When I review books I hope some readers find bits of valuable information and perhaps pick up a copy if it interests them. But some books I not only read and relish but wish everyone could enjoy the enlightenment and beauty they afford. Such is Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ (Nashville: Nelson Books, c. 2016), wherein a gifted writer speaks persuasively, reaffirming the perennial allure of the the Incarnate Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. Klavan is well-known in the literary world, considered by Stephen King a “most original American novelist of crime and suspense.” But rather than keeping us in suspense Klavan, in The Great Good Thing, tells us about his conversion, culminating with his Christian baptism at the age of 49. “No one could have been more surprised than I was,” he says. “I never thought I was the type. I had been born and raised a Jew and lived most of my life as an agnostic. I believed in the fullest freedom of thought into the widest reaches of fact and philosophy I believed in science and analysis and reasonable explanations. I had no time for magical thinking of any kind. I couldn’t bear solemn piety. I despise even the ordinary varieties of willful blindness to the tragic shambles of life on earth.” In short, for half-a-century he’d been a hard-boiled realist—“a worlding by nature” (p. xiii).
Flourishing as a writer, Klavan “was one of the men of the coasts and cities, at home among the snarks and cynics of these postmodern times” (p. xvi). Yet here he was, confessing “that Jesus Christ was Lord” and accepting “the uniquely salvific truth of his life and preaching, death and resurrection—this it seemed to me even in the moment, was to renounce my natural place in the age, to turn against my upbringing and my kind. It felt, so help me, as I were flinging myself off the deck of a holiday cruise ship, falling away from its lighted ballrooms and casinos, from the parties and the music and sparkling wine of Fashionable Ideas, to go plunging down and down and did I mention down into a wave-tossed theological solitude” (p. xv). In a sense it made no sense! But in a deeper sense, it was a coming together of the central themes of his novels wherein his “heroes were always desperately on the run desperately trying to get at a truth that baffled their assumptions and philosophies” (p. xvi). They wanted to make sense of the world but couldn’t find the key.
Slowly, through much reading and writing and personal experience, he discovered the key—the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”— could be found only in the message proclaimed by The Gospel According to St. John! Jesus Is the Truth! Klavan’s spiritual journey, rather like C.S. Lewis’s, took place over a number of years wherein he moved from agnosticism to belief in God. He’d begun praying and found his life improved by the discipline. He’d “become like a character in one of my own stories, desperately trying to unknit the fabric of fact and perception, to separate the warp of psychology from the weft of objective truth, before time ran out” (p. xix). He fully understood the risks entailed—a successful Jewish writer, safely ensconced in an up-scale Santa Barbara suburb, daring to declare himself a Christian. What would that mean? “‘Oh, God,’ I prayed fervently more than once, ‘whatever happens, don’t let me become a Christian novelist!’” (p. xx). “Would I descend into that smiley-faced religious idiocy that mistakes the good health and prosperity of the moment for the supernatural favor of God?” (p. xx). And in becoming a Christian he determined not to forsake his Jewish ancestry and culture. Could it happen?
Well, it did. He found Christ—or, in that paradoxical mystery of redemption, Christ found him! Consequently, he found himself “rejoicing. I was convinced and fully convinced: my mind was God’s, my soul was Christ’s, my faith was true. How had that happened and why? Given the spiritual distance I’d traveled, given the depths of my doubts, given the darkness of my most uncertain places, and given, most of all, the elation and wonder I felt at the journey’s end, it seems to be a story worth telling” (p. xxv).
It’s a story worth telling—and for us it’s a story worth reading! Klavan recounts his early years in Great Neck, New York, “a wealthy town, a well-tailored suburban refuge from the swarming city,” where he was immersed in an upper-middle-class, secularized Jewish community, the son of a successful New York morning drive radio personality. But as a child he was inwardly unhappy and spent much time daydreaming, constructing elaborate fantasies featuring himself as the invariably tough-guy hero. Much of his school-time was devoted to fantasizing rather than studying. He seemed to be a good student, “but it was all fraud. I could read well and write well and talk glibly and even figure out math problems in my head. So I could bluff my way through subjects I knew nothing about, and neither my teachers nor my parents, nor even my friends, were aware that I was hardly doing any schoolwork at all” (p. 28). In fact he learned nothing—“no historical facts, no mathematical formulas, no passages from the books we were supposed to have read” (p. 28).
