Story is powerful.
Think about your conversation at dinner last night. Regardless of what you talked about, how did you talk about it? Chances are high your conversation—like mine—consisted of a string of stories that moved your group from point a to point b. “I had this friend in high school…” gets us to “The other day I…” then another “Today in english class…” and finally, “That reminds me of an article I read…”
We communicate in story because it’s the way we live life. Our life is a story, and so when we communicate, naturally we do so with story. Similarly, it should come as no surprise, then, that story is one of the best ways we receive information as well. Because we ourselves live and communicate in story, it is easy to identify with a character, situation, or result. As we do, our minds subconsciously undergo the same journey as those we hear or read about—internalizing their story and their message.
This is why the “Theology in Story” concept Trevin Wax uses for his book Clear Winter Nights is such a wonderful concept. Taking theology—which has typically been relegated to didactic prose—and breathing fresh life into it by providing a context, a character, a story. Through the use of narrative, Wax, in Clear Winter Nights, interacts with and speaks to difficult topics like the exclusivity of Christ, hypocrisy in the church, marriage & divorce, faith and reason, homosexuality and more.
Wax drops us into the life of Chris Walker, a recently engaged soon-to-be college graduate. The recent news of his father’s affair (which occurred years earlier, and caused his parents’ divorce) and four years of questions from his unbelieving professors has Chris beginning to wonder if their questions and his doubts are starting to make sense. Within the first few pages, we see Chris give in to his doubt—breaking off his engagement and abandoning a church plant team.
All this sets the stage for the main focus of this quick and encouraging read—Chris’s weekend with his aging, widowed grandfather, Gil. Wax’s book provides a front row seat to the dialogue that occurs between this doubting millennial and his grandfather, a retired pastor.
Dialogue & Story
When judging a work of fiction, dialogue is typically the first and best indicator of its quality. If the spoken word doesn’t have the ring of authenticity, the words and story around it will fall flat as well. It doesn’t matter if the story is a sweeping epic—if the hero can’t communicate, we won’t believe in or identify with his character. Instead, the best dialogue doesn’t call attention to itself, but instead fades to the background as it pulls readers further into the story.
The latter is what we see in Clear Winter Nights. Comprised largely of dialogue, the book sings with authenticity. The back and forth between Chris and his grandfather, Gil is natural—rarely feeling forced. For most of the book, I found myself lost in the argument and story rather than trying to determine who was saying what.
While dialogue is a good indicator of a good book, it cannot hold the book together on it’s own. If there’s no reason for the dialogue, it won’t make sense. The majority of the book consisted of theological and philosophical discussion between Chris and Gil, but Trevin did a great job of placing their discussions into context as well. The narrative elements present where aptly chosen to emphasize the discussion at hand.
At the outset, I wasn’t sure who the book was targeted towards, and while, in some sense, it’s for all Christians living in this distorted post modern world, the book is extremely well suited for late high schoolers and college students looking for straight answers to tough questions. Students who are simultaneously being told (by the world) to be true to themselves and (by their Church) to be true Christ. Students looking for a reason to hold on to the faith of their parents or to respond in faith in spite of their parents’ lacking faith.
A Helpful Tension
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the untidy ending. Instead of wrapping the story in a bow, leaving us and Chris will all the answers, Wax presents the truth and encourages the reader to come their own conclusions. In this way we’re further encouraged to identify with Chris because we don’t know whether or not ultimately marries his fiancé, helps with the church plant, or if he even holds to his faith. What we do learn is that faith is a fight, and just because it’s hard or we have doubts doesn’t mean it’s worth leaving by the wayside.
One of the strongest pages in the book comes as a result of Gil finally revealing his own weakness and struggle to his Grandson. Amidst a bar and after Chris storms out, Gil, in a notably pastoral moment, reveals his own brokenness. “Faith is war” he declares, weary from a life of battle, “But we must go on, trusting in Christ’s ultimate victory.”
The reason we connect with story—especially stories of redemption—is because our hearts, minds, and souls long, themselves, for THE story of redemption. Is this not why we connect with Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? For in them we see glimpses of God’s story of grace. While I’m not putting Wax’s Clear Winter Nights on par with the works of Lewis or Tolkien, I do applaud his use of narrative to convey truth.
If you or a student you know are/is doubting faith, I encourage you to take a look at Clear Winter Nights. I pray you will be encouraged as Wax’s story faithfully shows Christ to you.