Review of Andrew Klavan's The Great Good Thing

Reviewed by Donald S. Crankshaw

Most of what we review at Mysterion is speculative fiction, but we're not exclusive. In the past, we've reviewed historical fiction movies and non-speculative short stories. But this is the first time we've reviewed a nonfiction book. Andrew Klavan's The Great Good Thing is not a weighty tome of theology, though. Subtitled A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, it's a story of one man's spiritual journey; and those we do review.

Andrew Klavan is a screenwriter and bestselling crime novelist, known for hard-boiled, down-to-earth books such as True Crime, Empire of Lies, and Don't Say a Word. Recently, he's begun to branch out into speculative fiction with Werewolf Cop and Another Kingdom. He is also well-known for his conservative activism, and does political satire videos and a popular podcast called The Andrew Klavan Show at The Daily Wire.

The Great Good Thing is not about Andrew's politics. They come through in places: his respect for Western civilization, for instance, and his love of the classics (both arrived at, ironically enough, during his time at Berkeley). But he curbs his sharp political humor--you'll see a little bit of that when we publish our interview with him next week--for the simple story of a Jewish boy's struggle to believe.

Andrew grew up in Great Neck, a Long Island suburb of upper-middle-class Jews. His father was a successful New York DJ. But his Jewish upbringing was largely secular, not that different from Christians who go to church on Sunday, but then don't spend much time thinking about what they believe or trying to put it into practice the rest of the week. He went to synagogue on Saturday instead of church on Sunday, celebrated Passover instead of Easter and Hanukkah instead of Christmas, and even attended Hebrew School; but otherwise his boyhood was remarkably similar to that of any secular, suburban Christian.

But that similarity bred a similar dissatisfaction in Andrew. He knew, in his heart, that his parents didn't believe in God. And Andrew insisted that even his daydreams make sense. His parents' disbelief made the whole practice of Judaism--the rituals, the prayers, the holy days—seem absurd. And so, his long journey to the Christian faith grew out of disillusionment with religion without faith.

The Great Good Thing is an honest book. Andrew describes a life containing a great deal of darkness: a broken family, depression, suicidal tendencies. It's a story of frustration with a world that didn't make sense. Even as a boy he couldn't stand living a lie, so much so that after faking his way through his bar mitzvah, he grew ashamed and angry. So, under the cover of night, while his family slept, he threw thousands of dollars of bar mitzvah gifts into the trash.

But it is also a very funny book, and that humor does a lot to alleviate the bleakness in Andrew's life. A running theme of his story is the joy in the midst of sorrow, the humor in the middle of pain. The worst times are more dark comedy than tragedy. I'll give just two examples.

Of a time when he was studying Zen Buddhism, Andrew writes: "Now, of course, there is no competition in zen. You can’t seek to do it better than anyone else. You can only sit. You can only breathe. There’s no way to be good or bad at it. But oh brother, let me tell you, I was great at it! I could sit and breathe with the best of them." (p. 200)

And when he was considering becoming a Christian: "As a writer, I prided myself on seeing and describing the world as it was, not as I wanted it or thought it was supposed to be. I had made my living writing hard-boiled fiction about tough, cynical men and femmes fatales swept up in ugly underworlds of crime, sex, and murder. Would I suddenly be reduced to penning saccharine fluff about some little girl who lost her pet bunny but Jesus brought it back again? 'Oh, God,' I prayed fervently more than once, 'whatever happens, don’t let me become a Christian novelist!'" (p. xxi)

Much of Andrew's journey was less spiritual than it was literary. This may surprise some people, who think that Christian belief always comes from studying the Bible and being convinced of the truths within. But for Andrew, it came largely through reading the great books of Western literature. He had always faked his way through school, and had no real interest in actual learning. He loved reading mysteries with tough guy heroes, and wanted to write about them, but avoided reading anything that school required of him. Until one day in college, out of sheer boredom, he began to read those books he had bought but never cracked: Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky, and others. He began to appreciate that a real liberal arts education was listening in on the Great Conversation of Western Civilization that has been going on for centuries, rather than listening only to the narrow spectrum of ideas from those still living.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Bible has been at the heart of that conversation. Even as a teenager, reading only a narrow genre of fiction, he recognized that. He studied the Bible, and particularly the Gospels, as literature, a great story that is repeated in all stories since. It had no life or light for him, though, and his was a world full of darkness. He may have continued that way indefinitely, if not for his undeniable spiritual experiences.

Most of them appear in a chapter entitled "Five Epiphanies". He only ascribes one to supernatural insight, but the others are no less miraculous: needed words spoken at a time of suicidal depression, cathartic tears following his first therapy session and the freedom they brought, a sense of the divine love underlying the universe at his daughter's birth (the only one he believes was supernatural), an experience of clarity brought on by Zen meditation, and uncontrollable laughter as his therapy came to a close. None of these was an audible word from God. The clarity from Zen meditation briefly led him into atheism, until he encountered the ugly, poisonous terminus of that path in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. But together they taught him, "The truth of suffering. The wisdom of joy. The reality of love. The possibility of clear perception. The laughter at the heart of mourning. I had them all now, all the pieces I needed. The five revelations that were really one revelation: the presence of God." (p. 210)

Many might think that the journey to faith at this point is inevitable. It still took Andrew ten years.  After years of therapy, he was happy, well-adjusted, even successful in his writing; but it was a long way to go from a comfortable agnosticism to real belief. It started with prayer pouring out from an overflowing gratitude for the improvements in his life, and with the realization that prayer was real, and effective, and that this necessitated recognizing that someone was listening on the other end. Years later, his gratitude led him to ask God how he could respond, and the answer--in an almost audible voice as he recalls it--was that he should be baptized. This was not what he wanted to hear. He was still a Jew, and to be baptized would break with his Jewish roots and with his family. But he had come to accept that Jesus must be who he claimed he was, and he could not continue as spiritual but not religious. The Great Good Thing grew out of the contemplation of the faith journey that led to him being baptized.

There is so much going on in The Great Good Thing that a casual reader may find it incoherent. Andrew jumps from theme to theme, following a loose chronology of his life. Christians have been conditioned to expect a neat, prepackaged story arc: the life of sin before Christ, the repentance and the sinner's prayer, and the life after. But the real experience of the believer is never that neat. Some lives change in moments, while others take decades.

The Great Good Thing is nothing if not heartfelt. Andrew wishes to describe the thought processes and experiences that led him to where he was. It wasn't always straightforward or painless, nor did it always fit the expectations of Christian theology, but there is an earnestness to his quest, to understand and to grow and to become who he was meant to be.

So what led Andrew to Christianity? Was it the disillusionment with unbelieving Judaism? Was it his respect for the Great Conversation of Western Literature and the Gospel message at its heart? Was it his distinct spiritual experiences? His years of therapy? The power of prayer? The answer to all these questions is yes, and therein lies the power of the book. Andrew didn't become a Christian because of any one event or experience, but because of them all, because of years spent thinking and growing, and backsliding and seeking help, and only by looking back at it all could he come to understand what he believed. And that's a story worth telling.

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