In City of God, Doctorow’s underlying theme is humanity’s quest for meaning. Everett, the writer-narrator, is compiling a nonfiction account of the way his friend Pem (Thomas Pemberton) is dealing with loss of religious conviction. The son of a clergyman, Pem has repeatedly been disillusioned by his own ethical failures, especially his failure to discover a rational basis for Christian faith. He is considering a complete break with the church—a literal rejection of Christianity and a symbolic rejection of his father.
Then, a seemingly random street crime brings Pem into contact with Joshua Green, his wife Sarah Blumenthal, and their Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism. A large brass cross stolen from the wall of St. Timothy’s is found on the synagogue’s roof. The cross seems symbolic of Pem’s diminished religious conviction: Beneath its brass veneer, it is steel, and it can easily be dismantled because it consists of two parts held together with screws. Pem never discovers the identity or motives of the thieves, but he sees the theft as a sign leading him to Joshua and Sarah, rabbis whose search for the City of God parallels his own. Complicating their quest, though, are stories of the Holocaust told by Sarah’s father, who is sinking into dementia. For Joshua especially, modern society seems overwhelmed by what St. Augustine called “the City of the World,” and he is martyred as he tries to reveal the ghetto horrors, thus ending...
(The entire section is 542 words.)