The Evangelical Novel Comes Of Age

It is good to see evangelical novels come of age—writers choosing to write about real people with real conflicts rather than hiding behind cardboard characters and sloppy, overwritten craft. Until now it seems as though evangelical novelists have buried their talents in fantasy and romance genres because these forms make it easy to avoid the knotty issues of dealing with unlovely human nature and showing the ordinary, even mundane ways grace appears.

That is not to say that evangelicals have not produced some wonderful and sophisticated fantasy novels and romances. Stephen Lawhead’s trilogy, The Pendragon Cycle, is a case in point. His character, Merlin, is a finely drawn, complicated personality. But in fantasies, human conflicts typically become wars between a good king and an evil wizard. In the following novels the conflicts arise between people who carry the good and evil, like wheat and tares, inside them.

Grace Under A Big Sky

From before he married Ezra’s mother, Johnny “wanted a son … someone he could put on a horse and everyone would know that that was Johnny Riley’s boy. Johnny wanted to reproduce himself.” In The Breaking of Ezra Riley (Lion, 192 pp.; $9.95, paper), author John Moore tells the story of a son who, despite his efforts, is unable to follow in his father’s footsteps. Upon graduation from high school, Ezra Riley admits defeat and walks out of town, his bedroll slung over his back. Too much has gone wrong between father and son.

Ezra thought of his father as someone “who commanded attention: when he walked into a bar everyone turned and greeted him.” But there was also a dark side, “the man who screamed and cursed, his Irish face ablaze with anger.… ‘A man’s man,’ his mother had been fond of saying.”

After his father dies, Ezra gives everything he has to become that man. He takes over the family ranch and runs it until drought, hard winters, and poor business decisions test his mettle.

Moore has not only told us a story about filling a father’s shoes, he has made a character out of a region. That character pulls on the lives of the actors as profoundly and unpredictably as God. It is not an easy place, the region around Miles City, Montana: “The heat, grasshoppers, and wind got to women snapping them like rotten rope. The men escaped in drink.” But it commands respect from the men who work it. “Around him were black gumbo hills, their surfaces as dry and scaly as elephant skin, their tops capped by sandstone and shale and stunted scrub cedars. The coulees were a maze of deep, narrow creeks puddled with muddy water, swales blanketed with grass and clusters of dark volcanic rock that looked like frozen lava. Ezra imagined the land as a rough hide stretched over a sleeping volcano. Underneath were subterranean lakes of molten stone and exploding gases.”

Article continues below

The moment of grace comes for Ezra when he realizes he can’t cut it as his father, and the land itself turns dangerous as an Alberta Clipper from the arctic sweeps across it. Salvation comes when he is trapped in one of his father’s coyote traps, and his own son finds him, sent as if by God.

In The Breaking of Ezra Riley, Moore has drawn wonderful, clear scenes and knitted them together in a riveting story that left me thinking about these modern-day cowboys and their country days after I put the book down.

Boyhood’s Nitty Gritty

Summer of Light (Crossway, 214 pp.; $7.95, paper), by Dennis M. Van Wey, shows how devastating family secrets can be while, at the same time, it is a warm, life-affirming novel that takes itself seriously enough to throw in some good humor. Van Wey tells his story from 13-year-old Tommy Kane’s perspective, weaving in the boy’s search for “old silver” buried on a neighboring turkey farm with his reactions to his relatives on an extended vacation, and his grief over the recent death of a friend.

The moment of grace for the Kane family begins when a terrible secret is told and the family patriarch, called “the Chief,” has to face the truth. If he had faced it years before, he would have saved his son, grandson, and great-grandson much suffering. In accord with the biblical promise, the sin stops with the fourth generation, with Tommy.

But the Chief is also a devout believer who stages a gospel meeting because he knows he has failed to instill proper faith in his family. Even though he promised never to forgive his son, Johnny, for killing his favorite son, the Chief has the tables turned on him when Tommy Kane invites his grandpa, Johnny, to the revival. During the meeting, Tommy tests God’s reality by asking him to reconcile the two elders.

