Japan & Rob Bell aren’t the only earthquakes


Kent Annan is best known as the head of Haiti Partners, a faith-based, grassroots educational program that was working on the ground in Haiti when the January 2010 earthquake killed thousands and shattered many communities. His new book, “After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken,” reminds us that Japan is not the only devastating earthquake affecting thousands of lives. And, Annan’s book—published by InterVarsity Press, an evangelical publishing house—also reminds us that Rob Bell isn’t the only young evangelical startling readers with what Annan calls “honest faith.”

To be clear: Rob Bell is writing about salvation, Heaven and Hell in “Love Wins”—and Kent Annan isn’t. Rather, Annan is writing about a spiritual issue nearly as vital as salvation: the question of how such horrific tragedy can happen in a world with a supposedly good and loving God. And, to be clear: The world is watching Japan right now because countless families still are at risk from the post-quake nuclear accident—and Annan isn’t addressing Asia. Rather, Annan is writing about the aftermath of the earlier catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, where impoverished families still are struggling to rebuild some semblance of life—more than a year later.

If you’re part of a small-group in your congregation, you’ll have no shortage of spirited discussion about “honest” faith—and about the impact of global quakes—if you order a copy of “After Shock” from Amazon—and plan a series of discussions this spring.


DAVID: Let’s start with your background. I suspect most readers haven’t seen your name before today—but, if this book is any indication, we’ll be hearing a lot more about your work in coming years. Right now, you’re 38. You’re a graduate of Princeton seminary. What’s your denomination?

KENT: I’m currently Lutheran. My wife is an associate pastor in a Lutheran church.

DAVID: Your book explains that in 2003, you began working in Haiti, where you and your wife Shelly lived for some years—without electricity or water in a basic little Haitian house. Now, you live in Florida largely for the benefit of your two children. You “commute” between Florida and the educational projects your nonprofit sponsors in Haiti. But, we should explain that your book is only partly about Haiti. It’s also an important look at a timeless theological question: Why do tragic things happen to people, if God is good?

KENT: That’s right. This book comes out of our experiences in Haiti with all of the disasters over the past year. Since the earthquake, during the day, I focus on the “hows”—how to help schools rebuild in Haiti that collapsed in the earthquake and how to respond long term. But in the evenings, I’m very much wrestling with the “whys”—why do such things happen? When I see everything around me crumbling like it did in Haiti, I want to know: Does anything in my faith crumble as well?


TONY CAMPOLODAVID: In this book, you say you’re searching for honest faith. What does that mean?

KENT: It’s my way of saying that I want to unblinkingly stay involved and engaged in the world, but I also want to refine our faith so that whatever is not true—whatever little lies we may be telling ourselves about our faith—collapse and disappear, too. I want to find what is true in my faith and what can endure. That’s honest faith.

DAVID: You’ve got impressive endorsements from Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Do you know them well?

KENT: Shane and I both are part of a network that Tony Campolo put together through a series of retreats. Tony and his son bring 30 to 35 of us together every December for a retreat—writers and speakers and people who lead nonprofits. We get a chance to learn from Tony and from each other.

DAVID: We’ll be publishing this interview in the same week we’re writing about a controversial new Rob Bell book. You’ve got some pretty controversial ideas in your book, too. You’re trying to demolish a lot of the tried-and-true lines that people sometimes use when a tragedy occurs. Any negative feedback on your book yet?

KENT: No (laughs) and perhaps that means I need to do more marketing. I’ve been surprised actually that I haven’t heard more criticism. This book pushes people to be really honest about our faith—and I think that people who read it are going to feel challenged.


BEFORE THE QUAKE: One of the local Haitian-built schools that Kent Annan’s program helped to support.DAVID: I agree and that’s why we’re talking today. I think your book is terrific for small-group discussion. Here’s an example of things you’re targeting: We all have heard well-meaning friends or clergy telling grieving families little encouraging things that they think will make them feel better. Someone dies tragically and people might say: “We can’t understand this, but God had a plan for this death.” Or, here’s another thing that you reject in this book. We’ll see one life pulled from deadly rubble and people will say: “It’s a miracle! God blessed that person!” But, if you’re grieving loved ones who died in that same collapse, then that means God didn’t care enough to rescue your loved ones.

KENT: Right. It’s one thing to sit with friends and debate answers to such questions, when you’re watching something far away on television. But the devastating experience of an earthquake changes your life. This past year, I had to work with suffering on a huge scale. I spent so many days with friends who were suffering, I went to so many buildings where bodies were still trapped inside—and I came away from that experience saying: Anyone who walks into these situations and says that there’s a simple theological formula of A plus B equals C with God—that’s just pretending. People mean well, but they’re not honestly interacting with the lives and the experiences I saw in Haiti. Until the earthquake, I had never been forced to look this directly at relentless suffering on such a scale.


