The Best Christian Novel You’ve Never Heard Of
Leland Ryken has taught literature—specializing in the classics—at Wheaton College for 44 years. So when he describes a book as “one of the best literary ‘finds’ I have ever made,” I take notice. I asked him if he would explain:
Bo Giertz’s fictional work The Hammer of God is one of the best literary “finds” I have ever made.
I discovered this novel-length series of three novellas while co-authoring a soon-to-be-released, co-authored (with Philip Ryken and Todd Wilson) book entitled Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature. Initially Giertz’s book came onto my radar screen as a candidate for the handbook section of our book on the portrayal of pastors in the literary classics, but once I started to read the book I could hardly put it down. My son quickly agreed that The Hammer of God merited a full-scale chapter and not just an entry in our handbook section.
The story of the author is nearly as interesting as the masterpiece of clerical fiction that he composed in a span of six weeks while serving as a rural pastor in Sweden. At the age of only 43, Giertz became a bishop in the Swedish Lutheran church. The best-known biography of Giertz calls him “an atheist who became a bishop.” The publication of The Hammer of God in 1941 brought Giertz immediate fame.
The design of this trilogy of novellas is ingenious.
Each of the three stories follows a young Lutheran pastor over approximately a two-year span at the beginning of his ministerial career, all in the same rural parish. The overall time span for the work as a whole is 130 years.
Each of the three pastors arrives fresh from theological training and decidedly immature (and perhaps a nominal rather than true believer).
Each of the three attains true Christian faith through encounters with (1) parishioners, (2) fellow pastors, and (3) assorted religious movements that were in fact prominent in Sweden during the historical eras covered.
There are thus two plot lines in the book: one recounts the “coming of age” spiritual pilgrimages of the three young ministers, and the other is an episodic fictional story of a rural Swedish parish.
No other work covered in Pastors in the Classics covers more issues in ministry than this one, and it has the added advantage of being packaged in three manageable units.
In an essay entitled “Fiction as an Instrument for the Gospel: Bo Giertz as Novelist,” published in A Hammer of God: Bo Giertz, Gene Edward Veith Jr. makes a comment on Christian fiction in general:
Fiction lends itself well to the exploration of spiritual issues, since the form gives life to ideas, making them tangible and relating them to human life. . . . And yet, good Christian novels are rare. . . . It is preachy, contrived, and it does not ring true. The story is often formulaic, and the characters are stock “good guys” or “villains,” with no complexity or inner lives. The obligatory conversion scene is often unrelated to the on-going plot, coming as an interruption rather than as a believable development in the character’s life. And, ironically, much of today’s Christian fiction is moralistic, rather than evangelical, presenting good characters to emulate, rather than sinners being forgiven.
In contrast, Veith points out that “Giertz’s characters . . . have a duality that makes them complex, in stark contrast to the one-dimensional stock characters of most religious novels.” “Most Christian fiction today,” he writes, “lacks [Giertz's] kind of grounding in the tangible, the concrete, the actual, honest realities of human life and of divine revelation.”
Here Veith summarizes the essence of this trilogy of novellas as follows:
What Bo Giertz does is explore that Gospel and the false theologies that obscure it by bringing them down to earth, showing what difference they make in the lives of ordinary human beings. He shows “tortured souls”—often made such by the legalistic religiosity they embrace—and how the Gospel of Christ is the “medicine” that alone can heal them. He works not with abstract propositions but with concrete individuals and situations. He makes the case for orthodox evangelical Christianity not by setting forth an intellectual argument, but by writing a novel.
So for those who lament the mediocrity of much of what passes today as “Christian art,” and for those who are tempted to think that all explicit presentations of the gospel in art end up being preachy or moralistic or cheesy, perhaps we should simply tolle lege (“take up and read”) The Hammer of God.