I’ve previously written about the power of redemptive art. If you read that post, you know that I define redemptive art as follows:
Redemptive art is that which clearly shows the reality of our broken world and doesn’t try to clean it up to make people comfortable. But redemptive art does not stay there in the brokenness. Rather, this art takes us through a journey through darkness to the light of hope. It may explicitly direct people to Jesus, but more likely it will form a parable that may not explicitly mention religious faith but which registers truth at the deep heart level of its listeners. Redemptive art is not always made by Christians, but because all truth is God’s truth, Christians recognize God’s truth in it and can use it to think and talk about the real work the Gospel does to bring new life. Redemptive art, from a Christian perspective, is a bridge to deeper discussions about brokenness and new life. It is also a means that God uses to bring hope and inspiration to our lives.
I’m sad to say that the most redemptive art I have encountered in literature and film is usually not made by Christians. Recently, the CNN belief blog contributing editor, Eric Marrapodi, quoted Prof. Cutter Callaway with a prescient observation on why this is (in film in particular):
“Part of what is necessary for humor, and why Christians do it so bad, is there needs to be a tension there. There needs to be something dark or a tragic that makes life funny,” he said.
“Christians struggle with humor just like they struggle with how to posture themselves with anything that is dark or provocative,” he said.
I think redemptive art that stands a chance of connecting with people needs to be authentic and raw. For there to be a real understanding of what redemption means, there needs to be a real understanding of what fallenness is. For there to be deliverance, there has to be something from which one is delivered. And if you’re portraying redemption, you better not make it an altar call moment where everything is perfect afterwards. Fake, fake, fake. Redemption is something that happens to us and then is wrestled with. (That includes when an altar call conversion does happen.)
Secular artists don’t have a religious public to which they sell. But if they are real artists, they will portray reality as it is. That is good news for Christians. Redemption is not something we have to force down people’s throats. It is something powerful at the very heart of this broken world that God created. It happens to people–for real. We should expect to see this reality in the best fiction.
Recently, Wade Bearden wrote a great blog post on Christ in Pop Culture on the aim of redemptive art, specifically in film . Bearden writes:
If Christian filmmakers desire to use their art as a way to lead others to the gospel, they might want to take the “stone in the shoe” method seriously. Unbelievers—atheist or not—ought to walk away from a faith-based film saying, “I may not agree with their position, but they gave me something to think about.”
I think the same is true in literature. My measure for a great redemptive read is a book that grapples with our human fallenness, leaves me with authentic hope, and does not wrap everything up perfectly with a bow. Whether a book is by a Christian or not, I love books that leave me with the “stone in the shoe” that Bearden is talking about.
With that in mind, here are 5 of my favorite redemptive reads. Add them to your summer reading list. Be aware: they are raw. But they also give powerful bursts of hope.
1. Amos: To Ride a Dead Horse by Stanley Gordon West
From the opening killer paragraph of this book, you know you are in for a good read:
He was an old man, clinging fiercely to the tattered garment that had once been his dignity. He rode in the back of the converted hearse, lying on a gurney, lifting his head to see what he could of the world they passed. His gray eyes reflected a zest for life, though they struggled now from drowning in some recent pain. He joked with the two attendants and he knew this wasn’t funny.
After his wife is killed in an accident that he survives, elderly Amos Lasher gets sent to the Sunset Home, where he suddenly is at the mercy of the sadistic head nurse, Daisy Daws, a fiend that gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money. Abused and taken advantage of, Amos overcomes the odds and the way he conquers the evil forces against him is a stand-up-and-cheer triumph. It is also a powerful parable that calls to mind Hebrews 11:1,
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (NIV).
In Amos, we see that redemption comes through self-sacrifice. When we lay down our life, no evil can overcome us. Because Christ laid down His life for us, we can jump into the dark and know that His are the hands we cannot fall through (the latter comes from a beautiful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that West quotes).
Stanley Gordon West was actually a Lutheran pastor, but while his writing echoes many Christian themes, it is not explicitly Christian fiction. It is firmly in the literary fiction genre. He is not afraid to write literature that is raw. I think that’s why I love his writing so much.
2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
What happens when one terrible sin from your childhood continues to haunt the rest of your life? Is there any way to be good again? In this masterpiece by Khaled Hosseini, this is the core question. Do human beings fall beyond redemption–or can they be made new?
