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.
Chris is hungry for knowledge, to be sure, and Gil is more than willing to dole it out. Gil is preachy, often gracious but never measured, and I found myself wanting the characters to take a break from their constant theological conversations. I wanted to know why Chris began to doubt, how his father's affair had shaken out in their family, how he and Gil had gotten so close. I wanted to know the characters, but Wax gives us their theology instead, and theology is not a substitute for personhood.
There are small victories with Gil, moments of humanity that keep him from becoming too much a caricature of a small-town priest: He is impatient with Chris, he is proud and loath to ask for help with his physical rehabilitation post-stroke, he doesn't apologize when he knows he should. There is a touching scene toward the end of the book where Gil finds Chris at a bar after Chris has fled the house (alcohol is always a sign of a slide away from faith in Clear Winter Nights), a beautiful picture of the Lover pursuing the Beloved.
"So you're gonna sit here and watch me get plastered?" Chris asks.
"I'm gonna sit here with you no matter what you do," comes Gil's response.
I wish there had been a bit more sitting and less talking; more space and less conversation. The friends of mine who have been struggling with doubt, like Chris, have been asking questions about God for years, if not decades. Nothing Wax presented here was new, theologically speaking, and the swiftness with which Chris came back around to faith made me less willing to receive any of the other morsels in the book.
First, Tell a Story
Clear Winter Nights is not a bad book, but it isn't a fantastic one, either. As it goes, the novel is not an altogether bad place to deal with questions of theology. Inasmuch as theology is bound by stories, novelists may choose to write theology writ large.
Theology in story is a wonderful tool, but only insofar as it remains about the story and not a theological agenda. Wax is in good company here: The theologian George MacDonald was roundly criticized for writing characters too unrealistic for the novels in which he placed them and novels too heavy with theology. Yet MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold, Curate give us such breathtaking passages as this: "I now declare with the consent of my whole man—I cast in my lot with the servants of the Crucified; I am content even to share their delusion, if delusion it be." Heavy-handedness does have its place.
The point of a novel, though, is first and foremost to tell a story. When authors make the mistake of thinking they don't have to develop their characters because their message is so significant, they place themselves above the reader and the experience isn't pleasant for anyone.
For my money, there is no better contemporary novel of faith than Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. John Ames, Gilead's rural retired pastor, deals with religion explicitly but never piously. His conversation is mostly with himself, written in letters to his young son as he is nearing death, and Robinson wrote Gilead with a concern first and foremost for the unfolding of the story. Gilead rewards the reader's attention with such theologically rich passages as this, when Ames is talking about the courage to see God:
"Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
Theology is bound up in story but not contained by it, so the novel can only ever present one small moment of a larger hour. Gilead gives us rich, three-dimensional characters whose theology is a product of their lives and studies. Clear Winter Nights presents us with answers. And as good as those answers may be, they sometimes simplify the grand mystery of faith; the mystery of a changed life or a new mind.
Laura Turner is a writer in California, and a contributor to Her.meneutics. She blogs at www.loturner.com.