Friday, 13 January 2017

A proper review of Andrew Klavan's enthralling memoir, "The Great Good Thing"

As what follows is a review of a book about one man's conversion to Christianity - and most of you don't "do" religion - let me offer heathens a non-religious hors d'oeuvre:

Andrew Klavan's mother had an uncle who was an Austrian Jew named Adolf. He fought for Austria during the First World War, and went missing in action, presumed killed. He was never heard from again. When Hitler rose to power in the thirties, Klavan's Ashkenazi grandfather is said to have remarked, “Well, I guess now we know what happened to Adolf.”

Well, it made me laugh - as did many passages in Klavan's memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ - a snip at just £2.99 on Amazon. I've already written about it once (here), but I've been asked to do a proper review. Here it is:

When Andrew Klavan’s father caught his teenage son reading the New Testament, he was horrified. He viewed it, Klavan writes, as “the sort of thing some devious Christian might leave in a hotel room as an evangelical snare for unsuspecting alcoholics, homosexuals, and Jews!” The row ended with his father shouting, “I hope you know that if you ever convert to Christianity, I’ll disown you!” It wasn’t that Klavan Senior - a popular New York comic radio disc jockey - was a devout Jew. While he insisted that his wife and four sons observed Jewish festivals at their home in an affluent, largely Jewish section of Long Island, his Judaism was ”Godless.. a fist shaken at a gentile world.” It would take his second son many years to become a Christian, and, by chance, his baptism more than thirty years after first reading St. Luke’s Gospel took place a month after his “showbiz narcissist” father died.

Klavan's curriculum vitae suggests he should be a socially liberal, anti-religious, card-carrying Hollywood Democrat.  After attending a school for “troublesome” youngsters, he bummed around America for a year or two before turning up in a state of “pathological depression” to study English Literature at that beacon of New Left identity politics, Berkley. He married a goy and lived in New York while trying to make it as a writer. After a breakdown, which saw him contemplating suicide as he repeated the words “I don’t know how to live” over and over to himself, he underwent five years of psychoanalysis. He tried Zen for a spell, until it struck him that if you “meditate on nothing long enough… you soon achieve inner nothingness.”

Klavan’s writing career eventually took off - two of his thrillers won prestigious Edgar Awards, Clint Eastwood directed a film of his novel, “True Crimes”, and he established himself as a screenwriter. He decamped with his family to South Kensington for seven years (he’s an Anglophile), before moving back to the States and settling in California. But, despite living in places and working in industries where conservatives are routinely reviled as evil and Christianity is viewed as a form of mental illness, Klavan is an “out and proud” conservative Christian whose popular weekday Daily Wire podcast is the wisest, funniest, most thoughtful and most enjoyable example of the genre. The short, savage, satirical monologues which preface each programme have occasionally  reduced me to tears of laughter.

How did this happen to someone who really should be a politically correct, socially liberal, Democratic Party-funding moral relativist? Where did it all go wrong?

It evidently doesn’t stem from the sort of Jewish self-hatred that’s all too common on the Left. Klavan is “belligerently proud” of his race - “Mine is a uniquely great people” - and he won’t let any racial slur pass unanswered. (The only thing he really disliked about England was the casual anti-Semitism of the educated classes - “The BBC news stories about Israel were so slanted they amounted to hate speech.”) An early incident suggests that Christianity might have answered an emotional need unmet at home.  As a young boy, he spent one Christmas Eve with the family of the Klavans’ housemaid, Mina, a heavily-accented Yugoslavian peasant, in a warm, boisterous, devout Christian household. He thinks he may have dimly grasped the contrast between Mina’s faith and the hypocritical version practiced at home. A few months after his Bar-mitzvah, Klavan took the thousands of dollars worth of gifts he had received - earned by professing beliefs he did not hold - and stuffed them in a rubbish bin in the middle of the night.

The main, overarching factor in his eventual conversion, and his conservatism, appears to have been cultural - or, rather, Culture: “It was stories. It was literature. [Jesus] came to me that way.” His reason for reading the Bible as a wayward teenager with literary ambitions was the glimmer of an understanding that “…Christianity was central to everything I had been reading. It was Christian ideas that had powered European culture.” As for the Bible, while he felt not the slightest temptation to believe any of it, “As a story… [it] made perfect sense to me from the very beginning.” He would later come to see the Bible as “the way the Western mind understood itself. It was, as the poet William Blake said, ‘The Great Code of Art’.”

After a lecturer at Berkley had recited “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, a prototypical example of today’s “snowflake generation” objected to the poem because it “glorified war”. The lecturer shrugged and weakly responded, “I see what you mean.” Klavan surprised himself by leaping to his feet and furiously, inarticulately defending Tennyson - and, by implication, the whole of Western culture and the belief system which underpinned it. In a sense, he had discovered the central theme of his life. Over the next two decades, he set himself the task of reading all the books he should have read at college. This led him to conclude that “the nation of Europe …had produced more of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements than any others… It sometimes seems to me the entire postmodern assault on the concept of truth has been staged to avoid just this conclusion: some cultures are simply more productive than others and the high culture of Europe has been the most impressive so far.” (One can almost hear students shrieking “racist” as they run for the nearest safe space.)

Not all the experiences which fuelled “the slow dawning of awareness that had solidified into the certainty that I was a Christian” were literary. His loving marriage evidently played a crucial role; an overpowering mystical experience during the birth of his daughter left him “haunting” churches; the psychoanalytic session in which he started to laugh uncontrollably (his psychiatrist explained: “…this is who you really are. This how you really see the world”); waking up the morning after offering up the simple prayer, “Thank you, God”, to find that “the tenor of my imagination had shifted - and that had changed everything.”  But this memoir keeps coming back to books. Reading de Sade convinced him that “Either there is a no God and no morality whatsoever, or there is morality and God is real”, while, from the moment he read “Crime and Punishment”, “I was travelling away from moral relativism and towards truth, towards faith, towards God.”

This isn’t a preachy book - Klavan isn’t seeking to convert anyone (as he puts it, “If you believe, the evidence is all around you. If you don’t believe, no evidence can be enough”). Those expecting  a story in which religious faith makes a thoroughly confused, miserable person happy will be disappointed: “For others, I know it was Christ who led them to joy. For me, it was joy that led me to Christ.” But for those who believe that conversion is somehow an easy option and that educated coverts must have deliberately blinded themselves to the off-putting aspects of organised religion - Klavan’s tale might prove instructive. He was riddled with doubts. He knew he would be accused of betraying his people. He feared that film executives, assuming he would expunge sex and violence from his scripts, would stop hiring him. Then there was the fact that he was “a wordling by nature”, who loathed “magical thinking, “banal optimism” and “solemn piety”, and whose most fervent prayer before committing was “Oh, God, whatever happens, don’t let me become a Christian novelist!” His podcasts suggest that not only has he avoided the more off-putting tendencies of what one of his brothers dubbed the “Church of Amorphous Rambling” - he has also retained that sense of joy (“a vital love of life in both sorrow and gladness”) which made his conversion possible.


  1. “the nation of Europe....had produced more of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements than any others.... some cultures are simply more productive than others and the high culture of Europe has been the most impressive so far.”

    Was für ein Mensch!

    1. Indeed - and it's a sign of how Uriah Heapishly PC we in the West have become that such an undeniable statement sounds positively daring.