An Acquittal

Dostoevsky’s Devils is a 700-page epic of spiritual lawlessness, conniving, and singularly poor decisions. For most of the novel, this plays out in long conversations, awkward domestic scenes, and some very unfortunate social events. At the climax, everything joins in a conflagration of murders and suicides, with two or three natural deaths for variation in tragedy. Such is Dostoevsky’s genius that it scrapes above melodrama to meaning.

To end a story in a general slaughter of the principals is an established tradition. It is dignified, though not justified, by a notable presence in classic literature. As a rule, I don’t care for it. Such endings usually feel rushed, as though the author killed off the characters as the quickest expedient to ending the story. They may even be read as lazy. You could craft an unexpected, yet logical and satisfying, resolution of the characters’ internal and external struggles. Or you could just kill everyone.

The worst aspect of the “everyone dies” resolution is that it is so purposelessly bleak. The point goes beyond any objection that the story is dark, or depressing. It is the meaninglessness of it that is insupportable. If all the story’s conflict and energy simply terminates in a general slaughter, what was the point of it? The characters may as well have not bothered.

Dostoevsky’s Devils entirely acquits itself of any charge of being rushed or lazy, and not because it is 700 pages long. The forces in the story, at work from the beginning, slowly but inevitably plunge it down into violence. You knew that this, more or less, was how it would end. Devils does not escape the meaninglessness so crushing in similarly violent resolutions. It makes no effort to escape. Every death is senseless. There is no heroism, nothing achieved or saved. The villains win thoroughly, and even they gain nothing. With grim irony, Dostoevsky allows his villains to succeed in their schemes while failing in their objects. Most stories work in dichotomy: someone has to win and someone else has to lose. In Devils the villains fail, and still everyone else loses.

What redeems all this is the force of Dostoevsky’s ideas. The novel is sometimes labeled a critique of atheism, and that is true enough. Its full scope, however, is broader and subtler. The crucial dynamic of the novel is the strange, half-contemptuous affinity between the young radicals and the rich, respectable people in power. These, together, are Dostoevsky’s devils. The revolutionaries were active in mischief, and the people in authority complaisant to it. The radicals were declared atheists. The people in authority went to church, or at least made profession of some vague God. But they had no spiritual or intellectual anchor. They simply drifted – ever attracted by new ideas but incapable of serious examination, impressed by boldness but unable to hold conviction of their own. Indifference is as fatal to the soul as disbelief. The devils were not all atheists, but they were all godless.

This, then, is the true theme of Devils: what happens when people are left to themselves, without God. All the senseless sorrow of Devils, the oppressive futility, the blundering crimes that are at once cruel and stupid – this is what happens when God is left out of life. There is no point to the miserable episodes unleashed in the chaos of disbelief, but that is Dostoevsky’s point. “God is necessary and so must exist,” one atheist confesses. “But I know that He doesn’t and can’t.” I have no doubt that Dostoevsky believed in God. But Devils is not, at heart, a statement that God is real. It is a statement that God is necessary.

Devils is a little too heavy, a little too dark. But I understand it, and I can appreciate even those aspects I don’t enjoy. I still believe that a general slaughter of principal characters is a poor resolution to most stories. But one of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, done right.

Happiness is an Aesthetic

There is a scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday where an English detective, impersonating an anarchist, is joined in a “foul tavern” by another English detective, impersonating a nihilistic German professor. The second undercover detective ordered a glass of milk, in keeping with the habits of the Professor de Worms. But he rejected, with contempt, his companion’s suggestion that he actually drink the milk. “We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones.” Then he ordered a beer.

The part about everyone being a Christian was, of course, ironic. Even a hundred years ago, when people easily believed in Christian nations, they knew the difference between a national religion and a personal conviction. The beer was not ironic. Chesterton really believed that to be a Christian, rather than a nihilistic German, was a reason to drink beer rather than milk. Because (such was Chesterton’s conviction) beer is good.

