I review Christian books, mostly nonfiction ones but I do get a Christian Fiction novel or two each month. Occasionally I’ll get one that I enjoy, and frequently I’ll give 3 or 4 stars just because I know the author means well and it’s not too terrible. However, most of the time I’m just not impressed. There are certain flaws that routinely come up with Christian Fiction books, things which seem to be trends that make the books predictable or one-dimensional.
However, most people aren’t interested in long lists of everything being done wrong. It’s usually more effective to talk about what could be done better than to focus the entire discussion complaining about what’s being done poorly. Therefore, I’m doing a series about traits I would like to see more of in Christian Fiction, thus addressing flaws in a more constructive way.
The Long, Strange Road to God
“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
This is the last line of Graham Greene’s sad, moving and deeply Catholic novel The End of the Affair. Taken by itself, the line sounds rather atheistic. Truth be told, the book initially seems very atheistic. It follows a man who’s obsessed with finding out who his former mistress is involved with now, and discovers that she’s actually found something else to love: God.
The woman’s had an experience which she thinks was a miracle, but realizes if it was, that means she has to start believing in God and give up the way she’s living. Old Testament poetry sometimes talk about God as a jealous lover who will suffer no competition, and that’s really what The End of the Affair is about: a man realizing his mistress left him because something stronger that is pursuing her, a lover he can’t compete with.
So the man tries very hard to get her away from faith and to be angry at a God he doesn’t believe in. In one of the book’s more memorable lines, he declares “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”
As it turns out, it’s hard to hate something which one doesn’t believe exists. As the book goes on, the woman finds that no matter what she tries, every experience seems to draw her closer to believing in God. Near the end, the man realizes that not only can he not deny something supernatural is going on, but it seems like God is pursuing him too.
So ultimately, this “leave me alone” line is more of a surrender than anything else. The man started by loudly defying God, declaring he doesn’t believe God exists at all. He ends with a statement that assumes God does exist and that God is trying in a subversive way to claim him, to love him. He’s too tired to come up with any plan of attack, he just blames God for the loss of his mistress and talks about being “too old to learn how to love.” Not exactly a strong defense. In fact, looking at the whole book’s trajectory and how much success his mistress had at trying to avoid God, it sounds like a last-ditch effort before caving in.
In other words, The End of the Affair is about a spiritual journey that blossoms in the least hospitable soil. It’s very different from the kind of spiritual journey seen in novels like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, where the characters have conversations about the Bible and decide based on those discussions to give faith a try. While stories like that capture a kind of conversion experience that many people have, that’s not always how people find God.
Some people take very surprising spiritual journeys, and often emotional and relational factors have as much impact as intellectual discoveries. For example, Peter Hitchens (brother of the famous New Atheist Christopher Hitchens) writes in Rage Against God about his journey back to Christianity, and admits it didn’t happen through intellectual debate. What brought him to faith in the first place was a mix of personal experiences. He had been a socialist, then saw while working as a journalist in Soviet-era Moscow what socialist atheist philosophy led to. When his faith in socialism was gone, he happened to see a painting of the Last Judgment that made him consider whether there was going to be a last judgment. He also found marriage and fatherhood led him to rediscover religious idea he had abandoned. In short, sometimes we find God when everything else we thought would work has failed us. Even things like fear of death or judgment can be instruments God chooses to use to bring us closer to him.
Philosopher Thomas Hibbs talks about some of these ideas in his book Arts of Darkness, a discussion about fictional stories that feature “dark spiritual quests.” These are tales about people who grieve at their struggle to find meaning, and often discover that the answers came in the least expected places. Whether it’s the unconventional Christ figures in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories or the slow sense of guilt and repentance in noir films like Double Indemnity, enlightenment can come in the strangest places.
Bryan Davis’ book Let the Ghosts Speak is a good contemporary example of a dark and surprising spiritual quest. He gives audiences a ghost story in the style of 19th-century gothic writers, and some characters seem to suffer every bad thing that could possibly happen to them. And yet, these Job-like experiences became an opportunity for the readers to ask what they truly hold onto. Is there justice in life, or does Christianity provide something more realistic and yet compelling: the promise that God will make all things right in the end? Can that sobering truth actually be the most encouraging thing, in the face of all of life’s injustices?
None of these ideas are easy, but they are all relevant. Stories that show God may meet us in the valley or on the last bend of a twisted road help us remember that faith is not a “sunny days only” activity. It also helps those who haven’t had sunny experiences to see that faith is available to them too. Life is strange and often hard, and we humans are a broken and complex species. Still, God is clever enough to find us in our shadows and use that dark space in ways we didn’t think were possible.