Some good novels that include theological themes

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.

  • David Rogers

    You might get lots of replies about the British actor: Ralph Richardson.
    The newest release of the Canadian progressive metal band Rush is a concept album where the songs weave together a kind of narrative. It is titled “Clockwork Angels” and mentions that the protagonist of the album grew up being taught to believe in a clockwork universe where “our Watchmaker loves us all to death.” The songs eventually lead to expressions of rejecting what he was “brought up to believe” and that all that can be done is to “wish [others] well” and “garden” one’s own life through one’s own free-will. There is a novelization of the album that is either now or soon to be released.
    This has been a theme of Rush for years now. The stereotype of religion being deterministic is the motivation for living by one’s one free-will. It is interesting that the band has never been known for raucous indulgences, in fact, they were rumored to go to their rooms after a concert and read or learn languages.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the reminder of the British actor’s name. I keep getting him mixed up (in my own mind) with John Gielgud. I think they’re alike in some ways. I assume he was the father of Amanda and Natasha (Richardson). I’ll look into the Rush band. When the novel is published, let me know.

      • Timothy

        Ralph Richardson was childless. Natasha Richardson was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave who was married to Tony Richardson. I am not sure who Amanda Richardson is. I have never heard of her.

  • http://hamletinpurgatory.info H in P

    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. *** I say this book ! Now Act V, Scene III is good ! Original play with wordplay and theology

  • John I.

    I have a friend who’s nuts about Irving, and 30 years ago or so he got me to read this “fantastic novel” he had just finished: A Prayer for Owen Meany. The writing is good and the narrator character engaging, and the relationship between Owen and him well developed and interesting. However, I disliked the book because of the divine fatalism plot point. I figured Meany was named after the Puritan John Owen (Owen + a mean God, or a meaningful one, with an intended tension to be developed between the different views of Meany and his friend who admires his conviction and wishes he had it. But alas, his friend converts–but does he go all the way to Owen’s full view? IIRC, the book left a tine little bit open on that).

    It reminded me of the fatalistic “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, which I despised and hated with a passion but was required reading in highschool. I went on and on about this to another friend back then, only find out that her favourite author of all time was Thomas Hardy and she had collected all his books. I did learn a little humility, and now I just say that I prefer other authors to whichever one is being discussed that I dislike.

    John

    • rogereolson

      I disagreed with Owen Meany’s divine determinism, of course, and hoped (this is how absorbed I can get in a good novel) that “John” (the narrator) didn’t buy into that. The book leaves that unclear. Interestingly (I don’t know if you remember this from the book) the main character becomes an English teacher and his favorite author is Thomas Hardy. I had not thought of the possible connection between Owen Meany’s name and John Owen. I thought maybe the “Meany” name was taken from George Meany (the labor leader of that time period).

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. A Jesuit priest is among a small group chosen to initiate contact with the first known inhabited planet other than Earth. Deals with themes largely centered on the problem of evil and the question of divine providence. It is an emotionally heavy novel.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the suggestion. I will look into that.

  • http://stumpspeeches.blogspot.com J.B. Stump

    I highly recommend The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and the sequel, Children of God. They are science fiction set in the not too distant future when intelligent life is discovered in a nearby star system. The Jesuits (as they have always done) decide to go to this new culture. The main character is a linguist who doubts God’s existence, but finds himself won over as he seems clearly to be used by God to accomplish God’s purposes… but…
    The title comes from the verse asserting that God knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground. OK, God knows, but how does that help the sparrow?! There is profound wrestling with the problem of evil. Lots of room for free will in this God.

    • rogereolson

      Someone else also recommended that book and I will look at it. Thanks.

  • David Rogers

    The book “Clockwork Angels” by Kevin J. Anderson, based on a plot, story and song lyrics by Neil Peart (drummer for Rush) is available at Amazon.com. It is a science fiction work with “steampunk” elements (a mixing of futuristic technology with nineteenth century Industrial Revolution machinery). I have not read it, and I haven’t read Anderson before. There is a “Look Inside” link that lets you examine some of the contents. Peart wrote an afterword that gives some of the story behind the ideas of the song lyrics and the novel.

    http://www.amazon.com/Clockwork-Angels-Kevin-J-Anderson/dp/1770411216/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349445367&sr=8-1&keywords=clockwork+angels#_

    • John Inglis

      Rush is an excellent band. The drummer is great, and the lead guitar Geddy Lee is one of the best of the 20th century. They’ve always been thoughtful in their work, both musically and lyrically.

