Trevin Wax. Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2013. 176 pp. $13.99.
The premise of this crisp little story is simple enough. An apparently gung-ho-for-the-faith fresh college graduate is struggling with his identity as a Christian and his willingness to adhere to the beliefs he once took for granted as a child. Clothed in doubt, he is going to spend the weekend with his retired pastor grandfather, and the stage has been set. We are now buckled up and ready for a dialogue in the traditional literary sense.
The dialogue goes way, way back in Western literature. Most of what we think about Socrates is courtesy of Plato’s dialogues, and the form hasn’t changed much through the ages since. An older, wiser, mentorish figure fields questions from a less savvy character, thereby spreading wisdom and insight to the readers. As a genre, the dialogue can be terrific fun and incredibly useful, both as a tool to instruct questioners and also as a model for those who want to field questions in their own lives.
Dialogues can be terrific. Or devastatingly painful. They can open eyes to wisdom otherwise unseen, or they can be excruciating extended exercises in straw-man reasoning and faux intellectual paddy-cake. But good or bad, they always tend to be idea-driven, rather than character-driven—stories of logic fights, not stories of personal growth.
Not this one.
What Trevin Wax has done in Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After is legitimately unique. When I first heard it referred to as a novel, I was surprised. Fiction, sure. But a novel? And then I read the book.
Clear Winter Nights shows a deep and profound understanding of human beings as enfleshed characters, moved and motivated by thousands of factors before logic ever arrives on the scene. The doubter in this story is driven into stifling darkness by the profound hypocrisy of a father he believed to be faithful, and by the lies of well-intentioned family members who kept his sins hidden for years. He has father issues, and then replacement father issues (thanks to the broad sloppy deceptions of a COEXIST-type religion professor). In other words, our struggling protagonist is a real human, not a paper doll with a logic problem.
But the story doesn’t just stay with our falling hero. We shift into the shoes of the mentor as well, and it turns out that he’s a real human too. Grandpa Gil, former pastor, widower, recent victim of a stroke, father of a hypocrite son. Weakened, worried, and sometimes ashamed, he is hardly a wise and flawless Socrates. He is at times wracked with regret. At times proud. At times loving and wonderful and true. We watch him struggle to navigate far more than logic. Like any real human attempting to serve someone with doubts, he must navigate his grandson’s sins, his emotions, his bitterness.
Men and women in this world are never saved by logic. They are saved by love. Love gives. And sometimes, it gives logic. Clear Winter Nights is the story of two very real people, rooted in a very real place, with very real pasts and very real struggles, pitting the grand and glorious truth of the gospel against some of the lies and compromises most common in the church today. These are not made-up doubts. Nor are these made-up answers. Trevin Wax navigates them both in a truly incarnational setting, and with an eye for the real.
There is food here for questioners. There is wisdom here for the questioned.
N. D. Wilson is the bestselling author of the 100 Cupboards trilogy and the Ashtown Burials series, an observer of ants, and an easily distracted father of five. His latest book, Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent, is a creative nonfiction celebration of mortality. When he isn’t writing, you can find him on Twitter.