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In the Absence of God: a new novel by retired Dallastown teacher, Richard Cleary

There are so many kinds of novels, with such different qualities and styles of writing that it hard for me, without a lot qualifications and hedging of bets, to heartily recommend many.  There are many we love, lots that are obviously worthy, and we love reading the many reviews that are available of the latest and best.  For instance, we, like many, are waiting eagerly for the soon to be published next novel of Tom Wolfe, Back To Blood (Little, Brown; $30.00), his first since the much-discussed I Am Charlotte Simmons over a decade ago. 

Some novels are written for the sheer art of it, and we read them for the play of words, the interesting characters, the intricate plot; insight might be gleaned along the way, but that is certainly not front and center.  For serious art, of course, a message ought not be didactic; Calvin Seerveld, in books such as his quirky but seminal A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Dordt College Press; $15.00), insists that the norm for art in God's world is allusiveness. That is, the best artists allude, they suggest, they evoke.  "Tell it slant," Emily Dickinson said.  Yes, yes.  Religious painters, musicians, script-writers and novelists have too often taken the easy way out, preaching in their stories, with predictable trajectories, sentimental conversions, and happy endings. These have not endured or been taken seriously, unless they are particularly unique, like say, the hugely popular parable about suffering, The Shack.  Not incredibly well written, and a bit overly allegorical, it still worked for many, and did what a good story can do.  We look forward to William Young's next novel, due in November, to be called Cross Roads (Hachette Publishing; $24.99.) So, there are more literary novels which are suggestive, at best, and there are some that are more didactic, knowingly.  They tell a story but they are created to bring home a point.

A very good friend of mine, Mr. Richard L. Cleary, a retired Dallastown high school teacher (the head of the science department) who currently teaches introduction to philosophy classes in three different colleges,  recently wrote a novel and it stands between the genres; I doubt if he would mind me saying it isn't great, high art; and I suspect he'd admit readily that he wrote it as somewhat of a parable.  A born teacher, he loves to explain and teach, to invite conversation and challenge others to consider new views.  He blogs (often about the limits of naturalism as a worldview and how the latest in scientific research erodes the old-school Darwinian orthodoxies that the universe evolved from nothing, by sheer chance.)  And so, when Cleary decided to do a novel---his second, actually---he picked up the pen not just to entertain with a curious plot and engaging characters, but as a tool to teach.  His story was a device.  And I think it works well-it's a great idea which forms a good story which illustrates and explores important questions, questions of the utmost importance for us all.

Icleary.JPGf the title When God is Absent (Xulon Press; $24.95) sounds a bit like some heavy philosophical study, it is because this novel is, at its heart, an extended riff on a few very basic philosophical assumptions.  That authors like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky are cited by the characters, that the college professors and students that inhabit this story read Dawkins and C.S. Lewis, should, therefore, come as no surprise.  This is an intellectual novel, a book about worldviews and ways of life. Some of the dialogue---over coffee, in the classroom, between friends and among enemies---are quite deep.  The characters are trying to figure out what they believe (well, some of the characters are, at least) and how to explain their convictions, their doubts and concerns, to others.  In the course of the novel there are realistic conversations among college professors and students about the truth claims that they hold, offered in snippets at parties, in college dorms or in professors offices.  Some of these feel natural, complete with private jokes and teasing, the way friends do.  Occasionally, one or another of the characters may be a bit long-winded (as some college professors are prone to be, after all.)  Through it all, or at least through most of it, readers are drawn to the characters and their development and their lives.  We are pulled right along, listening in, and learning a lot, along with the characters themselves.

So, no, this isn't a quick bit of mindless entertainment, but - happily -- it is quite entertaining.  There are colorful characters, true-to-life plot lines, drama, romance, sports (Cleary was a football coach, too, so the athletic scenes of locker-rooms and game films and bus-rides to away games and inter-racial comaraderie and tensions on the teams are realistic and believable.)  And there is violence.  Did I mention this is a tensely wrought, suspenseful crime story?  I don't think Dick was being intentionally commercial (he just isn't that kind of a schemer and has too much stubborn integrity to allow anything to alter his vision) but as a bookseller, I can say that, as popular novels go, this truly has something for everyone.

In the Absence of God travels some of the same territory---the search for meaning and values on the modern college campus---as the aforementioned Tom Wolfe. (I know Dick was a serious fan of Charlotte Simmons for how it so artfully exposed the emptiness of the secularizing milieu of the Ivy League campus) But In the Absence... includes more intellectual repartee and includes more crime scenes that did the genteel Wolfe.  At one point, I called it Karamazov meets CSI Special Victims Unit.  Yes, there is some mayhem and  dramatic action, but there are mostly episodes of of pondering, characters involved in sincere philosophic searching; the heavier scenes from Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors come to mind -- if it were set among earnest football players and professors prone to honest ruminations, on a  small East Coast liberal arts college.

