The Power of Religious Fiction

I spent an hour yesterday with a Jewish writer from France, born in 1928, who was imprisoned in the French Resistance, escaped, and wrote a few novels. More precisely, I spent an hour in his novel, The Last of the Just. The writer is André Schwarz-Bart.

His novel begins:

Our eyes register the light of dead stars. A biography of my friend Ernie could easily be set in the second quarter of the twentieth century, but the true history of Ernie Levy begins much earlier, toward the year 1000 of our era, in the old Anglican city of York.

Schwarz-Bart then took me on a journey into a line of lamed-vavniks starting in the eleventh century and leading to a story set in the Holocaust. Don’t know about the lamed-vavniks, the legendary thirty-six suffering, messianic figures in each generation who are the only reason God delays the final judgment? The Last of the Just is not only a great way to explore this tradition, but a mind and soul expanding story with its own take on the question of God, suffering, good, and evil in the world. (Note: Lamed-Vav is the Hebrew numerical equivalent of thirty-six).

The Last of the Just will be an early selection in the coming Jewish Book of the Month Club here on Messianic Jewish Musings and other Messianic blogs which are participating.

Lingering thoughts from this sad novel called me early from bed to write about the power religious fiction can have if we let it.

There are a relatively small number of books, Jewish and Christian, which have transported me, as only fiction can, to higher worlds or to deeper spaces in this one.

Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is an experience I hope you will have someday, if you haven’t already. It helps to understand the power of myth and to have read the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, first. No, the movie, admirable in its own ways, is no substitute for the books. There is much more to Tolkien’s novels than battle scenes and humorous hobbits.

As a theologian, I sensed the reality of Tolkien’s depiction of creation at the beginning of The Silmarillion, the first part of which may already convey to you some of its depiction of God giving the angels a part in the shape of things:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long time they sang only each one alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

Lewis’s The Great Divorce belongs in the category of classic. Though it is a Christian work, it belongs among the books to be read by everyone, as a work of philosophy if not theology for those who do not share its worldview. The residents of a gray and murky world, call it hell, make a field trip to heaven. The glories of medieval theology shine (yes, I said glories — not all was dark in the dark ages) through the pen of a man with such an immense breadth of reading and a gift of simply depicting metaphysical complexities.

Consider this scene, in which the protagonist discovers reality is more real in heaven:

Then some re-adjustment of the mind or some focusing of the eye took place, and I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they had always been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn’t break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t twist. I tugged until the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even iron, but like diamond. There was a leaf — a young, tender beech-leaf, lying in the grass beside it. I tried to pick the leaf up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it. But I had to let it go at once; it was heavier than a sack of coal. As I stood, recovering my breath with great gasps and looking down at the daisy, I noticed that I could see grass not only between my feet but through them. I also was a phantom. Who will give me words to express the terror of that discovery?

Some religious fiction explores the cosmic and eternal and some the deeper spaces within what we know as reality.

Potok’s The Chosen and his other novels explore the boundary between the premodern world of Judaism and existence in the era of modernity. They are poignant stories and have helped more than one reader long to be part of a community which moves in premodern space and ancient tradition, while equally glorifying emancipation into intellectual and artistic freedom. When I read a Potok novel, I let the tension stand. We don’t exactly have to choose, do we?

There are a slew of Jewish short stories by Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. One haunting tale, I can’t remember the author, was about a kid whose Bar Mitzvah portion was the curse portion of Leviticus. His life was one of alienation, as the community shunned and feared him as a harbinger of darkness and suffering.

There are a few stories I heard long ago in high school by Flannery O’Connor, but have now forgotten (any O’Connor fans out there who can recommend some of the best of her work?).

What role has religious fiction had in your life? What works have been powerful for you and why?

If you have further reflections or memories about these works I have already mentioned, please share them. If religious themes in classic works have inspired you (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Letter, etc.), please write a thought.

What about contemporary religious fiction of less enduring quality? Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, Joel Rosenberg, Stephen King? Comic books?

What religious fiction has moved, taught, expanded, amused, repulsed, or disturbed you?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Power of Religious Fiction

  1. As a writer, I see fiction as one of the more effective ways of getting a point across. I love Shalom Alechem’s stories. During some of my early experiments in writing, I emulated his style (but gave it up). I’ve also been influenced by C.S.Lewis and Frank Peretti. However, I gave up trying to write to the religious market. However, I find that gives me more flexibility in demonstrating what the Kingdom of God would look like in this or that situation — usually with a science fiction twist.

  2. ckinbar says:

    I’m glad to hear that “The Last of the Just” is in print. It influenced me greatly as a young man.

  3. I’m glad you mentioned Chaim Potok–his ability to move me deeply has made him one of my favorite authors. I’ve heard great praise for Flannery O’Connor–I hope one of your readers will give us more information about her.

  4. And I recently had a great conversation with Joshua from Yinon about the pros and cons of Frank Peretti!

  5. pastorjeffcma says:

    I have just come across your blog and I like what I see. I must admit that I don’t do fiction very well. I’ve read some of the “major works” of Christian fiction, but I can’t stomach too much of it. If we are talking about recent material I have enjoyed “Zion Covenant” and “Zion Chronicles” (Thoene) along with Joel Rosenberg’s books–however, by the time I got to the last of his novels they had become too formulaic–on a side note, I really enjoy Joel’s non-fiction! Allow me to “amen” your words on Tolkien–I cringe when I hear somebody say, as I just did on another blog, that a movie exceeded the book (that is when we are talking about good literature). “Lord of the Rings” and “The Brothers Karamazov” have both been very important books to me. When it comes to Flannery O’ Connor, I think it is difficult to do better than “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Thanks for allowing me to talk about my favorite subject–books!

  6. judeoxian says:

    Silmarillion and the LOTR trilogy have had a tremendous effect on me. I discovered these books about two years ago while I was “out of commission” with a leg injury. Like you said, the movies are good and an achievement in their own right, but they have nothing on the books.

    It’s hard to articulate the value of these books to me. The way in which Tolkien wove together so many biblical and timeless themes like friendship, leadership, and self-sacrifice was masterful. Even topics like the shortcomings of the kings of men really helped me conceptualize and grasp the historical sections of the OT on the monarchies of Israel and Judah.

    I now read through these books annually.

    To a lesser extent, Chronicles of Narnia have left there impression on me as well.

  7. espenseventyr says:

    I usually don’t read christian/religious fiction but some time ago I picked up “The Shack” which really transformed my relationship with God, I think it is the book that has had the most influence on me.

    There’s an excellent comic called “Lincoln”, about a solitary and angry cowboy (angry on everything, God included) who meets God. This is not at all at the same level as Lewis but very funny :) Unfortunately for the time being I think it is only available in french (but sincie it is a comic it would not be that difficult for someone having learned some french).

  8. espenseventyr says:

    And this is one of my all time favorites : “The Rabbi’s Cat”, the story of a talking cat who wants to do his bar-mitzvah. Also very funny, and shows jewish life in Algeria as a french colony and later in Paris.

    And also “Klezmer” which tells the tale of a jewish Klezmer band in tsarist russia. So excellent :)


  9. Derek, I appreciate this topic and would like to make a couple observations. I am surprised you did not mention contemporary faith writers, like Karen Kingsbury. Her Tuesday Morning series books, built around the events of 09/11 helped me shape a Bible reading plan that works. A secondary issue are there are few faith forums for writers, one I know of is Very valuable. Please visit this topic again.
    David C Russell, “Winds Of Change” CrossBooks 2012.

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