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The Novels of Jan Karon

Category Book Reviews
Date November 12, 2001



Many American Christians are enthusiastic about the novels of Jan Karon, and it was in the USA that we first came across them, but we obtained the Penguin boxed set of the best-selling “Mitford” books “The Mitford Years” in an English charity shop. “At Home in Mitford” (1994), “A Light in the Window” (1995), and “These High, Green Hills” (1996). Since that time “Out to Canaan” (1997) and “A New Song” (1999) have appeared with the promise of at least two more to follow. They look at life from a Scriptural and conservative Christian perspective. One thinks of what impact such a novel of 531 pages written 150 years ago by Charlotte M. Younge entitled “The Heir of Radcliffe”had in the conversion of Abraham Kuyper.

The first review of the “Mitford” books which I (G.T.) have come across
appeared in “Christian News” July 23, 2001 by the Rev. Reuel Schulz a retired evangelical minister. He wrote as follows-

This ultra-conservative Lutheran pastor does not approve of and endorse every theological position promoted by author Karon, especially the mushy interdenominational ecumenical exercises viewed through rose-coloured glasses, but the occasional doctrinal deviations penned by Ms. Karon did not deter me from reading every word in these books or ruin a view of the Christian public ministry every preacher and lay person should thoroughly enjoy.

The Unlikely Hero

Ms. Karon’s protagonist is no James Bond, no handsome, husky hulk, no lithe and athletic .007 secret agent. On the contrary, the “Mitford” books describe the thoughts and feelings of a clergyman in his mid 60s, a bachelor most of his life who meets and marries his beautiful new next door neighbour, Cynthia, a writer of children’s books, very similar, it seems to me, to the attractive (her picture is on the dust cover) author Jan Karon. Just because this reviewer is a semi-retired minister, 68 years old, battling diabetes and a bulging belly; just like main character and Episcopal rector, Father Timothy Cavanaugh, doesn’t mean younger and non-clergy readers won’t get a kick out of following the routines and occasional adventures of Father Tim. I’m sure I’m not alone in identifying with this minister from a tiny mountain village in Carolina who, with fear, trembling and sweaty palms, flies for the first time to the Big Apple, NYC, hoping to surprise Cynthia, not yet his wife and finishing off one of her books, only to find that she picked the same weekend to fly home to Mitford to surprise him

When was the last time you read a novel with pages peppered with prayers by the protagonist? Father Tim actually practices the “pray without ceasing” instructions in Scripture and reminded this Lutheran pastor that, though prayer is not a means of grace, it deserves high priority in every Christian’s life, in harmony with Jesus’ promise in John 14:13,14-“.. .1 will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Episcopalian priest, Father Tim, the creation of Jan Karon’s fruitful imagination, is a man of prayer. He prays, in Jesus’ name, dealing with the people in his parish with problems every pastor encounters. Father Tim is a skillful swordsman I admire, adroitly but humbly wielding the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, with poignant and powerful prayers, battling alcoholism, “hillbilly” poverty, depression, mental illness, etc.

Fortunately, in my long ministry I never had to take the drastic action desperate Rev. Tim took, leaping from a moving, luxurious limo to escape the clutches of a widow, determined to overpower the bewildered cleric. He managed to get away, but that was just the beginning of many more problems caused by the spurned, filthy-rich villainess, evil Edith Mallory.

A Boy and a Dog and a Cat

Early on in the “Mitford” series bachelor Tim takes into his home young Dooley, abandoned by his alcoholic mom. Ms. Karon has an excellent touch with teen speak, as well as the distinctive dialect of Carolina mountain dwellers. The initially cool, guarded and difficult relationship between Father Tim and foster son Dooley warms up in a wonderful way as the boy blossoms, early on eager to be a veterinarian due to visits with farmer friends of the Father. Dooley’s impatience to drive a car, his various summer jobs, a slowly-developing interest in girls, a serious charge of involvement in theft: All ring true of typical teen experiences.

Clearly, Ms. Karon loves animals. Violet the Kitty-Kat is the main character in her heroine Cynthia’s children’s books. Father Tim’s dog, Barnabas, is quite a canine character and would wow David Letterman’s audience in a unique Stupid Pet Tricks’ segment. For whenever shaggy Barnabas jumps up on people, becomes too slobbery or otherwise misbehaves, he can be controlled and tamed by God’s Word. Clergyman Tim will say: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” looking naughty doggy Barnabas squarely in the eye, and immediately and dramatically the dog dutifully sighs and lies down at his master’s feet. An unusually clever way to incorporate Bible passages into Ms. Karon’s books, to say the least.

