The Great Good Thing by Klavan

book cover The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan
Over the summer, a friend mentioned Andrew Klavan and recommended his book The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. Klavan lives in nearby Montecito and is best known for crime, suspense, and thriller novels, a couple of which have been turned into movies. I recognized the name and recalled that I heard him speak years ago at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. The Great Good Thing intrigued me, but at the time I was enjoying the ocean too much to bother reading it. Finally, over the Labor Day weekend, I dove into the book. I also discovered that I still had the notes I took during his talk at the conference. My notes are sparse and cryptic but I recalled clearly his discussion on suspense versus surprise in fiction and could flesh out the notes.

In suspense, the audience is aware of a danger the character isn’t. In an obvious, well-known Hitchcock example, someone is taking a shower and is unaware a killer is approaching. 

A surprise is merely something that happens and is a surprise to both the audience and the character. There is no advance warning so a surprise doesn’t provide much dramatic drive. It’s best not to use surprise unless it’s in the form of an unexpected twist such as a surprise ending.

Another writer, whose name I can’t recall, noted the best ending is a complete surprise, but also has a sense and feeling of an inevitability to it, like there could be no other ending. A complete surprise but not a surprise.

Some Christians believe secular Jews are a lost cause, hopelessly hostile to the gospel. And they can find evidence to support their views. That a secular Jew would become Christian is a complete surprise, a shocking surprise to many.

Klavan was born a Jew and went through all the Jewish rites of passage, but both his parents didn’t believe in God. Most of his life he was agnostic. He believed in science, facts, analysis, reasonable explanations and thought of religion as primitive superstition and comforting delusion. Then over the years, in his words, came the “slow dawning of awareness that had solidified into the certainty that I was a Christian.” He was baptized at the age of 49. Klavan wrote, “No one could have been more surprised than I was.”

Like Klavan, I’m a Christian now but don’t come from a Christian family. I was raised to be an atheist or at least agnostic. There was even a time in my life in which I despised Christians, but much to my shock and surprise, I became a Christian. As with him, it was a slow process. Like him, I came to a belief in God before a belief in Christ. My journey to Christ was different, shorter by over a decade, but there were enough similarities and familiar elements in his journey to make The Great Good Thing a very fast, engaging read for me. I could relate to the strained relationship he had with his father, at times hilarious and also heart-breaking. My father was what I called an orthodox atheist (he was rigid and fundamentalist in his assertion that there is no God) and had a worldview I wanted nothing to do with. Although I wasn’t a believer, I was unable and unwilling to humor him, toe the line, and maintain the status quo. But l also had doubt and was afraid of him. To say our relationship was less than harmonious is a huge understatement. My anger toward my father stemmed from a number of things, and although my relationship with my father was different than Klavan’s, I could understand how Klavan seethed with resentment and created an impenetrable boundary to shield himself from his father. There are other vague familiarities.

Klavan grew up in Great Neck, New York an affluent Jewish enclave and suburb of NYC on Long Island. He hated school but managed to bluff his way through all of his classes with passing grades. He lived in a dream world of fantasy and stories. While I didn’t live in a fantasy world, I did share his love of reading and stories. A Christmas Carol by Dickens is a mutual favorite. Klavan knew he wanted to be a writer but for some years before attending Berkeley, he wanted experience more than education so he roamed all over the country more or less as a hobo. I knew I wanted to be a writer but disliked my English teachers in high school so I was determined not to get a liberal arts degree. Like him, I had wanderlust, liked adventure so I joined the merchant marine. The merchant marine academy I attended was in Kings Point, adjacent to Great Neck, and I rode my bike through the Great Neck neighborhoods he grew up in and described at length in his book. The content of the book felt familiar to me.

But there were big differences as well. My journey to Christ wasn’t as long or rambling or torturous as his. And this is understandable since conversion to Christianity is considered a huge betrayal by Jews. And this book helped me to understand and have more compassion for why that is.

I suspect some Christians would view his personal account in The Great Good Thing as too raw, too transparent, and his journey as too bizarre, too flawed, too circuitous, too slow, too questionable, or too (pick your adjective.) It’s aways easy to be disdainful of another person’s journey especially when it doesn’t look like yours or doesn’t look like what you think it should look like. My natural disposition is optimistic and positive, so his brooding, dark mental rumination and strange forays into his internal world didn’t make any sense to me. I don’t struggle with depression, so I didn’t understand the black moods that suddenly, without warning, overcame him. I personally don’t like psychiatry and I am disdainful of what I view to be the self-absorbed verbal vomit of therapy sessions that drag on for years, but he found a relief and healing in his relationship with his psychiatrist that helped him to ultimately come to Christ. Someone who has been a Christian for a long time or came to Christ relatively quickly may be exasperated, annoyed, or even threatened by the route his personal journey took. Some unbelievers can have messy, muddled, stumbling journeys to God and Christ that don’t fall inside the neat lines of cookie-cutter Christianity, but in the end they often make the best and strongest critics of the lies, half-truths, and misguided philosophies that ail our times. Klavan’s criticism of moral relativism and atheistic postmodernism is among the best I’ve seen.

What I most enjoyed and appreciated about The Great Good Thing is that the power of story is lovingly featured. The transformative effect of story played a big part in Klavan’s journey to Christ. Stories are very powerful. Story is a primary thought form designed by God and is one of the most powerful ways to communicate with people at all levels of society as is evidenced by the fact that Jesus taught in parables. God communicates through story. Jesus gave much of his teaching through story. On a basic, fundamental level people respond in a deep way to story and can be transformed by it. J.R.R. Tolkien helped to lead a formally atheist C.S. Lewis to faith through their discussions of story and myth, which they both loved. And as observed by missionary Don Richardson, folklore and stories throughout the world convey the truth of God and Christ.

Along with the power of story, the power of gratitude and the power of love through relationship played important roles in Klavan’s life. Klavan discovered simply acknowledging God with thankfulness can do wonders. And that God’s love is expressed through relationship.

God is a personal God and wants personal relationship. The Great Good Thing is a document of how God’s love broke through the messy, flawed life of one person through whatever means available in that person’s life. And He can do that for anyone.

That a secular Jew would become Christian is a complete surprise, a shocking surprise to many. But this is nothing new in the way God works. Saul of Tarsus who later became Paul the Apostle was a Jew who hated Christians and murdered them. He eventually became one of the primary writers of the New Testament. That’s bizarre and unbelievable, but it happened. It’s a shocking surprise. But not so surprising.

God is love and Jesus Christ is the expression of that love and this Great Good Thing will always prevail in the end.

(Posted 9/7/18)