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.

The Self-disciplined: A Vanquishing Breed?

Self-discipline is out of fashion in our time, at least for some folks. Just in this week’s headlines, an elected political representative was again disgraced after his latest “sexting” surfaced. His wife is separatiimagesng from him, and the world yawns. Where’s the self-discipline we should hope to find in our elected officials? Was it ever there to begin with?

Other headlines are consumed with demographics of race, gender, and carnality. We have “safe spaces” now wherein free speech is curtailed under the guise of sensitivity and the favorite system of silencing dissenters and thought not aligned with militant secularism–political correctness. And infamous athletes boycott the national anthem; some people burn our nation’s flag; yet others support the murdering of police, etc. The list is long of people who seem to lack self-control/self-discipline. And where self-discipline is absent, somebody else’s discipline will step in—usually in the form of a growing government.

How should the Christian view this? Should he capitulate to political correctness? Should she renounce the obvious distinctions between the genders? Should Christians give in to being exiled from the public square? Should Christians throw up their hands in postures of despair and exclaim, “Well, we know it’s going to get worse!”? (I have heard Christians say this.)

What does Scripture actually say about these things? In short, Christians are to be above the aforementioned follies. Christians ought to be the ones who exemplify self-discipline. They ought to be the ones whose examples the undisciplined world envies. Jesus did not obfuscate. He said Christians are to “let [their] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16 ESV). Just as Jesus was the light who’d come into the dark world, his followers are to be lights amidst this darkness. And being light entails self-governance/self-discipline.

I am currently studying through Peter’s life and writing, and one text from Peter often cited as a ground for Christian apologetics (a reasoned and reasonable defense of the Christian faith) comes from his first letter. The text to which I refer follows: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pt 3:15-17 ESV).

It’s true, of course, that Peter teaches Christians the importance of being able to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. (May God bless the many faithful Christian apologetics ministries we have.) But what is easily overlooked in those same verses cited from Peter is his emphasis upon “having a good conscience” and knowing that Christians will be slandered for . . . “doing good.” That’s the battlefield of being a living sacrifice. Obedience is manifested via living a good life amidst an evil culture. This is why Peter writes that it’s a blessing when you’re reviled by the unregenerate. In other words, Peter’s echoing Jesus: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12 ESV). But “doing good” demands self-discipline, not unrestrained impudence.

The ancient Greek world birthed the Olympics, of course. And in the New Testament, Paul uses an athletic metaphor about self-discipline in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor 9:24-25a ESV). What’s the hinge upon which Paul’s argument turns? Exercising self-control.

Just in case readers could misinterpret Paul’s emphasis upon self-discipline, he reminds them, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27 ESV).

Paul’s emphasis as a Christian was of course the gospel–the life-giving truth centered in God’s work in history concerning Jesus the Christ, his birth, life, substitutionary death, and physical resurrection. Paul’s metaphor of disciplining the new nature in order to receive the prize for a ministry led with faithfulness is analogous to disciplining one’s body as part of athletic competition. How appropriate, therefore, for Christian pilgrims, who ought to be the exemplars of self-discipline, to strive for the prize, to serve with distinction. In short, for a world that often lacks the quality of self-discipline, let the world behold in Christians lives worthy of the One who called them to himself.



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.

Whose Way?

If I asked you to list a few current events that are splashed across our headlines, you could probably do it with ease. How about presidential politics? How about BLM? How about Blue Lives Matter, or is it just black lives? If black lives matter, why are blacks assassinating fellothw blacks who serve as our police? How about the 60 million abortions in the U.S. since 1973’s Roe v. Wade? Do their lives matter? 29,000 babies, just in America, will be aborted this year, after 16 weeks of gestation. Do their lives matter? And let us not forget illegal immigration. Should a nation not have borders? If not, why not? Can you name a nation that has lasted that doesn’t have borders? What does the word nationhood even mean if it’s denuded of its written laws and borders? Or how about the tone of our country’s public discourse? What does it reveal about current American public discourse? Current discussions resemble MTV’s pubescent crassness more than substantive debate.

This morning after coffee, I checked the headlines from my computer at work for just some of our current events:

  1. When nonstop terror bleeds into our media and political culture
  2. Baton Rouge killer carefully plotted attack against police, brought 3 guns, investigators say
  3. Erdogan’s appeal to Islamists in wake of failed coup spurs fear for Turkey’s future
  4. Terror strikes again: ISIS claims responsibility for German train attack
  5. White House won’t be lit in blue

Is there a unifying theme through all of these headlines? Some might say the theme is unraveling. Others might say the theme is lack of courageous leadership. Others might say we’re witnessing the triumph of evil. Others might say we’re seeing that the enemy is inside the wire–that is, that current events are being orchestrated by folks who are ostensibly on America’s side, but who, in reality, are vehemently opposed to America, our freedoms, our constitution, and our other founding documents. I don’t speak as one with no view. Presumably like you, I’m a legal citizen, and am concerned, but I speak from a biblical worldview.