One of Chesterton’s most striking characteristics, as a writer, was how he related religion to pleasure, and pleasure to morality. He expressed it once in a rhyme written in praise of inns, “Where the bacon’s on the rafter / And the wine is in the wood, / And God that made good laughter / Has seen that they are good.”

The last phrase is an allusion to Genesis, where God made the world and saw that it was good. It recalls, too, one of the loveliest images in Scripture, that of God creating the earth “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” This idea that the physical creation is a good thing, a thing to rejoice over, suffuses Chesterton’s works. He saw the goodness everywhere. It’s a bad old world in many ways; popular catchphrases aside, there is nothing unprecedented about a pandemic. But Chesterton never got over the thought that it’s a good world, too, and it is pretty wonderful, after all, that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

If good meals and good laughter have the Creator’s approval, that is a call to enjoyment, and also to gratitude. Oscar Wilde once gibed that sunsets are not popular because you can’t pay for them. Chesterton retorted that you can pay for them – you can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. “Surely,” he wrote, “one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” There have always been people who take virtue as a reason to reject material pleasures. It was Chesterton’s happier analysis to take acceptance of material pleasures as a reason for virtue.

Chesterton always tended to happiness. It is rare to find an author who joined so naturally religion and the goodness of the world, or whose embrace of pleasure was so full-hearted and so wholesome. Gritty realism, so-called, always has an audience, and darkness is both a point of view and an aesthetic. But happiness is also an aesthetic, and often a soothing one. Happiness rooted in the ordinary, as Chesterton’s was, is particularly soothing. We grow distracted, anxious, ungrateful; the news is like a storm on the horizon. It is good to remember what we still have, all the small pleasures and ordinary joys – and God that made good laughter has seen that they are good.

Review: The Terrible Speed of Mercy

In his introduction to his biography The Terrible Speed of Mercy, Jonathan Rogers wrote, “The outward constraints that [Flannery] O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves.” It’s not surprising, then, that his biography of Flannery O’Connor is a spiritual biography.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a short book, only 162 pages when you exclude the notes; Flannery O’Connor had a short life, only 39 years. It was never exactly dramatic. O’Connor led, as Rogers said, a “pious” life, in straight grooves of routine. She never married, had no children, never sinned or succeeded in spectacular fashion.

Rogers deals with the events of O’Connor’s life, but his main focus is on her “interior world”, explored through her writing – her stories and, more often, her letters. To the author’s credit he searches beneath the shallow surface to the quiet struggles of O’Connor’s life and the meaning of her work.

The one fault of this biography is that Jonathan Rogers lets his bias toward Flannery O’Connor show too obviously. He just tried too hard. At one point he recounted how, as a child, O’Connor would try to “sock” her guardian angel, and then wrote, “Jacob, too, fought with an angel.” Which is like following up the story of how Don Quixote fought windmills with a reminder that David, too, fought giants.

The worst example of bias comes in the introduction, where Rogers generally suggests that disapproving of O’Connor’s writing is a spiritual failing. In the crowning paragraph, he writes:

The violence, the sudden death, the ugliness in O’Connor’s fiction are large figures drawn for the almost-blind. If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

The train of thought here, if I’m following it correctly, is that O’Connor’s literature is offensive in the same way that Jesus’ ministry among the “sinners” was offensive. But writing about fictional losers is nothing like putting out “the glad hand” to real ones.

Rogers, apparently, starts from the position that “conventional morality” – he might have told us whose – is Pharisaical. Even granting this extraordinary assumption, Rogers’ contention that O’Connor’s works only offend conventional morality because of the gospel strains credulity. It could never have been the gore? If only O’Connor had expunged the last rays of grace, all offense would have gone with it?

The problem is not that Jonathan Rogers defended Flannery O’Connor from her critics, but that he failed to do justice to them. If he could have addressed their arguments seriously – instead of hinting that they were Pharisees – the book would have been stronger.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a sympathetic biography, informative, well-written, and engaging. It is not what they call “definitive”, but it does help its readers greatly in understanding the spiritual underpinnings of Flannery O’Connor’s work and life. As a biography, what it brings out is not so much that O’Connor had an interesting life, but that she was an interesting person. And this ability – the ability to see, to consider, and to bring to written life – a public figure as a person is priceless in a biographer.

