Takeaway: One of the best examples of how fiction is important to give form to important ideas.
Almost exactly two years ago, while on vacation I first read Susan Howatch. That first reading started me down a path which helped shift me theologically, I am now much more Anglican (or at least sacramental). I have found a spiritual director and been meeting with him for nearly 18 months. And I have started thinking of the spiritual life much more as an ongoing work in progress than I did previously.
Glittering Images is the start of a six novel series set in the 1930s (first four) and the 1960s (second two) and then a spin off trilogy set in the 1980s (that I haven’t read yet).
Charles Ashworth is a young professor and Anglican priest who is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury Lang (actual person) to spy on the Bishop Jardine of Starbridge (fictional town). Bishop Jardine, as many of Howatch’s characters are, is based on a real bishop. And as the original bishop did, Jardine has spoken out about the need to liberalize England’s divorce laws.
Charles Ashworth attempts to investigate Jardine’s personal life to see if there is anything to the rumors about Jardine’s womanizing. What follows is a mix of straight melodrama, serious theological discussion, and some of the best fictional portrayals of spiritual difficulty I have read.
There are several threads to the book that overlap. Ashworth is on the edge of a mental and spiritual breakdown. We find out fairly early in the book, his wife and unborn child died in a car accident seven years prior. Also, Ashworth’s own family history, as we find out in the second half of the book have contributed to his breakdown.
Further there is a love story between Charles Ashworth and Lyle, the live-in companion of Bishop Jardine’s wife and the person that really runs the household. But the rumor that Ashworth is sent to investigate is whether Jardine and Lyle are having an affair.
Not to give too much away about the story, but the second half of the book is about Ashworth’s breakdown and recovery at the hands of Jon Darrow, an Anglican monk and spiritual director. The writing around the spiritual direction is highly fictionalized (Darrow is a psychic and the subject of the second book in the series). But even with the highly fictionalized treatment of spiritual direction, there is real theological depth to the concept of sin as a Christian and the route to restoration from serious sin.
Most Christian fiction (and this is really not considered Christian fiction, but literary fiction that includes Christian themes) glosses over repentance and restoration. Especially in Evangelical Christian fiction, if there is repentance and restoration, it revolves around a salvation event. Ashworth has a real Christian faith long prior to this breakdown. He is a priest and his call is legitimated in the book, but he is spiritually damaged because of both his own sin and some of his upbringing.
Howatch is neither minimizing individual sin nor overly psychologizing Ashworth (and Jardine’s) father issues. Instead Howatch is illustrating how real psychological issues can manifest themselves through sin and make it harder for a person to find spiritual comfort and serve God.
The whole point of spiritual direction is for an older and more mature Christian to help a younger Christian grow spiritually. This takes work and effort. It is not ‘works’ that earns salvation, but instead is more similar (as Eugene Peterson puts it) to the type of practice that is required to do anything well. If we want to learn an instrument or play a sport well, we need to practice and hone our skills. If we want to follow Christ well, we need to practice loving others and become more like Christ.
Sometimes fiction can do more than non-fiction to help a reader see something from a different perspective. For me this series helped me to re-conceive what it means to live a Christian life. It does not mean to live without sin, but to live a life of seeking after God, and in fits and starts, despite our sin, to see how God can redeem our lives for his purpose.