Back in 2013 I read a book called So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger. I read this book because it was recommended on The Rabbit Room, and it was a great choice–sort of a modern day Western with quirky characters and inspiring prose. Enger is also the author of the book I’m reviewing today, Peace Like a River. I would say that Peace Like a River is probably his most well-known book, but I’m always a little behind the times when it comes to modern fiction.
Peace Like a River tells the story of Reuben Land, a young boy with severe asthma who is part of a remarkable family. After his brother becomes a modern day outlaw, Reuben and his father and sister set out to find him. That plot summary doesn’t do the book justice, though, because it is full of stunning prose, a sense of the miraculous, and a beautiful portrait of faith, prayer, and family love. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this novel, but it took my breath away. The characters are drawn with great compassion, and the conflict of the book is real and often startling.
One of the best things about this book is the way Enger handles religion, faith, and miracles. Reading his novel has gotten me thinking a lot about so-called “Christian fiction,” and the important role that Christian authors play in our culture. Although I suppose you could argue that this book is “Christian fiction,” to me it stands apart from that subset of books. Enger is no doubt a Christian author who is writing from a Christian worldview, but there is something incredibly unique about the novels that he has written. They’re different from many of the books you’ll find on the shelf at the Christian bookstore.
In my mind, I draw a distinction between Christian fiction and Christian authors. This is because in my mind I separate faith-based books into two categories. The first I would call Christian genre fiction–think of the Christian romances and historical fiction novels, the endless array of Amish fiction, and the many, many Left Behind books you can find at your local Christian bookstore. I have read and enjoyed many of these books, so please don’t think I am in any way denigrating their merits!
The problem I see with some Christian genre fiction is that it attempts to explain God’s actions in a work of fiction. Sometimes the characters in these books seem to fit stereotypical roles. Sometimes the plots are predictable and formulaic. In many of these books, there is a moral or lesson learned by the protagonist that is stated in very Biblical terms. These books often conclude with neat bows that tie up all the loose ends, and we’re all left with a clear understanding of the “Christian” messages the authors are trying to convey. On the surface, that isn’t a problem at all. But if you think about your life, when has anything ever been wrapped up so neatly? When have your relationships encountered only one significant problem and then completely resolved themselves when you realized the one magic principle you really needed to know? If we look at the stories in the Bible of great men and women of faith, their lives are never less complicated after they come to faith in Jesus. In fact, their lives often became much more difficult.
So while Christian genre fiction books are entertaining and great for escaping reality, how do they help us understand the real world? As a side note, you might have noticed that I said “sometimes” and “many” quite a bit in that previous paragraph. That’s because I don’t think these problems are evident in all Christian genre fiction. And none of this is meant to dissuade you from reading a good Amish novel every now and then!
The second set of faith-based books I would identify doesn’t have a catchy name. Instead, I would just group these books under the category of Christian authors. To me, this gives the books these authors have written some freedom to stand apart from the “Christian fiction label.” Into this group I would put Enger, Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw, and many others.
These authors, in my opinion, focus on applying their craft to telling larger stories about the human condition. Often their works are full of things you might not expect from “Christian fiction.” Often their works do not resolve every question with a tidy answer. Often the spiritual meaning of the book is left up to the reader. This can also create some problems–what if the reader misunderstands the work and is left with wrong-thinking about Jesus or the Gospel? I think this is a valid concern, too, but I think that these authors give their readers the freedom to interpret the meaning instead of telling them the moral of the story. They lead the reader down a certain path and point them gently towards the benefits of faith, or towards the motions of grace, but they don’t shove or yell or assume that every reader will walk away from the book with a complete understanding of the novel or poem’s spiritual elements.
All that to say, Peace Like a River is a perfect example of this type of Christian writing. Enger leads the reader down a difficult, beautifully written path. He shows what it means to truly believe in miracles–though the age we live in is often opposed to the idea of anything miraculous. That’s a difficult thing to do as a writer, and I’m still trying to figure out how he accomplished it!
If I have only muddied the waters for you on this issue, I’d recommend looking at this Christianity Today article or Flannery O’Connor’s excellent essay “Novelist and Believer”. This essay, along with others that she has written, has formed the foundation of my own philosophy as a Christian writer, and I encourage you to read it if you’re interested in how culture and Christianity intersect in fiction.
And as a last side note, this was a great vacation read–it was captivating and it was set out West, much like our vacation. Plus, the house we were staying at just happened to be on the banks of a very peaceful river!
Here are a few more snapshots from our wonderful trip!