When a young college student’s religious beliefs are shaken, he turns to his professor for counsel in Lee’s debut novel.
Andy Harding, a history student at Boston University, attends a special lecture by the controversial pastor Stephen Tentworthy, who provocatively declaims that proper Christian belief isn’t selectively piecemeal—one must accept that the biblical Jonah was in fact swallowed by a whale, he says, if one is to accept the Bible as the revelatory truth of God. Andy’s faith is profoundly challenged by this view, and he becomes unsettled by the vertiginous possibility that he could abandon his prior convictions. He seeks counsel from a renowned scholar, professor Jay Gordon, for whom he works as a researcher, and professor Gordon senses an opportunity in Andy’s spiritual crisis. He guides Andy through a rigorous exegesis of the tale of Jonah and, in the process, teaches lessons about the nature of faith and doubt, and about the difficult but necessary passage through both to the truth. Meanwhile, Andy meets a beautiful young coed, Christine Campbell, and the two quickly leap from courtship to full coupledom—a dizzying emotional experience that intensifies Andy’s quest for firm epistemological ground. Lee intelligently situates the problem of faith in a modern context: Andy finds himself on a largely secular college campus, surrounded by skeptics, critics, and temptations. The author’s command of the relevant biblical texts is impressive, and he often depicts the professor’s guidance with the sensitivity of a gifted teacher. However, because the dialogue between professor Gordon and Andy is Socratic—he guides his young student with leading questions—the format sometimes becomes overly didactic and leaden. This is less a novel than a treatise, and so Andy’s evolution, particularly in its later stages, becomes contrived and difficult to understand. Christine professes her love and admiration for Andy, but also has misgivings that seem overwrought: “you can only get there if you’re willing to leave a few question marks in the heavens, question marks that you never get to answer, question marks that you live with knowing that if you tried to answer them, you would answer them wrong and ultimately hurt the people around you.” Overall, the author’s thoughts on faith are thoughtfully articulated, but the fictional elements seem like an obstacle to their delivery.
A sharp philosophical discussion, unfortunately packaged in a muddled plot.