Is this the first time that world events have seemed out of control? Is this the first time that culture seems to be unraveling? Is this the first time that people have rejected God, Christ, the Bible, Christian input, etc? Did Noah’s generation repent when he was called to pronounce judgment and warn of a worldwide flood? Did vast numbers of folks repent and turn to hear the preaching of the word? Did the masses repent and turn to God? Listen to Gen 6:11-12:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.

Sound familiar? Yet God did not leave Noah with just a diagnosis of disaster. He made a way: “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” (v.18) God made the way, but it was just that—God’s way, not man’s way.

Or think of another OT prophet, Jeremiah, in the 600s B.C. in Israel, a man called by God to warn the people to repent and turn to God. But did the culture listen to the word of the Lord through his servant Jeremiah?

Listen to Jeremiah’s word of the Lord: “violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me. Be warned, O Jerusalem, lest I turn from you in disgust, lest I make you a desolation, an uninhabited land.” (Jer 6:7b-8)

That was in the 600s B.C. Was that the first time the nation was unraveling? Was that the first time that God spoke through one of his prophets, pleading with people to listen and obey the word from the Lord? Was that even the first time that God’s people were persecuted for telling the truth?

But did God leave Jeremiah there, in the pit (later in his ministry), suffering alone? Israel and Judah both fell, of course, as judgments. And many were deported to Babylon (present day Iraq) in 597, 586, and 582 B.C.

But did God just diagnose the people’s situation and leave them there? No. But deliverance was to be God’s way, not man’s way. Listen to Jer 31:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their heart. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (vv.31-33)

It had to be, then as now, God’s way, not man’s way. The greatest example in history of God speaking is found in God’s incarnation in Jesus–his supernatural birth, life, death as substitutionary atonement, and his resurrection. Christ requires an either/or ultimatum.

Will we turn to him in repentance and faith, or remain in our evil deeds and darkness? As another writer phrased it, it’s Christ or chaos. And what do our headlines indicate most people choose?

Did Jesus not warn the people to repent and turn to the one true and living God? And what sort of reception did Jesus receive? “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (Jn 1:11)

Why did his own people not receive him? The Scripture says that their works, like ours, are evil: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (Jn 3:19)

But did God leave them/us there? Did he only condemn us and abandon us? Are we like the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? Or is man, as Sartre wrote, a useless passion? Is there no hope?

Probably you’ve heard, “If only God would show up, then I would believe.” May I say this as kindly as possible? He has, and his name is Jesus. God in the flesh not only showed up, but he lived the only life worthy of God’s requirements. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:17) He was born of Mary who’d been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. He lived a sinless life. Yet he became sin for us, for those who’d believe upon him: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

What’s more, God raised him from the dead (Mt 28; Mk 15; Lk 24; Jn 20; 1 Cor 15). The theme remains the same: deliverance only comes God’s way, not man’s way.

If you want to witness the bloody contrast between the two ways, witness our daily headlines. What will it take? Will we look, in repentance and faith, to God incarnate who came for sinners? Whose way? There is only one way, but there is, in fact, a way, and his name is Jesus.


     It is tempting to cloak doubting God’s providence as world-weariness, by saying (maybe just to oneself), “That’s just where the world is today.” But one would fail to tell the whole truth, in saying that. World-weariness is, for the Christian, sin. Why? It is sin because it’s failing to trust God amidst cultural darkness and rot. Christian pilgrims are commanded to trust God with all of oneself (cf. Dt 6:5; Ps 73:24-28; Pr 3:5-6).

     Perhaps you’re like I—sinfully tempted to despair over the state of the world. In the world of the political Left, one is taught to view “progress” as abortion on demand, state-sanctioned sodomy, lesbianism, identity being what one feels like on a given day, the denial of others’ rights if they conflict with an all-powerful State, and forced distribution of one’s resources via taxing him/her into poverty–but calling it “fairness.”

      On the political Right, one is taught “progress” would be seen if the U.S. would reintroduce plaques of the Ten Commandments into its government schools. If they opened with prayer in government schools, then, surely, adolescents would not graduate from high school barely literate. At least they’d be well-behaved, right? And let us not forget blind patriotism for one’s nation; God, after all, must be American at heart, right?

     World-weariness comes from disbelieving the providence of God. However, God transcends our cultural rot. He both exalts and humbles nations—whether Egypt, Israel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Babylon, or America. Nebuchadnezzar was humiliated, and it was of God (cf. Dan 4:28-37).

     Let us not despair, Christian pilgrims. The postlapsarian world has always been rotten and sin-soaked. God drowned all but eight people in Noah’s generation, because man’s heart was rotten. Rottenness/sin is not new. What is amazing, what is cause for hope, what is historical, is that God raises corpses to life. Lazarus exited his tomb at the word of Christ; the perishing put on the imperishable; and weak self-pitying sinners are restored by virtue of the firstfruits of the resurrected Christ—the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).

     When Chesterton was asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” he wrote these profound words, “I am.” Exactly. Long before I lament the evil “out there,” I’d do well to remember the evil within. Therein lies the seedbed of the world’s evil.