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Good + Books

By February 18, 2013 9 Comments

Being good is complicated.

I’ve just read two British novels, written over 150 years apart, that make that point. It fascinates me that of all the titles ascribed to Jesus, the one he rejected was being called “good.”  No wonder — these novels show how difficult “good” can be.  (Both books also, in their own way, skewer the Church of England, but that’s another topic for another day.) 

The first is How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.  I loved Hornby’s movies About a Boy and An Education and gleefully jumped at this book when I found it tucked away amid the treasures of a used bookstore.  Hornby is hilarious and compassionate and insightful and all of these qualities pour out in this novel.  Katie, the main character, is a good person; she cares about third-world debt and homelessness, she “saves the odd life” as a doctor and she’s a wife and mother.  Except she’s not that good at being a wife or mother.  She’s married to a lout who writes a newspaper column called The Angriest Man in Holloway (the name of their London suburb), and she opens the novel by asking for a divorce.

What happens next surprised me.  Instead of exploring the pain of a relationship going south, the novel takes a wonderful twist when Katie’s husband undergoes a dramatic spiritual awakening, aided by a mystic named DJ GoodNews.  “I believe all the things you believe,” he tells her, “except I am going to walk the talk.”

As you may guess, it is no easier being married to a saint than a lout.  He compulsively gives away the family’s Sunday dinner and various other possessions (including a computer), tries to convince the whole block to take in runaways (a few do with very mixed results), and forces his children into bringing home social outcasts (also with very mixed results).

The novel asks several profound social, moral and theological questions, but you are laughing so hard they never feel preachy.  (I love books that make me laugh out loud when I’m reading them.) I’m not sure I knew how to be good after reading the book, but I did know I’d read a good book.

Equally compelling but very different is Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, a book Henry James called “the history of an old man’s conscience.”

The Reverend Septimus Harding, a cello-playing, kind-hearted aging clergyman is warden of a charity house for a dozen infirm laborers.  His position is a church sinecure, providing a generous income for simple duties, and his position becomes the center of controversy when a crusading young man wants to expose corruption in the church.  Events spin out of control over time (in today’s world this would all happen in a 24-hour news cycle), and even though eventually all parties involved drop their pursuit of the matter against the warden, he feels compelled to resign his position.

Should you continue doing something you have become convinced is wrong even though those around you have absolved you of wrongdoing?  The warden’s resignation placates his conscience, but no one is the better for it.  The very clear implication is that it is better to do compromised good than to follow a path of righteousness that helps no one.

Is that right?  Before you get on your high horse, I’d argue it happens every day in all of our lives, businesses, churches and schools.  Being good is complicated.  And I love novels that engage me and make me think about the complexities of life.

Instead of allowing you a high horse, please indulge me while I ride mine for one hundred more words.  I want to ask you to read a novel.  I know too many Christians who do not read fiction.  Too many of us only read books about Christianity and too many pastors only read books about being a better pastor.  Need a place to start? I just gave you two good suggestions.  If those don’t strike you, may I suggest Moby Dick or Watership Down or The River Why instead?  Any of them will do, because all great fiction is about the same topic: life.  Church leaders suffering from predictability and blandness may find new life by spending time in the company of great writers. 

What are you reading?


Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    I'm teaching The Warden in my Victorian class. Thanks for giving it a shout-out. It really is a lovely and challenging novel. And I've ordered How To Be Good on your recommendation.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I'm reading my way through Darcey Steinke (just finished MILK), Rick Moody (finished THE BLACK VEIL and am about to start GARDEN STATE) and Ondaatje (just finished ANIL's GHOST). Oh how I love Ondaatje. I just tried and couldn't get into Robertson Davies' MURTHER AND WALKING SPIRITS, which disappointed me because his BRED IN THE BONE and THE FIFTH BUSINESS are among my favorites ever.

  • Annie says:

    My Ántonia created a whole new aspect of nature for my mind to explore, another world. It left me thinking I had seen it and could paint it, could write about it as though I had been there. The Dream Life of Sukhanov left a similar mark; it travels through many worlds–the past, the present, the mind–seamlessly. It got me reading much more quickly than usual, causing me to put it down often. Each sentence creates a beauty that would be terrible to miss.

  • Don Mook says:

    Stunningly interesting piece…am reaching for my fiction books (Douglas Copeland and Brett e. Ellis are two of my favorites)…and trying to be more open to compromised good. Thanks Jeff.

  • Mark says:

    Coincidentally, The River Why, for the second time.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh Mark, I loved The River Why. And, The Brothers K. Even more The Brothers K. Both fishing AND baseball.

  • Mark says:

    Yes, I agree. Both hold a solid place on my short list of all-time favorites. Thanks for recommending both. They deserve broad readership.

  • Al Janssen says:

    Loved this piece. Love Trollope. Try Iris Murdoch's novels on being good.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh yes, Iris Murdoch!

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