Christians who read Freddy’s Book must admit his questions of pride and pleasure are uncomfortable.

Morality is out of fashion, especially in fiction. If a writer wants to suffer the same fate—fast—all he need do is declare for the side of morality. Few writers care enough. Those who do seem to think it is the business of philosophers and theologians, not writers, to stump for that cause. But there are some notable exceptions. John Gardner is one.

Gardner, a teacher, medievalist and scholar, and a novelist, believes that “almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral” (On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, 1978). Not content with that, he cited the novelists who had three flaws, and in doing so made himself vulnerable to the same judgments he used on others. His judges may not have known it, but in doing so they practiced a sound biblical principle (see Matt. 7:1). With his latest novel, Freddy’s Book (Knopf, 1980), we now have a chance to see how moral John Gardner’s fiction is. First, though, we need to look at his definition of morality.

We need to note at the outset that his morality does not begin with orthodox Christianity. Not that Gardner is unfamiliar with it; a quick reading of any of his several books will tell you this. (His first novel, is called The Resurrection, taking the heart of Christianity and turning it into the controlling metaphor for his story.) If at some point he was close to Christianity, that point has long since passed. Now, he says, “fiction is the only religion I have.” (A former student of his told me Gardner was raised in a conservative Presbyterian home.)

Yet the morality Gardner espouses is a kind of leftover Protestant ethic: no longer the roast turkey, but turkey hash or turkey roll. It has some resemblance to the original—if you search hard enough. Gardner wants to focus on reality, not shadows. He wants to help people live better lives, all vaguely reminiscent of Christianity. (For example, Jesus as the light of the world is the only relief from the shadowlands. Gardner’s idea is right—light is better than darkness—he’s just looking for it in the wrong place. Art is a creation of God’s grace, not grace itself.)

To the dismay of his peers, Gardner believes that unless a story deals with right and wrong it cannot be moral—indeed, cannot be art at all. Then he goes a step further (since who doesn’t use the good versus evil conflict; what else is there, ultimately?). You must, he says, deal with right and wrong in the proper way: declare your values; don’t equivocate. Is lust wrong? Say so (within the context of your novel, of course; Gardner doesn’t replace storytelling with preaching). Is greed wicked? Or the love of power? Or pride?

His answers almost come right. His moral instinct seems sound, but he gives no reason why he—or we—should trust it. What are the reasons behind his morality? Why bother? Does it make for a more civilized society? Probably, which may be part of the reason for his stand (though I may be oversimplifying).

In Freddy’s Book, Gardner not only looks at lust and greed and power, he looks at them in the church, which makes this book so uncomfortable for Christians. We know we have problems; we just don’t want to let anyone else know. (And, I might add, we don’t want outsiders pointing out our problems.)

The structure of the novel is a familiar one, a story within a story. Gardner has used it before (October Light; for a review, see Refiner’s Fire, Feb. 18, 1977). Freddy’s Book is literally what the title declares, a book by someone named Freddy (a character in the prologue). The title of Freddy’s book is “King Gustav & the Devil.” The story takes place in sixteenth-century Sweden, when the country is in the midst of political upheaval. Gardner treats the situation as a mere outgrowth of an inner, religious conflict. The Devil plays a big part.

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Everyone except hero Lars-Goren appears to be in league with Satan. Gustav ascends the throne because of a pact he made with the Devil, but then spends much of his reign trying to drive Satan out of Sweden. The central religious figure in the story has decided that the Devil, not God, has the upper hand. If you want power—and that is one of the themes of the book—you had better align yourself with the one who has it and can give it to you.

In fact, power and the search for it faces the reader at every turn of the page. Gustav wants power—to be king of Sweden. Bishop Brask wants power—to create political powers and control the spiritual ones. Certainly, the Devil wants power. His words reveal a desire to control human behavior—for evil, naturally, and not just in Sweden. He is also making trouble in Western Europe (remember the Reformation? asks Gardner).

The Devil was so busy “he could barely keep track.” Later Gardner writes, “plots, counterplots; one would have thought even the Devil would eventually have tired of them, but he did not.” He is everywhere, whispering in the participants’ ears, egging them on. Only Lars-Goren resists, and only through his fear of the Devil and his faith in Christ. (At least he calls out to Christ in his fear.)

Gardner uses his simple plot to consider more serious questions: the nature of evil, the nature of God (or his existence; it may be the same thing to Gardner), the truths of the Reformation, the interpretations of Scripture. Imbedded in the dialogue are long stretches of theological arguments. In the latter part of the story the dialogue becomes almost completely theological. Are the Lutherans right? What does Scripture really say? Bishop Brask responds to a young, earnest priest: “Human pride! Beware of it! What a pleasure it would be to impose one’s opinions on the world through the mouth of God himself!” Is he speculating that the Reformers were doing that? Or that the Catholic church was?

Gardner is a brave novelist to write such a book. How many critics know enough about church history or theology to comment? Do they even know enough to recognize that Gardner is being theological? He is serious, at any rate, about his quest for morality. If he doesn’t know the answers, he at least knows the questions.

Christians who read Freddy’s Book must admit that his questions are uncomfortable. (And, not to dismiss his skill lightly, he does so with precision, wit, and some fine writing; here is a first-rate teller of tales.) Do any of us know how pure are our motives? Do we want to be known in our circles as humble, pious, spiritual? Why? Could all of our pious pretensions be merely a mask for less-than-pious motives? A desire for glory or fame or a good name? Do we sincerely seek Christ’s kingdom for his sake, or do we seek it because it gives us a fine reputation among our peers?

Gardner seems to say with Augustine and the Reformers generally that every person’s motives have something of evil in them; that none of us is without sin, hardly an original view of human nature. Paul stated something of this in the first century. But we read Romans—perhaps too often for it to retain its impact. Can an avowed non-Christian provide us with the punch that Scripture, through familiarity, may have lost? I think the answer is yes. God gives certain people insight and ability to prick our consciences, to bring us up short, to force us to say, “Yes. I have spiritual pride. I have greed and a lust for power.” Such a one is John Gardner. He has done his job. The rest is up to us.

Cheryl Forbes is project manager of The Genesis Project, located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

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