RIGHT AFTER THE QUAKE: Same school, now in rubble.DAVID: In trying to shock people away from pat answers about suffering—you don’t leave them without resources. One of the great resources you point to is Psalms. In the week after this interview is published, we’re going to talk with Eugene Peterson, the creator of the famous “Message” Bible. Peterson, also, says that the road back from tragedy begins with the Psalms. The first passages of the Bible that Peterson ever translated into contemporary language were from Psalms. He did it, as a pastor, to help people who were suffering.

ANNAN: I turned to Psalms myself in the weeks after the earthquake because I found it hard to pray. You’d think it would be easy to pray with so many people in grief and suffering. But one of the only prayers I found that I still could pray was: How long, O Lord? How long!?! I was working such long hours. I was going down to Haiti in those first weeks and I was facing buildings with bodies still trapped inside. We were trying to help survivors. And I would pray again and again: How long, O Lord? How long!?!

DAVID: So, what’s wrong with declaring a “miracle” when we see a survivor pulled to safety against all odds?

KENT: I hear that line from friends and people in church—people say it in all sincerity. They’re looking for hope in a hopeless situation. When someone pulls a 12-year-old girl out of rubble after days—it can seem like a miracle. But 79 other people died in that building! I see that bigger picture and I know the suffering of all the families who lost lives in the rubble, who lost their homes, who lost everyone they love—and they didn’t get that miracle. Miracles are invoked so often in situations like Haiti that it all becomes absurd to people on the ground trying to survive and recover.

DAVID: You write that, while such an instinct is sincere, it’s really a sign that we’re anxious about the reality of God. We’re trying to defend God’s goodness in the face of such tragedy, right?

KENT: Yes, it feels to me like an attempt to protect God and to protect our own faith. But these claims now ring more false to me than they ever did before. I always felt that there was a problem with these claims, even before the earthquake, but after living this past year with people of Haiti—such claims hit so hard that I can see how they push people down the road toward agnosticism or atheism.


YEAR AFTER THE QUAKE: Thanks to help from Kent Annan’s nonprofit, that same community now has a new school, built better than before.DAVID: At one point, you write that this “straw God” is “out of whack.”

KENT: If we use those easy phrases in church or in casual conversation, then we’re not stopping to think carefully about this. Do we really believe in a God who has a plan to crush an entire family and save one girl? When we talk like that, it leads to people having a hard time believing in God at all. Before long, God can seem irrelevant. For me, I want my life to be about reverence. I do believe in God. I want an honest faith that doesn’t rely on little lies.

DAVID: I find lines in your book that are very similar to lines in Rob Bell’s book about the nature of God. You both believe in a God of goodness, a God of love. So, when people say that, somehow, God had a plan in taking someone’s life—you write in response: “Wouldn’t any plan this flawed be sent back for major revisions?”

KENT: When people say “God had a plan” in the face of tragedy and death, they’re really reaching for something we all want. People are trying to hold up goodness. They’re trying to affirm hope. But, so often these words are spoken in a context of something horribly wrong, like the earthquake in Haiti. If people stopped and got a better perspective on what they were saying, then we’d realize that, if we’re saying God made this plan, then we have to admit we’re in terrible hands. This puppet master is monstrous. Saying the easy thing only sets people up to be even more vulnerable the next time. People can give up believing in this kind of God. I know that I can’t believe in a God with such a monstrous plan.

DAVID: Again, you remind me of Rob Bell. When Rob is talking with atheists who criticize the flaws in a lot of what passes for religion in America, he likes to respond: “I agree with you. I don’t believe in that God you’re describing, either.”

KENT: This is difficult, but it’s much better to be honest. It’s better than trying to patch over everything with excuses. We can’t make the tragedies in this world go away—and if we try to patch up the world’s wounds with lines like these, then we’re doing more damage down the road.

DAVID: I find your book very inspiring. Readers may be surprised to hear that, considering the hard truths we’re discussing here. But, you have a deep faith. One of the pillars of your faith is that God doesn’t want us to look away from the world’s pain. You describe Christians as the people who don’t turn away.

KENT: That’s right. My Christian faith is that I don’t have to have easy answers for everything. I do find incredible hope in Christ as we stumble forward. If Christ is true, then I don’t have to defend God. I can love God and follow God. I don’t have to be on the defensive for God. I want people to find faith that’s robust and strong and that will help them find hope in this very beautiful—but also very horrible—world in which we all live.


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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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