  • AJG

    I’ll go back to the classics. I don’t think you can do any better than Dostoevsky for great novels that incorporate Christian themes. The two best examples are “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. C&P deals with the idea of Christian suffering and redemption. In fact, it is the whole point of the novel. Sonya helps tear down Raskolnikov’s prideful view of self to the realization of his need for redemption. The BK is, in my opinion, the greatest novel ever written. Ivan’s argument against the existence of God by pointing out real-life instances of cruelty towards children is devastating. Father Zosima’s arguments for God that follow are equally strong. It’s hard to nail down a single theme to this book, but a main one is how we can find God in a world of cruelty and evil. Alyosha finds it in children. This is the only book that caused me to weep upon finishing. As Vonnegut stated: “Everything I need to know, I learned from reading The Brothers Karamazov.”

    • rogereolson

      I once tried reading Russian novels but couldn’t keep the names staight. It seemed like everyone was named “Sasha.”

      • AJG

        It can be difficult. I read the Everyman’s Library versions of both of these which have character lists in them. I referred to them often at first, but eventually your brain gets it after a while.

        • rogereolson

          I didn’t persevere long enough, I guess. :)

          • http://www.mattbrady.net Matt Brady

            I agree with The Brothers Karamazov suggestion, but I completely understand your issue with the names as well! They have their proper names and then their nicknames, and then their family names… it can be a bit much. However, if you can get through that it is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

  • craig bird

    Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is my favorite novel of all time. I think it has a great deal to say about free will choices and says it beautifully. Peace Like A River, by Leif Enger, writes of miracles as well as the consequences of choice (free will) and is also great literature. Even the Poisonwood Bible speaks to the topic, I believe.

    I teach a class on Religion in Literature and the last time I taught it I used Owen Meany, Things Fall Apart and I Heard the Owl Call My Name as basic texts.

    Thanks for this column–it has gone into my planning file for the next time I teach the course.

  • craig bird

    I get an F for not following instruction, The professor clearly said ONE novel.

    Gilead is a “before I die” look back over his long life for the benefit of his 7-year-old son. John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor, has a physical and spiritual geneology that includes his abolitionist pastor grandfather, who killed in the name of God, his pacifist pastor father and his brother who lost is faith to German Higher Criticism. His best and lifelong friend is a Presbyterian pastor with a pre-return Prodigal Son. Set in the late 1950s and all the social turbulance of that era it deals with the results of choices his family and friends make and he makes. As he writes to his son he is also working out his own salvation with fear and trembling and he is fully aware that we are free to make choices despite what a loving God would have us make.

    It is the only novel I have ever re-read immediately after reading it for the first time. Then I waited two weeks and read it for a third time. Now I re-read it every six months or year.

    I shared it with a Tejano friend with high literary standards but it didn’t speak to him. So I realized it is highly culturally specific (as, by definition, great novels are I suspect) so it speaks to Anglos who grew up in the conservative theology of the South during that time.

    Thanks for letting me redo the assignment!

    • rogereolson

      I also read Gilead but only once; it didn’t speak to me as pwerfully as it did to you.

  • MattS

    Just as an aside… The movie “Simon Birch” is a film adaptation of the the book “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

  • Drew Dabbs

    For what it’s worth, I just found out that Time Bandits is available on Netflix Instant. I put it in my queue and plan to watch it soon.

  • Jenny

    Moby Dick – my nic is from Pip’s oracular speech in chapter 99

    Hard to comment on specific themes because I can’t tell when Melville is being theological and when I am reading theological ideas into it when I perhaps shouldn’t be. Or perhaps there is no “shouldn’t” with this book!

