Unexpected Grace: Ten conversion novels you should read

Sadly, literature that brings faith authentically to bear on the world is a rare thing. But here are ten novels that use the narrative of conversion to show faith and grace colliding with the ordinary, the sordid and the plain broken. Not all are by professing believers. Not all are orthodox. But all are compelling in their own way, and all make faith feel very real.

9 & 10: A Pure Clear Light and The Essence of the Thing – Madeleine St John

Sydney girl turned wry and urbane Londoner, St John was most famous for her first novel, a witty depiction of a lady’s department store, The Women in Black. But she also wrote three other novels, a kind of loose trilogy, sharing some characters, the same inner London cultured set and a darker and more cynical tone. Yet St John, a late convert, managed to take her characters just to the threshold of faith in utterly unexpected ways. Characters cheat on each other, lie, doubt, and then approach belief without even noticing themselves get there. The last novel in the trilogy, Stairway to Paradise, was the weakest but also hit the faith note with greatest subtlety. Had she lived longer, who knows how deft her touch might have grown.

8: Life After God – Douglas Coupland

A series of vignettes of post-religion North America, this early Coupland slowly arrests you with its quiet ache of longing until you cry out with its narrator, “I need God.”

7: The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

The only Tolstoy I have finished (and amongst his shortest), Ivan Ilyich packs a punch. Mostly the death-bed resentment of a sick and bitter man who trusts no-one, including his family, this novella takes you right into the psyche of an embittered soul and leads you imperceptibly to redemption.

6: The Moviegoer – Walker Percy

Percy is a curious figure in Catholic literature. Equal parts Kierkegaardian philosopher and satirist of American culture, he sometimes seems strangely lacking in faith. Many readers may find some of his treatments of women to be uncomfortable. But his first novel is a tour-de-force examination of the modern quest for physical sensation and the discovery of grace in the sacrament of everyday life.

5: Barabbas – Pär Lagerkvist

It might be a bit much to call this a conversion novel, but this story of the man who Jesus replaced on the cross has some of the most intriguing discussions of faith that I’ve encountered in 20th century literature. A Swedish Nobel laureate, Lagerkvist explored characters touched by the cross twice in his work, via mythology in The Death of Ahaseuras and more directly in Barabbas. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, a believer, and some theological details here are dubious, but Barabbas’ life after his unexpected exchange with Christ is a fascinating reflection on what it means to be a believer and a reprobate.

4: Saint Maybe – Anne Tyler

Also not a Christian herself, Anne Tyler makes raw and unvarnished Christian faith and redemption the central force of change in this touching family drama by one of the greatest living novelists working in English.

3: Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The third in her Gilead novels, Lila is in my opinion the best. Both a delicate love story and an unpretentious, warts-and-all tale of grace at work in a wounded life, Lila tells the story of Reverend Wilmot’s much younger wife and how she came to experience and trust the love of God expressed in an unexpected person.

2: Viper’s Tangle – François Mauriac

Almost any of Mauriac’s novels could be here but I’ve picked my favourite. Mauriac’s characters are almost always ugly, mean or pathetic, and yet he always portrays them with a tenderness approaching love. The marvel of this one lies in watching the vipers’ nest within its protagonist untangle with God’s hand. Few other Christian writers have explored the depths of humanity with as much grace and honesty as Mauriac.

1: Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

When Andrew Davies adapted this book for film he said he was getting rid of the “God stuff”, which is rather like taking the running out of Chariots of Fire. He failed, because God is central to this novel. All he managed to get rid of was the conversion, which was like taking out Eric Liddell’s gold medal. Don’t watch the film. Read the book instead.

Unless I See: After Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of Saint Thomas”

No need to touch the scars;
Caravaggio got that detail wrong.
The sheer force of His presence made Thomas crumple,
doubt ceasing where belief gained life,
the parched taste, hesitant like salt, exultant like wine,
as loosened lips croaked,
My Lord and my God.

Yet I am comforted to see
both the outstretched hand and
the companions’ fingers lifting his.
I cannot tell if, like Thomas,
I could simply stop doubting and believe at such a sight,
but, held up by the weathered,
briny hands of those who’ve seen with me,
I, like him, can lift a wrinkled brow in faith.

Christmas 4: Lully Lullay

Today is perhaps the hardest day of the Christmas season, the day that remembers the story found in Matthew 2 of Herod ordering the murder of all boys under the age of 2. While this is not an aspect of the Christmas story that is often told, it finds a home in an old and melancholy song, the Coventry Carol (beautifully rendered here by the sublime Anúna). The carol, part of a medieval mystery play once regularly performed in Coventry, gives voice to three mothers who are mourning the children they will lose. Today’s poem considers these women and the promise that Jesus the Messiah would be acquainted with our griefs. It’s a story I would rather pass over, with my son only eleven weeks old as I write, but God does not pass over our deepest griefs, so I want to use this story to remind me of the fact that He hears and knows and is present in all that we cannot understand.