In Nightwatch (Zondervan, 141 pp.; $12.95, hardcover), author John Leax is not afraid to get down and dirty, showing us Mark Baker’s boyhood world: a tree where a man was supposedly hung, but also the secret place where an older friend takes his girl; discovering a snake in the pool and skipping a stone off the animal’s head, only to regret having killed the creature; Mark sneaking off from home to explore a cave in order to “break” his best friend with the challenge, only to have his wish come true when his friend breaks his leg; Mark trying to break a fellow cross-country runner by pacing him too fast only to have the boy accepted onto the team; couples parking and drinking on weekend nights.

Article continues below

It is this boyhood world and the slow realizations Mark makes about himself that prepare him for his own encounter with grace. His girlfriend has refused to go alone with him to a fishing cabin, and Mark finds himself facing his own reflection in a pond. Beyond it he sees the dim outline of an old trout, an ichthus, a potent symbol for Christ dating back to the early church, a trout that he had earlier caught and thrown back. Staring at his reflection, Mark Baker curses, referring to himself as an illegitimate son, a one-word confession where he recognizes his status before God. “He immersed his head.… He opened his eyes to see, inches away, the trout hovering effortlessly. Face to face with the trophy he’d spared, Mark, at last, knew as he was known.” Nightwatch is a gritty, spare story of how Christ can use the rough and tumble of boyhood to encounter one of his own.

Sanctified Thrills And Spills

It is often said that in evangelical fiction, once a conversion has taken place the energy fades from a story. Heart of Stone (Crossway, 318 pp.; $9.95, paper), by John Haworth, punctures this stereotype. A middle-aged geography professor, Henry Stanwick suffers a crisis of conscience over a job offer. The request shows him how much he hesitates to serve God fully. He puts off his decision until he returns from guiding American adventurer Tim Vaughn through the Antsingy Pinnacles—weird, mazelike formations in Madagascar.

Heart of Stone is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. It is an adventure in an exotic place where a man comes face to face with his own heart, radical evil, and God amidst international intrigue.

These novels introduce us to people who meet ordinary life no differently than we do. They show us the unique ways God uses the world to usher us into his saving grace. They also happen to be good reads.

Reviewed by Katie Andraski, a poet and writer living in Rockford, Illinois.

Article continues below

A Biddle With Bite

The Adventures of Brother Biddle, by Rob Suggs (Zondervan, $4.95, paper). Reviewed by Michael G. Maudlin.

Biddle’s tip for pulpit humor: “So I says to the guy, I says to him, ‘Hey, Buddy, you the poster child for limited atonement or what?’ But seriously, folks …” But there is no “seriously” in Rob Suggs’s The Adventures of Brother Biddle. Born on the pages of The Wittenburg Door in 1978, the Brother Biddle cartoon strip has served as the id of the evangelical movement. Shamelessly poking fun at such serious issues as feminism, racism, the charismatic/noncharismatic wars, televangelism, fundamentalism, and other holy trends, Suggs has only escaped being stoned because people are too busy laughing to throw anything.

For those not familiar with the balding, bespectacled parson, Biddle serves as the hapless victim of all pastoral nightmares and fantasies. He is a white, middle-class, middle-aged, suburban, mainstream, Protestant pastor turned loose—with what constitutes “loose” to him being the essence of much of the humor. Soon to be revived as a regular feature, this time for the Christian Century, Biddle is exactly what is needed for a group of people who often take themselves too seriously—namely, Christians. If there is such a thing as a trend in evangelical humor, then Suggs is its flag bearer.

When Do-Gooders Make Good

Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage, by Lisbeth B. Schorr with Daniel Schorr (Doubleday/Anchor Books, 398 pp.; $14.95, hardcover; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by Joan Guest, a social worker and the author of Forgiving Your Parents (InterVarsity).