Theologically Speaking

Ms. Karon gives credit to many clergymen, such as “warm thanks to Father James Harris, who inspired and encouraged me,” for the many Scriptural references in her five books. It was gratifying to read repeated remarks about the Lord Jesus and God’s grace, along with the aforementioned primacy given to the practice of prayer in Father Tim’s pastoral ministry. The author seems to favour and promote a very Biblical and conservative form of the Episcopalian faith. I wish she had addressed the heresies of the late Bishop Pike or the deviations from Christian doctrine more recently espoused by the retired Episcopalian bishop-errant John Spong. Perhaps not wanting to open a can of worms, author Karon, as best I can recall, did not address thorny issues like the ordination of women, abortion, openly gay priests or the pros and cons of same-sex marriages with the blessing and participation of Episcopalian clergy. I hope I’m correct in my conclusion that Karon’s creation, Father Tim, would not in good conscience, be involved in or approving of any of the above.

Since author Karon resides in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, which I suspect is not far from where Billy Graham lives; it doesn’t surprise me to see some striking similarities in her work to Graham’s evangelistic strategy and theology, including a very unepiscopalian altar call in place of the Nicene Creed (“A New Song,” p.395). Both Ms. Karon’s Father Tim and Billy Graham write and say many beautiful, Bible-faithful things about Jesus, God’s free grace, forgiveness of sins and the saving gospel message, but their testimony from God’s Word is tarnished, if not completely blunted and discredited by the insistence that sinners must choose on their own and make their own decision – to seal the deal, so to speak, when they take the initiative to become Christians. Thus, in my opinion, God is robbed (maybe more like petty theft in the interest of human pride) of His glory, God’s pure grace is diminished and the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification sadly insulted. Luther was right on and exposed the regrettable errors of Graham and Father Tim when he explained the Apostles’ Creed’s Third Article as follows: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing (or decision) believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…”

Indeed, the conversion of sinners is entirely God the Holy Spirit’s doing by pure grace. No human works, deeds, choices or decisions are required, necessary or even possible. Paul and Silas, confronted by the Philippian jailer’s desperate query: “Men, what must I do to be saved?,” replied with the simple Gospel promise: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Act 16:30,31). They did not demand that the jailer say a little prayer; they did not insist that he must, Law-like, make a choice or decision to become a Christian. No, they turned the matter over to the Holy Spirit, confident that He would, through the Word and baptism bring the jailer and his family, including infants, to saving faith in Christ and into the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints (precious souls of young and old, dead and alive, sanctified by the Holy Spirit with no human contribution or cooperation required).

If Jan Karon, her creation Father Tim, or Billy Graham had been at that earthquake-damaged Philippian jail, I fear they would have insisted that the jailer make his choice or decision for Christ or “silently repeat this simple prayer:

Thank you, God, for loving me;
For sending Your Son to die for my sins.
I sincerely repent of my sins And receive Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. Now as Your child I turn my entire life over to You. Amen.” (“A New Song” p. 395.)

Admittedly, that’s a sweet-sounding prayer, but even a whiff or scent of legalism, in the form of demanding a choice or insisting on sinners making a decision apart from the Holy Spirit, who needs no help, detracts from the Gospel and demands the impossible from impotent transgressors, dead in sin.

Kudos to Karon

Even with the misgivings and doctrinal concerns detailed above, I enjoyed Ms. Karon’s five books and look forward eagerly to two more works describing the adventures of my main man of the cloth, ‘Rector’ Tim Cavanaugh. Jan, I confess, makes me jealous. How I envy her fictional writing prowess, her ability to seamlessly incorporate Christian principles, Bible verses, fascinating and funny characters, and page-turning tales into well-deserved prize-winning, best-selling novels.

To TV or not TV? Especially if you find yourself in front of the tube to much, this summer substitute these enjoyable “Mitford” tomes by Jan Karon. They come in Viking hardcover or in cheaper Penguin paperback. You won’t regret these great summer reads.

Rev. Reuel J. Schulz.

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