CSFF Blog Tour: Beckon

Just on the side of the road, as you enter the little town in the mountains, there is a sign: Beckon: You’re here for a reason. And I can see why they chose that. It certainly beats out: Beckon: There is something seriously wrong with these people.

It’s a pity, you know, that the sign doesn’t say that. It would have been fair play. All the same, it never took too long for visitors to figure out that there was something wrong with those people. And still it was usually too late.

Beckon, written by Tom Pawlik, is billed a supernatural suspense. It certainly had suspense – I would even call it a thriller – but the supernatural element was thin. At least it was thin by the sometimes bizarre lights of the genre. The main peril, creepy and even chilling as it was, broke the supernatural suspense archetype of being, well, supernatural.

And this leads to the novel’s greatest merits. The premise of the book is one of the most intriguing and innovative I have ever read. It kept me engaged to the very end. Tom Pawlik draws readers deeper in with skill – never too much revelation at a time, never too little.

The book is divided into four parts. The first three are devoted, in turn, to Jack, Elina, and George, detailing each one’s path into Beckon and its mysteries. At the fourth part, their storylines merge. This was Pawlik’s way of pulling up the curtain, as each character stumbled onto a different secret hidden within Beckon.

Pawlik also used it to concentrate attention on his heroes, to give a sense not only of where they had arrived but where they had come from. So the story, with all its revelations and dangers springing at them, doesn’t just happen to them. It seems instead to be part of a journey they were already on.

I have two complaints against this book. One, the violence level was too high, and some instances were, frankly, disgusting. The casualty rate of the cast was astounding. I got the feeling sometimes that the author killed characters simply because he didn’t want them in the next chapter. When he was through with them, they were through.

My second complaint – perhaps related to the first – is that the book does not fully explore the mysteries it presents. The N’watu and Beckon are both, in their way, fascinating, but their depths are left unmined. What their lives made them, what it all meant to them, is never really told.

I still don’t know what made the N’watu tick. Yes, they hated and feared outsiders – but why? You cannot be afraid without feeling that you are vulnerable. What vulnerability did they see in themselves? I would ask what vulnerability they saw in their god, but I am not sure that they had one. It was never clear to whom, in their own understanding, they made their sacrifices.

I can’t say that I will pick up Beckon again, but I expect it to be popular. Its premise was genuinely compelling, and it excelled in suspense and mystery. Those who enjoy thrills and chills will probably enjoy this.

We have an unusual number of links this tour, so here we go:

Beckon‘s Amazon page;

Tom Pawlik’s website,

his blog,

his Facebook page,

and his Twitter account.

And now, the blog tour:

Noah Arsenault
Julie Bihn

Thomas Clayton Booher

Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Theresa Dunlap
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart

Bruce Hennigan

Janeen Ippolito
Becky Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Rebekah Loper
Katie McCurdy
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Joan Nienhuis

Faye Oygard
Crista Richey
Kathleen Smith
Jessica Thomas

Steve Trower
Fred Warren

Shane Werlinger

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: Seeing in the Cave

Michael, who is 36, now often refers to gay life as a kind of cave … Had Michael been secretly unhappy as a gay man, and was he now projecting that onto all gay-identified people? I broached the question later that night at his small off-campus apartment, where we sat in his barren kitchen eating Oreo cookies. “Well, you can’t see how dark it is in a cave when you’re in it,” he said. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” The New York Times

There is a rising tide of support for “dark fiction” among Christian readers and writers. One of the most popular arguments in its favor goes like this: As Christians it is our duty to face the darkness and show the ghastliness of evil; in doing so we will help people understand the darkness of this fallen world and awaken them to a need and desire for redemption.

And this has worked for some people. They recognize the existence of evil and then, working backward, the existence of good. Sometimes they follow the trail all the way back to God. As C. S. Lewis said, we wouldn’t know our line was crooked unless somewhere there was a straight one.

