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Mathis explores the matter of the soul

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What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better By Deborah Mathis, Atria Books, hardcover, $22. All you philosophy majors will surely forgive me if I’ve got my quote or quoted wrong — “Intro to Philosophy” was oh, so many years ago — but I believe it was Kierkegaard (see previous review) who said that man trying to figure out God was like a starfish on the bottom of a shallow pool trying to figure out a hawk flying overhead in the sky. Just because we’ll never “get” God doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, however. Trying to solve the mystery behind those Mysterious Ways may be fruitless, but it’s also the thing that makes spirituality and religion worth so much more than a day off on Sunday. What with all that, we’ve got to respect Little Rock native Deborah Mathis for tackling the topic in her new book, “What God Can Do.” While the book dissolves into a syrupy, Oprah-esque mess of testimonial and tearjerker when she writes of the experiences of others, those parts where Mathis speaks on the way God has worked for her sing with life, and are the soul of what soulful religious writing should be. Chief among these might be the first episode in the book, in which Mathis details her father’s diagnosis with incurable cancer in the early 1960s — and her prayers that he might be spared. In religious writing in general, there is too much of a tendency to rub your nose in the writer’s religion and sense of God, to shout Hallelujah at the drop of a hat and then give you what a great writing teacher of mine called the “Well, Timmy” — as in “Well, Timmy, what you’re supposed to learn from this is …” As is typical with most of the personal recollections in “What God Can Do,” though, Mathis plays it cool, allowing the reader to slowly gather her ideas on the matter a little at a time, like sips of cool water. Given that careful approach, what looks at first to be a textbook example of how a child’s prayers go unanswered becomes a strange and beautiful story about how God lives in every rook and rocking chair. By the time you learn that her father lived for 24 years beyond his death sentence, Mathis doesn’t have to tell you he had been covered by the sheltering hand of God — you know it. It’s enough to raise goosebumps on your arms. — David Koon

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