A Good Story Needs More than Good Answers
I never really had a conversion experience. That hallmark of evangelicalism escaped me, born as I was into a family of churchgoers. I prayed a prayer when I was four and received a small, pink Bible, and that was that. My experience growing up in the church has been a very good one, but I recognized the stories of countless friends of mine in Chris Walker, the protagonist of Trevin Wax's new "Theology in Story" novel, Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.
I was drawn into the story of Chris's grappling. Post-college, he is engaged and helping to launch a new church in his Knoxville neighborhood, but his deep-seated doubts prevent him from fully committing to either his work or his fiancée. A weekend with his grandfather, Gil, a retired preacher, promises to challenge Chris's doubts from the beginning. Gil is meant to be old-timey, singing hymns and referring to "King Jesus," while Chris, a recent college graduate, is consumed with intellectual objections to the claims of Christianity and, by extension, the faith of his grandfather.
Part of what is difficult to discern in Clear Winter Nights is just where Chris's struggle with his faith comes from. He has learned not long ago that his father, whom he had revered for years, cheated on his mother years ago. Yet that event is never directly linked to the upheaval of Chris's Christianity, which feels like a conveniently manufactured crisis throughout most of the book. We also see Gil systematically deal with every one of his doubting grandson's objections to the Christian faith—the practice of evangelism, the exclusivity of truth, homosexuality, morality—within the space of two days! The result of all this is that after one weekend with his grandfather, Chris's shaky faith has been transformed completely. Everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. (I would add "Spoiler alert" here, but the book unfolds so predictably it's hardly necessary.) Chris is close to forgiving his estranged father, has decided to reunite with his fiancée, and wants to be just like his grandfather when he grows up: "Firm in his convictions, sophisticated in his arguments, yet without the rigidity that comes from a hardened heart."
The troubles that Chris had with the church are common enough: "In the churches Chris had belonged to, 'Love one another' meant 'Stay on the surface.' Avoid conflict at all cost. So church was full of nice-looking people who smiled at each other, suppressed their disagreements, and for the sake of 'unity' made sure that every possible conflict was squashed before it could lead to a difficult situation." This critique is never really dealt with in the book, so that we only get to questions of knowledge and doctrine. I would have loved to see Wax take on the problem of superficiality in the church, and would have loved to see Chris participate with his grandfather in some way other than youthful defiance and questioning.