Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Clear Winter Nights" by Trevin Wax: A Review

That night [Chris] sensed the heavenly sweetness of Christ's love. God had never seemed closer. It was as if a glow of divine love had come from Jesus Himself, into his heart, like a stream of sweet light. On that night he began to get chill bumps all over his body. They started at the top of his head and moved all the way down to the tips of his toes. God loves me. God loves me. He really loves me. Wave after wave of God's love seemed to wash over him. The kindness of God was so palpable, so present, the sense that God was for him was so real that all Chris could do was smile, close his eyes, and rest in the beauty of grace.

But that was a long time ago. It was winter now. There were no sounds of life outside. And Chris couldn't detect any signs of life in his own heart. The world seemed dead to him and he to the world. He lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, the cracks staring back at him, mirroring the foundations of his faith. For some reason, the reminder of the joy he had known as a boy made him weary. Whatever wonder he had experienced in that room a decade earlier was now buried beneath winter's fury. He felt a deep sense of loss, quieter than words, drier than tears. (56-57)

I don't read much fiction and don't particularly enjoy it. However I cannot recommend the first fictional work of author and blogger Trevin Wax called Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After more.

As the above quotation suggests, the story itself plays on the weather. The main character, named Chris, is going through a lot in his life. Over the course of roughly one year, he calls off his engagement with a woman he truly loves, discovers his adulterous father was really the one to blame for his parents divorce, his grandmother died, his grandfather has a stroke, and while called to be a leader in a new church plant he is simultaneously questioning his faith. Chris' year of pain and struggle has become like a cold winter night.

The story is primarily a conversation between Chris and his grandfather (Gil) still recovering from his stroke. Chris visits Gil for the weekend and helps watch over him. Gil is a former pastor of several decades and is well known in the community. Thus the story is a contrast of generations and a contrast of two spiritual journeys. Chris is questioning his faith becoming convinced of common secular and liberal arguments against orthodoxy while Gil is at the end of his life remaining strong in his faith. Chris has lost his fiance due to his spiritual crisis. Gil had lost his wife of over fifty years due to her stroke. Chris is mourning his sufferings through alcohol and doubt. Gil is mourning his pains through faith in Christ.

The conversations they have are rich and the reader easily falls in love with both characters. On the one hand, the doubts and questions of Chris are one's we have all had. On the other hand, Gil is a wise sage who has fought the good fight, struggled with the same doubts, and serves as the sort of influence Chris needs. The young college student has been listening to one of his favorite professors and thus is doubting his faith. Now he is listening to one of his favorite relatives and is called to strengthen his faith.

The two men discuss a host of issues: pluralism, evangelism, homosexuality, grace, forgiveness, and others. Throughout it all, Gil is portrayed as a loving, caring, strong believer who answers with grace and repeatedly returns to the theme of grace in light of all of the challenges Chris brings up. Gil doesn't judge Chris, he encourages him. He doesn't question his heart, he loves on him. He doesn't hate him, he blesses him.

Throughout the book, the theme of the weather returns again and again. For example, during one conversation, Chris shuffles his grandfather's driveway while Gil watches. A striking image. Chris is shuffling through a proverbial cold and dark night of the soul, while Gil, sitting in the same weather, is happily engaged in conversation without any concern for the strength of the weather. One is breaking his back. The other is sitting comfortably in his chair.

Consider briefly some of the highlights of their conversations. Regarding pluralism:
Chris racked his brain, trying to remember the notes he took from Dr. Coleman's lectures on moral behavior in the world religions. He remembered enough of the main themes to get his point across. "Take the spring celebration. passover comes during springtime. The Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery. It's a celebration of humans breaking the chains of bondage. Inspiring, really. A demonstration of the unbreakable nature of the human spirit and the longing for freedom we all share."

. . .

"Easter's the same thing. the triumph of the human spirit. Just think - here is Jesus standing up against he oppression of the Roman Empire, and after His death, His movement is carried on by His disciples until it outlasts even Caesar's reign.

Gil cocked an eyebrow and then interrupted. "Am I to suppose you're going to talk about how Islam celebrates the binding of Isaac, and how submission is the path to human greatness, right?"

Chris didn't' respond, but he was thinking to himself, How did he know?

Gil chucked. "Pious poppycock," he said quietly

. . . 

Gil put his arm around him. "Do you think any practicing Jew, Christian, or Muslim would be okay with how you just described those events? What you've just done, my boy, is given me three holy days with a twenty-first-century multifaith spin. In the process, you've failed to be true to any one of them. Any self-respecting Jew, Christian, or Muslim should protest you for patronizing them that way." (46-47)
On evangelism:
"You should realize something. Even if you didn't press [your Buddhist friend] to become a Christian, you still gave her the impression that your faith - whatever faith you have - is better than hers."

"I'm not sure I follow you."

"You're a Christian - a follower of Christ," Gil said. "At least in name, and I hope in your heart. . .. "That means you think Christianity is superior to other religions. And she's a Buddhist. That means she thinks Buddhism is superior."

"But she never said anything like that. And she doesn't come across that way," Chris said. 

"Does she have to?" Gil said. "Listen, I think it's great that both of you are courteous and civil to one another. Lord knows we need ore civility in this day and age. But make no mistake. Both of you think you're right and both of you think the other is wrong."

"Your putting words in our mouths. That's exactly what we didn't say."

"Then you didn't admit the very thing that was most obvious." (73-74)
Later Gil responds to the claim that all religions are the same:
"To say all religions are equal. You know, that's a belief too. And I bet whoever says something like that probably believes that idea is better than yours or mine."

I'm confused."

"My point is this: you don't lose the attitude of superiority by saying no religion is superior. You get even more reason to feel superior. Now you're standing over against all the religions of the world, saying none is better than another." (75)

I will cut it off there. More examples could be given of the richness of Chris and Gil's conversation. In closing, however, I will point out that Wax's approach to theology here isn't new. Several authors in recent years have done theology through fiction and story. Two prominent examples reveal why I really appreciate Wax's success in this work.  The first is the best-selling The Shack which is a book about theodicy where the main character, Mack, suffers the murder of his daughter and has a series of "meetings" with the "Trinity."

Similar to The Shack is the A New Kind of Christian trilogy by Brian McLaren. The author is one of the leading writers of the Emergent Church and these books were widely read by its supporters. In this trilogy, the "hero" of the story calls into question virtually every aspect of Christian orthodoxy and shares a postmodern liberal vision of Christianity.

That is what I love about Clear Winter Nights. Instead of confusing the faith, like The Shack, or tearing it down, like in A New Kind of Christian, Wax articulates it and builds it up. Wax acknowledges the real and present threats facing the church and uses Chris as the voice for them. But instead of ignoring or belittling them, he has Gil confront them all the while articulating why the gospel is more freeing. The scene near the end at the gravesite of Gil's wife and Chris' grandmother illustrates it best. Though feeble, Gil has a strong faith and it gets him through life in hope of eternal life in Christ. Though strong, Chris struggles to have any answers for his dark year of the soul (5).

For someone who does not read fiction or really care to read it, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If your looking for action, romance, or drama, then perhaps you should look somewhere else. You and I have different tastes in good books. However, if your looking for "Theology in Story" (as the cover suggests) you will find it here. But not just any theology, but a theology of the gospel. The best theology.

I hope there's a sequel.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review

For more:
"No Longer Just a Hobby": An Interview With Trevin Wax
Rival Eschatologies: NT Wright on Christianity and the Enlightenment
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