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Writer Randy Alcorn recently took on this question: Why do many Christians tend to avoid fiction stories? He wrote in a newsletter, "Some Christians view fiction as the opposite of truth. But sometimes it opens eyes to the truth more effectively than nonfiction." He noted, "Jesus taught in parables. He told stories to capture imaginations and move hearts."
Alcorn, who was arrested several times in 1989 for blocking the doors of abortion clinics, describes a woman's encounter with a pro-life theme in one of his novels: "It profoundly affected her thinking in a way that simply would not have happened just by reading my nonfiction books on the subject ... and if she had, her defenses would have been up. That's the power of fiction-to get past the worldview gate-keeper and touch both the heart and the mind."
Alcorn has written 27 books. The two major nonfiction ones are Heaven (Tyndale, 2004) and If God Is Good (Multnomah, 2009), and both are terrific expositions of two of the most critical questions: Why do we suffer now and end our days in death? What hope do we have of life after death? Alcorn has spun off from them some shorter works on the same themes, as well as books about money and possessions.
I'd like to concentrate here, though, on four of his fictional works: Safely Home (Tyndale, 2011; originally published in 2001) and three detective novels published by Multnomah beginning in 1994. Let's start with Safely Home and its two main characters, roommates at Harvard two decades before who have had radically different lives since then. Ben Fielding is an upwardly mobile executive, on the fast track to become CEO of a U.S. company that does big business with China. Li Quan is a downwardly mobile intellectual with the brain to become a renowned professor but a heart that makes him content to be an assistant locksmith in a small Chinese city.
Li Quan's problem in the eyes of hard-line Communists is that he's a Christian-and not just one who worships privately but one who practices evangelism in the face of furious opposition. Ben Fielding's problem, in the eyes of God, is that his college bubble of Christian commitment popped when career ambition and family suffering turned him inward to worship of self.
Ben, unaware of the persecution Li Quan has faced, decides to visit his old roommate and live in his city for a time: As Ben's company plans to begin selling in Chinese markets, his goal is to gain an intimate knowledge of Chinese consumers. God's goal is different. God is building His church in China and rebuilding Ben, still angry about the cancer that took his mother, the estrangement that separates him from his wife and daughter, and the death of his youngest son: "One day I was watching him by the pool. The phone rang ... someone from the office. I stepped inside just for a few seconds. When I looked back, he was underwater. I tried to revive him, but ... what kind of God looks the other way when a child drowns?"
Safely Home is exceptional for two reasons. First, the biblical teaching within it flows out of the characters. Alcorn does not stop the plot development to give us full-fledged sermons, but Li Quan asks, "What makes you believe God looked the other way?" and then says, "He loves your son. And you." That pushes Ben to explode and Li Quan to respond, "I have learned God is not my servant. Do you think he was like the story of Aladdin? That he was your genie?... If you are looking for a religion centered around yourself, Ben, I must agree that Christianity is a poor choice."
This becomes evident as Li Quan undergoes torture for his faith and Ben is tortured with the thought that he cannot save his friend.
The other exceptional characteristic of Safely Home, and several other Alcorn novels as well, is the use of "portals," through which people in heaven (and angels as well) follow the action on earth, pray, and cheer when those below are faithful. Christians upon death come through a tunnel into a life more vibrant than life. The depiction is delightful, not smarmy. We also see Mao Zedong in hell, sentenced "to relive the suffering of each of his victims. He had been here over 25 years. Every minute of those years he had relived the suffering he inflicted on others. Every torture his regime inflicted he now received, one after the next after the next." No devils with pitchforks, just years in lonely darkness stretching out.
The first novel in the detective series, Deadline (Multnomah, 1994), has as its protagonist Oregon newspaper columnist Jake Woods, whose two close friends-one a hard-core atheist, the other a Christian-die in a car accident that turns out not to be an accident. As Jake learns the truth, he also confronts his own atheistic selfishness and the way it has led him to divorce his wife, alienate his daughter, and avoid visiting his mother in a nearby assisted living home. Alcorn provides a terrific depiction of an anti-Christian journalist proceeding from presuppositions that leave him thinking he's being fair to "both sides" while unconsciously twisting what Christian interviewees are telling him.
Meanwhile, Jake's dead Christian friend, Finney, is learning the joys of a heaven "so potent and bright and overwhelming he felt it would have ripped his earthly body to shreds." Finney is surprised to find that heaven is a place of review and reflection, but an angel instructs him that learning the truth is essential because "you come from a world where truth is obscured, shrouded, reinterpreted," and lies "are mistaken for truth because the majority believes them, as if the universe were a democracy and truth subject to a vote."
Jake finds himself drawn to Ollie Chandler, a hard-boiled detective who's painstakingly narrowing down the murder suspect list, and Clarence Abernathy, a black sports columnist with little patience for affirmative action and other liberal verities. Jake begins to ask questions about what he had taken for granted: "If we write a piece that knocks religious fundamentalists, we pride ourselves we've done tough, honest reporting. ... But if we do a piece that offends gay groups or feminists or environmentalists or whoever, then we do penance, have special editorial meetings, establish sensitivity groups, promise to hire more reporters of that color or persuasion or orientation."
All this is couched within a detective story with well-plotted twists and turns. Alcorn occasionally stops the action for an excursion into journalistic production that sometimes has a character giving a lecture, but he gets both the details and the inflections right, and gets back to the plot much more quickly than Herman Melville did in Moby Dick. Alcorn skillfully draws his main characters and makes believable Jake's lurching acceptance of God's grace.
The same is true in Alcorn's next novel, Dominion, which makes Clarence the protagonist and brings to the fore racial tensions and gang warfare. Clarence has a Christian heritage but rebels against it and is quick to perceive racial slights: He desires advancement based on hard work rather than liberal condescension. The solid plot mixes detective aspects-Clarence's sister is the victim of a mysterious drive-by shooting, which turns out to be connected to a cover-up of adultery-with a lot of teaching about gangs and a lot of learning by Clarence about Christianity.
The third in Alcorn's series, Deception, published in 2007, has hard-boiled detective Ollie as a central figure who hurling out lines like "Messin' with me's like wearin' cheese underwear down rat alley." Ollie verbally spars with a college provost: "He tested me by using bigger words and more abstract concepts . ... I tested him by dropping the names Sam Spade and Jack Bauer. Before long we each knew the other was a moron." Ollie does not lie but makes suspects think he knows more than he knows: "What if I told you that we found the gun with your fingerprints on it?"
But the harder question is whether Ollie can recover from the death of his wife and come to some understanding of why a world under God's authority endures so much evil. Deception, like the other two D-named novels, entertainingly deals with the life-and-death questions but wraps them around Ollie's solving of a purpose-driven murder. ("There's always a purpose, always a motive.") Characters see their purpose change once they move away from thinking that every day in moving toward death they are coming closer to losing their treasure. Those who understand that their treasure is in heaven day by day move closer to gaining it.