Highland Books, 9781897913895, £7.99
Christian Fiction as a genre still hasn’t grabbed me. I’ve read The Shack, Babe’s Bible: Gorgeous Grace and now this. Each has their merits, each suffers from a certain clumsiness, the same sort of stilted, not quite in the top flight quality of writing that also seems to afflict contemporary Christian music. Why should I be reading this genre when I could be enjoying The Power and the Glory, The Brothers Karamazov or My Name is Asher Lev, all of which combine beautiful writing with striking and challenging theological insight? Indeed why can’t a thoughtful reading of Murakami or Austen be as valid in raising, and sometimes answering, the big questions of life, faith, morality and spirituality?
The biggest strength of The Shack was, for me, its portrayal of the Holy Spirit – trying to make tangible the intangible is never easy, even the greatest of all writers, the mighty Dante, struggled in the Comedy to adequately describe the heavenly realms – but the playful, eddying wind of Saruya is probably Wm Paul Young’s best creation. However, his character of Jesus was wooden and unrealistic – and the same goes for the Jesus we meet in Babe’s Bible who is a bland cipher for an ideal man-type without ever being truly human. It is also true of The Silencer where a couple of times a character, who you are left to suppose is probably Jesus, wafts by, described as having a face that had ‘a strong, shapely nose and eyes with a beauty that was almost feminine.’ Authors, Christian authors in particular, are too quick to portray Jesus in either their own image, or so blanded-out to not cause offence that they end up with a Margaret Tarrant style sentimental rural hippy.
If the Jesus who, whether he is part of the narrative or not, is ultimately always the central character of a Christian novel fails to convince then the rest of the book is bound to fall short. But that is not to say that there isn’t much to commend this novel. Firstly, it is written out of the author’s own close experience of Albania and its peoples. His attempts to swiftly but sharply draw in the landscape, the villagers, their habits and their society evoke a clear sense of a land with a more elastic concept of time than our own, a varied cuisine, deep memories and barely contained religious tensions, are modestly successful. Secondly, it captures something of the ambiguity of mission in different land. Albania may be part of a greater Europe, but culturally it is in a very altered space. Jude and Alex Kilburn have relocated from London to a small town in the heart of this unsettled land where violence, retribution and corruption slide beneath the half-completed post-communist, hastily westernised infra-structure. They are trying to live as Gospel-tellers, working with a local church and encouraging individuals and groups to break away from accepted societal norms. He does it by attempting to publish the testimony of an ex-gang hard-man turned Christian, she does it through developing a small craft business to give local housewives economic power of their own. Jude’s work attracts violent attention from those with vested interests to stop publication. Alex’s more modest activity has positive benefits and potentially will plant more lasting Gospel seeds.
Intrigue over the process of publishing such an incendiary biography is used as a lever to drive the thriller aspect of the novel. But here is where it begins to fall apart. Tension revolves around the slow progress of a translator. So it isn’t very tense. There are outside forces gunning for Jude, but they are allowed to develop almost unchecked in a parallel plot and don’t actually impact on the progression of the book – whose fate, when it is revealed, is quite underwhelming. The threat to Jude is palpable yet beats weakly; half-formed and messy, it explodes with a slow burn that fails to truly convince.
Meanwhile, the faith of Jude and Alex provides them with their reason for being. It is not shoe-horned on, it is an integral part of who they are, and important for that, and the author really does want God to be at the heart of what drives them. Of course, I agree that is key to Christian fiction, however I cannot escape feeling that it is handled clumsily, yet it is difficult for me to pin down how or why. I guess I was uncomfortable with the way Jude tends to drop Biblical texts into his work as a language teacher with non-Christian locals, along with using it to prove that there is another way other than the traditional cycle of vengeance to villager who has a different faith. It is not that this is wrong per se, simply that it seems insensitive and bound to fail. Then there are those moments when the ethereal figure of what could be Jesus drifts by. They are out of shape with the rest of the novel and detract from an attempt to produce a gritty and realistic account of the passion and professionalism required of contemporary missionaries.
Ultimately, I want to like this book – there is great value in opening out this hard to understand part of Europe to British readers and there is a necessity to show how tough, canny and contextually aware missionaries need to be today. The enthusiasm of the author for his subject is tangible. But the writing isn’t up to the job. I discovered Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to be extremely tough reading, but in it I found far better writing and far more deep theological challenges on inculturation and mission than I have, so far, in any piece of Christian fiction.