COMMENT BY Tim Challies
By Trevin Wax
Multnomah Books, 2013
Hardcover, 176 pages, $16
I DO NOT read a lot of fiction. It’s not that I have anything against a good novel, but more that there is just so much I want to know, and so many facts I want to learn, that time dedicated to story feels like time taken away from a more urgent pursuit. Or, to hear my wife tell it, I’m just a big snob. Regardless, all the experts say I need to read in a well-rounded way, so I do make room for at least the occasional novel.
Speaking broadly, I see two different kinds of Christian novel. The first begins when an author has a great idea for a story, and, in a desire to make it “Christian,” adds Christian elements to it. In this way the story is primary and doctrine is secondary. The other kind of Christian novel begins when the author has doctrine he wants to teach, and he creates a story as a means of conveying it. Here the doctrine is primary and the story is secondary. In the hands of an especially skilled author--Marilynne Robinson, for example--a story can do both of these with excellence. Pore over her Gilead (2004) and Home (2008).
An American and a former missionary and pastor, Wax writes regularly for Christianity Today and has published several works of nonfiction, notably Counterfeit Gospels and Holy Subversion. Clear Winter Nights is his first foray into fiction, and falls into the second category – doctrine taught through narrative. The back cover says this:
“What happens when a young Christian dealing with disillusionment and doubt spends a weekend with an elderly, retired pastor? They talk. And no subject is off limits. Clear Winter Nights is a stirring story about faith, forgiveness, and the distinctiveness of Christianity. Through a powerful narrative and engaging dialogue, Trevin Wax shows the relevance of unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.”
This is the story of Chris Walker, a young man entering into a dark night of the soul in which he finds himself questioning the Christian faith he had once so joyfully professed. As he descends into doubt, he grows hard and skeptical and wanders from all he once held dear. Then he and his grandfather, Gil, are thrust together for a couple of days and he finds someone who will patiently listen and lovingly provide good answers. Chris’ questions are the questions so many people are asking today, and Gil’s responses are wise, winsome and biblical.
Interestingly, the publisher classifies Clear Winter Nights as Christian living rather than fiction, which shows that this is essentially theology in story, doctrine wrapped in narrative. It succeeds well on both accounts.
Wax is a good thinker and in writing this novel aptly plays both parts – the skeptic and the man of confident faith. He is able to take his readers into sound Christian doctrine but without depending upon answers that are just too neat and too easy. Readers will encounter the basics of Christian worldview and apologetics while learning how to defend Christianity against some contemporary charges. They will also come to understand some of the most important implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and learn what it means to rely on Jesus through all of life’s peaks and valleys. Wax accomplishes this without being heavy-handed and without ever abandoning his story in order to hammer home a pet doctrine.
Wax is also a skilled storyteller. While he writes compelling narrative, I found him at his best when creating an atmosphere. He has a knack for simile and comparisons and other elements of writing that work together to create intriguing settings. He made me care about the characters--their stories, their beliefs, and their development. Though this is hardly a tale of intrigue or heart-pounding suspense, it contains a story compelling enough that it easily carries through 160 pages. I cared about the characters enough to be just a little bit sad to have to leave them when the story drew to a close.
Theology in story is a genre that comes and goes in Christian writing and one that, in the past, has been used for good and for ill. One of the finest examples, of course, is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1684). I am grateful to see Wax both attempting it and succeeding well at it. Clear Winter Nights is a story that will encourage the Christian and provide answers to the skeptic. I highly recommend it. TAP
Tim Challies is the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and hosts the website www.challies.com.