Andrew Klavan's Christmas Conversion

Posted: Dec 10, 2018 11:24 AM

Andrew Klavan, novelist, screenwriter, public intellectual, podcaster, and now memoirist, has given us a delightful religious autobiography entitled The Great Good Thing. The central dialectic of the book is the tension between a longing to believe in the story of the Gospels (especially the Christmas/Incarnation aspect) and his fear that he was dropping his intellectual guard and grasping for something out of psychological need.

Given his life story, this spark of doubt makes perfect sense. His literary awakening came from tough-guy crime drama novelists like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler whose protagonists are hard, cynical men (not counting the protagonist of Hammett's Thin Man stories). But Klavan also noticed that in some ways these characters were noble, even chivalrous modern Knights (albeit somewhat) errant.

In parallel with his literary development, Klavan was being emotionally riven along religious and cultural fault-lines. His family was proudly ethnically Jewish, but religiously they were barely observant and theologically unbelieving. His mother was, as he put it, a 'stone atheist' and his father was at most agnostic. Young Klavan felt an ambivalence about participating in the rituals of this culture (for instance Bar Mitzvah) when neither he nor his parents believed in any of it. He found the guilt of participation without genuine religious commitment so powerful that he threw all of his Bar Mitzvah gifts (a substantial value) away.

At the same time that he felt himself drifting away from his own tradition, He also began to feel a longing towards Christmas and its traditions, which stayed with him for decades before he gave serious intellectual attention to the Christian faith. When it came time for him to face the live possibility of conversion seriously, he felt a hesitation: Was it all just schlock, was it surrender to assimilation?

Was belief in the Christmas event, the incarnation of the Word, something which only suckers fell for, or could a Chandler or Hammett gumshoe, with his skepticism fully intact, remain true to his nose for truth and still swallow the Christian story?

It all comes down to the apparent absurdity and yet deep inner joy of Christmas. Klavan as an outsider said that he was able to look at it anew, unmarred by traumatic memories of drunken relatives or family squabbles, to see Christmas with new eyes, like fresh fallen snow. And he came to love it, as many of us have, as a moment of transcendent beauty. A beauty which transcends beauty, because it comes from a place of truth. The book tells the story of the persuasion which comes before the conversion.

Klavan felt the tension of being one notch further along than his parents on the arc from distinctiveness to assimilation. But Klavan could have continued the trek into full-blown Americanism without converting to Christianity. Instead he joined the Christian faith at a time of apparent falling social influence. If he did it for social advantage or as an outsider's coping strategy, he exhibited very bad timing. His eventual adult conversion to what is clearly an evangelical faith is hardly a surrender to the dominant culture: it is an act of counter-cultural rebellion. For a Hollywood screenwriter and respected novelist to be baptized and speak openly not just about faith, but about Christianity, and not just about Christianity, but about Christ, is not to conform but to become a double outsider. It is not surrender, but instead a taking up of the sword (no doubt a medieval broadsword) to slay the dragons of progressive authoritarianism, stingy philosophical materialism, and political correctness.

Klavan entered into the faith with his eyes fully open, aware that he was taking a step downward in social status in his world occupied by fellow novelists and screenwriters. This book will cost him. But (and maybe it's just the Christmas season talking here) I am confident that his future as a culture maker will be even greater than his past.

I sat down across a Skype line from Mr. Klavan and talked with him about many things in addition to Christmas, including the (very grinchy) alt-right, what's wrong with the Christian film industry, and the utter intellectual parochialism of coastal urban elites who not only don't know, but (even worse) don't know what they don't know. Listen to the whole thing here.

A partial transcript, editor for clarity, can be found below:

JERRY BOWYER: It's a very frank memoir. It's not just the good parts. It's not just the stuff that puts you in a good light. You seem to really want to be about the business of telling people your story. Is that something you set out to do deliberately, or is that just, you know, honest writers, you know, do honest writing? Tell me how this came to be so frank?