In California, mothers on Medicaid had trouble finding doctors to provide prenatal care, and the care they got was limited. Thus the state put together a new program to reduce the rate of premature births, which cost Medicaid thousands of dollars in neonatal intensive care. The state designed a program that included nutritional counseling, food supplements, a psychosocial evaluation, social services, family planning, and parenting classes. The 5,000 babies born under this new program were compared to babies in a control group that received ordinary Medicaid services. The women who received the intensive services had one-third fewer low-birth-weight babies and less than half as many very-low-birth-weight babies. When costs were compared, the state found that for every dollar spent on the more intensive program, the state saved $1.70 to $2.60 in neonatal intensive-care costs. Additional savings—because the children are better parented and healthier—cannot be measured, but are just as real.

Article continues below

Hope For Poor Families

This is just one of the many successful social programs described in Lisbeth Schorr’s book Within Our Reach. This is a hopeful, profamily book in that Schorr looks at the difficulties facing the poorest and most disadvantaged families in our midst and describes programs that are helping these children grow up healthy and happy. But it is also a disturbing book—disturbing because in the process of discussing the problems families face, she describes great pain: the pain of children growing up in chaotic and deprived environments. And it is disturbing because she describes programs that could easily be expanded if there were public support for doing so.

Schorr’s aim is to look at the factors that produce “rotten outcomes”—school failure, juvenile delinquency, and teenage parenthood—in short, children who fail to become responsible adults. Schorr cites studies indicating that the children who fail to thrive are most often those faced with multiple roadblocks, not just one. Perhaps they were born early at low birth weights or born with physical, mental, or perceptual disabilities. In addition, they grew up in environments that did not nurture them. Of all the factors that put children at risk, however, Schorr found one that stood out above all the others—poverty. “Persistent and concentrated poverty virtually guarantees the presence of a vast collection of risk factors and their continuing destructive impact over time.”

So what is the answer? Faced with high budget deficits and governmental inertia, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in desperation. But Schorr does not. She examines some of the most successful programs in the United States today that work with children and families at risk. These run the gamut from neighborhood health clinics to better schools.

For example, the Homebuilders of Tacoma, Washington, and the Bronx, New York, provide intensive service to families in danger of having a child removed from the home. These families see a professional counselor in their home for as many hours per week as needed. The counselors coordinate social services, work with schools and probation officers, provide transportation, help with practical concerns such as house cleaning, and provide therapy to adjust family relationship patterns. The cost of the program, which averaged about $2,600 per Tacoma family in 1985, is a fraction of the cost of long-term foster care or group care. The “return on investment” is considered to be 500 or 600 percent.

Article continues below

Schorr’s book provides hundreds of pages of such success stories. All the programs that work share certain characteristics. They are intensive and comprehensive, flexible, easily accessible, and based on an unconditional regard for clients.

The Cost Of Doing Nothing

Taking pains to prove the cost effectiveness of the programs she describes, Schorr itemizes the high cost of doing nothing. One in every seven young people today does not complete high school, and in cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, officials estimate that about half of all students drop out before graduation. These young people with weak reading and math skills are four times more likely than their skilled counterparts to depend on public aid, and eight times more likely to have children out of wedlock.

According to census information, between 1970 and 1980 in the nation’s five largest cities, the number of people living in poverty increased by 58 percent, while the number living in areas of extreme and concentrated poverty increased 182 percent.

Yet Schorr asserts, “The number of children growing up in the midst of dense concentrations of poverty and social dislocation is small enough that intensive efforts to serve these children and their families would be manageable—and high enough that inaction is intolerable.”

Until we intervene, says Schorr, we will continue to pay the cost of these intensified risks—new jails and additional law-enforcement costs, medical costs, welfare payments, higher costs related to increased crime and substance abuse, and all the other “hidden” costs of societal chaos.

The history of social programs in America reveals a reluctance to pay for prevention. Instead, we try to fix things after they break. After a family is homeless we put them in a shelter. After the baby is born prematurely due to poor prenatal nutrition, he gets intensive neonatal care. After the child has been abused, we put her in a foster home. For a country long on individualized compassion, we are surprisingly shortsighted when it comes to prevention. Can we afford such myopia?

For Christians who have bought the argument that welfare programs only serve to perpetuate poverty, Schorr’s book helps to restore some balance. For those who are confused about what direction our charitable inclinations should take, Within Our Reach provides a treasure house of ideas.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.