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Jonathan Safran Foer: "I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion"

Jonathan Safran Foer spoke on God, prayer, writing, and film adaptations at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing.

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / April 23, 2012

'Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that,' Jonathan Safran Foer said of the movie adaptation of his novel 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.' 'I gave away my right to complain.'

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A Jewish agnostic might not be the most obvious choice as a keynote speaker at a religious conference at a private Christian college named after John Calvin. But Jonathan Safran Foer was one of five “plenary” speakers at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., along with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie, Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt, and activist Shane Claiborne.

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In two sessions, April 19 and 20, author Jonathan Safran Foer ranged widely over topics from his love of sculptor Joseph Cornell, why he would be an obstetrician today without his mentor, Joyce Carol Oates; the movie adaptation of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”; and editing the “New American Haggadah.”

Here are a few highlights:

On religion:

“I'm interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder. I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion. I'm interested in a religion that forces me to take stock in myself. To ask the hard questions: 'Who am I really and am I the kind of person I wanted to be?' … Whenever religion is used to have it both ways, that makes me uncomfortable.

"Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac – these are the greatest stories ever told – the most important stories in my life. But I do think of them as stories. I don't read Bible literally, or maybe I do: I believe literally in the values spoken. Do I believe Abraham literally took his son Isaac [up on a mountain] to sacrifice him? I don't find that question all that interesting. I do find the undercurrents incredibly interesting and important.”

On the existence of God:

“It's something I continue to think about. I will never come around to idea of an anthropomorphic God.

I'm also uncomfortable with the word God.... I'm agnostic about the answer and I'm agnostic about the question. There's a definition of God that Christopher Hitchens believed in, and a definition of God that the Pope doesn't believe in. If you could put it into words, it wouldn't be God anymore. … I find the process really fulfilling. The endless search and endless wrestling really valuable.”

On prayer:

“I can't imagine praying to God. But I would like to talk about God in a literary way.

What's the best metaphor for God? Is God an author … a character or a reader? Is there a way to think about who God might be?

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