Zeus or Christ

Tom Wolfe's bestseller ends in neither gaffe nor grace

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

Let's try a thought experiment. If a very talented American writer set out to write a great Christian novel, what would he do? He'd describe this great, bustling, sin-sational American culture, showing both the short-term attractiveness and the long-term devastation that lust and covetousness bring. He'd mock idols of secular liberalism-the arts, homosexuality, toleration of parading immorality-while showing their worship by those who want to be hip. He'd create believable, sympathetic characters whose godless lives leave them desperate for a solution. Tom Wolfe does all that in his wonderfully written, bestselling A Man in Full. He does not show the crux of the solution: grace, acceptance of Christ, and repentance. But he does write about conversion, as two of his characters at the end of their ropes convert to ... faith in Zeus. This, in a realistic novel, is obviously unrealistic, and critics have jumped on his ending. "Falters at the finish line," a Minneapolis Star Tribune headline proclaimed, and a San Diego Union-Tribune reviewer muttered about "a gaffe of baffling proportions from a novelist of Wolfe's ability." But was it a gaffe? Tom Wolfe knows the stakes: He has argued that the decline of Western civilization "started with the death of God-or at least a kind of atheism among educated people-and we've reached the point where it gets more and more difficult to limp along on the moral capital of the 19th century." Was it a gaffe? Mr. Wolfe has criticized the idea that choice is god and the greatest good is to "pick what you want," because he knows that a person who claims absolute freedom is "probably in terrible shape! You're probably dominated by some tyrant." He has given lectures about "the '90s as a period of moral fever" and has expressed amazement at "the degree to which perfectly traditional Christian belief as of, say, 1955, is now ridiculed as right-wing bigotry!" Tom Wolfe, in other words, sees the problem and knows American culture well enough to understand that reasonable people have found the solution in God's revelation-but he also knows that those who proclaim it are ridiculed. And he himself would suffer enormous ridicule if his main characters found a way out through ... born-again Christianity. Mark Harris in Entertainment Weekly noted that Mr. Wolfe's ending "will alienate some readers," and Bob Wiemer in Newsday wrote of how "Wolfe doesn't take the easy way out" by having the end-of-their-rope characters become Christians. But in marketing terms that would have been the hard way out: There's no better way to alienate many readers than to show how Christianity makes sense. So A Man in Full's conclusion with Zeus worship was not a gaffe but a clever fix. With that ending, Mr. Wolfe was still able to garner a Time magazine cover story, as writer Paul Gray noted that "At its heart, A Man in Full is a cliff-hanging morality tale" -but the kind that doesn't antagonize some readers by claiming that Christ is the fulcrum of history. The substitution of Zeus for Christ does create a credibility problem. Minneapolis reviewer James Lileks noted that Mr. Wolfe could not "make contemporary Zeus worship believable." Fritz Lanham, book editor of the Houston Chronicle, argued that "the last quarter of the novel ... is the least successful," because Zeus faith "simply doesn't seem plausible." But what's plausibility, when the sale of 1.2 million copies is at stake? None of this should be interpreted as an attack on Tom Wolfe. He is a terrific writer of both fiction and nonfiction. (His characters, let me note, sometimes use bad language.) He has performed an immense service by observing how more Americans are "searching for a spiritual basis to life." He spoke the unspeakable when he noted that "Among biochemists ... there's a movement that makes fun of Darwinism-now, just think of what would happen if the theory of evolution were exploded." He reflects in novels what Francis Schaeffer asserts in his brilliant books: that recent philosophy represents not only a flight from what's right but an escape from reason. If, as a bestselling literary author, he takes the easy way out with conversion to Zeus-well, discerning readers can see that the ending is only believable when we bring in the elements of grace and repentance that Mr. Wolfe leaves out, and replace an imaginary god with the real Christ whose birth, in real time and in a real place, we are celebrating this week.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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