Monday, September 16, 2013

Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After, by Trevin Wax


Would-be church-planter Chris Walker is having a crisis of faith. The recent discovery of his estranged father's repeated infidelity has left him reeling. Between his father's hypocrisy and his own conflicting ideas of truth, religion, and morality, Chris doesn't know where to turn. Before he knows it, he's broken off his engagement to Ashley and is considering backing out of the church plant he's been involved with. Then, on New Year's weekend, he finds himself on the doorstep of his recently bereaved grandfather, a retired Baptist minister currently recovering from a stroke. Over the course of their many conversations, Chris begins to work through his doubts and questions about faith, truth, sin, and forgiveness.

For some time now, I've enjoyed reading Trevin Wax's posts on the Gospel Coalition blog. So when the opportunity arose to review his new work of fiction, Clear Winter Nights, I was pretty stoked. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Christian fiction, good theology does not always walk hand in hand with good storytelling.

Not that it's all bad, mind you. There are some definite strengths to the story. The protagonist, Chris, is a very common type in the church today. He wrestles with the exclusivity of the gospel in the face of other faiths, struggles to reconcile the Bible's uncompromising teaching on sexual morality with his affection for and commitment to his gay friends, and questions the nature of religion and truth. He clearly reads a lot of Rob Bell, is what I am saying. And, like so many who find themselves confronting doubts like these, he is dealing with the very real emotional aftermath of personal betrayal by someone he loved and admired--someone who claimed to believe in the Christian faith, and yet who nonetheless acted in a deeply sinful and hurtful way toward those who trusted him. At times, Chris does feel a bit like a caricature rather than a complex character, but given the book's 'Theology in Story' descriptor, he may be intended to be more of a parable than a fully-drawn, realistic picture of a human being. (The 'Theology in Story' label also explains why the book is long on theology but short on story--it was intended to be that way. Which means I shouldn't--and won't--ding it for the lackluster nature of the story.) Indeed, the familiarity of Chris's character makes the story immediately and clearly applicable for most readers. We all know people like this, and many of us have been there ourselves. 

Chris's grandfather, Gil, is a bit more three-dimensional. Sure, he's the old Baptist minister, solidly rooted in the faith, who is called upon to help his erring grandson overcome his youthful doubts. There's a measure of cliche inherent in the character. But Gil is not perfect--he struggles to remain content despite his declining health and strength, the adjustment to retirement after a life of pastoral ministry, and the still-fresh grief at the loss of his beloved wife. Sometimes, he loses his temper, and his weakness and dependence on others frustrates him no end. He doesn't always know what to say to his grandson, though he cares about him deeply and is concerned about his doubts. But there's a cookie-cutter quality here, too--many of his responses to Chris's questions feel slightly canned. He trots out the same arguments that we've heard so many times, and these arguments, though true and theologically sound, are unlikely to chase away the doubts of the Chrises of the world. 

Indeed, the theology here is orthodox and clear, and Wax is addressing a situation that is extremely relevant for Christians today. But I don't know that the theological arguments are presented in a way that would, so to speak, convert the uninitiated. In other words, I already agreed with Gil's points before he defended them; if I disagreed with him, I don't know that I would have been persuaded to change my mind. Fortunately, the book avoids the inauthentic 'epiphany' moment--Chris isn't suddenly and miraculously cured of his doubts, but merely begins to engage with them in a healthier way. And in the end, it seems that his grandfather's life and example and attitude have proved as influential as his arguments, if not more so.

Ultimately, the biggest weakness of the book is that it's just ... not that good. The writing is clunky and prone to hyperbolic and overly poetic language ('Chris felt a wave of joy crash into a shore of guilt', etc.), and Wax is more fond of telling than showing--he keeps the reader constantly apprised of Chris and Gil's respective emotions and their reactions to one another. This may be a function of Wax's inexperience as a writer of fiction--the 'show, don't tell' rule doesn't really come up as much in the nonfiction context. Indeed, pastors and those who write pastoral works are called upon to 'tell'. It may be that with additional experience in fiction, Wax will develop a more nuanced style of writing.

At the end of the day, the story (such as it was) felt like a vignette you'd read to a bunch of youth group kids--one of those cheesy parables about peer pressure or whatever, that illustrated some biblical truth. Heck, he even includes the same sort of discussion questions. But Chris's struggles are much more representative of the college or post-college Christian, not the junior high or high school student. Maybe the book would be of use to college students (in the early years), who are being exposed to such doubts for the first time; I suspect most older, more mature readers would be unmoved by the rather simplistic method of addressing their questions.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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