I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College and has served in that capacity since 2010. Prior to his appointment at Wheaton, he served as senior minister at historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
His newest book is Loving Jesus More (which releases on Monday), and he is the co-author (with Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson) of Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature.
Cry, the Beloved Country is widely regarded as the definitive novel of the South African experience. Although the book was written more than half a century ago and published before apartheid was established as a system of racial segregation, its hopeful yet honest treatment of social issues has ongoing relevance for South Africa and the world. Alan Paton invited his readers to embrace this global perspective when he described his novel as “a song of love for one’s far distant country . . . the land where you were born.”
To read Cry, the Beloved Country is to become immersed in the tragic complexities of racial conflict that gripped South Africa in the 1940’s and afterwards. Paton vividly evokes the events of that time and place: the political speeches, the rise of the black shanty towns, the mining and transportation strikes, the personal sacrifices that blacks and whites both made in order to serve one another across racial lines.
He also addresses some of the hardest challenges that remain for South Africa, such as the corruption of power, the ever-present danger of criminal violence, and the need for new social structures to rebuild broken families in divided communities.
All of this forms the setting for the dramatic story of loss and forgiveness that Paton tells about one man—a priest named Kumalo—who endures painful suffering in a fallen world and struggles to understand the purposes of God for his life, his family, his church, and his community.
I read Cry, the Beloved Country to renew my hope in what one person can do in response to the world’s heartbreaking need for justice and mercy. Kumalo knows what he is up against: “the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are the tragic things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten.” At the same time, Kumalo knows that God has called him to bind the wounds of the broken with truth and mercy.
I also read Paton’s novel to renew my sense of calling as a minister of the gospel. Despite his own weakness and sin—including his failings as the father of a prodigal son—Kumalo perseveres in his God-given ministry. In one of the novel’s transformative scenes, the priest goes up the mountain above his village to remember his sins “as well as he could” and to repent of them “as fully as he could,” praying for God’s forgiveness.
His soul renewed by repentance, Kumalo returns to face the challenges of serving his humble, beautiful congregation. Even when he is tempted to believe that there is “nothing in the world but fear and pain,” Kumalo continues to pray, to preach, and to serve his community with the love of Jesus.
Cry, the Beloved Country has similar effects on my own ministry. Paton’s novel captures the tragic beauty of human brokenness in ways that inspire humble repentance, genuine faith, and faithful ministry.