I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
David Powlison worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, where he is executive director, and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He hold an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine (focusing on the history of psychiatry), and has been a counselor for over 30 years.
Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991) is book every reading Christian should consider.
In making this recommendation, I am taking seriously that the verb is “should consider,” not “should read.” This novel is not for everyone. It’s long (almost 800 pages). Helprin’s style (magical realism) won’t appeal to some people. You won’t find Christian theology. This is purely a work of fiction. It tells the story of a very interesting man. It does not present opinions, views, and advice. That’s the disclaimer.
But here’s the draw. A Soldier of the Great War is beautiful. It is thought-provoking.
I know that many readers will find that Helprin’s writing gives the same deep pleasure and rich nourishment that he has given me over the years. I have read SGW four or five times. (Only Fyodor Dostoevsky and Patrick O’Brian have drawn me back so often.) Each time I have been enraptured. My copy of the book is marked up with innumerable underlinings, annotations, and cross-references. I love Helprin’s lyricism and imagination. I love his reflections on and evocations of beauty, love, joy, worship, courage, coming of age, passion, loss, and death.
Beauty, joy, and love—in the face of death—are the core. We Christians are right to take seriously “the true and the good,” those life-or-death questions dealing with epistemological convictions and ethical actions. We are not right to ignore or even deprecate “the beautiful,” those life-or-death questions dealing with aesthetic experience. But worship and God’s glory involve all three.
God is true. He is good. He is beautiful.
Sin corrupts all three; grace redeems all three. Helprin does not write as a Christian. But he awakens things that stream in the direction of whole-souled worship. Not worship abstracted and detached from God’s working in time and place and persons. But worship awakening in the midst of human experience, embedded in creation, history, and relationships. SGW traffics in immediacy, wonder, engagement, joy, attachment, awe, attentiveness, gratitude, alertness, appreciation, longing.
Of course, I love SGW in a different way than I love Scripture. But alongside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people.
You gain a feel for human experience.
You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know.
You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike—an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom.
You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception.
All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare. SGW is one those stories from which I have loved learning.