The plot of In the Absence of God is fairly simple to tell, but the long conversations and the numerous sub-plots are many, so I don't want to summarize it too briefly.  In a nutshell, the plot revolves around several college professors and their generally friendly intellectual debates and a handful of students that are struggling to determine which basic philosophical starting points are true.  Cleary's thesis, comes up posed as a question over and over: can we truly say anything is actually wrong/immoral if there is no God?  At a garden party near the end of the book, some free thinkers take exception to what they've heard of Dr. Peterson's view, and attack him rudely for daring to believe that atheists cannot be moral.  Of course, Peterson has never said this---even in a novel, that would be outrageously dumb. Peterson's position is not that atheists cannot be good, since they obviously can be, but that there is no intellectual basis for saying something is good, no coherent foundation for ethics or morals, no way to really say that something is right or wrong.  That is, there cannot be, if there is no universal right or wrong that transcends personal taste or social convention, which there cannot be if there is no God.  In a recent talk, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias reported that in a conversation where a cultural relativist was saying that there really isn't any real truth, that every culture has its own truth, Ravi, retorted that, indeed, he knows of people who esteem and welcome strangers, and knows people who kill and eat them. "Do you have a preference?" he inquired of his incredulous relativist. Of course, none of us prefer to be eaten.  But whose to say what is wrong?  Is there a God who is there and has this God somehow spoken?

That Ravi story could have appeared in this book.  It is the kind of debate that the characters in In the Absence of God  just naturally take up. The book recounts these kinds of discussions, page and pages worth.  If you like books about apologetics, or like to listen in to feisty debates, this book will thrill you.  Cleary has himself entertained many a dialogue like this - the ones in the novel that are interesting and cordial, and the ones in the novel that are rude and unsatisfying. There is a sense that these discussions in the novel are offered firstly to move the plot along----you can see one character slowly unpacking his own baggage as his father dies, and as he struggles with the logic of a student who insists that if he does not believe in God then there is no basis for saying much about meaning or truth or ethics.  The kind and thoughtful professor surely doesn't want to descend to the nihilism of his brutish student, but he realizes that there is weight to the logic of this view.  Does he have any basis for the claims he makes, the life he lives?  How does he live out in his own life the philosophically viewpoints he professes in the classroom?  Should one be expected to actually live by the worldview one claims to believe?   

However, this novel is more than a bunch of arguments, retorts back and forth. (Think of the way Brian McLaren's first novel of his "New Kind of Christian" trilogy devolved into a set of email exchanges back and forth between the protagonists; they were certainly interesting enough, but the plot sort of petered out as they two characters just wrote missives back and forth.  The dialogue became more connected to the characters and the plot in the second two of that series, by the way, which are well worth reading as novels that raise certain theological questions.) Cleary has given us plenty of dialogue, but also characters, plot, and well-described settings.

In the Absence of God contains episodes that are quite believable for anyone who has worked in higher education: the Christian prof, a biologist that is generally liked in his department, comes to blows with his department chair.  There is a debate sponsored by the political science department about U.S. foreign policy and the left-wing perspective gets much more voice in an imbalanced panel - what a show that was, and what a good conversation some of them had afterwards.  There is a sub-plot about interracial dating, a sub-plot about middle-aged professors caring for their aging parents (which I found very, very moving.) And there are some exciting football games, described without too much detail, but offering enough sports coverage to qualify as a bit of a novel for sports fans.  One might say that it is something like Friday Night Lights  where the action on the field is interesting but not central.  The funny chatter between the team-mates and the goofy theory of communal bio-rhythms of the coach give this part of the book color and interest even if it isn't central.

I am not a fan of books about true crime and I rarely read detective fiction. I love J. Mark Bertrand for his mature writing and gritty approach in his Roland March trilogy (Baker; $14.99 each) which may be the best crime fiction published by any Christian publishing house.  I know Bertrand has thought deeply about a coherent worldview -- he wrote the excellent (Re)Thinking Worldview: Learning to Live,Think, and Speak in This World (Crossway; $16.95.)  His Roland March trilogy is a must-read if you like crime fiction, if you watch shows like The Wire or read hard-boiled detective stories.

