Reflections on Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying

image1Recently I read Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying. The story is set in 1940s Louisiana. Black vs. white racial tension divided many of the characters in the narrative; the gospel of Christianity united others.

The main character (Mr. Grant Wiggins) is an unmarried, atheistic (at least initially), black teacher of black children in a Louisiana parish. He is persuaded/cajoled/manipulated into the awkward position of helping an innocent black man (Jefferson) recently accused of murder, to discover and embrace the fact that he is a full man, a creation of God, a person of worth.

Why is Jefferson these things? Because he bears the image of God (Imago Dei). The irony of ironies is that Grant himself, at least for most of the story, is a professing atheist.

Jefferson’s discovery of his worth comes through Grant Wiggins, the Jonah-like reluctant prophet, sent with a message of worth. Both men are changed throughout. The lesson before dying? Worth exists because of the Creator. Absent a Creator, worth and values are merely subjective preferences.

What follows is a form providing a brief book review:

  1. Overview
  1. Quotation
  1. Main Idea
  1. Question(s) raised/reflection(s)


256 pages of southern literature. If you enjoy Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Faulkner, O’Connor, Porter, Cormac McCarthy and other southern literary fiction, rest easy. You won’t be required to work that hard. This novel is easy to read.

Motifs of Christian self-sacrifice and atonement for a world in need pervade the narrative. But what happens in a world that does not want God? There’s the rub. The world is in need of those redeeming events but lacks the humility to admit it.

The novel is a solid story of an innocent man condemned by the mob of some racists in Louisiana. The protagonist is a university-educated black man, Grant Wiggins, who is (perhaps?) a professing Christian but who has lost whatever professed faith he had (during his college years), proving, I would argue, he never possessed saving faith/trust to begin with.

Grant returns to his roots in Louisiana, reunites with influential matriarchal figures like Ms. Emma and others, and is persuaded to serve as the advocate for the innocent-but-condemned black man (Jefferson) who is guilty only of being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time.


 Here is an example of Gaines’ style. In the following paragraph, these are Grant’s thoughts towards the end of the novel re his crisis of faith:

     Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him—and I will not believe. (251)

Main Idea:

I remember my high school English teaching telling me, “Look for how and when the protagonist changes; that’s crucial.” Great advice that has stood me and other readers of serious literature in good stead. In short, Grant Wiggins changes when he, reluctant prophet though he is, gives life to another by convincing him (Jefferson) that he’s a man, a creature of dignity and worth, a creation of God. The irony is that Grant himself has not believed that until … You see the idea.

Question(s) raised/reflection(s):

 One would be hard-pressed to find one who appreciates serious literary southern fiction more than I. But why the accolades for this novel? It is, I admit, an emotionally appealing novel. A skeptic discovers the gospel and what it means to be human and a creature of worth … rather than cosmic material ephemera. But is that new? No. That idea has been written for millennia via Scripture and via books like Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance?

 Writers like J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Larry Woiwode, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Hansen, and others have addressed this issue of where worth comes from.

There is a reason Gaines’ novel received such attention by another generation of readers. Something in most of us recoils at the pervasiveness of injustice, racism, and cruelty. But unless one is willing to admit that God is the only grounds for objective moral values, any talk of worth and intrinsic value founders unless we will admit the founder and perfecter of all that is true, good, and beautiful.

What Exactly Do You Mean by That?

A spoonful of this and a dash of that make for good soup but bad theology.

imgresRecently another gentleman and I shared an elevator. I recognized him as one who worked around the same location as I. As we waited for the elevator to arrive, I joked with him that it was forgivable if I took the elevator, since I’d exercised at the gym earlier in the day. He laughed and we began to chat about the day’s events. Casual conversation. The elevator arrived and we entered.

As we entered the elevator, we had several floors to go up. There was that pregnant pause we’ve all endured when we’re in elevators during interstices of our workday, when we’re unsure whether we should speak. Is it worth it? Will I be thought rude if I remain silent? Will it be banal if we speak of the weather? Should I ask him if he’s following the Olympics in Rio?

As it turned out, he spoke first. Upon seeing the cross upon my uniform, he asked, “So what are you working on, chaplain?” I told him about one of the ministries I was working on, and about where I was driving later that day as part of that ministry. He said, “Well, we need some spirituality around here.”

I said, “Sir, we witness the structure crumbling but fail to acknowledge we’ve erased the foundation.” Then the elevator bell sounded, and we both exited onto the same floor, but headed in opposite directions.

I hope I did not come across as rude, but a spoonful of this and a dash of that make for good soup but bad theology. What do I mean? Well, my little conversation in the elevator is symptomatic of a larger issue.

Much of the world wants spirituality, but then falls short of specifying what that means. What type of spirituality? Whose spirituality? What does that term—spirituality–even mean? Does the Islamist have the same idea of spirituality that I have as a Christian? What about the atheist? Does he want spirituality in his world? Mormon spirituality? Jehovah’s Witnesses’ spirituality?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not taking issue what I think my elevator friend intended—namely, that we are eroding due to a loss of spiritual moorings.

