The idea for the book came to me in late November 2008 as the plane I was traveling in took off from the Mumbai, India, airport. I had been scheduled to speak on a book tour downtown the very night terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Hotel and ten different sites, killing 165 people. The city went under lockdown and we had to cancel the scheduled event. Instead I spoke at an impromptu service at a small church in the suburbs in an atmosphere clouded with fear and grief. It was eerily reminiscent of what we Americans had experienced on September 11, 2001, when my own church spontaneously filled with people looking for comfort—only this time I was the speaker on the spot.
“Man, we’ve had some interesting adventures,” I said to my wife as the plane banked across the Indian Ocean and we felt safe at last. I started making a list of them on my airline ticket stub. Visiting Virginia Tech the week after a campus massacre. Addressing a convention of alcoholics in Chicago. Interviewing members of China’s “underground church,” with guards posted outside to warn us of the secret police. Interviewing a roomful of prostitutes about their life stories. Attending a rousing worship service in South Africa’s most violent prison.
As each of these events unfolded, at some point I had to stand up and try to find words of encouragement and hope. It struck me, as I reviewed them, that each case presented a “story behind the story” that had never been told. By the end of that long plane ride home, this book had taken shape: ten locations, each with a chapter on the untold story and then another on what I said to the people involved.
What does religious faith offer peasants undergoing persecution, or students recovering from a campus massacre, or women who have spent years of virtual slavery in the sex trade? What good is God in situations like these? For most of my career I have delved into the hard questions of faith, writing books with titles like Where Is God When It Hurts?, Disappointment with God, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? and Church: Why Bother? Most of my books—like this one—have a question as a title because, frankly, my own faith starts with questions.
In this book I tackle perhaps the most basic faith question of all: What good is God? It’s a universal question which I put to the test in ten places on four different continents. Although the book addresses issues of faith, it does so in real-world settings, not abstractly. In my travels I have found a deep longing in almost everyone: the desire for change, the hope that somehow God can wrest permanent good out of this flawed planet and us its flawed inhabitants. Dare we entertain such a hope? This book is my attempt to answer the question. First, as a journalist, I search for a faith that matters. Then the tables get turned and I’m the one who has to speak to an audience hungry for answers. And now you, the readers, join that audience.