The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ

The cover of Andrew Klavan's book (click for Amazon entry)

The cover of Andrew Klavan’s book (click for Amazon entry)

In a previous post, I discussed Andrew Klavan’s conversion story and mentioned that he had written a book about it. I said I would read and review it when I had the chance. I read it a few weeks ago, but the book requires quite a bit of reflection to review, so I have only now come to the point where I can actually write my thoughts about it. It’s not that the book is hard to understand. It’s that the book is a real mixed bag.

First, let me say that Mr. Klavan is a masterful writer. When you sit back and think about the way that he is expressing his thoughts, you realize what an artist he is with words. However, what he says varies from shamefully self-indulgent to amazingly profound. There were times I got so annoyed with the self-indulgence that I nearly put the book away, but his flashes of brilliance kept me going. He says that his first draft was nearly twice as long as the final copy and that his wife helped him clean it up. I am glad she did, because I don’t think that his flashes of brilliance would have gotten me through nearly twice as many pages!

Now don’t get me wrong. I really am glad that I read the book, and I think that lots of people should read it. I am just warning you that there are times you will roll your eyes and think, “Please don’t give me another detailed account of another memory.” Of course, I understand the problem. He’s telling you about how he made the dramatic change from a Jewish person who didn’t believe in God to a Jewish person who started following God’s Son. That’s a remarkable change, and it requires a lot of backstory. I just think Mr. Kalvan gives you too much backstory. However, dealing with the backstory is well worth it, because the overall story is both compelling and important.

After a brief introduction, Klavan discusses his childhood. Both his mother and his father were Jewish, but he actually describes his mother as anti-semitic. She was a Jew who hated Jews and wanted to be anything else but a Jew. His father, on the other hand, was very serious about his Jewish heritage and wanted his sons to be as well. However, as Klavan says, that presented a problem:

My father wanted us, his sons, to know our own people. He wanted us to take their history seriously. He didn’t want us to leave our heritage behind. Which was fair enough, in theory. But in practice, there was a problem…My parents did not believe in God. For me, this rendered our Jewish observances absurd…I could see that the magnificent four-thousand-year-old structure of Jewish theology and tradition was, at its core, a kind of language for communicating with the divine presence. Subtract the Almighty and what was the purpose of it? It was just an empty temple… (kindle version, Chapter 3)

This led to a serious moral crisis when he was a young teen. Every Jewish boy has a bar mitzvah at the age of 13. The boy must prepare for this ceremony by learning the proper way to recite (actually “sing”) Scripture in Hebrew so that he could do it as a part of the ceremony. The problem, of course, is that Klavan didn’t believe the Scriptures he was supposed to be singing, so it seemed like an utter waste of time. After he struggled through the preparation and ceremony, he received all sorts of expensive gifts, and for several months, he was enchanted with them. As time went on, however, he became ashamed by them, because he realized he had accepted them on false pretenses. In the end, he threw them all into the garbage. His description of how he did this, found at the end of Chapter 3, will show the reader why I say that Klavan is a masterful writer.

Since Klavan was raised as a secular Jew, you might wonder how he came to learn about Christianity. The answer surprised me. He had a nanny he dearly loved, Mina, and she was a Christian. She didn’t try to teach him about Jesus, but she did have him over to her house during Christmas. This was his first exposure to Christ. However, as he writes in Chapter 4:

In the end, as I considered my conversion, I thought: No. It wasn’t that night at Mina’s house that made Jesus Christ central to my thinking. It wasn’t that picture on the wall that made his presence pervasive in my imagination. It wasn’t even the Christmases through the following years that made him matter to me so much. It was stories. It was literature. He came to me that way. (emphasis mine)

How did Christ come to him through literature? As a teen, he began to read voraciously and decided to become a writer. In some stories, he was able to notice some Christian imagery because of what little he learned from his nanny during Christmas. As a result, he decided to read the New Testament so that he could spot more Christian imagery. In other words, he decided to read about Christ simply so he could better understand literature.

This reading of the New Testament did not lead to an immediate conversion. However, it did lay the background for five epiphanies that ended up causing him to become a Christian. Once again, if you can get through the periods of self-indulgence, he describes these epiphanies in an amazing way. I will simply list them. First, he realized that true suffering exists in everyone’s life, not just his. Second, he realized that joy is possible, and it is the source of wisdom. Third, he understood that love is real. It isn’t some byproduct of electrical signals in the brain. It is an intangible reality that is wholly separate from biology. Fourth, he found that it was possible to have a clear perception of the world. Finally, he found that he could learn to laugh, even at the heart of his mourning. He writes:

I had them all now. All the pieces I needed. The five revelations that were really one revelation: the presence of God. (kindle version, Chapter 11, emphasis his)

There was, however, a stumbling block. The Western culture that brought him the literature he loved and the religion that inspired that literature had, in his mind, been a breeding ground for the hatred of the Jewish people. His people. How could this culture and its religion be the source of Ultimate truth if they were the source of such intense hatred? Eventually, he realized that, in fact, the hatred of Jews, which is best exemplified by the Holocaust, is definitive proof that the Bible is true. As he writes:

The Holocaust was the crucifixion compulsively reenacted on a grand scale: an attempt to kill God’s people in order to extinguish the Light of the World that shows us who we are…There are some people who say that an evil as great as the Holocaust is proof there is no God. But I would say the opposite. The very fact that it is so great an evil, so great that it defies any materialist explanation, implies a spiritual and moral framework that requires God’s existence. More than that. The Holocaust was an evil that only makes sense if the Bible is true, if there is a God, if the Jews are his people, and if we would rather kill him and them than truly know him, and ourselves. (kindle version, Chapter 12, emphasis his)

Perhaps that quote, more than any other I have given, shows you why I think Klavan makes some truly profound statements in his book. There is one more profound statement he makes that is worth mentioning, but it belongs in its own blog post.