Nor did he learn much about Judaism. His family’s Jewishness was purely cultural, extending to only a few traditions. “God was not a living presence in my home,” (p. 45), and his required attendance (“suffocating torture”) at Hebrew school in the local synagogue left no impression on him. “My father used to say, ‘You can’t flunk out of being Jewish.’ But man, I tried” (p. 48). Forced to submit to his Bar Mitzvah, he ad-libed his way through it and was startled by the “fortune in gifts” he received. But inwardly he felt only “rage and shame” at participating in a ritual mouthing words he disbelieved. He knew he was a hypocrite and hated himself for it. “With great pomp and sacred ceremony, they had made me declare what I did not believe was true—and then they had paid me for the lie with these trinkets! I felt that I had sold my soul” (p. 55).
Though his family’s Judaism hardly affected young Klavan, a brief exposure to a thoroughly Christian family did! A woman, Mina, who worked for his family and became virtually a family member, gave him “a substantial portion of what mothering I had” (p. 61). With neither husband nor children of her own, “she just took care of people, that’s all” (p. 62). Though he didn’t really understand it, Mina “was a true Christian. Religious, I mean, even devout” (p. 64). She never mentioned “Jesus to me, but he was alive and real to her” (p. 64). Allowed to go to her gaily decorated, music-filled house one Christmas, Klavan felt himself in a “wonderland” surrounded by cheerful, caring people. Many years later, preparing for his baptism, he marveled that “Jesus had first entered my consciousness” at that first Christmas at Mina’s house” (p. 68). Thenceforth, even in his most agnostic, secular stages, he retained a deep fondness for Christmas, even celebrating the season with a sincerity lacking in some Christian circles! But: “It was Christmas we loved, the bright tradition, not Christ, never Christ” (p. 74).
Nor did he love schooling of any kind! Early on he’d determined to become a writer, and he thought only personal experience could teach him what he wanted to know. So he entered a program designed to enable youngsters to finish high school early and launched out on his own, at the age of 17, to enter “the world of Experience behind the walls” (p. 119). He worked at various jobs, traveled hither and yon, and certainly experienced many things. In the midst of his wandering, for reasons he cannot recall, he applied for admission to the University of California at Berkeley and was accepted. But he was late on the scene. “The radical years were over. The riots and mayhem I’d been hoping to see had passed like a storm” (p. 123). Though nominally a student, he mainly drank and slept and tried to teach himself how to write.
When he did go to class, he “went through all the usual dazzle-dazzle shenanigans: bluff and fakery. I read none of the books. I conned and wrote my way to passing grades” (p. 124). But for some reason he always bought the books required for the courses and kept them. Back then, when postmodernism was just beginning its onslaught, some university professors still assigned the “classics” and encouraged students to engage in the “Great Conversation, an interchange carried on across the centuries by the major thinkers and artists of the Western canon. The idea was that by studying this conversation you could move closer to the Truth and so find a fuller wisdom about reality and what made for the Good life” (p. 134). So Klavan’s growing library contained the works of the masters and one day, lying listlessly in bed, he picked up a William Faulkner novel. Suddenly he discovered what literature was all about! And he began to read, on his own, the classic literary works of Western Civilization. “Without knowing it, I had joined the Great Conversation” (p. 138).
Not only did he discover the classics at Berkeley—he found a wife, Ellen, the daughter of the chairman of the Berkeley English department. Ellen’s parents embraced him, and he managed to graduate from the university as well as marry her and make a lasting marriage of invaluable worth. Though he’d been “a fool in many ways,” by marrying her “somehow—and not for the last time in my life—I had managed to stumble into the great good thing” (p. 158). The young couple then moved to New York and managed to survive, working at various jobs while he tried to become the writer of his dreams. Amidst his manifest lack of success as a writer he began struggling with mental and emotional issues that led him to enter a five-year stint of psycho-analysis, wherein a gifted therapist greatly helped him to get mentally healthy. In the midst of his depression (both mental and financial), however, he decided to write a suspense novel—using a pseudonym, since such was not the genre of “serious” writers. He and his brother quickly wrote—and sold—the book, which then won the Edgar Award for best paperback mystery. Better yet, they also got a movie deal. He not only made money but discovered “that telling such stories was my gift” (p. 170). In time he would become a highly-acclaimed and financially successful suspense novelist.
