Andrew Klavan has held my attention ever since I discovered his old video commentary series Klavan on the Culture back around 2010. The format and media have changed a few times before his present cultural-political show The Andrew Klavan Show on The Daily Wire came to be. Outside of politics, Klavan is well-known for his novels, two of which have been made into successful movies. I thoroughly enjoyed Empire of Lies back in the day.
I’m a little late to the party concerning his memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ (2016). Klavan is already proven as a master storyteller, and The Great Good Thing in this respect is no different. His ability to evoke authentic images and experiences in the reader’s mind shines through. If nothing else, it’s a narrative that is difficult to put down through the end. However, if you’re looking for a narrativized systematic theology concerning Reformed soteriology, this is neither that book nor its aim. Moreover, its theological vagueness, intentional or otherwise, could leave one with a false impression of Klavan’s theology and a certain sense of incompleteness.
The story takes the reader mostly chronologically through Klavan’s life from describing his hometown of Great Neck, as compared to his family’s secular Jewish culture, all the way to his baptism at the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan. Both of his parents were professing atheists, yet still attempting to hold on to the vestiges of their Jewish culture, and always fearful that the advance of Christianity meant the ever-increasing likelihood of a Holocaust on American soil. But he still unquestioningly considered himself American. In this and some other times, Klavan breaks the chronology to examine the chronology from a later point of view. Concerning his very American reaction to President Kennedy’s assassination, he writes:
That was why so many decades later, when I felt myself called to faith in Jesus Christ, when, distraught and in confusion, I drove up into the mountains to question the integrity of my convictions, to cross-examine my motives day after day, week after week, month after month, I had to ask myself: Was this a real religious conversion or was it merely the final stage in the process of assimilation that had begun in my hometown so long ago? Was I putting on the whole armor of God or merely joining the church of the majority? (pp. 7-8)
A sanctimonious testimony where everything was awful before and everything is wonderful afterward, this is not. Andrew Klavan does not have a wonderful plan for your life, and he doesn’t offer any anti-lordship, ‘pray-this-prayer’ evangelistic formula. As a novelist, his narrative description of scripture’s overall story is nearly spot-on, yet at the time of knowing this, he wasn’t yet a believer. Further on, he credits the freeing of his mind for faith as “an act of God.” (p. 227) Though he admits, “I’m not a theologian or a philosopher” in his introduction, his experience through narrative provides several important theological insights.
I’m not a theologian or a philosopher. I’m just a barefoot teller of tales, as I frequently explain to my long-suffering wife. Anyway, God is not susceptible to proofs and disproofs. If you believe, the evidence is all around you. If you don’t believe, no evidence can be enough. (p. xxv, emphasis added)
That said, there was one important aspect of prayer that was clear to me right away. Whoever God was, he was unlikely to be fooled by any show of righteousness or even seriousness on my end. If this really was God I was talking to, I could be pretty sure he already knew my corrupt and hilarious heart. There was nothing to hide and no point in trying to hide it. I might as well tell him everything as straight as I could. (p. 238)
A few dynamics in the narrative really stand out inspirationally. He grew up secular Jewish family, one which forced him to go through his bar mitzvah despite that neither he nor his parents believed anything of it, yet as a matter of identity, they cling to their traditions and reject anything to do with Christianity to the point of threatening to disown Andrew. It led to his reading the Gospel According to St. Luke on his own (which his father caught him doing—scandalous!) and even writing books about Jesus prior to coming to faith. There’s nothing sugar-coated here. Moreover, he describes his relationship with his wife, Ellen, in ways that evoked images of my own marriage along with a side dish of guilt for not complimenting my own wife enough.
After taking the reader through his varying experiences and eventual coming to terms, and just a month after his father’s death, Klavan gets baptized in a small, private ceremony at Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan by Father Douglas Ousley.
Scared yet? We need to be cautious about setting a fair standard of review. Klavan is not a pastor or seminary professor. He’s not the latest hot name on the Christian conference circuit. He doesn’t have a video series on RightNowMedia alongside Mark Batterson.
So, here it goes. The Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan, the one where Father Douglas Ousley works, is… Episcopalian. There is a Roman Catholic church of the same name in Manhattan.
Okay, so I’m not sure if I managed to get you to think “Catholic!” and many of you see little difference between the two, anyhow. But again, this isn’t a heavily theological work. The reality of indwelling sin is certainly there. The necessity of the Jesus story being literally true is there. Penal substitutionary atonement, not so much. Sola fide isn’t there explicitly. And this sentence leaves some to be desired concerning inerrancy:
The Bible was the story God wanted to tell us about himself— about himself and us. I’m not a literalist. I believe this book of all books contains different genres: myth, legend, poetry, and history too. It would have to. No single genre could convey all the wisdom it has to convey. But all the genres of the Bible are part of its overall story and, within that context, all are true and uniquely true. (p. 246).
But it also took me a little research outside of Klavan’s book, after having finished it, to figure out that Klavan isn’t Catholic. There’s not enough theological distinction in the book to tell the difference. What we also know is that Klavan denies being Catholic but nonetheless praised then-Pope Benedict XVI. In the comments on Douglas Wilson’s review, Dan Phillips rightly asserts, “If what Klavan has ‘converted’ to is Rome, then, to my mind, this is not a testimony of a Christian convert, any more than a Mormon’s testimony.” It wasn’t to Rome formally, but we learn little else.
Far be it from us to decide whose names get to be in the Book of Life, we can draw some reasonable conclusions. Taking The Great Good Thing for what it aims to be, it’s an entertaining, illuminating, and intensely personal read. However, it also has some significant theological omissions that aren’t easily answerable. I would not put it in a church bookstore or gift it to an unbeliever — especially a Roman Catholic — as a means of presenting the Gospel.