Spirit and flesh, the Divine and DNA, cross and microscope—two worlds collide in this ruminative novel about the physical/metaphysical duels of a scientist and a preacher.
It’s a smart read that takes seriously an essential perennial question, one made timely by today’s market glut of atheist manifestos and bestselling responses from Christian apologists. Dr. Mitchell Chandler, Stanford alum, former NIH fellow and prickly genius, bully-boys the intellectual life of Prairie Grove, a Midwestern university burg. Playing heartful Pascal to his coolly rationalist Descartes is Pastor Randy, ex-heavy metal rocker now head of the evangelical collective, Spirit Rising. Kurtz (South of the Big Four, 1995) intelligently and empathetically explores each’s worldview: Chandler’s faith in the “Astonishing Hypothesis…the notion that our identities are essentially biochemical,” versus the Jesus-fervor of a converted wastrel who’s seen the Light. Crammed with subplot (students scheming to oust un-p.c. school mascot, Chief Cheehaha; the lion-in-winter musings of Chandler’s dad; inter-church rivalry of fundies and mainstreamers), the book gets top-heavy with atmosphere and incident, however well-told in highly detailed prose. But among its finer story lines are Randy’s rock-’n’-roll fantasies (no effete poetic type, he doesn’t aspire to be the Dylan beloved of English majors, but rather Grand Funk’s bare-chested Mark Farner) and Chandler’s bids for academic stardom (he’s a big shot on NPR, renowned for identifying the “ ‘Lazarus gene,’ believed to govern the regeneration of severed limbs in amphibian species”). As Randy spins out deeper into the mystic, his energy drained in battles with demons led by “the Opposer,” Mitchell struggles also: Will he become a heretic to materialism, will he commit apostasy against Godlessness?
Big ideas, good story.