There are some books that become more than just leisure reads because they open internal dialogue as well as create space for external dialogue. Silas House’s newest novel Southernmost does just that. The novel centers around a country preacher whose estranged brother is openly gay. After a huge flood covers his community, religious people in the community begin to think there is a connection between the legalization of gay marriage and the flood. There is great turmoil within the main character’s church when he speaks out openly in favor of loving the gay couple who have begun attending their church.
As always, House’s writing style is incredible. He creates scenes that are crystal clear by vividly describing the scenario. The plot is developed in such a way that the reader can feel the turmoil within and around the characters, much the way the opening paragraphs describe the flood waters rising. Hints to the culture arise through references to songs, poems, and news create a multi-sensory reading experience. For its literary quality alone, it’s a good book.
The parts that created the most turmoil in me were the beliefs expressed within the book. Now I am a reader who is okay with reading viewpoints that contradict my own, but when a writer expresses clearly controversial topics, it is good to create a space for dialogue. This book obviously expresses the belief that the gay lifestyle is acceptable and a couple of methods that churches tend to use to respond. While I do not think the gay lifestyle is pleasing to God, I can see some valid points in the book about how the church should respond to people living this lifestyle. In the book, the preacher remembers the experience his brother had coming out to his family, which eventually led to the estrangement of his brother from the family. When a gay couple comes to their house during the flood seeking shelter, he feels a conviction to help them while his wife feels strongly that sheltering them would equate with condoning their lifestyle. In this instance, I would lean more toward the preacher’s perspective. There are ways to show love to people who are living with sin, whether it be homosexuality or lying, that don’t require us to condone the sin. The church in this novel wants to throw the men out and shun them, but to me that doesn’t show the love of Christ. Jesus mingled with sinners in order to show them the forgiveness and redemption of God. As a church, we don’t have to condone their sin nor do we have to judge them; our job is to love all people in order to point them to God, the ultimate judge of souls. If we love sinners (because we must admit that we still sin even after being redeemed by Christ), we can point them toward God who can work in their hearts to bring them to righteousness better than our condemning words could ever do. For more on this topic see the book Messy Grace and my accompanying post about the book.
Another more troubling aspect of this book are the spiritual aspects presented through the character of the preacher’s son. There are several chapters entitled The Everything that show the turmoil about the son’s beliefs concerning God. At one point the boy says “Dad I believe in God, but I don’t believe in church.” At another point the book narrates, “The ocean is a mystery and so is God. They are both so big we cannot see all of them at the same time but we can catch pieces of them her and there. Justin believes God is big like the ocean. Even bigger. But lots of people don’t. They think he’s small enough to fit in a church house or an offering plate or an ancient book. He’s not, and his mind is even bigger than him.” At this point it just seems like the boy is trying to figure out who God is in relation to the religious fanatics in his church who turn away his dad for preaching a message they don’t like. At this point, I was standing okay with his turmoil, but then about halfway through the book, the boy begins to think along the lines of what I understand to be pantheism. The most telling quote that demonstrates this belief is “This is the kind of talk that would horrify his mother, but he believes God is in everything and everybody. Pieces of him. He doesn’t just mean the spirit, he means the actual chunks of God… The ocean is God but so are we all.” While God’s nature is expressed in nature and God is omnipresent, the equation does not go the other way. Nature and humans are not God. That leads to worship of things other than God, which is idolatry. For more on this, check out this very short and to the point article.
Finally, there is a part of me that wonders if there is a small commentary on the effect of broken homes. The boy only begins questioning his faith when his parents have such trouble that causes them to split. The young child watches his father question his faith and his mother cling harder to hers and tries to make sense of what he should believe. No one thinks to talk with him about what is really happening in his world, so naturally he starts to try to figure it out on his own. I’m not saying that divorce always leads to losing faith in God, but divorce definitely affects children in all different ways. In this instance, it seems to have led this small child down a path of spiritual ambiguity. If there had been someone to guide him through this process, he might have known the truth about God’s nature rather than the conclusions he came to on his own.
While I respect the writing and opinions of this book, it is not a book I would openly suggest to anyone. If you choose to read it, appreciate the literary value but be cautious of the theological impacts. Be sure to keep your eyes fixed on God while reading. It’s a good book for creating dialogue, but, if you are a believer of God, take caution in your dialogue so as to demonstrate love to those who disagree and maintain your own beliefs.