Summary: Spiritual leaders are human, full of sin as all of us, but willing to have their sin redeemed by God for greater glory.
Over the last couple months I have re-read all of the Starbridge (or Church of England) series by Susan Howatch and the first of the off-shoot trilogy. This second reading of each of the main series has confirmed to me that this is one of the greatest series of ‘Christian Fiction’ written in the 20th century.
I use scare quotes because no US Evangelical Christian publishing house would actually publish this. It is full of sin. But also full of grace and redemption and more theologically rich than any other fiction series that I am aware of.
Absolute Truths is the last, and I think best, of the series. It returns to Charles Ashworth, the main character of the first book of the series (Glittering Images.) Instead of a young priest and professor, Ashworth is now a Bishop. And in the course of the book his third life crisis comes to pass.
What was so transformative for me with this series is that all of the conflict and story is based on clergy in the Church of England. All are real and devout Christians. All take their faith seriously (although in different streams of the Anglican way).
Too often, Christian fiction is focused on conversion as the climax. Howatch does not even think about conversion, she writes about continuing, incremental transformation, but not perfection of Christians. It is what is lost when Evangelicals are in charge of the book publishing market. The slow, hard work of becoming more like Christ, through the on going power and work of the Holy Spirit and the structure of the church is lost to the stories of instantaneous point of conversion transformation. Conversion should be important, but never the end of the story.
Ashworth, narrating his story from the end of his life, knows what failure is. He understands sin. The sin of his early life has driven him to rail against sexual licentiousness. But in some ways he has resisted full transformation.
The short section about 1/3 of the way through, where Ashworth is reading the spiritual journal of his wife, Lyle is perhaps the most transformative part of the entire series. Lyle, an important character in the first book was always resistant to traditional spiritual matters. But in this spiritual journal she recounts her calling to prayer. She was transformed by prayer and the people she prayed with. She was not a theologian or mystic or liberal idealist as the rest of the main characters tend to be. She was reluctant, but willing to follow God’s calling as a ‘normal Christian’. It is her prayers and her submission to God that in the end transforms her family and really the entire dioceses.
If there is one main theme of this book it is the common, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God”. This book is probably a better explanation of this passage than any thing else I know of. The passage is not, ‘God structures all things for his purposes’ as many seem to understand it. Nor, ‘only good things will happen to you if you are a good Christian.’ Instead it is more the idea that God can redeem all things, even our sin and brokenness, if we are willing to submit to God and love and serve him.
This is probably not a series that everyone will love. It is theological and sometimes heady in content. There is real sin shown, a few of the characters use a strong language (although this is 1930 to 1960 England) and culturally a lot of drinking. Sex and desire is not hidden away. Difficult emotions are present. The series as a whole is probably too melodramatic and I think most of the books are a bit too long. But this is a series that I have completely re-read. I loved it the first time, I loved it even more the second. I will read it again, and likely again, and again.
- Glittering Images by Susan Howatch (Church of England Series #1)
- Glittering Images (Church of England Series #1) by Susan Howatch (Second Reading)
- Glamorous Powers by Susan Howatch (Second Reading)
- Glamorous Powers by Susan Howatch (First Reading)
- Ultimate Prizes by Susan Howatch (Church of England #3)
- Scandalous Risks by Susan Howatch (Church of England #4)
- Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch (Church of England #5)
- Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch (Church of England #6)
- Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ by Eugene Peterson (A second reading review intentionally read with Glittering Images)