In the first half of our series, my friend David Powlison introduced us to two fictional works that each featured pastors—Cry, the Beloved Country and Gilead. In the second half, which you are about to read, David recommends six fictional works he classifies as “dark realism,” books that look honestly at the darkness of the human heart without Christ. Along the way David will explain what pastors can gain from works like these.
Like the previous half, this interview except was transcribed from an audio recording.
PART 2: DAVID POWLISON ON “DARK REALISM”
I am a real believer that pastors need a better sense of the messiness of life. You can have your nose in the Bible, you can do all your exegesis, and you can actually miss how gritty the Bible itself is. And you can certainly miss it and develop little idealistic, plastic-smile versions of the Christian life that are not reckoning with what real life is, the things you read about in a history of World War II or in Dostoyevsky. Even in a redeemed sense of things you read in these other two novels [Cry, the Beloved Country and Gilead] that have a powerfully redemptive, overtly Christian theme to them.
I mandated my class read three books. Cry, the Beloved Country and Gilead were two of them. For the third one I gave them the choice and they could pick from a list of the most despairing—but thoughtfully despairing—twentieth-century works I could think of:
• Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
• The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill
• Anton Chekhov's Short Stories
• A short story by Raymond Carver
• Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
• The Plague by Albert Camus
I called these six books "dark realism." They are all worldviews that explore the darkness of human life. What I like about them is that if there is no Christ, they are right. And I don’t think we present Christ well if we do not reckon with the alternative, and the alternative to Christ is darkness.
I have appreciated all six of those books. Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, is looking about as straight as one can look into the pit of the human heart, and he sees the horror of human evil. Conrad is so profoundly pessimistic, an almost unalleviated cynicism and darkness. I think if you want to know about the nature of sin and death, it really behooves us to be aware of some of the more modern writers.
Chekhov is interesting because he has an equally pessimistic worldview, but there is a kind of common grace. Chekhov treats his characters with love, with a palpable love and respect in the way that he portrays people, even though he has no basis for it. In his worldview you die, and that's it. But there is a kind of dignity and grace of spirit.
One very admirable thing about all these guys is that they value honesty. And even if I fundamentally disagree with their vision, there is a certain way in which they have a love for what is true and a hatred for false fronts and hypocrisy.
They usually hate religion—which is what they think Christianity is. And they don’t have kind words to say about the church, but I always think it's worth hearing us at our worst, or hearing how we may be coming across, not because I don’t believe in Christianity, but because the Bible I read has an even more unsparing critique of the church's failings. But the Bible also has a Redeemer.
So these six books will give you vicarious wisdom to learn about people. But they shouldn’t rattle your faith—this is the alternative to faith!
More to come…
I appreciate David’s list of books (and just in time for summer). Over the coming days and weeks be watching for more from David.
Coming soon we will be posting a number of audio clips we recorded with David, including a narrated bibliography. I asked David to walk through several resources on biblical counseling that he has authored over the years to explain why he created them, who will benefit, and how. I think this recording will provide a useful overview to David’s most valuable tools for pastors.
We also recorded four short podcasts with him on topics including good advice versus the Good News, cravings and conflict, feelings versus reality, and the value of personal emotion. Stay tuned for more.
May our summer reading remind us of the light of the gospel that broke into our darkened souls. And may these books supply us with a sobering reality of sin’s darkness and generate a deeper love for the lost.