book with a large reach.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In April 1997, novelist Price (Roxanna Slade) received a letter from a young medical student, Jim Fox, stricken with cancer, whose comments implied two simple but powerful questions: "Does God exist?" "If God exists, does God care?" Price responded to the letter immediately with a phone call, and he followed this call with a long, thoughtful letter on the nature of suffering and the justice and righteousness of God. Price admits that he is no theologian or regular churchgoer. He tells Fox that he is compelled to answer the letter because of being a "watchful human in his seventh decade who harbored a similar killing invader deep in his body a few years ago and who thinks he was saved by a caring, though enigmatic, God." Price's eloquent letter to Fox courses through the Bible, Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, Dante, T.S. Eliot and Milton as it attempts to offer solace to a suffering fellow soul. Through his reading, Price concludes, "I have no sense whatever that God chooses to notice individuals who look especially `noticeable'... the stinking wretch on the frozen pavement, the abandoned orphan... may be of no more concern to God than I and all my social peers." The "steady notice of God" is likely to cause suffering, he says, and points to the lives of Joan of Arc and St. Francis as examples. Price also explores briefly some of the classic explanations of God's part in allowing suffering and finds inadequacies in every one. In the end, Price can simply say to Fox, "I know I believe that God loves his creation, whatever his kind of love [Price's italics] means for you and me." In an afterword for "further reading, looking, and listening," Price provides a nicely annotated list of classic works, from Dante and Milton to Bach, Mahler and Mark Rothko--poetry, music and art that raise the questions of God's justice and evil. Price's letter offers more wisdom and eloquence on this topic than many of the traditional theological writings on the subject.
Library Journal
Well known as a novelist and poet, Price has had a lover's quarrel with Christianity for many years. This letter, a kind of open response to the travails of an acquaintance facing probable death from cancer, represents his struggle with the questions of Job. Price's ever-engaging prose does not offer new solutions to the problem of evil, but many readers will gain comfort and insight from his depiction of a noninterfering but deeply loving God. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/98.] Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Robert Wilson
...Price makes no more serious argument for God's existence than that "my belief in a Creator derives largely from detailed and overpowering personal intuition, an unshakable hunch"....As to the question of whether God cares, price....suggests that our inability to comprehend a God who is less than fully attentive...has to do with our confusing his love for his creation with a benign paternal love.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Edward Hirsch
...[M]akes a courageous, learned, intuitive stab at a subject that has preoccupied some of our most profound artistic witnesses and theologians....gives a troubled but resounding "Yes" to the question of God's existence....the author speaks directly from personal experience of his own spiritual openings...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In line with such cultivated, if sometimes fusty Christian apologists as C.S. Lewis, NBCC Award–winning novelist Price (for Kate Vaiden, 1986, etc.) calls on reason and experience to substantiate belief in a providential God, even in the face of great suffering. A Whole New Life (1994) was Price's account of his faith-inspiring recovery from spinal cancer. A young medical student, also suffering from cancer, read the book and wrote Price asking for spiritual insight into his own pointlessly worsening state. This short book expands a letter Price composed in response and read in the fall of 1997 before an audience at Auburn Seminary in New York. Price never sent the letter to its first intended reader, who withdrew from communicating and, soon after, died. But the common public, who have now become the addressee of these words, should not scruple not to read them for fear of intruding on a private intimacy of two. The address to the young man is more an occasion for Price to attempt reconciling two distinct voices within himself: on the one hand, a professorial deist in the mold of the 18th-century Enlightenment, who believes with "the vast majority of the human race" and with "most religions"—as a religiously inclined philosophe would indeed put it—that God exists principally as mind and that the soul is immortal; and, on the other, a devout pietist who envisions Jesus Christ washing away all wounds. In the end, Price doesn't so much fashion a unified theodicy out of these two perspectives as situate them at opposing ends of theological spectrum on which readers are invited to find their place—a helpful, if unoriginal, service. Though devoted readers of the prolificPrice will savor this reflection, especially as a follow-up to A Whole New Life, the author's modest demurral at the start of the book, that "few of its ideas would seem new to a well-read adult" is doubtless true. .

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Read an Excerpt


One especially fine afternoon in April 1997, I received two letters, both unexpected and each with contents that complicated the pleasures of the day. The first I opened was from Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. It invited me to give the Jack and Lewis Rudin Lecture at the Seminary sometime in the coming autumn. Their only specification was a lecture on a freely chosen subject of interest to the students of such an institution. Lately, obliged to concentrate, I've declined opportunities to speak in churches or other religious institutions of whatever creed; so I folded the letter from Auburn and thought I'd surely decline it.

The second letter of that afternoon, however, was as compelling a communication as I've ever got. It was a blunt inquiry from a young man named Jim Fox — a stranger to me — who'd recently been forced to withdraw from medical school because of the recurrence in his body of an avid cancer. He had read a book of mine, A Whole New Life, published in 1994. It's a book that recounts my ordeal in the 1980s with spinal cancer. The young man's letter was of such a brief and un-self-pitying eloquence that — despite my inadequacy in the face of its enormous questions about the existence of God and the nature of God's care, if any, for his creatures — I knew I had no choice but to answer it.