Dick Cleary's In the Absence of God isn't primarily a who-dunnit nor is it gratuitous in describing the violence of rape or murder.  It could be said he was too demur, that his own concerns about the coarsening of pop culture kept him from being too tough.  But there is mayhem, and it is a very important part of the story.  It had my heart racing when I read an early draft of the manuscript a while back and it kept me turning pages quickly as I read it again in book form.  It is an important part of the story and makes certain chapters of the book truly page-turners, and, as you might guess, becomes a vital foil for the fundamental project of the book: on what basis can we say that human cruelty is wrong, and how does the worldview of secular naturalism give account for the human feeling that certain vile deeds are truly and without qualification wrong? And, get this (as it is crucially important, and I believe will become even more important in the decades to come): what happens when a culture becomes unmoored from Judeo-Christian truths, and we are left to live out the implications of a relativistic worldview? How do we determine what is right or wrong? On what basis can we denounce anything, from adults having sex with children to governments using torture, from abortion to cheating, from personal dishonesty to industrial polluting --- how do we persuade anyone that anything is or isn't wrong (let alone is or isn't true?)  Is Dostoevsky right that without God, everything is permissible?

Allow me to warn devotees of literary fiction that this book is both thought-provoking and yet may be just provoking at times.  In the thick of a several page dialogue you may want to jump in---but what about this?  Why doesn't he ask about that?  How can the conversation partners not move the conversation in this direction, or move towards that questions?  Listening in on or overhearing a debate is just or like that, of course, so it isn't surprising that in the book not every discourse---good friends chatting over coffee, teachers leading a conversation in a classroom, a controversial symposium in the college lecture hall, lovers whispering big questions about their future--will  be completely satisfying for every reader.  Or at least they were not for me.  There were certain debates or exchanges that seemed to me to driven by Cleary's desire to make the point, so may not have sounded fully natural. Would college professors really talk like that to one another, so very astute about every detail of this or that philosophical position? Was some of the dialogue a bit wooden?  Sure. But there were plenty of times when the conversation partners said dumb stuff, when they joked, when they tripped up their words, and those have the better ring of truth.  Whether I fully appreciated the language and philosophical reasoning of each debate, I kept reading, soon smiling as I realized -- oh yeah, I've had conversations just like this. In fact, I've had them with Dick himself!  If you like to argue with friends about theology or politics or art or philosophy, well, you've been there.  You'll get a kick of this for sure.

It may be that the voice of the narrator of the book is a bit stiff.  I don't know if any college students have "retired" to their rooms in the last fifty years.  I am not sure if there are many college professors who have described their office suite as "copious."  Cleary has this thing for good vocabulary, and I have chided him in conversations and in email exchanges: who talks like this?  Well, he does. And he ain't gonna change his ways to pander to the limited vocabulary of his readers. That doesn't mean the book is unaccessible. It just makes it occasionally quirky.  I think that is part of the fun, actually, that a few of these characters are, well, quite interesting.  It makes for a good story, and makes it unique.  The tone isn't hip or ironic or bawdy or funny.  It is dignified and earnest, serious, even when the characters are fooling around. I am not sure of an author's voice I can compare it to, but it isn't Jonathan Franzen, let alone Dave Eggers or Steve Almond, if you get my drift.  If they make it into a movie, there won't be any goofy "existential detectives" running around.  It is an enjoyable story, and the characters are realistic, with boyfriend/girlfriend issues, fears and hopes and the stuff college students and teachers face.  It is straightforward, earnest, written to make a point.

In the Absence of God is an enjoyable way into one of the biggest issues in the life of anycleary.JPG person: is there a God and how then shall we live?  Does theism offer a basis for lasting values and meaning, and what happens if we abandon those values for Western style atheism or secular materialism?  You will learn a bit about Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Dawkins and you will feel the weight of the arguments of Nietzsche and Camus.  You will learn how to follow interesting discussions and you will smile at the behind the scenes stuff of typical college campuses---the wonderful teachers, and the petty ones, the idealistic youth, and the distressed ones, the office politics and the office romances.  You will cringe as you hear what some people think and you will feel like you've been punched in the gut when you hear what some people actually say and what some actually do.  You might think the book is too didactic, but, again, that is the genre it is.  You may not have the good fortune of studying with a clear-headed, though-minded conservative theist like Professor Cleary in the real world, but you can learn much from his years of pondering and writing by taking up this story.  Reading In The Absence of God is an interesting and profitable way into an essential core of the many debates in philosophy: is there a God and does it matter?  If you work through this book you will be better prepared to think about that, and much, much more.

On a personal note, it is a true delight to have one of our most regular and faithful customers (for three decades!) publish a novel.  I have had more long and rewarding and vexxing conversations with Dick Cleary than I have with maybe any person alive. That he puts up with my questions, emails, and poking little debates is to his credit, as he is gracious and thoughtful with me. We here at the bookstore have appreciated and admired him for years.  We think you may like this novel, and we think you should grapple with the questions facing the characters in the book.  We happily recommend it.  Congrats to Cleary; thanks for putting these philosophical questions into the form of a story.   May the book cause many to think more deeply, to ponder the biggest questions of life, and learn how to engage in meaningful conversations with others.  

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