REVIEW: New Christian fiction reflects spiritual truth
For that reason, I’ve typically avoided the shelves labeled “Christian fiction” — traditionally populated with Amish fiction, genre romances and doctrinally specific series such as “Left Behind.”
However, I believe we’re witnessing a slow shift in the right direction in this category — a new focus on literary books, quality historical works and young adult novels whose Christian worldview guides characters’ actions in ways that are realistic and inspiring.
Three recent novels exemplify this trend. The plots of these books all turn on the idea that a bigger life awaits those who are willing, and that they must be ready to make difficult choices to find the abundance for which they were created.
Michael Neale. The River . Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 301 pages. $16.99. Click to purchase.
Michael Neale’s debut novel, “The River,” traces the life of Gabriel, a boy on a Kansas farm, as he becomes a man trying to escape a childhood memory.
Readers who are new to the idea of experiencing a deep relationship with the Creator will find Neale’s message welcoming. He avoids using any insider language of Christianity and instead invites his readers to experience the emotion of connecting with something bigger than themselves — something that inspires fear, awe and love — in this case, a river as a metaphor for God.
Despite some problems with a heavy-handed use of allegory, an unnecessary prologue, a point of view that hops a bit and simple characterization, Neale has crafted a story that rarely drags and, in some scenes, even soars.
What works well in “The River” is the masculine, adventurous side to Gabriel’s story. In today’s Christian fiction market, it’s rare to find novels that speak to male readers, so kudos to Neale for recognizing this need and filling it.
Julie Cantrell. When Mountains Move: A Novel. Colorado Springs, Colo.: David C. Cook, 2013. 397 pages. $14.99. Click to purchase.
Another book that uses adventure to draw characters toward a bigger life is Julie Cantrell’s “When Mountains Move,” the sequel to her bestselling debut, “Into the Free” (winner of two 2013 Christy awards — Best Debut and Book of the Year). Readers fell in love with the central character, Millie, and lauded “Into the Free” as a smart, Southern read. Cantrell recently talked about the book with Christian students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
While it is possible to read “When Mountains Move” without having read its predecessor, I don’t recommend it. In the first book, we meet Millie as a small child in Depression-era Mississippi. As Millie grows to adulthood in “When Mountains Move,” she slowly learns that God is bigger than her circumstances.
The novel takes on the hardships of Millie’s new marriage with keen honesty. Cantrell allows Millie to gently come to terms with a very real consequence of the horrific abuse she suffered in Mississippi.
The great surprise of the novel is the character of Oka, Millie’s Choctaw grandmother. Oka’s words are infused with spirituality, both from Christian and Native American heritages. Her faith has a deep effect on Millie and gives this novel its most profound moments.
As is the case in some Christian romance novels — including those of perennial favorite Francine Rivers — there are some dark scenes in “When Mountains Move” and memories of a sexual nature — not ones meant to stimulate but to show the power of redemption from all sin.
Tosca Lee. Iscariot: A Novel of Judas . New York: Howard Books, 2013. 336 pages. $22.99. Click to purchase.
Redemption is at the very heart of bestselling author Tosca Lee’s “Iscariot: A Novel of Judas.”
Lee takes a courageous look at the man known as a thief, the “son of destruction” and “the accuser.” She challenges readers to look at both sides of this disciple beloved by Jesus, calling us to a deeper understanding of our own capacity to hand over the one we love. Judas’ humanity, doubts and fears mirror our own.
The novel begins when Judas is 6 years old, fleeing in the night from Caesar Augustus. His father, a devout man who sought the coming of the Kingdom, is killed early on, beginning a lifetime of anguish for Judas and his mother.
He grows to be a man who craves justice, freedom and, above all, truth.
Readers feel his adoration for the Nazarene who becomes his teacher. Lee’s stunning prose puts us on the road with Jesus and allows us to consider the life of the Christ that we follow.
Through the eyes of Judas, we see Jesus experiencing fatigue, depression, elation and, above all, love. The most emotional scenes of the book are those that capture Jesus being affected by the people who need him most.
As Jesus reveals more and more to the disciples, Judas begins to doubt the Master that he loves so dearly. His doubt becomes the great tension of the novel. Lee’s masterful storytelling gives readers no choice but to go deep with her and find the heart of the moment that changed the world. The end of the story is no surprise, of course, but what might surprise readers is how they will identify with Judas’ struggle.
These three writers take seriously the role of the Christian author to reflect to the world the truth that God reigns utterly. These writers show what happens — using allegory, realism and historical reference — to lives transformed by this knowledge.
The greatest potential of these books, though, is in reminding all of us that the God we serve is mysterious, powerful and merciful.
LAURA ANDERSON KURK is the author of two young adult novels (“Glass Girl”
and “Perfect Glass”)
from Playlist Young Adult Fiction) and is a featured columnist with Choose Now Ministries. She is a member of the A&M Church of Christ in College Station, Texas.