Mitch Albom is a writer for the Detroit Free Press and a Detroit radio talk show host. He has a penchant for quasi-religious topics, as in his best-selling Tuesdays With Morrie (1997), in which he recounts the life reflections of his onetime sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, over a long period of regular visits.
Albom’s latest work resonates with contemporary America’s desire for connection, redemption and transcendence, showing how faith is the answer to this human longing. He relies on two sources to aid in his quest, a rabbi and an evangelical pastor. By combining their life stories and religious testimonies, Albom provides a possible modus vivendi for today’s generation of seekers.
Raised Jewish, the author draws on a series of interviews with his childhood rabbi, Albert Lewis, conducted as preparation for the eulogy that Lewis had asked him to offer at the rabbi’s eventual funeral. The discussions affected Albom deeply, making him realize the value of being part of a faith tradition.
Reviewing Lewis’s life, Albom begins to appreciate how Jewish tradition and ritual enabled the rabbi to live securely in a fragile world. Poverty, sickness, prejudice and even the loss of a child could not shake Lewis from his chosen path and his trust in God’s goodness. Albom notes that there was “something calming about his pious life, the way he puttered from one custom to the next.”
The old rabbi tells him, “My grandparents did these things. My parents, too. If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives? Or mine? From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…‘connected.’”
Albom’s other interlocutor is Henry Covington, pastor of My Brother’s Keeper Church. Covington is a recovering addict and former convicted drug dealer. For Albom he is living proof of God’s amazing grace and the redemption that it can bring. He shares with Albom recollections of a tumultuous life. “Well, one night I thought I was going to be killed by some guys I stole from,” the pastor tells him. “So I made God a promise. If I lived to the morning, I would give myself to Him.”
The experience of being saved led Covington to serve the homeless in Detroit, one of America’s most blight-ridden cities. Impressed by those efforts, Albom wrote a series of articles that garnered some much-needed financial help for the church and its ministry. Eventually, Albom got personally involved in Covington’s work. (Some of the revenues from the sale of this book are being donated to My Brother’s Keeper.)
An essential part of Covington’s personal redemption is the hope that he brings to a people and a city experiencing extraordinarily hard times. Albom realizes that faith is accomplishing what the politicians and social engineers cannot.
The rabbi and the reverend both adhere strongly to the belief in existence beyond this world. In a recording the rabbi left to be played at his funeral, Lewis answers two vital questions: first, whether he believes in God; and second, whether he believes there is life after death. He answers yes to both, but then playfully adds, “Now that I know, I can’t tell you.”
Belief in a next world—in the realm of the transcendent—seems to be especially attractive to Albom, as it is for many members of his age cohort (50-ish) because inherent in transcendence is hope. It helps to assuage the feelings of emptiness that are so prevalent today, providing a compelling alternative to the materialism that so infects modern life. It enables us to see beyond the daily tragedies, the foibles of our weak human nature and our imperfect material systems. It brings us a peace of mind and soul that this world cannot give.
Reflecting on all of this, Albom observes: “I used to think I was a smart person who got things done.… So many people are in pain—no matter how smart or accomplished, they cry, they yearn, they hurt. But instead of looking down on things, they look up, which is where I should have been looking, too.”
While the testimony of these two men of God re-awakened the author’s own faith, Albom seems not to have quite made the leap to full religious commitment and active practice. There remains a certain earthbound quality to his perspective, even as he turns his gaze to things above. “God sings, we hum along,” he writes, “and there are many melodies, but it’s all one song—one same wonderful, human song.”
This is a typically American, trans-sectarian optimism that allows Albom to state, “I am in love with hope.”
Still, easy as his message may be, Albom has grasped some essential truths: that there really is a higher power; that through religion it is possible for human beings to be in touch with God; and that we can draw strength from him in confronting our questions, problems and disappointments, and make our own little portion of the world a better place.
Mitch Albom is a significant figure on the media scene. For him to make so public a religious declaration is an important counterweight to the Richard Dawkins-type professional atheists who exert a powerful influence in our current popular culture. And that is no small sign of progress.