ANDREW KLAVAN: It is part of my philosophy of writing. I really cannot imagine why you would work in words, if not to try to convey the truth. I see people in the press all the time who seem to me to just be manipulating their readers or their listeners. I never want to do that. I just want to tell them what I see, what I experienced, and let them make up their own minds.

That said, with a memoir the one thing I did run into is not wanting to tell anybody else's truth he didn't want me to tell, not wanting to expose anybody to any kind of opprobrium or, you know, violate any secrets or anything like that. So that sometimes hemmed me in a little bit. But mostly, when I was speaking about myself I just determined I was going to get as close to the truth as I possibly could.

JERRY BOWYER: You know, one of the things that really struck me about this story, and it is a conversion story, and this was sort of shared ground for me, so it help me identify with you; it probably helps a lot of other people identify as well -- is how important Christmas was in the story of your conversion. So can you kind of lay that out a little bit. It's as though Christmas, as secular as it is in America, as sometimes schlocky as it is in America, was actually kind of the first gospel presentation to you.

ANDREW KLAVAN: Yeah, it's a funny thing because when it came to me that I had to be baptized it really presented a whole host of problems to me, not least of which was not wanting to seem to betray my Jewish heritage. Obviously, there were family issues that were going to come up. My father had once threatened to disown me if I ever converted. There were business issues. I think that being a Christian in Hollywood, where I do some screenwriting, and even in publishing, can be a very difficult place to be. And so I really questioned myself closely whether this instinct, this impulse that had come into my heart was genuine or not. And that's really what the book is: it was me exploring where this had come from.

And you know, what you do is you look at your life and say well, am I just doing this to satisfy this instinct or that instinct. And one of the questions that I asked myself is where did Jesus come from in my life. I mean, I grew up among Jews. I was never, ever taught that Jesus was special, let alone divine. And here I was essentially willing to plunk for this truth. So I started to question myself.

And the first memory I had of Jesus was at a Christmas at this woman who was, I don't know what I call her: a babysitter or a nanny. She was really part of my family; she took care of us at times when my parents were away. She always was our babysitter. And she was this very down-to-earth working class woman, an immigrant from Yugoslavia. And she was like a second mother to me.

And one year, when I was very little, I was sent to stay at her house for Christmas. And I just remember -- and I describe in this book -- this American Christmas that so many people just know because they've seen it on TV, and they've lived it, or they visited it at grandma's, but I had never seen it. And of course, it swept me away with its beauty and its festivity, and the music, and the whole thing, the cooking, especially, I guess.

And at the end of this evening I was put to bed, and I looked up, and there was this picture of Jesus on my wall. And I've seen it a million times; we've all seen it. It's a very sentimental picture of this kind of goyish Jesus staring off into space with a halo around him. And I just thought it was the creepiest things I'd ever seen. And I was scared out of my wits by it. Here I was in a strange house; it was my babysitter, but still it was a strange house. And I just thought, man, that thing is going to keep me awake all night long. And it just looked really eerie to me. But we had had such a busy day that I fell asleep anyway.

And I woke up in the morning, and the light struck this picture, and it had been transformed in the course of the night, somehow, into a picture of a kind of guardian, a very friendly, a very benevolent, and even a humorous human being looking down on me and sort of saying you thought I was scary, but here I am taking care of you all the night long.

JERRY BOWYER: Yeah, he was the night watchman for you. He was watching over you, yes.

ANDREW KLAVAN: That's right. And Christmas was always after that, it was always very important to me, but it was always important as a secular holiday. I used to tease my wife that only a Jew could really appreciate Christmas, because we didn't bring all the baggage along of having that, oh, I remember that horrible Christmas when Uncle Joe got angry and started saying racist things, or you know, my father would get drunk every Christmas. We didn't have any of that because we didn't have Christmas. So Jews could just enjoy it.

