Andrew Klavan's 'The Great Good Thing' Reveals the God Who Speaks Through Stories
For some, the journey to faith in Christ is an easy one. The required spiritual, emotional, and intellectual assents seem to come naturally. For others, the path from unbelief to faith is much more complicated, moving along a jagged path filled with seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Such was Andrew Klavan's long sojourn from secular Jew to faith in Christ as described in his book, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.
Raised in a nominally Jewish family by parents who did not believe in God, Klavan rejected Judaism around the time he was forced to make his bar mitzvah. He says he felt shame and rage afterward "at having been forced to violate my deepest sense of things."
His rejection of the religious aspects of Judaism would complicate his relationships with family members—his father in particular—and lead him to examine at length his cultural identity. What did it mean to be Jewish and how did that part of his story fit into the larger story of America and the stories of the Western tradition that he would one day grow to love so much? Judaism and religion to him were symbols of hypocrisy and he wandered down the path of agnosticism, adopting a cultural elitism that became a religion of sorts to him.
In The Great Good Thing Klavan walks readers through his troubled childhood in a home that most would describe as abusive, although he seems to take great pains to deal charitably with his parents, even while describing painful experiences. From his childhood in Great Neck, New York, to the roller coaster of his adult life, there are years of angst and madness and Klavan's transparency and his gifted storytelling transport the reader into the darkest corners of his life. Parts of it are not easy to witness, yet Klavan's wit and sardonic observations keep from dragging the book down too much.
Eventually some glimmers of light emerge as he begins to recognize how his long-held prejudices about education have kept him from discovering the truth and beauty in the Great Conversation centered on the Western canon. Klavan's dogged determination to educate himself, overcoming his self-imposed academic exile, is admirable and worthy of imitation. The secrets to Klavan's success as a writer—the things that make him such a joy to read—are revealed, in part, in his descriptions of his disciplined reading and writing schedules, and his desire to write sentences that are "clean and clear," striving to say things in "a way people could understand." As basic as this sounds, it's often something that's a challenge for writers, who opt instead for flowery language and an abundance of multi-syllabic adjectives.
"I was—I am—a worlding by nature," Klavan admits. "I was delighted by the world, by which I don't mean just the sunshine, trees, and twittering bluebirds but also sex, money, gossip, a good single malt, the crooked hilarity of politics, and the bizarre little lies and betrayals that make up our relationships, especially our relationships with ourselves. This was the stuff of the novels I wrote and the novels I read, of the plays and movies I went to and the television I watched, not to mention the news stories and histories that made me shake my head and laugh at the everlasting circus of human corruption."
Yet somehow, this unlikely pilgrim found his way to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. "No one could have been more surprised than I was," he says in the introduction. As a man who believed in science and reason he held Christians in derision. He "despised even the ordinary varieties of willful blindness to the tragic shambles of life on earth" that he saw in the lives of Christians.
God's gentle nudges are evident—to the reader at least—in Klavan's life from an early age and continue even in his worst moments, although they seem evident to Klavan only in retrospect. As he considers his conversion, Klavan says that God spoke to him in a language he understood. "It was stories," he says. "It was literature. He came to me that way."
Klavan was fifteen when he began to understand the centrality of Christianity to the stories of the Western tradition. "It was Christian ideas that had powered European culture, and it was belief in those ideas that had fallen when Europe's culture fell," he writes. "I was only a boy still and I didn't understand much, but I began to understand that at the heart of all Western mythology, all Western civilization, all Western writing, all Western thought, and every Western ideal, there stood a single book, the Bible and a single man, Jesus of Nazareth."
Decades later, after a breakthrough in his therapy that he says enabled him to think clearly and trust his feelings, Klavan noticed a change. He writes, "For others, I know it was Christ who led them to joy. For me, it was joy that led me to Christ." He eventually found himself praying. Tentatively at first, but then with increasing fervor and purpose, he began to have a relationship with something or someone. He wasn't sure at first whether he was talking into the air or communing with the Almighty. The possibility of a religious conversion initially seemed absurd to him.
But then, years into his prayer habit, he asked God what he should be doing and God said he should be baptized. Again, this seemed absurd to him.