The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday book review section (which is excellent, by the way) runs a regular feature called “Five Best,” five one-paragraph reviews of books that aren’t new releases, all on one theme, chosen by a writer who might have a book coming out (or just released) that touches on the theme. For example, today, February 18th’s theme is “novels of political protest.”
I always enjoy that column and have ripped it out more than once to save for later book purchases.
Because I have a novel coming out this fall that deals with religious faith (Fall from Grace, Bancroft Press — you can read more about it here), I’ve been thinking of what I’d include in a list of favorite novels with faith elements. Here are three, for a start:
The first, and most recent, one that comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004). Like all the novels on my list, I’ve read this more than once, and it never fails to move me. Set in 1956 at the end of Rev. John Ames’s life, it consists of a letter he writes to his young son to explain his family, his history, his relationship with God. The climactic moment of this novel is a quiet scene that creeps up on you as you realize that you, too, might have had moments of singular grace such as this, but hectic schedules and the duties of daily living could keep you from recognizing them. One of the most profound scenes in the book, though, occurs fairly early in the story when John relates a tale of his abolitionist preacher grandfather being confronted by his son (the narrator’s father) about his activities. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” the father says, “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…” Keep in mind that the grandfather was on the right side of the Civil War battle, yet his son justifiably chastises him for using his pulpit to push for war.
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944) has been a go-to for me over the years for quiet, even nostalgic introspection. You don’t have to be British to feel the bright sunny pre-war mood of the upper-class characters in this tale of an aristocratic Catholic family in Anglican England. Although I’ve reread the story many times, I still have trouble remembering plot points as the various Flyte family members marry, separate, marry again, and reconcile over the years. The climax is, as in Gilead, quiet, yet breathtaking in its impact as the estranged husband of Lady Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die and be reconciled with his faith.
J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) immediately appealed to me on the first reading, even though its characters were as removed from my own experience of life as the author’s most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield never grabbed my attention or sympathy, though, because he, with his upper-class New York wealth and advantages, seemed like, well, a spoiled ungrateful brat. But while both Franny and Zooey come from that same kind of background, they always appeared to me to be more humble about their place in life, more thankful. And Franny’s inner torment is universal. This book, originally two short stories printed in the New Yorker, is odd in that it consists mostly of long conversations between Franny and her brother Zooey, as he tries to coax her back to living when she suffers a breakdown of sorts as she confronts how empty her life is. While faith discussions are sprinkled throughout the novel, it is Zooey’s patient explanation of who an unattractive “Fat Lady” really was in their now-deceased brother Seymour’s life that lights up the tale: “And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
Let me know your favorite novels with faith elements — I’d love to add to my list!
Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft Press, Sept. 2017; ISBN: 9787-1-61088-205-7): When Eli Baine, son of celebrity evangelicals, is caught using a prostitution ring, he has to relearn early faith lessons to find his way back to family and true Christ-like love.