But slowly, as I started to come to Christ through other means, Christmas, of course, took on this deep, rich meaning. And as I looked back on that first experience of Jesus, that first emotional experience of Jesus, it occurred to me that maybe he was sending me a message through not only through Christmas but through the kindness and decency of my babysitter, who really was a devout Christian.

JERRY BOWYER: Well, it's interesting about the babysitter. You know there's this pattern that I've noticed in so many conversion stories. C.S. Lewis comes to mind, and Winston Churchill as well, that there is the devout Christian, kind nursemaid that plants, and then there's a period of cynicism, often there's an alienation from the parents. Lewislost his mother, and was alienated from his father. Churchill was severely emotionally neglected by his mother, and he had a very rocky relationship with his father, even before his father went insane from syphilis.

But there's that nanny figure early on, who plants a seed. And then there's a cynical period, and then that seed grows or is watered by something later, and it blooms into faith. I think the story of many great conversions have the selfless nanny as part of the backdrop to it.

ANDREW KLAVAN: You know it's interesting, that's absolutely true. And the other thing that's true is that, I feel like a dope in a way, because as I wrote this story, I could suddenly see that God and Christ had been in my story everywhere, frequently, in the person of people of faith who communicated that faith to me without ever talking about it directly. Not just my babysitter, but also random things, like a nurse who came in to help us when my wife was in labor, and her name was Christiano. And you know, Gary Carter, the baseball player, who was a devout Christian, who made a random remark during an interview which kind of transformed part of my life.

JERRY BOWYER: Sometimes you have to just play hurt.

ANDREW KLAVAN: Play in pain, yeah. Sometimes you have to play in pain. Which really kept me away from terrible thoughts of suicide during a period of terrible depression. My pal, Doug Ousley who was a priest an Episcopal priest, and yet he and I would go out frequently. He's really one of my oldest friends, and we would go out frequently and have a drink. We never talked about religion. We talk about philosophy, we talk about the world, we talk about politics, but we rarely, rarely talked about religion. And yet, he was such a powerful force in my life. And it is amazing just how obvious it all was once I wrote it down, that there were these markers set along the way, and frequently, without the word "Christ" ever being mentioned.

JERRY BOWYER: Yeah, you never talked about religion, and yet, in some sense you never, ever stopped talking about religion.

ANDREW KLAVAN: That's right. Once you see it, it's always there. Once you catch on that it's always about God, that everything is always about God, it's hard to unsee that.

JERRY BOWYER: I kind of want to talk about Christmas more, but I also want to talk about literature.

Let's just stick with Christmas for a moment, because you made a good point about the Jewish experience and Christmas. Was it Garrison Keillor who lashed out at I think it was Irving Berlin for writing Christmas music. I think he said something to the effect of hey, you're not even Christians; that's ours. Don't take that away from us. But there's something about those early waves of Jewish immigration which are coming from the old world, frequently people with a generally secular outlook, but with, a Jewish lineage, that just really connected with the Christmas story.

Now, you're a generation or two after that, but it's not a completely different experience. There's something about an American Christmas that seems to have been a source of joy and engagement for the Jewish imagination. Or is that my imagination that's seeing that?

ANDREW KLAVAN: It's not. And I'll tell you the word "joy" is key here, because Garrison Keillor gets it exactly wrong. Frequently, when people from the outside write about something that is beautiful or that they love but they don't participate in, like Irving Berlin writing about Christmas, you capture this wistful longing. I mean think about Berlin's "White Christmas". And think about the longing and the nostalgia, which was exactly C.S. Lewis' definition of joy.


ANDREW KLAVAN: His definition of joy was this kind of yearning, longing for something we knew, but couldn't quite grasp, couldn't quite see it in our life. And one of his proofs of God was that we're not given a hunger for things that don't exist.

And I think that what Jewish songwriters really did communicate, and sometimes, Jewish storytellers did communicate, was this longing that comes along with the knowledge of God living in this fallen world, living in this world where, as the Bible tells us, no one sees God.

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