BOOK REVIEW: The Great Good Thing
If you handed me a book filled with Stephen King’s religious musings or a memoir of Jerry Seinfeld’s childhood in Massapequa, I would probably say “pass.” Don’t get me wrong—I love a good thriller novel. I also enjoy listening to talented comedians. But, I see no necessary correlation between a person’s ability to entertain others and their philosophical or religious depth. Why should I prefer a writer’s life-philosophy to that of a skilled carpenter or florist? I wouldn’t, necessarily.
Andrew Klavan is another story. In addition to being a skilled thriller writer and comedian, Andrew Klavan has a deep, analytical mind that is worth spending time getting to know. His fiction is interesting in the way Tolkien’s or Lewis’s fiction is interesting—not only for the entertainment value, but also for the depth with which important religious ideas are being explored. His comedy is worth listening to not only for the laughs, but also for its poignant cultural commentary.
Comedians often brag about the difficulty of their craft, but it is much harder to be a successful prophet than a good jester. A jester can always entertain the King by flattering his opinions and caricaturing his enemies. The prophet, however, must get the Sovereign to see something that he doesn’t want to see. It was no easy task for Nathan to get King David to see his own sin that he had committed against Bathsheba's husband. One misstep could have had Nathan thrown in jail, or worse, killed.
These days, there is no king. It is The People who are sovereign. Thus, the job of modern comedians is typically to flatter the masses and justify their biases. But, not Klavan. Klavan attempts the nearly impossible: to get the Sovereign to laugh at himself. In other words, Klavan plays the role of both prophet and jester—critiquing the biases and blind spots of The People, but doing so in a way that manages to keep them entertained. That takes a lot of insight. And Skill.
The Great Good Thing is the one book where Andrew Klavan takes off his intellectual armor and lays bare his underlying philosophy. The book is not merely an autobiography. The personal anecdotes Klavan chooses to describe in detail are not disconnected events, but carefully selected milestones guiding the reader through the logic of his intellectual journey to faith. Every step on the journey is meticulously analyzed, all the way back to the beginning of his intellectual life—a young boy, unable to comprehend why he finds himself escaping from his comfortable suburban life into the realm of imagination.
Klavan’s memoir is not for those who are happy to go through life accepting the culture’s premises as their own. People like that should probably read Klavan’s fiction and listen to his comedy, and possibly come back to this book later in their own intellectual journey. This book is for renegades—those who have spent most of their lives questioning every ideology the culture has offered them. Such souls will find in Klavan an intellectual companion who is willing to follow ideas to their conclusions, however uncomfortable those conclusions might be.
How can you know if you’re an intellectual renegade who is ready to dive into The Great Good Thing? Well, first, imagine someone saying to you, “you’re no renegade; you’re a conformist!” Would such a thing offend you? If so, you’re not ready. Getting offended indicates that you are merely wishing to conform to a socially acceptable “renegade” image. A true renegade is one who, when the crowd chants “everyone is unique!”, sits quietly and thinks to himself, “perhaps I’m not so unique after all.”
Klavan’s memoir is also a timely contribution to American political discourse. Our cultural moment is defined by a large-scale shift among masculinity-inclined secularists away from the political Left and toward the political Right. Like Klavan, many lost souls find themselves dabbling in Zen mysticism, retreating into cynical atheism, or searching in vain for an elusive authenticity in “experience” or primitive religions. These are children of the West searching for their spiritual mother. And it is important that they find her. The alternative forms of masculinity offered to them by a secular culture and bolstered by Darwinian conceptions of reality can be truly “toxic.”
Andrew Klavan spent an entire writing career charting a course away from feminist egalitarianism toward the Christian tradition of chivalrous manhood. On this journey, Klavan claims that he only ever took one step of faith:
“In the chain of reasoning that took me finally to Christ, accepting this one axiom—that some actions are morally better than others—is the only truly non-logical leap of faith I ever made. Hardly a leap, really. Barely even a step.”
But there is more to it than that. Beyond mere belief in the reality of good and evil lies an existential choice regarding the nature of goodness. Klavan made his choice at the moment of the birth of his daughter, Faith. It was here that he settled on what spiritual reality was really like. Love was that reality—the love he had both for his daughter and his wife. It was a self-emptying love. Agape love. Christian love. It was the kind of love that made medieval knights slay dragons with a lady's kerchief tied to their helmets. And, whatever cynical moderns might say, this love is real.