What startles me is how blithely some “dark art” defendants pass from We need to face evil to Let’s break out the horror novels! It’s like having someone try to argue you into walking to the grocery store by irrefutably proving that you need milk. Well, okay. But why not take the car?

Exploring the darkness is not the only way to understand it – nor, for my money, the best way. If you want to know what darkness is, your best object of study is the light.

George MacDonald once said that only God knows and hates evil. I am sure beyond all doubt that God hates evil more than I do, more than any of us do. And it’s not because He has seen more of it – because He has, if I may dare the analogy, been reading horror while the rest of us have been reading prairie romance. The heart of it is not that God knows more than we do, although He does. It’s that He’s better than we are.

Only God fully knows evil because only He fully knows goodness. No one, Jesus said, is good except God alone – the everlasting burning with whom sinners cannot dwell. (Isaiah 33) The Bible shows us again and again God’s anger against sin, His implacable hatred of evil. The key to understanding it is His holiness.

Nothing more clearly exposes the nature of darkness than the light. When Isaiah saw a vision of God, he lamented, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”

When Jesus showed His divine power in giving the fishermen a miraculous catch of fish, Peter pleaded with Him, “Go away from me, Lord; I am sinful man!”

When Job heard God proclaiming who He was, his confidence in his righteousness was finally broken and he confessed, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

As C. S. Lewis wrote, “You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. … You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil; bad people do not know about either.”

If we know God, we will know ourselves. If we know what goodness is, we will know what evil is. The light will give definition to the darkness.

This is the safest, truest path to revelation. The backward path remains, and many people have followed it to the truth. The debate about darkness in fiction is worth having. But the indisputable point that darkness is a reality to be faced is not the end of the debate; it is the beginning.

CSFF Blog Tour: Darkness Follows

What is it that takes a sane, upstanding citizen and turns him into a menace? What makes him destroy his life and hurt everyone he loves? What makes a man a murderer?

The darkness.

Darkness follows Sam Travis’ family, and now it’s come for him. He struggles against it, but it is by no means certain that, stalked by shadows, he will be able to keep his eyes open to the light. It’s not certain that he will be able to hold on to it, a lifeline to keep him from drowning in the darkness.

If I had to sum up the soul of Darkness Follows, that would be it: the pull of darkness on the human heart and the pull of light. Mike Dellosso plays it chillingly, convincingly; the journey is incredible yet somehow you can believe it. There is a truth, and a profundity, that cannot be denied.

The characters are nicely real, the writing is fluid and artistic, and the plot took me in directions I wasn’t expecting. But despite its overall soundness, the story was somewhat marred by horror-enhancing stupidity. I’m no criminal mastermind, but if I were plotting the crime of the decade, I’d try to lay low. Hint: Refraining from unnecessary murders is a step in this direction.

So much for the good and the bad. Now for the ugly. Now let me tell you why I was relieved to be finished with this book. Darkness Follows is bloody, relentlessly depressing, and blighted with cruelty. The lurid stories of abuse and domestic violence were a swim through depravity I didn’t need. The violence was often gratuitous; some of it wasn’t even logical. And the macabre metaphors grew tiresome.

And the ending … Why is it that one man, grasping at the brightest star in his sky, was saved, and another man was killed reaching for just the same light? Why were those most guilty least punished?

Darkness Follows had its good qualities, but ultimately I did not enjoy it and cannot recommend it. Mike Dellosso is a good author, and after reading the notes in his book, I’m sure a good man, too. I regret passing a negative judgment, but this would not be an honest review otherwise.

So take it for what it’s worth. Below are links to the author’s website, his book’s Amazon page, and the rest of the blog tour. You’ll find the positive reviews of Darkness Follows there

I am intending to post twice more, addressing the issue of darkness in Christian fiction. It’s a sensitive topic, I know. But as my new credo goes, “As long as you are the wet blanket of the blog tour, you might as well throw in your hat to be the troublemaker, too.”

Darkness Follows on Amazon;

Mike Dellosso’s website;

and the rest of the blog tour:

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.