Among the many events that opened his mind to God was the birth of his first child. “Sex, birth, marriage, these bodies, this life, they were all just representations of the power that had created them, the power now surging through my wife in this flood of matter the power that had made us one: the power of love. Love, I saw now, was an exterior spiritual force that swept through our bodies in the symbolic forms of eros, then bound us materially, skin and bone, in the symbolic moment of birth.” Watching the baby emerge from the womb, Klavan experienced a truly mystical moment. “I became not one flesh with my wife but one being beyond flesh with the love I felt for her. My spirit washed into that love and became part of it, a splash in a rushing river. In that river of love, I went raging down the plane of Ellen’s body until the love I was and the love that carried me melded with the love I felt for the new baby we had made together and I became part of the love as well,” and he saw he “was about to flow out into the infinite. I saw that, beyond the painted scenery of mere existence, it was all love, love unbounded, mushrooming, vast, alive, and everlasting. The love I felt, the love I was, was about to cascade into the very origin of itself, the origin of our three lives and of all creation” (p. 191).
In time he realized: “You cannot know the truth about the world until you know God loves you, because that is the truth about the world” (p. 236). Tasting the reality of love, he sought Love! He began slipping into churches and even attending services—and then met an engaging Episcopal rector. He appreciated the music as well as the messages and began to “realize there was a spiritual side to life, a side I had been neglecting in my postmodern mind-set” (p. 195). Intuitively, he knew morality itself requires a transcendent foundation. “An ultimate Moral Good cannot just be an idea. It must be, in effect, a personality with consciousness and free will” (p. 205). “In the chain of reasoning that took me finally to Christ, accepting this one axiom—that some actions are morally better than others—is the only truly nonlogical leap of faith I ever made. Hardly a leap really. Barely even a step, I know it’s so. And those who declare they do not are, like Hamlet, only pretending” (p. 206).
Coming to faith in Christ proved momentous: “My personality was so transformed I hardly recognized myself” (p. 211). Filled with joy, Klavern flourished as a writer and father. His written works reveal his mind’s journey, refuting the postmodernism firmly entranced in the nation’s intelligentsia and working through the anti-semitism obvious in the Western Christian Culture he’d come to love. He saw the truth revealed in the words of one of his own characters in True Crime: “‘You want to believe in God,’ the pastor says, ‘you’re gonna have to believe in a God of the sad world’” (p. 225). Sin has shattered our world, and it’s full of evil—including the Holocaust. But the Savior has saved us from sin! “In this new mental freedom, I came to see that the dilemma I had been wrestling with—my love of a culture that had done so much evil and yet produced such lasting beauty—was only my personal portion of the greater human paradox. We are never free of the things that happen. Even evil weaves itself into the fabric of history, never to be undone. Yet at the same time—at the very same time—each of us gets a new soul with which to start the world again.” Jesus “offered a spiritual path out of the history created by Original Sin and into the newborn self remade in his image. It is the impossible solution to the impossible problem of evil. All reason says it can’t be so. But it’s the truth that sets us free” (p. 229).
This book is so good that (as is evident in the long quotations) it’s tempting just to duplicate the entire text! So let me just share Eric Metaxis’ encomium: “Andrew Klavan’s superb new book deserves to become a classic of its kind. Klavan’s immense talents as a writer are on full view in what must certainly rank as his most important book to date. Tole lege [take up and read—the words Augustine heard prior to his conversion].”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Inasmuch as all heaven rejoices when a single sinner repents, all converts are equally treasured. But inasmuch as every person is unique, each conversion story adds depth and texture to the ways of God with man. Thus one of the most recent conversion accounts, Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2016), by Sally Read, a contemporary English poet, merits our attention.
Reared in a militantly atheist home—her father a vociferous Marxist journalist—Sally Read represents much about today’s secularism. “At ten I could tell you that religion was the opiate of the masses; it was dinned into me never to kneel before anyone or anything. My father taught me that Christians, in particular, were tambourine-bashing intellectual weaklings. As a young woman I could quote Christopher Hitchens and enough of the Bible to scoff at. My father would happily scoff with me” (#83). There is neither God nor soul. Matter alone exists, she thought. Yet as she began working as a nurse in a psychiatric nurse she met patients whose sufferings and dyings gave her pause. And amidst the intemperate drinking and casual sex that punctuated her work-week routine, she occasionally felt strangely drawn to old churches in the neighborhood.