    Even though I do not understand exactly what Melville is getting at much of the time, I do think the book is rich with theological thoughts (the righteous pagan for example)

    I am Canadian and think the book is pretty underrated up here, not sure how it is in America?

  • John

    I read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” years ago. I described it as a cross between Garrison Keillor and Flannery O’Connor (though I’ve read more Keillor than O’Connor–however, both of them certainly deal with matters of faith in their works).

    Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” (an extended series that he began in the 1970s, took a break from and will conclude next year) has some themes of faith, cosmology, theology, etc. He was once quoted as saying something like “fantasy is the only way to write theology.” Though reared by missionary parents in India, in interviews and comments, he seems to have substituted “story” for God or for faith, probably due to his trying to escape the fundamentalism of his youth. In the Thomas Covenant books, he makes a great deal of “the necessity of freedom.” I’m not sure all he means by that, but in the story it appears to mean that people must be free to make their own choices without manipulation and such.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, John.

    • John Inglis

      I’d completely forgotten about that fantasy series. I do remember reading it my teens and thinking it was good, but not as good as Tolkein. Different approach, I guess. JRRT doesn’t have an axe to grind, but Donaldson did and it showed–at least to me. JRRT’s novels unfolded, and seemed to bloom like flowers in a real world. The world is there, and the stories are what grew in it unbidden. Donaldson had themes and points that he seemed to want to make (I do recall thinking about them and thinking they were interesting). However, JRRT’s worldview was woven into the world and never in the forefront. I think that may be why the latter had a much greater impact on me and why I reread them, read them to my kids, and find that they read them.

  • Ben

    Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a classic. It captures the idealism of late 1950s evangelism in the Congo. Good portrayal of paternalistic and patriarchal missionaries. Read it Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of a missions class! Of all places.

  • RD

    I’ve got a question that is only slightly on topic. You mentioned that you listen to books on your iPod. What app do you use for this? Thanks much

    • rogereolson

      Audible.com and itunes (together)

  • Laura

    No one has mentioned Les Miserables, perhaps because its example of the bishop’s forgiveness and grace is so well known.

    • John Inglis

      That book almost killed my love of reading. My buddy raved about that 1000+ page monster so I tackled it.
      Any book that contains within it a mini-novel of battles of the French revolution and a detailed excursis on a sewer system is a novel in need of good editing. I’m not against dry reading, or complexity or length (I read about four dimensional objects on my bus rides), but far too overhyped in my opinion.

  • Peter Stone

    Hi Roger, I know this is the wrong place to write this but the email address I found for you was obviously wrong as it bounced back to you. I have read your blog for a long time now and really like it. I don’t always agree but I like it anyway. I especially love the pieces you write on evangelicalism, fundamentalism in the 20th Century. Even though I wasn’t alive in the 60′s and 70′s it still feels so real to me as I live in Northern Ireland and we usually get what happens in the USA about 10 to 20 years later. You even got me to spend money on the book “The Sword of the Lord” by Andrew Himes. The main reason that I am writing this is if time permits and if you can would be you be able to do an article some time on the development of the magazine Christianity Today. Even in my 15 years of reading it I have witness many changes for for good and others for bad in. And relate it to the broader Evangelical movement. I understand if do don’t feel inclined to do this or have the time as I suppose many people ask you mto write on different topics all the time, but I thought I would ask anyway. Thanks for all your writing, Peter

    • rogereolson

      I know some of the story of CT and have witnessed its changes over the years, but I’m far from an expert on the subject. But I know someone who is doing doctoral level research that includes CT’s evolution. I’ll ask him if he will write a guest post on the subject some time. But I won’t say anything negative about CT. I’m a contributing editor and a loyalist. I like CT (not every issue or article, of course) and wish it only the best. It has evolved and, I would say, mostly for the better.

  • Lewis Powell

    These are thick & great & recently read: Shogun by Clavell; Soldier of the Great War by Helprin; Atlas Shrugged by Rand. Because they reach for truth & find some success. Try again to read Russians, but not Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky! Yes, Brothers Karamazov. Solzhenitsyn! Yes, First Circle. Need a short book: “Man’s Search for Meaning” V Frankl. Re-read 1984. It’s a whole new book after you turn 30. Pick one? Shogun.All truth belongs to God.

