Book Review: The Great Good Thing

A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ
Andrew Klavan
Nelson, 2016

Andrew Klavan is a successful American writer of crime fiction, young adult fiction and screen plays. In The Great Good Thing, he leaves fiction for spiritual memoir, recounting his life from his childhood in Great Neck on Long Island, to his baptism at forty-nine in a Manhattan church. I am a bit of a sucker for spiritual memoir, and I am always looking out for a good one. The Great Good Thing did not disappoint – Klavan is a capable storyteller, with a story to tell.

God’s dealing with him unfolds in the telling from his childhood in a Jewish family in a new-money Jewish neighbourhood across youthful ambition, anger, questing and despair, through engagement with literature, the Bible, love and marriage, psychotherapy and five epiphanies to his eventual conversion and baptism.

Klavan’s father was a successful breakfast radio personality, his mother aspired to WASPness, while he lost himself in boyish dreams and tried to negotiate the tensions of his family’s aspirations, anxieties and expectations for him and for themselves. He had a pretty ambivalent experience of being Jewish, and some contact with Christianity through a Yugoslavian Christian au pair, Mina. Christmas with Mina made a vivid impression on him, but he really approached Jesus Christ through an immersion in Western literature. In search of a personal philosophy Klavan watched tough-guy movies and read tough-guy books. Disappointment with many of these tough guys tooling about in their ruined worlds led him back, via Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, to the old European ideals of honour, goodness and heroism, which emerged in a culture and were expressed in a literature formed by the Bible and by Jesus of Nazareth. So he read the Bible (provoking an explosion when his father discovered what he was doing), and Klavan testifies that, ‘the Bible made perfect sense to him from the very beginning’ as a story (p104), as ‘a completely cogent description of how a loving I AM would interact with a free humanity’ (p 106). Still, he did not believe the story was true, and so set off through his youth, resisting and bluffing his way through conventional education, finding in the woman who became his wife a lodestar for his life, trying to amass experience and develop a voice and a career as a writer, coming to a point of crisis as he realised he had serious problems and needed to process some of the trauma of his upbringing or go crazy.

A great turning point comes when his brother has an emotional breakdown, prompting Klavan himself to seek psychotherapy, through which he found radical emotional healing that drew him back into joy from the edge of suicide. Five epiphanies followed – a comment made by a baseball player in a post-match interview that spoke into his crisis, a cathartic personal outpouring to his therapist manisfesting later in weeping, a mystical experience at the birth of his first child, a sudden heightening of awareness, vividness and clarity one afternoon, precipitated through Zen meditation, and an episode of hilarity and laughter during therapy that marked an emergence from grief, or at least a laughter even in the heart of mourning. Klavan felt that these amounted to a revelation of the presence of God in the world and to him.

Klavan began to pray, and found it an overwhelmingly rewarding experience, spending longer and longer at it each day. Eventually he came to the conviction he should be baptized. Apart from reading the Bible privately, Klavan had previously ‘haunted churches’ for a time, and given it up, but more significantly had struck up a friendship with a Christian pastor in New York, Doug Ousley, and had learned much from him. The urge to be baptised caused Klavan to try to define his theology. ‘For me to accept baptism’, he writes, ‘the Jesus story had to be true on every level, not just as myth, but as myth and history combined. That was the whole point.’ (p246) The soul-searching this prompted brought him to the conviction that the tomb was empty, and the story was true, and that ‘somehow, once again, by the hilarious mercy of God, I had made my way to the great good thing’ (p263).

Klavan’s story is wrenching, full of pain and difficulty as he deals with the emotional fallout of his upbringing by a father often competitive, aggressive and disappointed with his sons, and a mother guarded and distant from her sons. He must also deal with his Jewishness, and the great hurdle this presented to him accepting Christ. His father sickened and died as he was preparing for baptism, and he never told his father of his intention to be baptised – he could not bring himself to bring such sorrow on his dying father. Klavan is intelligent, reflective, passionate and candid in this memoir, and I found it an affecting read. He is dealing with the road to faith, the pre-Christian experience which had to be cut through, overcome and transformed in order that he might believe. He does not much let us in on the ongoing process of Christian growth post-baptism, although there are evidences here and there of the ways his new Christian perpective has reframed the way he looks back on the ‘epiphanies’ he experienced. As a story of adult conversion out of a secular outlook long inhabited, I found it worth reading, in that it makes me think about a real experience of conversion as told by the convert, which in turn makes me think about all sorts of theological issues connected to how God does reveal himself to us and bring us to salvation through faith in Christ. It is of course also a deep encouragement to hear of any person being brought from darkness into the kingdom of God’s grace.

That’s a great good thing, to be sure.

Ben Underwood, WA