Clear Winter Nights is not an ugly book. I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest.
Now, let me explain what I mean by that.
A few years back, the Christian blogosphere went insane when a certain book hit the shelves. It was all anyone could talk about—the book’s message, its author, heaven, hell and the fate of everyone who’s ever lived.
And then the response books started coming out. And while most of these were extremely faithful in defending historic doctrines of the faith… a lot were kind of, well, ugly. They weren’t slinging mud; they just weren’t terribly pleasant to read.
Trevin Wax felt—and, more importantly, voiced—that frustration. So, in the midst of all the ugliness he saw, he wanted to write something sharing the Truth in a way that is not ugly.
So how do you do that? Some opt for cleverness, delighting in wit and wordplay. Others take the harder road: combining theology and story. This is the route Trevin chose with Clear Winter Nights, the story of a young man filled with doubts about his faith who is confronted by the answers to his questions.
Combining theology with good storytelling is tricky. Only a handful of authors do this well: C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis…
(Did I mention C.S. Lewis?)
Trevin’s set himself up for quite the challenge with this book: Telling a good story while staying faithful to the truth of Christianity. Doing this well is is no easy feat. The discount bins overflow with books that have tried and failed. When it’s done well, it’s pretty amazing. When it’s bad, it’s really, really bad.
So how did Trevin do?
Despite being a newcomer to writing fiction, Trevin tells a memorable story, one marked by honesty and a genuine love of the Truth. This is mostly due to his characters (even the ones I didn’t really care for).
The real and the proxy
The (apparent) lead character, Chris, felt like a cypher, a proxy, at least at first. There’s little information given about him by way of description. He comes across as little more than a stand-in for the stereotypical disillusioned and doubting child of evangelicalism. His doubts sometimes seemed like those of the willfully obtuse, rather than someone who is genuinely trying to find answers to the questions he asks.
Maybe it’s because Chris is the kind of guy Trevin isn’t. It’s hard to write what you don’t know (or so the experts tell me). Or maybe it’s actually the point: sometimes we’re just unwilling to accept the answers that really do exist, so we prefer to wallow in the muck of our doubts.
And then there’s Gil, Chris’ elderly grandfather. Gil’s got character. Depth. Probably more than any other character in the book, he comes closest to being real. And it starts with his introduction:
There stood his grandfather—tall, broad-shouldered, with a head of white hair, and a face full of wrinkles that showed up where years of smiling had left their mark. He looked tired, and his back was slightly hunched, seeming to carry the accumulated weight of his years. He was leaning on his cane and favoring his left leg. Even so, there was a youthful gleam in his eyes. He sported a pair of glasses that looked remarkably en vogue—not because they were new but because he had worn them so long they’d come back into style.
There’s much to love about this description, including the subtle reminder that fashion is cyclical (as evidenced by this bit of crazy). But what Trevin does here is incredibly difficult: he gives readers just enough information about Gil so we can fill in the blanks and create our own mental image. Any more and we’d be robbed of some of the imaginative fun; any less and Gil would be a mere shadow.
Gil shows readers a faithful, thoughtful man; one who has wrestled with the Scriptures, who has mastered them—or more correctly, been mastered by them. When he offers Chris answers to his questions (whether he wants the answers or not), it doesn’t come across as forced, trite, truisms. Gil reminds me of the faithful older men in our church; confident enough in what he knows to be true, without the air of defensiveness that too often creeps into the voices of younger men.
Subtle steps forward
Now, here’s what I loved most in Clear Winter Nights: the end. I realize that sounds like a backhanded compliment— “I loved this book, I’m so glad it’s over!” But that’s not what I mean. Trevin eschews the “safe,” cheesy—and most importantly—false ending. The book doesn’t end with Chris saying, “Gosh, I’m sure glad I spent two days with Grandpa Gil. He answered all my questions about the Christian faith, and now I’m ready to get on with ministry and fixing my relationship with my girlfriend.”
This is the tried and true method of “Christian” storytelling: give the readers a happy ending, even if it doesn’t make sense. Even nonsensical books like The Shack employ this device, with its main character coming to the heart-warming conclusion that he didn’t need to believe what the Bible said about God because the god of his imagining told him so.
Trevin doesn’t go there, praise God. Instead, you’re left with Chris still not knowing what he believes. He’s still dealing with his doubts… but there’s a subtle shift in him. I don’t want to give too much away, but watch carefully as you read. It’s so subtle you might miss it.
Which is kind of like real life, isn’t it?
Is Clear Winter Nights a great book? No, but it is a really good one. In this book, Trevin Wax manages to push past ugly presentations of the truth and give readers a glimpse at the beauty of truth lived out day-by-day as one man looks to the end of his race, and another figures out if he’ll start running.
Title: Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After
Author: Trevin Wax
Publisher: Multnomah Books (2013)
Buy it at: Amazon