An author who should he read, if you can find his works.

Evangelicals are always quick to bemoan the absence of literature written by gifted writers brought up within and sympathetic to evangelical Protestant Christianity. In light of that complaint, it is unfortunate that through neglect the works of the Swedish writer Olav Hartman have gone out of print.

At least four of Hartman’s works have been translated, and they were published in the U.S. until the mid-1970s: his novels Marching Orders and Holy Masquerade (Eerdmans, 1970 and 1971); Earthly Things, a book of essays dealing with Christian apologetics (Eerdmans, 1968); and a collection of three plays, titled Three Church Dramas (Fortress, 1965). Hartman also wrote critical essays and collections of sermons, most of them never translated.

Born in 1906 of parents active in the Swedish Salvation Army, Hartman joined the national Lutheran church and was ordained in 1932. He served as a pastor and as director of Sigtunastiftelsen, a Christian educational and cultural foundation in church drama. A pioneer in this area, he wrote several church plays. They have been described by Robert E. Seaver, professor of speech and drama at Union Theological Seminary, as “meeting a critical need in the church, chiefly with respect to the nature and function of drama that should be performed in places of worship or within the context of a service of worship … authentically scriptural and liturgical … radiant celebrations of the Word.”

Hartman himself described the purpose of his dramas as always “to be in the service of the Christian message, its distinctive aim to proclaim God’s word to the congregation, to express their intercessions before God” (Preface, Three Church Dramas, p. viii). He added that such a view of drama and worship as proclamation and intercession “faithfully reflects the character of much of the Bible.…” The intercessions before God are made directly by the congregation through the singing of hymns. These hymns are divided into stanza groupings, and occur at different points in the play as prescribed by the playbill.

The subjects Hartman chose for the three plays translated into English underline the truth of his contention that “there must be a reestablishment of the relationship between cult and drama that lies behind considerable sections of Scripture” (Preface, Three Church Dramas, p. ix).

“Prophet and Carpenter” is about Jonah. On one level Jonah is the disobedient prophet, one of the many self-proclaimed righteous who experience the gospel of God’s grace as unwelcome and incomprehensible. The carpenter is also simply a carpenter in Nineveh. Nineveh is Nineveh; the ship is the ship; the sea is the sea. On another level, however, Jonah foreshadows a greater prophet as does the carpenter, repairing what is broken, going into, not away from, the city.

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In “Crown of Life,” a drama based on the Genesis account of Creation and the Fall, an analogy is drawn between Adam’s temptation and Christ’s. Being “anti-Christlike” as Hartman put it, is one of the worst sins; Christ obeyed God, and Adam did not.

“The Fiery Furnace,” the last play in the English translation, is a synthesis of Revelation’s account of the Lamb opening the seven seals and the description in Daniel of an encounter between a heathen dictator and the Israel of God. The time of the play is the end (Matt. 24:14). It is set at the axis between heaven, indicated by the four beasts at the altar, and earth, marked by the conflict between worldly powers and the church of the faithful. The issues the play presents are eternal: the reduction of the church’s power by the state; the risk of preaching judgment and forgiveness; the demands by Scripture of care for the poor.

Marching Orders, Hartman’s first novel, has been called a satire of the Salvation Army, an organization with which he was well acquainted. Such a statement, however, is a misnomer, for the author notes at the opening: “The objective of this study is not to describe the Salvation Army, nor is it possible to say of the people it is about: ‘Salvationists are like that.’ They do not appear in the book in order to show what the Army is like; but the Army appears in order to show what they are like.”

What emerges is Hartman’s unflinching disclosure of man’s heart. The reader sits by, smugly watching legalistic, inflexible characters perform, comfortably identifying with the book’s more liberated and gracious Christians. Then comes the shock: the greatest legalist of them all, a character nicknamed “The Knife” for obvious reasons, is the only one who exhibits true repentance. On the last page, she remains kneeling at the altar, having acknowledged her sin and received forgiveness. The question confronts one: “Have I seen my sins that clearly?” Hartman has turned the tables abruptly; complacency is impossible.

While strong in its message, Marching Orders is a weaker work, suffering from stereotyped characters and wooden, predictable dialogue. Far stronger and more intriguing is Holy Masquerade, a story about secular man confronting the message and people of the church.

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An unswervingly honest non-Christian, Mrs. Klara Svenson, the minister’s wife, is its lead character. She intends to penetrate the authenticity of her husband’s and his parish’s faith. She discovers a holy masquerade but also her own fierce hunger for faith. As the weeks of Lent proceed, so does the unmasking of the characters, an unmasking made almost bizarre by the minister’s inability or refusal to see his unbelief and his view of his wife’s increasing faith as insanity. His faith is an external exercise that has refused to reach his heart. “Albert,” Klara reflects, “talks a great deal about the need of the world but in general sleeps very well and snores considerably … has a mask and lays it aside more and more seldom.”

Klara despises the kind of religion he perpetuates: “His skepticism and his faith are both a fog where it is easy to lose your way, for he is knowledgeable, if one can have knowledge of that which lacks all fixity. But he will become rector on the strength of it, believe me.”

Her indictment of wishy-washy theological liberalism is absolute; what she longs for is a familiar and contemporary cry, but in poignant terms: “Oh, to live in a time with clear colors, when the ministers believed in angels and devils and atheists were burned at the stake just as if they had been martyrs of the faith. It is terrible to doubt when there is no real faith to doubt in but merely beautiful words.” She cries for an uncompromising providence and a divinely ordained world in which, as she puts it, “black is black and white is white.” She does not go unanswered; God’s grace meets her need, though not in predictable ways.

Nathan Scott, theologian and writer, commented about Hartman that “he explored moral ambiguities of Christian existence with a subtlety and pathos that puts one in mind of Mauriac, Bernanos, and Greene.” While such comparisons are always faulty at best, it is true that Hartman dealt honestly and incisively with the greatest issues facing Christians living in a fallen world.

Let us restore Olav Hartman to print, to our bookshelves, to our curriculums, to the active list of those who have remained true to their faith, vision, and art. Let’s take the edge off our complaints.

ROSALIE DE ROSSETMiss de Rosset is assistant professor of communications at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago.

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