WesHI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Welsey Hill (PhD, University of Durham) is assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA).

He is the author of Washed and Waiting and the forthcoming revision of his dissertation, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (you can read an interview about the book here.)

He blogs at Spiritual Friendship, has a commonplace book, and can be followed on Twitter at @wesleyhill.


A few months ago I was sitting in a circle of evangelical Christian academics, all of whom teach at a Christian college. The conversation steered its way through various currents and eddies, disagreements emerging here and there like choppy waters—until we came to the topic of Chaim Potok’s novels. About those we had no disagreement at all, nor even much variation in our reading experiences: We all, at some point in our intellectual pilgrimages, had had strikingly similar encounters with Potok’s work.

From his context in Orthodox Judaism, Potok named something common to us evangelicals who had found ourselves, at first, reading widely, then entering university and graduate school, and then, ultimately, accepting teaching posts at universities or graduate schools ourselves. Potok helped us see and understand our shared situation, our (at times fraught, at times joyful) struggle to maintain allegiance to the faith we were raised in while exploring competing ideas and ways of life in the wider world.

Chaim Potok is best known as a novelist and a rabbi. Born in 1929, he published a litany of books that each, in its own way, delves into the same complex thicket of conflicts. Many of his characters, not least the protagonists of his most acclaimed work The Chosen, are Hasidic Jews who are somehow confronted with the fact that the worlds they are drawn to—the worlds of art, biblical criticism (in The Promise and In the Beginning), and the secular academy, for instance—pose searching challenges to their pre-existing beliefs and patterns of life.

The first Potok novel I read remains my favorite: My Name is Asher Lev. Its plot is elegantly simple, and it builds to a quietly devastating conclusion. We meet Asher Lev in the book’s opening pages as an adult who is known for painting the Brooklyn Crucifixion. As subsequent chapters unfold, we see how he became that artist—and at what cost.

Raised in a strictly observant home in post-war New York, Asher finds that he has a gift for painting. At first he doesn’t recognize it as such, but his parents, friends, and teachers help him take appropriate pride in his eye for beauty and his skill in portraying it.

As he cultivates this gift, Asher enters more and more deeply into the world of the goyim, the world outside synagogue and yeshiva, and finds himself inexorably pulled toward depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. This isn’t, for Asher, about conversion to Christianity; it’s rather about taking the supreme moment of redemptive human suffering and employing it to speak to his people’s own contemporary suffering and beyond. But how can this be, Asher’s family wonder, when the Holocaust is such a recent chapter in the Jewish people’s story? How can Asher take up the religious symbol of the Jewish people’s persecutors? Such an act can only be a betrayal of his Judaism—or might there be some new way of being Jewish that he hasn’t yet fathomed?

My Name is Asher Lev isn’t a heavy-handed apologetic for a more liberal, tolerant form of faith. Nor is it ultimately a confirmation that more conservative forms need no maturation. What Potok offers instead is a lovingly drawn portrait of a modern believer, one who learns the difference between “believing still” and what W. H. Auden has called “believing again.” In addition to all the delights of great literature, there are lessons here for us evangelicals. We too, after all, are a chosen race and faithful exiles in a foreign land (1 Peter 1:2; 2:9).