Whether you want to solve a crime with a gritty street detective, laugh your way to redemption, walk in the shoes of the suffering, or reflect on the beauty of God’s created order, you will be able to find a Christian novelist who is happy to be your companion on the journey.
By Pat Magness
I am not sure why, of all the hundreds of books in the bookstore that day, this particular book, Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, reached out to me. I hadn’t heard of the book or the author before, but somehow I already felt part of the story.
Perhaps the title evoked the memory of the “story in six words” often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Whatever the reason, I purchased the book and was soon residing in its fictional world.
Lamott is an amazing writer who moves easily from a lyrical, poetic voice to down-to-earth details like saltines and Jell-O.
Her characters are far from perfect, and they live complicated, painful lives, often making choices that create more complications. Yet Lamott loves and cares about her characters who are on a sort of spiritual journey undertaken in the context of a community. In spite of all their failings—which are numerous—there is hope for redemption. Over and over the characters are called upon to offer and receive forgiveness, and while neither the offering nor the receiving comes easily, the importance of forgiveness almost echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
The further I read that day, the more convinced I became that I had somehow stumbled upon a Christian novelist, and eventually I found this little note—not part of the novel, but part of the author’s acknowledgements: “I could not get by without the tenderness and direction of the congregation of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.” I loved her choice of the words “tenderness and direction”—we could all use “tenderness and direction.”
Since then, I have read and recommended, and had recommended to me, many books by Anne Lamott. She is a teacher of writing as well as a writer, and her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is practical as well as inspirational for aspiring writers.
Lamott has also written specifically about her own life journey in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Readers respond wholeheartedly to her honesty, sense of humor, ability to laugh at herself, and willingness to make herself completely vulnerable—not to mention her ability to craft beautiful sentences.
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith is a collection of essays based on the events of her own life. Her life experiences—drugs, alcohol, broken relationships—are not my life experiences, but her reliance on God’s grace and God’s ability to bring redemption out of even the most desperate circumstances inspires me in my own difficult circumstances.
Other Lamott novels include Rosie, Crooked Little Heart, and—most recently—Imperfect Birds. Reading her newest novel was more painful than the earlier ones for me, perhaps because most of the characters were teenagers lost in a world that seems designed to destroy them. As I read, I kept looking for the adults who would reach out to them and remind them that life is worth living, that God loves them, that there are meaningful and productive ways to live. By the time I finished the book, I was calling our youth minister to volunteer to work with high school students.
Sharing the Journey
Annie Dillard is a writer whose fiction and nonfiction require the full attention of the reader, but the reward for this attention is a greater ability to see God at work in the world around us. Dillard’s life has been a spiritual journey, and because she is a writer, she has shared many steps of that journey.
Her memoir, An American Childhood, recalls how her wealthy, unchurched parents dropped her off at the most prestigious church in town, where she met and mingled with other children from the country club set—but where she also received spiritual counsel from a wise minister. She also retells her experience of summer Bible camp with a more evangelistic group of Christians; at this camp she memorized extensive passages of Scripture, and her knowledge of Scripture forms much of her literary style, subject matter, and imagery.
Even the title of her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, captures the sense of life as a spiritual pilgrimage—but a pilgrimage undertaken in the world, in a specific place, an embodied pilgrimage, not just a pilgrimage of the mind or spirit. Tinker Creek is an actual creek in Virginia, and Dillard makes it clear that a journey to God occurs in a concrete, specific, material context.
Like Lamott, Dillard has published a book addressed to writers, The Writing Life, a short, poetic book which is as much theological reflection as writing advice. Her collection of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk, contains one essay, “Expedition to the Pole,” which has helped me immensely to understand the church, particularly congregational life in the church. With apologies to the many congregations I have known and loved, I offer you her image of the church as a group of clowns and misfits singing around a piano, floating on an ice floe, voyaging toward the North Pole.
Of her many books, only two are novels: The Living and The Maytrees. I find myself arguing with these books long after the last page is turned. The Maytrees, for example, explores the territory of marriage and divorce, but it pushes the demands of forgiveness and reconciliation to a troubling degree. The novel is not presented as an “issue novel” and is, I think, primarily a novel of character, but the more I engage with these characters, the more I question my own set of assumptions. Less overtly theological than her nonfiction, Dillard’s novels interrogate the meaning of life, death, relationships, and responsibility in ways that challenge any reader—including Christian readers.
