I have always had a certain ambivalence towards explicitly Christian culture whether it be music or literature or art. I find much of it forced and cheesy; lacking depth or layers. Don’t get me wrong it isn’t the underlying message I reject or feel odd about, I enjoy Christian music in certain settings for example. Although, I have always been a bit of an classicist when it comes to music in church, preferring hymns and avoiding “Christian Rock” in worship services. I also enjoy Christian authors like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. I enjoy works that explore issues like faith and belief but I have trouble in that middle ground between worship and allegory – something that is explicitly Christian but entertainment too.
All of this was in the in the back of my mind when I came across an interesting novel that looked to combine Christian themes with an entertaining story. Flabbergasted is the debut novel of Ray Blackston. It is the story of Jay Jarvis a single investment broker relocated to South Carolina. Jay asks his realtor what singles do for fun in Greenville South Carolina. Her response: church. Not being shy he heads to North Hills Presbyterian Church and as a result ends up involved in the singles group there. In short order Jay signs up for a weekend trip to the beach and meets someone who will turn his life upside down. I won’t spoil the ending for those who want to read the book, but it involves a missionary and a trip to South America.
There are many ways in which I can relate to this book. I was raised in a Christian family and I have attended Church almost all my life. I have been involved in dozens of church trips and short-term missions; and in fact recently took a vacation with my church to the Carolina shore. On the other hand I have not experienced being single as a full-fledged adult or at least not in the way Jay does. I started dating my wife when I was senior in high school and she was a sophomore. I never really had any other serious long-term relationships and we have been married for nine years.
All that being said, Flabbergasted is an entertaining, if light-hearted, story. It is easy to like and sympathise with Jay. He is likable, sincere, and yet irreverent and confident. He doesn’t approach church with any strong dispositions or biases. He makes friends easily and enjoys their company; especially the intriguing Allie – a missionary on vacation. Given his disposition and his lack of friends in his new town, Jay falls into hanging out with the men from the church singles group. The supporting characters are interesting and unique enough to seem real and provide a good backdrop for Jay’s search for deeper meaning in life.
The farther you move into the book the more explicit this search becomes. Jay’s search for meaning and his search for a meaningful relationship with someone of the opposite sex follow parallel tracks. A freak accident on a boat provides the turning point. A hospital visit by a black Baptist preacher leads Jay to accept the gospel and that same preacher plants the seed that leads him to question his profession or calling in life. From this point on the story leads towards a joining of Jay’s relationship and career decisions.
Now for the inevitable criticisms. As I said, Flabbergasted is a fun and easy read, perfect for the beach (much of the book is set at the beach). But it left me a little flat. It was a little to one-dimensional. Jay is a likable fellow and all, but his fears and weaknesses seem rather to easily overcome. The way he just ends up hanging out with all these Christian singles and drawn into church seems convenient and/or simplistic. None of the characters seem to wrestle with anything deep or profound. Even the tension between Jay’s job as an investment broker and Allie’s calling as a missionary seems flat; as if life presents so stark a choice to everyone: wealthy investment broker or dirt poor missionary. Allie’s life as a missionary is presented with rose-colored glasses. Sure she is out in the middle of nowhere without TV, email, and hot water (until Jay manages to buy and install a water heater) but little is said about the pressure and stress such a spiritual responsibility can entail. No discussion of loneliness or doubt. Jay’s encounter with a homeless man in New York seems forced. This is the danger of explicitly Christian novels they can avoid the dark side of issues. Despite being about adult singles, the issue of sex is never even hinted at except once when the men’s group confesses “impure thoughts” or when Allie and Jay fall asleep on the beach and Allie worries about what others will think. I appreciate the wholesome perspective, and probably prefer it to most secular novels where an obsession about sex pervades everything, but shouldn’t there at least be some tension involved with adults dating nowadays? Despite touching on dating advice and the pressure to find someone, the book rarely touches on whether Church should be just another place to find a date.
That being said, Flabbergasted is an interesting read and a family friendly one at that. It is refreshing to read a book that doesn’t treat becoming a Christian like joining a weird cult or as a fig leaf for a warped psyche. Given the bias and antagonism that much of our culture has towards faith Blackston provides a nice counter-balance. He paints a picture of real people living real lives yet doing it in within the context of church and faith. Jay’s path to faith may seem a little trite at times but it is honest and sincere. Not everyone needs to go through a “dark night of the soul” to come to faith in Christ.
So, whether you enjoy books set at the beach or you need a book to take to the beach, Flabbergasted is an enjoyable, light-hearted, and wholesome read.