But we are living in a time of syncretism. Syncretism is comprised of syn meaning “with” or “together.” If you search for synonyms, you search for words meaning the same, or nearly the same, thing. A synagogue, for example, is where people of the same faith gather together. If you synchronize watches, you set it to the same time as another’s time (chronos).

But we are living in a culture that is turning to everything except that which is eternal, fixed, and sure. We’re witnessing an overt blending of worldviews that teach opposite doctrines. There may be superficial similarities but fundamentally they are different systems, and they teach different doctrines.

Syncretism in the culture is seeking to harmonize mutually exclusive ideas, often under the moniker of spirituality, and then to often relativize ideas, as if ideas are equal. They’re not. All ideas are not equal. There is such a thing as being wrong. The fact that we even have to say that indicates how juvenile many have become in their thinking. And thus, the cauldron of ideas that is supposedly going to synchronize itself into spirituality is boiling over.

Bits of one theology are blended into others, doing violence to each idea.

My elevator conversationalist phrased it as “spirituality.” This spirituality is so nebulous, vague, and unclear that it’s impossible to say what it even means. If we are not clear, we’re wasting time.

I agree with my elevator conversationalist that we’re in need of spirituality, but we must clarify that. What does that term mean? Whose spirituality? After all, different worldviews teach mutually exclusive concepts regarding spirituality.

We must have the courage to ask people what they mean by their terms. And we ourselves must be clear. There are many ways that may seem right, yet end in horror (cf. Proverbs 14:12).

A spoonful of this and a dash of that make for good soup but bad theology. I hope to continue the conversation with him again soon, in an elevator or another place, and hear how we might go deeper into the spirituality question, because I have some good news for him.

It’s a Grave Matter

Today I went to a funeral. Perhaps I’m odd, but I find funerals, whether I’m the presiding minister or not, to engender pensiveness. Perhaps more accurately stated, I find that funethrals lead me into contemplation of life’s meaning, of life’s value, of what’s most important, and of the basis for importance. Funerals punctuate the transient nature of some matters and the eternality of others. What follows is an abbreviated summary of today’s funeral, some reflections that the confrontation of death elicits, and some questions for consideration.

The mother of one of my coworkers died recently. Her body had been transported back to Atlanta from Illinois for the memorial service and a graveside service. She had been born in Atlanta in the late 1940s, but grew up in Illinois, where she earned her education, became a nurse, married, raised her family, and prospered in her nursing career. However, her spiritual hometown had remained Atlanta. And, geographically speaking, she came full circle. She was buried just miles from where she had been born.

When we entered the church, the scene was just as one might imagine. Men wore dark suits; women wore dark dresses, many donning hats; a couple of grandchildren with quizzical eyes, trying to come to terms with what it means to lose their grandmother, sat on the front pews with their mother. A family friend sang the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

Then, the presiding minister read from Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not life up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.

Then the minister led the congregation in prayer and several people spoke briefly of the life of the deceased. And then the minister read from Revelation 7, where John writes of the multitude extolling God and the Lamb, and of how the creation bursts forth in doxology: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:12 ESV)

One never knows, I suppose, what others are thinking, but this is what I thought: Psalm 24 teaches that the whole of creation is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And David teaches that there is one who does ascend that hill of the Lord, the Lord of hosts. And the apostle John, a millennium after David chronologically, writes of the Lord Jesus as the Lord of hosts, mighty in battle, who conquered. And because of that Lamb, multitudes now stand in white robes, more than conquerors.

Is that what the minister was trying to teach us, his hearers? Did we all see the connections between Psalm 24 and Revelation 7? Did we all understand how conquering death is only possible if hidden in Christ, the Lord of hosts?

Some questions came to mind as I sat there in the church, as I listened and thought, and scanned the demeanors of the others:

1) What hope does an atheist have at a funeral? Is nature/material all there is? If so, why do we speak of thoughts, love, ideas, truth, sacrifice, et cetera? Those ideas, so seminal to life, are senseless if materialism is true.

2) Why is it that when obituaries are read, we remember and laud (rightly, in my view) the non-material things in the person’s life—her sacrifices, her love for her family, her compassion, her honor, her faith, et cetera, not the material things?

3) Why does it sometimes take a funeral to teach me to keep short accounts with God?

Is it not easy to fritter one’s time? Is it not easy to gain the world and lose one’s soul? It’s possible, I suppose, to even attend a funeral and not be confronted with ultimate questions.

But it’s a grave matter how one answers these questions. If Christianity is true, then death does not have the final say. Its sting has been removed for the believer. If materialism is true, we’re only dust, and it’s perhaps best to eat, drink, and be merry, as Solomon did, but later regretted.

But if Christianity is true, then we, though made of dust, have been breathed into by God himself, and are souls of infinite worth, and are called to honor him, in life and in our death. That call to think on the Christian claims, therefore, is too important to eschew. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”