I am squeamish about books regarding faith. I have almost a visceral resistance to them. For one thing, it can all go downhill pretty quickly once you depart from the poetry that is the Old and New Testament. (Okay, Leviticus is not exactly lyrical verse, so I stand immediately corrected, but I think the Book of Psalms pretty much knocks it out of the park.)
I am also incredibly, inexplicably lazy about my “faith” reading. I scan the sky and it doesn’t look like it’s raining apocalypse this minute, so I figure G.K. Chesterton, like heaven, can wait. We have three crisp copies of Tim Keller’s The Case for Christ on a shelf; all unread. When Bob Goff’s antic Love Does swept through the Christian community like a comet a few years back, I was entertained but not moved. It took me twenty years to get around to reading Mere Christianity. And dust has gathered on a bookmarked copy of The Confessions of St. Augustine. I have every intention of finishing it. Someday.
So it was with trepidation that I signed up for an advance copy of Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. And with great surprise that I found myself not wanting to put it down. I felt like a fly on the wall as he described his early childhood in Great Neck, New York. My stomach lurched as he courted disaster throughout his school years. Smart kid, indifferent student, repeated cold-sweat classroom moments where he almost but never quite gets caught. I was completely caught up in his drifting odyssey after high school, his daring triumph at getting the girl of his dreams, and I rooted for him as a young journalist and author, toiling in solitude as he churned out reams of fever-dreamed manuscripts.
Klavan has ultimately made a successful living as a writer of crime novels, including Don’t Say a Word and True Crime, both of which were made into popular films. He is skilled at engaging a reader, at pacing the action, at moving the story forward. But this is his story, and as I read I saw the writer grappling with the personal revelations of his protagonist – himself. It is the strength and the weakness of this book. He shares the pain of a clouded childhood, the despair of a broken relationship with his father, a struggle with mental illness. He tells the story so well, but I – perhaps selfishly – found myself wanting him to show me more. He speaks of a “dissociated” mother who seems vague and somehow just out of frame at the periphery of his life, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on what he meant. He describes his father as physically and verbally abusive, and I believe him, but the reader doesn’t quite see where the blows are struck. He draws the curtain aside because he wants to let us see, but it is so painful, and you feel his instinct to protect the people who caused him so much pain. He describes a cathartic journey through psychotherapy but I never quite pinned down the diagnosis. Severe depression, I would guess. His narrative is so vivid that it encourages the voyeur in the reader – I want to see more, more!
Klavan’s story is so absorbing that it could be worthy as a memoir alone. But the personal details are really just the underpinnings of a greater journey, a journey of faith. His family was culturally Jewish, but spiritually bereft. His parents did not believe in God, and they didn’t even think too highly of other Jews. You might say that the family religion was being smart, at which Klavan excelled. Way too smart for something like faith in a Christian God. So you can only imagine the consternation with which he is dragged, after reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment “away from moral relativism and toward truth, toward faith, toward God.”
Yet this is a reluctant, ambivalent journey. One of the successes of Klavan’s book is that his story is as accessible to an unbeliever as a believer. Steeped in literature, psychiatry and philosophy, it is aimed at a critical reader. He is a man for whom “as long as a religion might even appear to serve me as an emotional crutch, I dismissed it as a form of weakness.” He admits that “Whenever I heard someone say Jesus as if he really meant it, it made my skin crawl, as if they’d said squid or intestine instead.”
The surprise of the book, and of Klavan’s life, is not so much that he eventually comes to faith but that he passes through the suffering we all accept as the human condition into a life infused with true, real, actual, no-kidding, no fooling, joy. “I was feeling the joy of my joy”, he says. In our postmodern world, even those of us who believe don’t necessarily expect joy. And, as a skeptic and an intellectual, Klavan seems as amazed by it as the reader. For the Christian, his story is buoying. For even the most cynical non-believer, I have to think it would at least be tantalizing. Who doesn’t want to experience true joy?
For all the faith-based books I have left unread and all those that failed to move me, the exception has been Thomas Merton’s stunning classic The Seven-Storey Mountain. It is generally regarded as the modern-day Confessions of St. Augustine. Klavan’s book is, perhaps, a post-modern version. While it does not purport to stand with the towering Mountain, I did sense a breeze blowing in that direction while I read it.
Klavan’s subject is great and good and so is his book. He concludes that “you cannot know the truth about the world until you know God loves you, because that is the truth about the world.” Along the way he rejects hypocritical religion, he rejects insufficient religion but most resoundingly, he trades the religion of secularism for the cross . “I saw the empty tomb and I had faith.”