Lully Lullay

Come, little child,
born to die,
born to bear our griefs and die,
born to dwell with us who die,
weep with mothers now.

Come, God-made-flesh,
righteousness,
come dwell with us within our mess,
come hold our scars and cry our tears.
Weep with us all now.

Come, light in dark,
little spark,
keep vigil now with broken hearts.
Hold all our tears within your scars
and hold us as we shake.

Peter Bruegel the Younger, “Massacre of the Innocents”

Philosophical Crumbs: Haiku for Kierkegaard

A friend of mine recently said that he had tried to read Kierkegaard but hadn’t made it. “I need the children’s book version,” he said. Probably not an unusual experience. While I’m not sure I’m the one to provide the children’s book, I thought I could do the next best thing: to try to put a few key ideas of Kierkegaard’s into haiku. Because what else are school holidays for?

So here are my first few offerings.

Kierkegaard Haiku I-III

In the moment, pause.
Life’s a reality, but
The crowd will deceive.

Anxiety means
Choice: the potential to do
Wrong, or to find God.

You must stand alone
Before His face and be known.

In Translation

mib14
Image by Ben Shahn http://voiceseducation.org/content/ben-shahn-lithuanianamerican

If you find them worth publishing, you have my permission to do so – as a sort of ‘White Book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.
(Dag Hammarskjöld, in a letter to Leif Belfrage)*

And so they sat together, the poet
without “a single word of Swedish” at hand,
and the translator, to find together –
to trace – the private markings of the public soul,
the one to give the language, the other the heart,
the rhythm, that “unexpressed dialogue”
without which language dies.

And what did they find, as
layers fell and layers grew?
A planned self-defence? The last
word to silence posthumous debate?
No, the heart’s x-ray more like it;
a confession; a line drawn around
the self’s ever-moving hand.

He knew no Swedish, but Auden at least
knew that movement well: the soul’s
duplex structure; the twin-tangle of light and dark
that makes the mess called Man.
The redemption too; he knew that as well.
The call, the answer: the Whitsunday “Yes”.
This too is in the soul’s true language,

spoken best in the gap between
thought and speech, seen best when glimpsed
eyes squinted open to light,
half-closed to self, half-
forgetting all we thought we knew.

In translation,
the soul is seen translating,
atom-swift. Catch it
as it propels to break new ground.

* Before his death, UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld left his journals to his friend and fellow diplomat Leif Belfrage. Poet W.H. Auden worked with Swedish writer and translator Leif Sjöberg to translate this diary into English. It was published under the English name “Markings”.

“The thick darkness where God was”

This is what must first be given to the painting, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye sinks, a voiceless germination…
(Paul Cézanne)

How often is he shown with those horns of light,
as though his head were itself full
of the brightest luminescence and
two cracks, two holes
had formed inside his skull to let
escape all that light, kept
invisibly, impossibly, inside.

Yet for Rembrandt see
how darkness grabs the eye much more
than all the plainness of that face,
how even those two tablets seem
as black as all the dark to which
we’re told that he drew near, while all
of Israel stood just far enough
away to not be safe.

And when El Greco takes
the striking forms of Sinai as
his text, the darkness is
in every shadow-line beneath
the redness of the clouds, around
those rocky pillars, rising from
the chalky, sketchy ground.

Not darkness, but light, shone forth
from those two tablets when
the light-horned Moses brought them down.
Yet light like that we must squint to see.
When fear declares that only man
is safe, that we can’t bear to hear
the voice that struck the tablets’ side:
O let us step, like Moses, to
that darkness without human horns
where only in that absence
of human sight can all Your light
be ever fully seen.

“A catholic taste,” she said

and I nodded,
not knowing at all what she meant, for I
was not, nor have ever been, Catholic.
How then, I wondered, was my reading taste catholic?
The word, at the time, meant Mary and popes,
not expansive, far-reaching, inclusive. Now I
give my old teacher’s words new meaning:
yes, catholic in reading, in writing, because 
bodies matter, and ritual
and beauty are core;
catholic because
bread and wine, and brokenness,
sacrament, liturgy,
should inhabit the fibre of the Christian page.
Faith is not, should never be, prose.
So Mauriac and Merton, Marion and Nouwen
shall show me the way to paint Christ
in rich praise.