Daybreak, by Harold Fickett (Bethany House, 288 pp.; $14.99, hardcover; $8.99, paper); The Crying for a Vision, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 279 pp.; $16, hardcover).

The purpose of art, the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky said, is to make us see that to which we've become blind through custom or habit. Art is a "making strange," as in Tolstoy's story "Kholstomer," where we see human institutions from the viewpoint of a horse—and experience the uncomfortable shock of recognition.

Like all theories of art, Shklovsky's is ultimately too confining, but it yields more insight than most. Familiarity dulls perception. How, for instance, can a pastor preach his twenty-seventh Christmas sermon without going on automatic pilot? How can his congregation hear him? That challenge continues all year round.

Two new books by Christian writers reveal art's power to renew vision. In "Daybreak," billed as the second installment in a six-book series, Harold Fickett gives us what at first glance appears to be a historical saga a la John Jakes. In the opening volume in the series, "First Light" (CT, Sept. 12, 1994, p. 75), young Abram White made his way from Ireland to colonial America, endured years of indentured servitude at sea, built a modest fortune, and wed the beautiful and wealthy Sarah Nicholls.

"Daybreak" picks up the story almost ten years later, in 1765, with signs of friction between the still-childless couple. The cover illustration shows a ruggedly handsome dark-haired man flanked by two women—one dark, one fair—and, to balance the composition, a fair-haired man, not quite so impressively masculine: a painter at work at his easel.

In short, "Daybreak" looks like the kind of book that is consumed like ...

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