    • rogereolson

      When I was a teenager I read a lot of Ayn Rand. We the Living, Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, etc. I think I read all her novels. My parents must have worried about that! (Well, to be honest, I’m not sure they noticed or, if they did, knew anything about Rand’s philosophy.) I thought her novels were fun to read but truly scary as social philosophy. My main memory is of how dark and sinister everything seemed. I didn’t know anything about social Darwinism then, but I discerned that there was something very wrong with her outlook about the poor and disadvantaged. Later I realized that she didn’t think oppression existed except for the capable who were being held back by the disadvantaged and those who sympathized with them.

  • Nancy

    Mr. Olson, I would like to suggest a book (if you haven’t read it already) It is called, “coach Wooden, The 7 principles that Shaped His Life and Will Change Yours.” By Pat Williams with Jim Denney, forwarded by Tony Dungy. Though it is not about any “deep” theology, it is a refreshing book that greatly paints a picture (and a life) of tried and true principles that brings peace to anyone who applies them. Sincerely . . .

  • Ben

    I’ve posted on here once already on this topic, but I wanted to add another great book, Blink, by Ted Dekker. Open theism describes a reality of multiple futures. Some people have a problem conceiving what that looks like. Dekker’s main character is able to see multiple futures and how prayer affects them. Though I don’t think he’s an open theist, his conceptualizing of multiple “open” future threads is amazing.

    • rogereolson

      Sounds interesting. Thanks.

  • Steve Long

    Almost anything by Michael O’Brien, but especially “Father Elijah” and “The Father’s Tale”.

    O’Brien writes good fiction with sophisticated theological insight rather than theological books with a story.

    • rogereolson

      Interesting. Just yesterday a friend recommended Father Elijah to me. I looked it up at amazon.com and like what I read there (about the book).

      • John

        Alan Jacobs mentioned “Father Elijah” in a “Books and Culture” article some years ago. It is a fascinating “apocalypse” from a Roman Catholic perspective.

  • Dennis

    I would recommend any book by David Adams Richards. Hope in the Desperate Hour would probably be his most intentional book in regards to theology; where he portrays a contrast between disinfranchized people and the well off, within the context of Easter Saturday. But all his books address the question of God’s existence in the midst of everyday life for average everyday people.

  • Martin

    Silence by Shusaku Endo. Won’t disappoint.

  • http://davidellisdickerson.wordpress.com David Ellis Dickerson

    An underappreciated religious classic, to my mind, is “The Damnation of Theron Ware,” by Harold Frederic; about a turn-of-the century small-town Methodist who winds up getting caught up in the liberal modernist thinking of the local worldly Catholics. A truly brilliant work about class anxiety, scholarship, and the frustrations of pastoral work, and it’s so subtly done that at the end, you’re forced to realize you assumed a number of things about Theron Ware that weren’t true, just because he was a pastor. One of my all-time faves. But “Silence” and “The Sparrow” are on my wish list now, so I suppose there could be movement.

  • http://davidellisdickerson.wordpress.com David Ellis Dickerson

    Also, to answer an earlier person: Ted Dekker is not just an “open theist,” he is a full-on evangelical in the tradition of Frank Peretti. There will always be a moral.

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  • http://deadheroesdontsave.com/ MikeB

    I know I am a bit late to this post, but thanks for some good reading suggestions. As a long time Rush fan I just grabbed a sample of Clockwork Angels for the Kindle.

  • Nate Sauve

    The Brothers K by David James Duncan is exactly what you are looking for. Well written, not at all preachy let alone predictable, this novel portrays beauty and ugliness in religion and life in a complex and humorous tale of one family’s triumphs and disappointments. And it’s a baseball story. Check it out on Amazon.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for that recommendation. I assume the title is a take off on Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov?

  • http://gfr1111@icloud.com Geoffrey rice

    The screw tape letters by c. S. Lewis. A young devil gets advice about how corrupt a young man from his devil uncle, uncle screw tape. Job by Robert heinlein. A modern retelling of the story with commentary on theology.


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