Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: The Last Christian

I read David Gregory's Dinner with a Perfect Stranger a few years back - it's an imagined evening of a modern-day businessman with Jesus himself. I liked Mr. Gregory's take on the conversation - it exceeded my (low) expectations for a Christian novel & did a good job of presenting a Biblically solid picture of Christ.

So when the folks at Waterbrook Press asked if I was interested in reviewing his new science fiction/thriller novel, The Last Christian, I jumped at the chance. As a fan of Michael Crichton (well, some of his work) and John Grisham, I was kind of hoping for a cross between
State of Fear & The Testament...

...but what I ended up reading was a cross between two lesser novels by these same famous authors, Prey & The Client. Great ideas here are left to fend for themselves as the characters are mostly one-dimensional props to advance the story: the saintly missionary girl, the skeptical skeptic with a heart of gold, the scheming politician, the wise old grandfather, the taciturn but morally solid FBI agent & the prideful scientific genius. (The same, by the way, is true for the novels I cite by Crichton & Grisham - this is not a problem that is isolated to Christian fiction.)

But even with that lukewarm introduction to my review, I found the book to be a page-turner with some excellent insights into the nature of the Christian faith and our changing culture in the First World. The plot hums along nicely and in occasionally unpredictable ways. (In particular, the ending to the book does not feel like your average Christian novel.) As the protagonist, a young woman raised in Papua New Guinea as the child of missionaries returns to the United States with the mission to re-introduce the Christian faith to America. Her presence sends shock waves through the political & science establishment... and leads to a series of classic thriller/sci-fi moments as she & the professor seek to do the right thing.

I want to be careful not to spoil any of the twists & turns in the story - as I believe those are the best parts of the book - but I do want to highlight a particularly strong passage about one third of the way into the book - Professor Daniels' class on why Christianity has all but disappeared in America by 2088. A long quote to illustrate the high quality of this section:
"From its outset the Christian religion claimed that the intervention of the deity in people's lives would change people for the better. They would have a different character. They would have different morals. They would think, speak, and behave differently. They called it Christlikeness...

"This alleged change in people wasn't caused just by the religious adherent's efforts to be good, although that was certainly emphasized as well. Rather, it was also brought about by the presence of something the Christians called the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit was supposed to change a person's character so that others could see them living like Jesus.

"This belief worked as long as the vast majority of people in society were professing Christians, because there was no one to compare Christians to. The crack in the foundation appeared when people began abandoning Christianity. When a large segment of society became openly nonreligious, an amazing thing happened - amazing to the religionists, anyway. People discovered that religionists & nonreligionists behaved similarly. Sexual behavior, divorce rates, self-reported levels of honesty - none of these varied significantly between religionists & nonreligionists.

"In short, the supposed influence of the deity to change people wasn't real; it was all a psychological game. As people realized that, more of them concluded, 'Why should I adopt that belief system? It doesn't cause a real change in anyone.'"
You may not like what the character is suggesting - but it's a valid concern for those of us inside the church.

There are sections like this scattered throughout the novel - some more effective than others. It feels like David Gregory is using his characters as mouthpieces to speak about his (well-thought-out) convictions about where Christianity could be headed... or as stooges/straw men to woodenly present utilitarian & utopian (scientific, that is) "answers" to the problems in the world.

Overall, I can recommend the plot & the ideas behind the book while cautioning that the characters don't have much resonance or depth separate of the ideas & stereotypes they represent.

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