Then her father’s death at the age of fifty-six distressed her. “I felt as if a god had died. The creator of my world and my protector had gone” (#231). Feeling abandoned and inwardly empty, she felt as if she were in hell and wondered what, indeed, life is all about. She lost weight and hair. She “even considered, in a desperate and vague way, invoking God.” Perhaps some kind of faith would make life “liveable. But it seemed entirely unfeasible to believe in any God; I thought I could never lower myself to that degree of self-delusion” (#246). Looking back, she now considers that desolate phase of her life a blessing, for God was mysteriously working therein to bring her to Himself. “His absence was so painfully loud it seems, now, to prove his existence,” for He “reaches us wherever we are, even if we are so far from knowing him that we mistake him completely. His infinity always contains our finitude” (#253).
In the six years following her father’s death, Sally Read became a published poet, married an Italian and gave birth to a baby girl, Florenzia. She had to “battle” for both a wedding and a child in a world which welcomed neither, but in her heart she just knew such things are right. Then ultimate, metaphysical questions began to haunt her, and while pregnant she wondered, “What was it I was creating?” (#313). Having successfully published two volumes of poetry, she envisioned writing a more journalistic work designed to help women nourish their emotional and reproductive health. Personally, she “had suffered debilitating physical and psychological effects while taking oral contraceptives” and wanted to explore that issue as well as “abortion and its effects on women” (#364). So she interviewed various women while researching the book and in Rome encountered some devout American Catholics whose husbands were studying at pontifical universities. Though they lived by standards utterly unlike hers, she was strangely warmed by their zest for life and constant awareness of God in their daily activities.
Consequently, she began visiting churches and got acquainted with a godly guide, Father Gregory, a Ukrainian studying for the priesthood, whose gentle counsel and literary references help nudge her to belief in God. He encouraged her to pray, though she had no idea how. But she picked up T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and sensed almost immediately an inner peace, an acceptance of a Reality around her that unleashed a torrent of tears. Telling Father Gregory of that moment, he sent her a poem by St. John of the Cross which further inspired her. Entering a nearby church she felt: “The strange calm that had come upon me that night the week before had settled into a new longing to know what to do.” Looking up, she saw an icon of Christ’s face in a window and said: “‘If you’re there, you have to help me’” (#650). And He did! “I felt almost physically lifted up. My eyespots crying instantly, my face relaxed. It was like being in the grip of panicked amnesia, when suddenly someone familiar walked into the room and gave myself back to me—a self restored to me more fully than before. It was a presence entirely fixed me as I was on it, and it both descended toward me and pulled me up. I knew it was him. This was the hinge of my life; this compassion and love and humility so great it buckled me as it came to meet me. Later, I would read in Simone Weil’s writings what seemed a very similar experience—how, as she prayerfully recited George Herbert’s poem ‘Love,’ ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of me’” (#658).
Thenceforth she freely prayed, reciting the Our Father, knowing she was safe in His arms and feeling “as if the Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection were plunged into my being in one gorgeous blow—this is how it is to all of a sudden know the meaning of reality: the heart kick-started to sense its intrinsic architecture of logic, love, and reason” (#658). She intimately sensed the Presence of the Living Lord. “There was a feeling of being known in every cell. My aloneness was taken away from me; and though it has often since returned, I know that loneliness is the illusion and Christ beside me the reality. This was my earliest prayer: being attuned to Christ’s presence, which by grace I perceived in those early days as strongly was my daughter’s breathing or the sound of the blackbird singing at night in the garden. Prayer became essential,” and she sensed “being touched—if so pale a word can describe the sensation of being broken and healed—touched that he had come to me when I had rejected him and spoken against him and published lies about him in my books” (#680).
At that point, though Catholics had certainly guided her, she had no interest in Catholicism, with all its dogmas and rules. But she began reading the Gospels and found the Jesus revealed therein quite unlike the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” proclaimed in liberal churches. She came to see that the Truth was something given to us, not something we fashion, something best established in the Church of the Apostles. And the Truth she encountered led her, step by step into the Catholic Church. Night’s Bright Darkness reveals a poet determined to discern and beautifully describe Reality entering into its fullness.
# # #