“What is the What” is a novel written by Dave Eggers depicting the events surrounding the Sudanese civil war beginning in the mid 1980s. The story is more of an autobiography of one particular young boy named Valentino Achak Deng. Achak was one of the 20,000 so-called Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles seeking safety from every known danger including the merciless Arab militiamen, minefields, wild animals, starvation and disease. The innocent boy, who began his journey at the young age of 7, witnessed more cruelty and death in the following decade than most people will ever experience in a lifetime.
Both the author and the subject of the novel hoped that the story would bring attention and understanding to the continuing conflicts in Africa. Although there is slight variation, the source of most conflict in recent African history revolves around the same tribal politics. The pursuit of power and greed among the ruling parties remains a constant cause of discord among the African people. As is seen in this novel, it is the innocent who often pay the highest price during the struggle for control and domination.
The title of the book is taken from an ancient Dinka creation myth in which God offers mankind a choice between a known quantity (in the myth this choice is a cow) and an unknown possibility, known as the What. The Dinka people chose the cow as a known source of “milk and meat and prosperity of every kind.” But others, such as the Arabs, chose the mysterious and unknowable “What”. Perhaps there is truth in the myth as it exposes the desire of man to have something more than what he has already been given by God.
This tragic story reminds us that, left to itself, society will cannibalize its own. Safety within society is an illusion and despite the promise to serve and protect, the world will eventually betray its promise. Achak often placed his hope in the next promise of freedom or protection. He did not fully understand the hope we have in Jesus Christ which far surpasses anything this world could offer. In fact, as Paul reminds us, "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:19) There has to be something more than what we experience in this world and scripture affirms that there is.
The average American has not experienced anything like what Achak endured. Yet, we are often the first to pity ourselves and blame our leaders, or even God, for our circumstances. Perhaps if we understood the plight of people like Achak, we would understand how truly blessed we are. All too often, we choose the What – the mysterious unknown that falsely promises something more than what we already have. This is, in fact, the American dream – the promise of more than what we already have. Yet, the story of the Lost Boys reminds us that our world is broken. Our hope for full and complete redemption is yet future. Only through faith in Christ will the desire for safety, security and eternal salvation be fully realized.
After all the inhumanity Achak witnessed, he felt his most important response was “to tell these stories because to do anything else would be something less than human.” Perhaps he believed that the biggest impact he could make was to bring awareness and understanding to the plight of so many of the African people. A story that seems like fiction to most readers, but to the subject of the novel, it is all too real.
What an important reminder for Christians. We too have a story to tell. Our story is also a story of great tragedy. Like Achak, it is a story of a broken and sinful world. But our story does not end there. We have a hope that is not betrayed. Our hope is the promise that one day all things will be made new. We hold firm to faith in a redemption where blood has been shed so that sins may be forgiven. With such a promise, we must tell our story. For us to not tell our story would be “something less than human.”
"This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it’s out in the open. God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple. That is the substance of our Message. We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message. We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That’s what I’m working so hard at day after day, year after year, doing my best with the energy God so generously gives me." (Colossians 1:26-29, The Message)