Recently I’ve read or listened to (I listen to novels on my ipod while I work out and drive) several excellent novels that include religious-theological themes. They certainly are not books of high theology. By that I mean that the theologies in them are often mixed with folk religion, but I bring them up here because they stand out from other novels due to the centrality and intensity of discussions of theology in them.
A common theme in many novels is God and the problem of evil. Three novels I have recently read (or listened to) have this them deeply imbedded in them and in relatively profound ways. I enjoyed all three novels immensely and recommend them highly–for their entertainment value and for their profundity (ability to provoke thought).
First, I listened to Canada by Richard Ford. This is a strange sort of “coming of age” story and, beginning about half way into the book, a gripping tale it is. Imagine being a teenager in a small town whose parents rob a bank and go to prison, leaving you and your twin behind to deal with it alone. That’s what happens to the main character. But I didn’t spoil it for you because he (who is the story’s narrater) as much as says this in the first paragraph of the book. It’s what happens after that that is really gripping. The character, a teenage boy, reflects much about God and whether there is a plan for lives or whether things just happen randomly without any plan. He ends up deciding that, given what happens to him and others around him, there cannot be a plan. God must not exist.
Second, I listened to The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman. It’s about life and death and evil in New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Like Canada, it’s an exciting story that draws you in and won’t let you go. Someone is murdering orphans in what will become New York. A liberated young woman (feminist prototype) is trying to figure out who is murdering them and is herself accused of being a witch. Her side kick is an English spy who joins her in her quest for the killer(s). They discuss God much and reject the God of the Dutch Calvinist church (the only one in the town) in favor of the God of Spinoza. How could the Calvinist God foreordain or permit the heinous murders of children they are investigating?
The third novel is one I’ve been planning to read for years but only recently go around to listening to. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. For the first third of the book I was unsure whether I wanted to listen to this; it is somewhat odd. It’s about two friends, one of which is extremely height-challenged and speaks with a high, squeaky voice. But he’s a young philosopher-theologian who believes he is “God’s instrument” and that God has revealed to him when he will die and how. The main character, the narrator, is the boy’s best friend. Religion, specifically Christianity, is intertwined with the story. Miracles happen. Or do they? The main character, John, converts to Christianity because of his little friend Owen and what happens with him and to him.
One thing I noticed in all three books is the all-too-common assumption that IF God exists, he must be the all-determining reality. The main character in Canada (really a great story) decides such a God cannot exist–at least not for him–given what life brings (such random, meaningless events that serve no good purpose). The two main characters in The Orphanmaster decide God exists but is the God of Spinoza–all determining but without benevolence. The main characters in A Prayer for Owen Meany decide that God exists and everything that happens (including the narrator’s mother being killed in her prime) happens for a purpose and that God is ordaining and governing everything (meticulous providence). Owen Meany (the small boy with the squeaky voice) is certain from childhood (where this certainty came from is never explained) that he is the instrument of God and that everyone does exactly what God wants them to do to work out God’s master plan for everything. Free will does not exist in this theology. (Calvinism is never specifically mentioned, but one gets the feeling that it is somewhere in the background of the story which is set in New England and the main characters attend a Congregational church–at first, anyway).
I would like to read a good novel that at least plays around with another possibility–a self-limiting God who allows free will. I’m sure this theme appears in some novels, but not many I have read. As I type this immediately comes to mind the movie The Time Bandits where “God” answers a little boy’s question about why he allows so much evil in the universe. “God” (a British actor whose name escapes me right now) hears the question, walks behind a pillar for a moment, and then says to the boy pensively “I think it has something to do with free will.” It’s meant ironically, of course. The explanation doesn’t fit with the mounds of “concentrated evil” lying all around having crushed the boy’s friends (the “time bandits”).
If anyone has ONE favorite novel that incorporates theological themes, feel free to include it in a comment here. Explain briefly what the theme is and how it functions in the book.