Amidst the background of a childhood in Afghanisatan, Amir (privileged, wealthy) and Hassan (a member of the lowly Hazara class) grow up together as best friends, almost brothers. But Amir abandons his friend at the moment of his greatest need–an appalling sexual assault by a group of neighborhood bullies–and pretends not to see the evil being done. This decision goes on to affect him the rest of his life. His friend knows that Amir abandoned him, but his loyalty continues unflagged even as darkness begins to take over Amir’s soul. When Amir moves to America, leaving Hassan behind, he finds that he cannot escape his past. The past comes to visit him again and Amir returns to Afghanistan. In a powerful passage, we see Amir repent for his sin–true repentance, the kind that is seen in one’s changed course of action. And we see him come to a place of redemption. We see how there is hope for anyone to turn from evil and “be good again.”
There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need. I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book says He is.
We cannot do away with our past, but we can move on from it, more brave and more loving than when we started.
3. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
I have written previously about my love for this book:
In this story, Quoyle, a ne’er-do-well haunted by his past, the generational sin of his family, his impotence in life and ambition, his failure with women, and the messages of shame constantly being thrust upon him finds redemption and healing. He grapples profoundly and honestly with the darkness. But the story ends with a storm which shakes his community, which unseats the power of evil heritage in his life, and which brings one member of his community to a miracle of actual resurrection.
In both the film and book, the closing language of resurrection blow me away. This is not at all a “Christian book,” but without a doubt its author is using the Christian image of resurrection to evoke the new life and healing that can come to a broken life. There is rich material here for meditating on the hope of new life. This story has powerfully impacted my own life in my experience of family brokenness and dysfunction. I have sometimes felt shame for these things in my life, but Quoyle’s story of redemption brought me hope and gave me a concrete visual for what redemption can look like. Not the mere abstract language that we sometimes throw around in the Christian community, but redemption in real flesh and blood.
Here are some of the closing lines from the film:
“There’s still so many things I don’t know. If a piece of knotted string can unleash the wind, and if a drowned man can awaken, then I believe a broken man can heal.”
And from the book:
“For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This novel is a masterpiece. I just finished it and am already planning to read it again and underline. Young Theo Decker miraculously survives a museum bomb attack that kills his mother. In the aftermath of the bombing, Theo comforts a dying old man who foists upon him his ring and a mysteriously beautiful painting called The Goldfinch. Theo is too young to fully understand the ramifications of having stolen this painting, but he holds onto it long after he is able to understand. In fact, he holds onto it into adulthood…along with a deepening brokenness. Oh how my heart broke for Theo Decker! Tartt perfectly captures the mindset of a child who no one seems to truly be taking care of. Theo is caught in a labyrinth. He copes as best he can, but not well. He is drawn into addiction, bad company even as he is neglected and manipulated by his father. He is so deeply alone and even when he returns to a mentor who cares deeply for him, he is unable to envision telling his mentor the truth. He turns to deception because that is what he knows.
What I loved best about this book was the beautiful “conversion” experience Theo goes through towards the end and the way that experience transforms him and makes him new while acknowledging the ongoing battle of a new life. There is so much that is relevant to faith and deeper meaning in the latter pages of the book. Don’t read this book if you have trouble dealing with a very broken character. Do read it if you like to see how light comes to shine in profound darkness.
5. Light of the World by James Lee Burke
This crime noir, set in Burke’s (and my) Montana backyard, was my introduction to Dave Robicheaux, Burke’s deeply flawed hero. I greatly appreciated how Burke (a devout Catholic) grapples with questions of deeper meaning in the midst of a rip-roaring crime novel. This story ain’t pretty, but you’ll find something here worth reading. Burke’s style has commonalities with Flannery O’Connor: sometimes shocking images that reveal a deeper truth. Here you will find a book by a Christian, not a Christian book. And that’s what I think we need a whole lot more of in the publishing world today.
Here’s how The Washington Post‘s Bill Sheehan put it:
More, perhaps, than any of Burke’s other novels, “Light of the World” is concerned with the irresolvable problem of evil, as practiced on both the corporate and personal levels. Surrette, who may be something more or less than merely human and who gives off the unmistakable — and quite literal — stench of corruption, is a chilling creation, the embodiment of a world without sane limits. He is a fitting antagonist for Robicheaux, a flawed but genuine hero who persists, against all odds, in fighting the good fight. Together they lend visceral excitement and moral urgency to the latest, largest entry in a deeply personal series that continues to address the biggest questions and to illuminate the darkest corners of human behavior.
Meanwhile, the AP’S Bruce Desilva wrote:
The themes in James Lee Burke’s lyrical, allegorical crime novels rarely change, but each new book delves more deeply into them, revealing an author who is increasingly troubled about human nature and the American character but unwilling to abandon hope for redemption.
It’s that hope for redemption that captured me as I read Burke. I look forward to reading many more of his books–although perhaps interspersed with lighter reads.
Those are my 5 picks for redemptive summer reads. What are yours? Please chime in!