11 Comments

  1. John D. says:

    This is a really interesting story. I wonder if Judaism is alone in that so many Jews who walk away from the faith portion of the religion still keep the religious traditions. My two best friends growing up were Persian Jews who decided at a very early age that the Torah was just a bunch of stories (although their parents had them instructed at private Jewish schools led by all Rabbi’s). For them, I know a big part of it was being instructed on how to read Hebrew but not really understand it. I guess it’s fairly common to just teach the pronunciation so as to get the children to be able to read scripture during ceremonies.

    Another Jewish family I worked for (German Jews) referred to themselves as “Culinary Jews” – they go through the motions and eat the food because of cultural preservation but they reject faith any faith based implications involved.

    Finally, my wife’s best friend is marrying a gentleman who is a Russian Jew. Both him and his parents are without faith but they insisted she convert and get married in Temple.

    I don’t really know what to make of it.. but I continue to pray that they will find their way home and be folded into the flock as in the case of Mr. Klavan.

  2. Brandon says:

    Dr. Wile, I apologize for posting here, but comments are closed on your 2010 article I wanted your response to. You cited an article that appeared in Science, saying that this article discussed the fact that “A young-earth creationist science education teaches students how to analyze scientific claims critically.” I’ve read the article, and I did not see that discussed. Can you please clarify?

    Your blog was titled “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse”.

    Love your blog, keep it up!
    🙂

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Perhaps you misunderstood what I wrote, Brandon. The article doesn’t mention young-earth creationism specifically. It discusses how it is important to expose students to different scientific explanations and allow them to critically analyze them. As the article demonstrates, students make significant educational gains, even when one of the explanations is known to be incorrect. This helps explain why students educated in a young-earth framework do so well in science. They are forced to look at different scientific explanations for the age of the earth. One of them is incorrect (I think the old-earth view is), but from an educational view, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the students who are fortunate enough to have a young-earth education are allowed to critically analyze different scientific points of view, and that produces a superior education.

      1. Brandon says:

        Thanks, yeah I thought that might be the issue. Do you know of any research that has been done on that question? Like, how well students from that perspective do in science, etc? I thought I remembered you posting along those lines in the past, but I’m not sure how to search for it. Just a thought… would be awesome to have a single place that keeps track of such research.

        Sorry again Dr. Wile, I know that’s not the topic. I just didn’t know how else to get ahold of you. Let me know if you’d rather email about this.
        🙂

        1. Jay Wile says:

          No problem, Brandon. The software that runs this blog (WordPress) shuts off comments after a while. You can always contact me privately through the contact form on my website. I don’t know of any studies that show the superiority of a young-earth science education, but I think this story demonstrates it pretty well.

  3. Kathy Mokris says:

    Dr. Wile, thanks for reviewing this and for taking the time to sift through and write about the “flashes of brilliance.” I’m glad you pointed out how he read the New Testament. God’s Word is powerful, and it changes hearts. Hearing the gospel message still “does something” to me.

  4. Dr. Wile, I always appreciate your book reviews. It is clear that you don’t just skim books looking for statements with which to agree or disagree, but you try to see into the mind of the author. I don’t always have time to read the books you recommend, but I keep your reviews for my “summer reading list.” Thanks!

  5. Wilbur Nelson says:

    Dr. Wile: Not related to the thread, but just saw this and hoped you could comment.

    http://westerndigs.org/700000-year-old-horse-found-in-yukon-permafrost-yields-oldest-dna-ever-decoded/?platform=hootsuite

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for the link, Wilbur. I compared the article to the scientific paper, and there is a problem. The article seems to think that a full DNA molecule was sequenced. The paper says otherwise. It specifically says that the average length of DNA that was recovered was 77.5 base pairs long. Since the full DNA is 2.7 BILLION base pairs long, this DNA is really deteriorated. Nevertheless, that level of deterioration is MUCH lower than what would be predicted with a 512-year half-life. Of course, the cold temperatures did help reduce the deterioration, but still. What I find most interesting is that they are surprised the DNA survived that long, but they are still confident of all the assumptions used in the molecular clock hypothesis. Obviously, the molecular clock hypothesis is not reliable, as it makes assumptions about things like mutation rate that are simply not knowable.

  6. Brandon says:

    Hi there. I watch or listen to the Andrew Klavan’s show at the Daily Wire and it is excellent from a conservative and creative perspective. He is a truly joyful man and also deeply intelligent in a self-effacing way. I listened to the book on audio and found the descriptions of the Jewish experience and indeed why his Mother felt the way she did, the travails of migration being one of them, wearingly honest and well described. The chapter where he is sitting listening to a baseball game on the radio has stayed with me. Andrew’s journey to Christianity struck me as courageous and rigorous. It’s a book I know I should read again.

    In my case I exhausted secularism and the new age and many other “ism’s” and found myself deciding to make a renewed commitment to a thing more reliable than myself: Christ. It took me 18 years to get back to that point; 3 years to work out what that meant. I am currently into my third year of reconstructing my politics to match my Christian faith. There are many intellectual and philosophical, biblical and theological areas I would love to “settle.” For example one of the things I eventually had to decide was the theory of evolution – I concluded it did not match the available data. But I know I will still be scraping the surface of so other issues before I stand before my maker.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Brandon!

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