I always appreciate it when Christian fiction attempts to grapple realistically with the “problem of evil.” Too often, this barrier to belief is overlooked or oversimplified, rather than confronted head-on. William Sirls’ debut novel, “The Reason,” to its credit, attempts to address this issue. Unfortunately, the book begins with a bang and builds to a commendable climax, but ends with a theologically dubious whimper.
After a lightning strike destroys a small town’s large wooden cross, a mysterious man named Kenneth appears to rebuild the shattered symbol. It soon becomes clear that the town’s occupants – blind Pastor Jim, young mother Brooke and her leukemia-stricken son Alex, bar fixture Carla, and others – will be deeply touched by Kenneth’s presence, and his message: “only believe.”
Despite a slow beginning, “The Reason” is a cut above much other Christian fiction. Sirls, to his credit, engages head-on with many challenging issues, and succeeds in producing memorable characters. This isn’t high art by any means, but it’s decent reading. And even though the book frequently strays into explicit preachiness, I was never bored – that’s a testament to the book’s fairly strong writing.
Sirls has a real grasp of characterization and plot, but the final product unfortunately suffers from an attempt to shoehorn in a Hollywood-Christianized ending. What could’ve been an emotionally devastating yet faith-affirming finale quickly devolves into trite implausibility. The book’s constant invocation of “miracles” performed by Kenneth is a self-defeating plot device: if the book’s purpose is to answer the question “where is God when bad things happen?”, positing a magical god-figure who shows up to save the day compromises the novel’s strong sense of realism.
(Minor spoilers follow)
This book actually could’ve gone in a brilliant direction. Towards the end of the book, it’s implied that Kenneth is actually causing bad things to happen so that “the love of God” may be seen more clearly. If that’s what Sirls is actually claiming (that the suffering and evil in the world are actually instigated or worsened by God), that’s a pretty nefarious view of the Creator. There are a few scenes involving Kenneth and an apple as well…which made me wonder if Kenneth was actually the Devil masquerading as a benign figure. This, however, turns out not to be the case.
At no point, in a book like this that’s designed to “strengthen faith,” should I be wondering if the “Christ figure” is actually Satan in disguise. Furthermore, the book’s takeaway theological principle seems to be “only believe” so that good things will happen – an outgrowth of name-it-and-claim-it spirituality that has more in common with “The Secret” than the Holy Scriptures.
I was at the point of being seriously awed by Sirls’ plotting: if Kenneth’s questionable motives and message had turned out to be infernal in origin, “The Reason” could’ve been an immensely thought-provoking book calling readers to embrace true discernment. It’d have the advantage of indicting saccharine “spirituality” while simultaneously affirming God’s unwillingness to misanthropically torture His creations. The theme – a fallen world struggling to understand grace – would’ve been driven home in stunning fashion.
But it’s that very questionable message which Sirls asks his readers to embrace.
Accordingly, “The Reason” tanks in its final few pages. Unfortunately, this wet-blanket climax weighs down an otherwise strong debut. Is it worth reading? Maybe, for fans of “Joshua,” and the like…but given its insidiously sub-Christian message, this is one I won’t be adding to my church library anytime soon.
A strong story that tapers off into a weak ending, fueled by erroneous theology.