This is the final entry in a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Jared Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont.
He is the author of several books, the latest two of which are The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables and The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles.
My first encounter with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair was in reviewing the Neil Jordan film adaptation with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore for my college newspaper. I hated it. There was a spirit of something intriguing there about faith and disbelief, but the whole thing seemed muted, hazy, smeared over with the maudlin romanticism so common in Hollywood period pieces. Someone later convinced me to pick up the source material, however, and I discovered in Greene’s work, the fourth of his more explicitly Christian novels, what could not be captured on screen—the often maddening complexities of belief and disbelief, and the thin line between raging against God and fearing him.
“A story has no beginning or end,” Greene’s story begins. There is something else that has no beginning or end—or Someone else, rather, and his shadow looms large over each page of the novel, which chronicles the adulterous affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, the wife of a British officer.
The illicit romance seems routine enough: passionate artist type woos the bored wife of a boring man. But during one of their encounters a bomb blast during the German blitzkrieg of London destroys their room, nearly killing Bendrix. After this traumatic event, the romance mysteriously sours, and Bendrix is sent into a tailspin of jealousy and lust.
He believes he’s been traded in for a new lover, so he hires a private investigator who discovers that indeed Bendrix has been. But Sarah’s new lover turns out to be the source of all love himself. When Bendrix nearly died, she prayed for his safety and made a commitment to God that if his life was spared, she would not see him any longer. As painful as it was to give up her illicit dalliance, the alternative was more painful. She feared not for body first, but for soul. And here we find something rather strange and rather unique in the great midst of literary exploration of sexual sin. Where so many romantic works treat adultery as “natural,” totally legitimized by Romance, the great theoretical justifier of all things, here is a little book where the woman loves her lover by not “loving” him.
This of course infuriates the worldly Bendrix, who comes to see religion as another boring husband dampening all his romantic fury, frustrating the artistic expression of his very appetites. And when Sarah later catches tuberculosis and dies, he sees her God not just as an interloper, but a villain.
And there is where the tale deepens. In her withholding, in her painful disengagement, and now in her cruel death, Sarah has taught Bendrix more about love than she ever could have in the immoral passion of their previous life together. And Bendrix is now forced for the first time to reckon with the great Enemy of his fleshly appetites, the great unbounded Author who had so unfairly deleted his story.
I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s line about his youthful atheism: “I did not believe that God existed,” he said, “and I was very angry with him for not existing.” Indeed, in the end, as Bendrix shakes his fist at Sarah’s God, rejecting the object of her prayers on his behalf, proclaiming defiantly even his hatred for God—“I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and You took her away. With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed”—we think he doth protest too much. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s praying.
No, being angry with God is not right or just. But it’s a start. When The End of the Affair‘s story ends, Bendrix’s Jacobean wrestling is just beginning. We are sure, by the last lines, gleaming with a sliver of hope, like a light through a cracked door—“I said to Sarah, all right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists”—that Bendrix will not walk away from his wrestling unchanged. The reader walks away, in fact, with the great hope that hatred may have a peculiar advantage over ambivalence in that it is at least a kind of caring, a passion that is simply waiting for the redirection of the transforming gospel.