One-Minute Book Reviews

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

6 Comments »

  1. Brilliant. I couldn’t agree more. I think Albom means well and that he touches something that many people identify with and find hope in but his insights are so shallow and often painfully obvious that I have to wonder how it is that others don’t know these things already. Maybe, for them, he serves as a cautionary tale: if you are shallow and self-centered, you, too, would miss out on life’s obvious lessons. Maybe they enjoy the fact that a self-centered egoist finally sees the light that other people matter. I’m not quite sure, but I am fascinated.

    Comment by Jon — November 9, 2009 @ 11:20 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Jon. The egotism in this book is cloying, and it starts early.

      On the first page, Albom has Al Lewis telling him he thinks he’d be a “good choice” for his eulogy. I didn’t mention the frequent self-congratulation mainly because the book has so many other problems. And I wonder if this is one of those cases where the egotism masks a deep insecurity — if Albom is trying to reassure himself of his worth as much as others. But I’m glad you brought it up because I’m sure it will turn off some people, and you’ve warned them.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 9, 2009 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

  2. I really enjoy your reviews but I do think you are a little too precise in your critique of language. “January arrived and the calendar changed.” is, to my mind, perfectly ok. The change of calendar can be a physical act – take down the old one, hang up the new one – or used to intensify the image. Calendar changing is a physical event, years arriving an imaginary one.

    Comment by Azalea — November 9, 2009 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

    • Hi, Azaela: Maybe I should have mentioned that I am a high-school English teacher’s daughter, which may explain help to explain my linguistic fetishes. Using “like” as a conjunction was a capital offense in our home.

      About the calendar: Albom isn’t taking down a paper calendar here. (I agree that if he’d done that, he might deserve a pass.) One problem with Albom generally he spells out so many obvious things; it seems to be part of his appeal.

      But because Have a Little Faith is reasonably short, any overexplanation doesn’t slow down the book as much as it did, for example, Chronic City, which I reviewed last week. And I’m glad to have comments like yours, because I know from having reviewed Albom before that this post is likely to get thousands of visitors, a lot of whom may agree with you more than me.

      Thanks so much for your comment!
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 9, 2009 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  3. My father was a word freak, too, possibly because it was his second language. He insisted that “marketing” meant buying food while “shopping” meant anything else. Probably true when food was sold only in outdoor markets in The Old Country but ridiculous in Brooklyn.

    A friend’s husband corrected me when I said I’d “never seen that before.” _His_ father would always point out that ‘never seen’ was enough, didn’t need the ‘before’. I’m not going to stop saying it, though – I like intensifiers (also exclamation points! and ellipses… )(smile)

    Comment by Azalea — November 9, 2009 @ 3:48 pm | Reply


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