Haste was plainly called for, so I responded quickly and no doubt helplessly in a single telephone contact. That helplessness left me feeling, before the week passed, that I should take the opportunity of the Rudin lecture at Auburn and make myself face the young man's questions more thoughtfully and at greater length. I'd write the lecture as a longer reply to my young correspondent. I accepted Auburn's offer then, began to read and think; and I continued sporadic correspondence by e-mail with the young man through the summer as his health seemed to worsen. We were hundreds of miles apart, had never met; and our brief exchanges were unconcerned with his first big questions. But I hoped that these simple exchanges might say the better part of what I meant on the matters that troubled him.

In the summer he sent me the manuscripts of a few short stories he'd written. They expressed a watchful eye and a patent intelligence, but I was unable to think they were publishable. I suggested instead, and honestly, that I suspected his fruitful subject would be his ordeal. There is still a very slender body of readable witness from the endurers and survivors of the kind of scalding he knew so intimately. His next note seemed to take my suggestion in good spirit. All the while, I was reading and making notes for the letter I intended for him and for Auburn. Unsure that I'd have even the scaffolding of an interesting response, I delayed telling him of my plan or its progress.

In the early fall, he wrote to say that he'd decided against returning to medical school for the coming term. A new form of treatment was proving hard. That news hastened me forward in my plan. It seemed better that he see my letter than that Auburn get its lecture. Midway through the fall, then, when I'd finished what felt like a presentable draft — and before I risked intruding on a man in more trouble than I knew — I wrote to my correspondent. No answer. Soon I tried phoning again, in the attempt to invite him to New York for the lecture and the dinner that would follow. At the very least, I hoped to send him my manuscript; but though his pleasant taped voice still spoke on his answering machine, he made no contact in return.

Since his home was far off, and I knew no one among his family and friends, I saw no other immediate choice; and on November 3rd 1997, I read that initial draft of my letter at Auburn Seminary to a courteous audience of students, faculty, and guests. In a brief introduction, I told the audience of my correspondent's April letter; and when I'd completed the reading, I replied to a question about his present condition by saying that I honestly feared he was dead. Once home, I phoned again. No reply beyond his taped calm voice.

Saddened that a stranger — who for months had been so near the midst of my thoughts that he'd come to seem a friend — should have vanished, I resolved to return to work at once, expanding and clarifying the letter in the hope that, failing to reach its original aim, the text might find some use in the hands of others. Additions have more than doubled the length of the draft I read at Auburn. It's longer now than anything I'd have risked volunteering to send to a gravely ill person. But its shape, its tenor, and its steady concern for two large questions remain unchanged. Its title is the merest acknowledgment of my friend's hope and the failure that I must have added to so many others he experienced.

As I was at work on this final draft, I felt the compulsion to know his news at least — this unseen man who'd caught my attention. Yet there was, after all, the chance of the slow but extraordinary kind of recovery that I and some others had experienced. If that had occurred, then all I'd written should at least have the light of his rescue raked backward across it. So I made another call in early December and again reached his tape.

Baffled and beginning to wonder if his family had somehow kept the recorded voice intact after his death, I left another request that he phone me. By then I was allowing for the possibility that, whatever his health, he might have regretted the request he'd made and no longer wished to talk with me. Unknowingly, I might have failed some expectation he'd had in making first contact eight months earlier.

But that night I received a call from a friend of his, a woman who said that he'd asked her to phone me. Through her, he sent me greetings but told me of his reluctance to talk. His friend spoke of a rapid decline and deep depression and said that she could not imagine his "making it far into the new year." He had told me, in our only phone conversation, that he'd entered medical school after several years on Wall Street, but I hadn't wanted to ask his age.

I was familiar, from my own dark time, with such a reticence in lives under active assault. It often flows from a shutting down on all other concerns and distractions except the still hard glint of survival. The focus on that glint can blank all else and can often prove crucial in the hope to last. That radical clear aim can also become a serene death watch. In the face of such news then, I felt that to send the letter so late might border on cruelty. I knew that few of its ideas would seem new to a well-read adult, but a number of my questions and suggestions are hardly conventional consolation. So I sent him my best hopes through the woman. Then I wrote him briefly of the service he'd done me with his questions, and I mentioned having read the letter at Auburn.

If he'd had the strength, the need, or the patience to read it, I'd have sent it on; but I heard nothing more till Jim's friend phoned again on February 24th '98 to tell me of his death the previous day. She'd been right. He hadn't made it far into the new year, and he'd died at the age of thirty-five. She said that — except for a few last unconscious days — he died as himself, closely tended by his family and in his own home.

No other response can stand for the one I didn't receive. In one large sense, I'm left in the baffling silence of one hand beating the empty air — my lone hand oaring in the wake of a friend's departure. I'm unlikely, soon if ever, to know his estimate of the sanity or the wasteful folly of the time I've spent or the words I've ventured (the recommendations for further reading, listening, and looking were added after Jim's death). But I'm surely grateful for his willingness to reach out on the near-edge of a stark abyss and honor me with his questions — the largest of all. Subsequent thanks go to the faculty and staff of Auburn Seminary for their welcome in November 1997, to Jack and Lewis Rudin for their generosity in establishing the ongoing lecture series, and to Carolyn Reidy, Susan Moldow, Nan Graham, Frank Lentricchia, David Aers, Daniel Voll, Eric Larson, and Harriet Wasserman, who made helpful suggestions and encouraged its publication. After my correspondent's death, his sister Mary contacted me generously. She has since told me much of her brother's vivid life; and she's given me a picture of him, taken only eight months before his death. The face is almost startling in the boldness with which his Celtic blue eyes and bold jaw confront the world still with a watchful readiness, no trace of fear.


Copyright © 1999 by Reynolds Price

Meet the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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