DG MARTIN COLUMN: Finding a compass on a Christ-haunted landscape

Published 10:27 am Thursday, September 10, 2020

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Are they really people of faith?

Some voters are asking that question about their presidential candidates, wondering where their moral compasses might be and if they have one at all.

D.G. Martin

And it’s not just our political candidates I wondered about. I’m also thinking about all of us.

Is religion being wiped out of our daily lives?

In the South, especially, our books were traditionally filled with religious themes.

Books such as “The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction” (1994) by Susan Ketchin reminded us of Georgia author Flannery O’Connor’s remarks, “By and large, people in the South still conceive of humanity in theological terms. While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

Maybe things have changed and our literature may no longer reflect a Christ-centered or a Christ-haunted landscape.

I began to wonder if books being featured on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” reflect the current religious landscape of our region?

Several books featured this season deal upfront with important religious issues. For instance, Bart Ehrman’s “Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife” deals with one of every religion’s important question: What happens to us when we die?

Jodi Magness’s “Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth” gives Jews and Christians a look at the complicated times in the Holy Land when King Herod, Jesus, and the Roman occupiers were making history.

Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, “The Book of Longings,” is a fictional account of a woman who married Jesus. Although set in a distant place and time, the struggles of the central character to accommodate her religious beliefs to oppressive and dangerous times is relevant to today.

In “The Antidote for Everything” by Charlotte’s Kimmery Martin, doctors fight efforts in a hospital and medical group owned by a conservative religious church to get rid of gay and transgender patients.

In Lee Smith’s “Blue Marlin,” the young teenaged girl who is the lead character explores her growing and changing faith. She tries to make a deal with God in which she will do a good deed each day if he will bring her parents back together.

These books and others that Bookwatch will feature have religious connections, but in a surprise for me the South’s Christ-haunted landscape shows up most vividly in books by two popular writers of legal thrillers.

Cullen Post, the narrator and main character in John Grisham’s “The Guardians,” is a failed lawyer who found that “God was knocking at my door.” After seminary, he made his way to Guardian Ministries, which works to exonerate innocent prisoners. Its founder, Vicki Gourley, “is a devout Christian who considers her work to be derived straight from the Gospels. Jesus said to remember the prisoners. She works fifteen hours a day trying to free the innocent.”

In “The Substitution Order” by Martin Clark, the troubled lead character is Kevin Moore, a disbarred lawyer fighting more criminal charges and recovering from a stroke. He is confined at his rich cousin’s rural Virginia home when he has two visitors. First comes Lilly Heath, his nurse who helped with his rehab after his stroke. Then his neighbor, Melvin Grimes, pastor of the New Temple and Harvest Church, brings a bag of fresh vegetables and inflammatory conservative religious tracts.

Lilly explodes, “Your preacher friend’s a hateful bigot. And you tolerate him, take his gifts and molly-coddle him.”

She continues, “He’s a mean-spirited, selfish, incurious hick who worships at the firearms altar — lovely NRA sticker on his truck — and hates everyone and everything that’s not exactly like he is.”

Lilly also has strong religious views, 180 degrees different from Rev. Grimes, but still fitting on the Christ-haunted landscape.

These books, especially the last two, show us that strong religious views can still provide a moral compass even on today’s complicated haunted landscape.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.