Every religion has it: the conservative vs. liberal rhetoric. The conservatives want to preserve the strictest reading of the sacred texts to preserve life as they know it (and want everyone else to live it). The liberals want to read the sacred texts allegorically or through a personal lens, feeling free to take or leave whatever fits their situation. Yet both extremes do the same thing: attempt to control God with rhetoric. L.D. Wenzel, an American author living in Norway, addresses this specifically in the Christian context. In his story about an undergraduate caught in the conservative vs. liberal wars on an American campus, the honest fallout of his encounters with both camps forces us to admit that any full theological account of God has to leave room for mystery and truth beyond words.
Morrie, a transfer student from a community college to a large evangelical college in midwestern America, enters college like any other student: seeking the truth about himself, his future, and the world around him. True to form, these questions very quickly center on his relationships with young women, even against the backdrop of the conservative vs. liberal wars across campus. Two slightly otherworldly mentors appear in Morrie’s life, both showing him how to discern the true motives behind people’s actions (both his own and others’) yet alternately offering very different possible responses. Once Morrie learns how to discern the heart behind people’s behavior, he is forced to choose whether he will manipulate that knowledge to his gain, or choose to love that person for their benefit. Will vulnerability be exploited or rewarded? And what does love really look like? Wenzel skillfully brings religious issues away from the rhetorical and ideological and into the very heart of our daily interactions with others, and the secret motives that drive what can look like noble behavior. He takes religion from the head to the heart in language accessible to the most nonreligious.
I spoke to the author by phone this week, and he shared that although his book has received good reviews in the United States, he’s been surprised at the positive feedback from young, not-necessarily-religious Norweigians he’s met at work and around town. Wenzel has written an honest story that puts the real heart issues of religion front and center, in a direct and simple way.
Those of us who have been on an American college campus in the recent past may find some of the minor details a bit dated – don’t let that trip you up. I found the characters interesting and believable – and when you get to the point in the book where things really take off, you’ll know it. That’s when you won’t be able to put it down. And the best part is that it wasn’t just entertainment – it really named some issues for me that I don’t think I had ever named so succinctly, even after an M.Div. These topics won’t interest everyone, but if they do, you know who you are. Wenzel has written an unassuming, quietly profound coming-of-age book that was a delight to discover and share.