Wholesome reading

"Wholesome reading" Continued...

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

With all the bad things happening, it's useful to understand how far we've come: Alvin J. Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World describes how the coming of Christ and the devoted work of His followers changed charity, sexual conduct, medical care, education, science, literature, the arts, business and labor, and a host of other fields. To understand our current battle with Islam, Bernard Lewis' books are useful: His What Went Wrong? overviews the multi-century decline in the Middle East that came about because Muslim collectivists did not allow individuals to go out on their own or think for themselves.

Finally, Gene Edward Veith and I put together in 1999 a list of "100 best books of the 20th century, including some Christian ones," so that may be a useful reference: worldmag.com/articles/3366. And, going back to children's books, where this article started, WORLD's list of 50 great 20th-century books for children can be found at worldmag.com/articles/3971.

Unwholesome reading

Andrew Klavan's Empire of Lies raises important questions about depictions of sin and redemption in fiction

By Marvin Olasky

nother subscriber (not Dewey Huston) recently took me to task for making in 2008 some positive remarks about Andrew Klavan's novel Empire of Lies. I had warned readers in my review that the novel includes "descriptions of godless man's depravity . . . bad language and recaps of [the main character's] pre-conversion adultery"-but given three explicit passages the subscriber quoted to me, I should have had a stronger warning.

So, my error, but also my education, for the novel raises important questions about whether authors should show gross pre-conversion behavior that shows our desperate need for Christ. Klavan gives us almost a step-by-step guide to repentance. First comes a sense of disgust: After one adulterous interlude, his first-person narrator explains, "When it was over-never mind the morning after, I mean the second it was over-I felt my spirit-the spirit I did not believe existed-flooded with moral revulsion as if a bubbling tarlike substance was rising into my throat and choking me."

The second step is concern about consequences: Klavan's narrator says, "I cracked. It was the disgust, you know, the moral disgust. And yet, I had worked so hard at hiding it from myself that it could only reveal itself to me in other forms and symptoms. So I would wake up in the predawn dark or just go still, staring at my desk in daylight. My skin would suddenly turn clammy, my heart suddenly flutter and race. . . . Then other fears came, too, small emberlike worries that had been smoldering in me a long time but now suddenly burst into large flame. What if I got sick? Having sex with so many strangers, careless because of the drugs. What if I had syphilis and didn't know it? What if I had AIDS? . . . I grew sick with fear. I grew small and hunched and sallow, worrying. There were days when I thought about it every hour, hours when I thought about it every minute."

The third step is going past symptoms to the mistaken ideas that fueled risky action: "My own voice was whispering: 'Look at you! Sniveling, fearful, sweating in the dark. Where're your theories now, Philosopher Boy? Where's the great enlightenment, the freedom and liberation you promised? . . . It was no good denying it, though all my radical friends made haste to: They had been right, those conservatives-they had been right and we had been wrong. The truths we'd held to be self-evident were nothing more than a comfortable climate of opinion, self-congratulatory certainties that made me feel righteous and progressive and bold and yet had nothing to do with facts. This, too, I understood now. We had been wrong. I had been wrong. I had been wrong about everything. What an awful thing to discover. My whole sense of myself was shattered. I felt as if I were falling apart. I had to do something."

Guess what happens next to this self-described atheist? Here's the fourth step: "I don't know why I went to the Church of the Incarnation. . . . I didn't know what I was supposed to say. . . . I buried my face in my hands and started weeping. I said to [Christ], 'Help me! Forgive me! Forgive me, help me, help me.' . . . I was hoping for an enlightening interior blast of some kind. Some hallelujah conversion maybe. But there was nothing."

Last comes the slow awareness that change has occurred, through God's grace: He resolves to "dump the ugly sex that made me feel good in the moment and lousy ever afterward . . . try to be kinder to people . . . start everything over from scratch. . . . Over time I realized what should have been obvious to me right away: that my prayer in the chapel that afternoon had been answered, after all. The celestial cavalry had, in fact, charged over the hill at the first sound of my cry for help. I didn't see it at first because there was no magic to it. It was just real-as real as real. My prayer had been answered almost in the saying of it."

That's not the end of the story. Temptations come. The main character occasionally has pre-conversion thoughts of sex and violence. As the apostle Paul writes in chapter 7 of Romans, "I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

What price vividness? Klavan might reach people who have not opened the Bible, or a theology text. My advice to him would be: Show the steps of revulsion and repentance and leave out passages like the three gross ones in Empire of Lies. And yet, novelists sometimes have to go where their characters lead them. Having reread Klavan's controversial book, would I recommend it again? It has redeeming social value, but I'd provide a much stronger warning, and a suggestion that those who want to get Klavan's passionate critique of secular liberalism, but without raunchy flashbacks, should watch his biweekly "Klavan on the Culture" videos at pjtv.com.

Buy the book: Links to purchase the books featured in WORLD's 2011 Books Issue

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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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