Every so often a fiction book makes a splash in the swamp of Christian literature, which is predominately ruled by non-fiction reads. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young would be one modern example and, reaching back just a bit more, In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon would be another.
It's happened again.
Frank Schaeffer's And God Said, “Billy!” is a work of Christian fiction that just barely fits into the “Christian” sub-category of fiction. That's not to say it doesn't come with a heavy dose of Christian characters and culture (it does) as much as it is to say, unlike the other must-read fictions of the past that I just mentioned, this book could and should have a much broader appeal. So much so, I almost titled this review, “The Book Everyone Needs to Read ...”.
The characters Schaeffer introduces to us are unusual in that they come across as authentic and very real, yet they are also very clearly caricatures. It's a very careful, humorous, and entertaining line he walks on every page. The payoff is both an enjoyable tension and characters the reader likes almost immediately in a sympathetic way — particularly the main character, Billy. Those positive feelings are surprising when you consider the fact that many characters, particularly Billy, represent much of what progressives Christians don't like in other Christians. At the same time, progressive Christians are clearly the target audience for the book. (Even though, as I've mentioned, And God Said, “Billy!” truly is a book of much broader appeal – which I'll get to again in a minute). The fact that Schaeffer walks that line without it being distracting or making the book feel overly conflicted speaks to his talents as a writer.
One one level, the book is a celebration of the conversion of a fundi-gelical to enlightenment through means of compassion, experience, and reason. That alone, is enough to warm the cockles of a progressive Christian's heart but I found one of the real values of the book to be what was happening under the surface as I was reading it. Not under the surface in the text but in me.
In some ways, the book has moved me to be more sympathetic toward those who are caught up in the fundi-gelical world. It's another one of those fine lines Schaeffer walks so well. (Brian McLaren also points to the blend of beauty and hilarity as one of those usual lines Schaeffer walks with great balance). The line in this case is one of becoming more sympathetic while also having the absurdity of some of the beliefs being exposed so very clearly through the exaggerated folly of Billy's actions.
Whether it was Schaeffer's intention or not (and I suspect on some level it was), he has created a character who represents everything that disturbs many progressive Christians about fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity and, at the same time, one for whom we're pulling. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to be as judgmental about fundi-gelical Christians again (which is why I'll now stop using the somewhat derogatory term “fundi”).
In the end, I think this is a book every Christian needs to read. Addressing the hypocrisy that most Christians practice from time to time at a safe distance through the life of a fictional character, in many ways, is modern prophetic behavior at its best. While it is clearly a book that is more appealing to progressive Christians, it is also a book that can bring insight and understanding to both sides of the Christian theological aisle. In our overly divisive world, that is a gift we all need.
That's just a touch of the theological, philosophical, and sociological edge to the book. As an avid reader of fiction, I'm also very interested the craft of storytelling. On that, Schaeffer does not disappoint. To be completely cliché, this is a page turner; I could not put the book down. Seriously.
One of my favorite authors is award-winning fiction writer, Christopher Moore, author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (one of my all-time favorite books). I'm having difficultly putting my finger on exactly why but And God Said, "Billy!" reminds me a great deal of Christopher Moore books but with a very Schaeffer voice (and fewer characters that are undead, prehistoric sea-beasts, talking animals, or stupid angels).
Maybe it's the excellent storytelling, maybe it's the surprising and nearly absurd turns of events that somehow seem “normal” within the context of the book, or maybe it's the quirky characters that I should somehow dislike but somehow can't help loving. Whatever it is, I'm a fan.
And that's why I think this is a book everyone should read. It's wonderful storytelling. It's entertaining in a enduring quirky way and the story it tells is a story whose underlying tension is pervasive in the U.S. today whether you are Christian or not. Whether you walk away entertained, informed or changed, I have to believe there is something in And God Said, "Billy!" for everyone.
Mark Sandlin currently serves as the minister at Vandalia Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C. He received his M. Div. from Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and has undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and English with a minor in Computer Science. He's an ordained minister in the PC(USA) and a self-described progressive.