If “LOL” is your favorite text message, then you will want to read Handling Sin by Michael Malone. It is a big, fat, hilarious novel presented in three sections: The Call, The Quest, and The Return. The hero of this quest is a middle-aged businessman who is a good Baptist, a good son, a good husband, and about to embark on the most bizarre adventure of his life. Like Don Quixote, it is exaggerated for the sake of humor, and yet it captured my confidence completely, and I entered into the quest—laughing literally out loud for almost the entire 600 pages.
And yet Malone is on a serious enterprise, structuring the book by using the traditional seven deadly sins as well as the sacraments (including Communion, ordination, marriage, etc.) so that the quest is also a pilgrimage, and the hilarity is grounded in a meaningful—not a meaningless—universe. It is a story of love—the love of father and son, of husband and wife, of God for people—and a story of resurrection and hope. Other novels by Malone include Time’s Witness, Uncivil Seasons, and Red Clay, Blue Cadillac.
Marilynne Robinson may be my current nominee for “best novelist ever.” Her luminous book Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and everyone who reads the book is soon describing it in superlatives. Every sentence is beautiful; the characters are complex, compassionate, thoughtful, and worth our close attention; the ideas are profound; the relationships are deeply satisfying. There is not one flashy, splashy false note. Even before opening the book, from the title itself, we find ourselves asking, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” and hoping that the answer will be yes.
The main character is an educated, kindly, self-analytical minister who sincerely attempts to live out the message he preaches in this small mid-American town. Because his best friend is also a minister, many of the conversations in the book are theological—but because they arise out of the reality of their lives, they never seem pasted in. The love of God, the love of people, the love of the earth—all these things and more build an emotionally powerful story that moves me to tears and praise and prayer.
Trying to write about contemporary Christian novelists is almost like describing all the flavors of coffee available at Starbucks. Last year my students introduced me to the world of the Amish romance novel—a category that sounds like it was invented by a stand-up comic, but actually sells very well to a certain demographic. I have also encountered a genre that might be called the church history romance, and Christian bookstores are full of contemporary Christian romances.
Most Christian novelists do not write overtly about theology or put the word “Christian” on the dust jacket, so readers are sometimes surprised to learn that a particular author is Christian. With the release this year of the new movie based on The Hobbit, we will once again be reminded that many Christian writers have written in the fantasy genre, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and—I have recently read—J.K. Rowling. Detective fiction has also provided a home for a number of Christian writers, including G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and more recently the very popular John Grisham.
Steven James, who is almost a neighbor of mine, began as a storyteller, then wrote poetry and devotional literature, and he is now well into a series of crime/detective fiction named for chess pieces: Pawn, Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen. These are fast-paced, suspenseful action books that will hook you and keep you reading. James also has a new young adult fantasy novel, Quest for Celestia.
I think the appeal of both fantasy and detective fiction for the Christian is that there is a battle between good and evil, and the characters have to make serious choices with equally serious consequences.
Whether you want to solve a crime with a gritty street detective, laugh your way to redemption, walk in the shoes of the suffering, or reflect on the beauty of God’s created order, you will be able to find a Christian novelist who is happy to be your companion on the journey. And when you find a really great novel, be sure to let me know, because while we often read alone and in silence, our Christian journey is meant to be shared.
Pat Magness is professor emeritus of humanities and English at Milligan College in Tennessee, and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.
Finding Great Contemporary Christian Literature
Consider attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan—or at least visit its website (festival.calvin.edu). I have heard Michael Malone and Marilynne Robinson speak and read from their works at this festival. Another novelist I heard there is the formerly Russian, now American, Olga Grushin, who wrote The Line, a story of love and redemption set in the days of long Soviet lines; this particular line in the shadow of the cross of a closed church. I have also heard a number of novelists from the Midwest and the plains states, writers like John Hassler, author of Staggerford and Grand Opening, Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong, and Hugh Cook, author of Cracked Wheat and Heron River.
Another great place to learn about Christian writers (and artists) is the journal Image. Each issue includes short stories, essays, poetry, interviews, and book reviews. The Native American novelist Diane Glancy has a story in the most recent issue, and that story could lead you to her novel Pushing the Bear, about the Trail of Tears, or one of her many other works.