We interviewed Craig J. Hazen, Editor of Philosophia Christi, about his new book Five Sacred Crossings: A Novel Approach to a Reasonable Faith (Harvest House, 2008). If you are in the Southern California area, Biola University is sponsoring a “Five Sacred Crossings” event on May 8th at 7:30 pm. Register here.
How would you characterize Five Sacred Crossings?
That’s pretty straight forward. Five Sacred Crossings is a novel, pure and simple. The best way to capture the genre is to compare it to Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a fast-paced, page turning mystery novel that packed into its center is some teaching about the origins of Christianity. Unfortunately, Dan Brown bought an ugly package of historical gossip and unfounded nonsense as the “suppressed truth” he was hoping to reveal to the world. But what better way to communicate such things than for a couple of years to have every other person on a given airliner reading about it! Dan Brown had the wrong message, but the right vehicle to disseminate it.
What I attempted to do was similar except that I packed into the core of the mystery novel key elements of the Christian worldview that make Christianity attractive and grounded in knowledge.
A funny side point is that the knowledgeable folks at Harvest House decided to position Five Sacred Crossings as a book of apologetics and not as a novel because the Christian fiction genre is so over saturated right now. They wanted my new book not to be lost in that category. Hence, they helped come up with a subtitle “A Novel Approach to Reasonable Faith.” So I don’t know where you will find Five Sacred Crossings in the bookstore – in the apologetics/religion section, or in the fiction section.
Without giving too much away, can you say what the book is about?
The book is about a few weeks in the life of a college professor and brilliant natural linguist named Michael Jernigan who takes a college class through some teachings called “the five crossings” that he learned about in the Cambodian mountains as a young soldier in the Vietnam War. Through these teachings, and raucous discussion among a group of very diverse students, the class learns how the wisest of people approach life’s biggest questions. The book is punctuated by an intense story about an Indonesian terror cell in the college town. I certainly won’t tell you how it ends, but I’ve been stunned by the fact that about a dozen grown men (not to mention the scores of women) have contacted me to tell me they couldn’t put it down and were in tears when they finished it.
Why did you write it?
It seems to me that Christian philosophers, apologetics, and theologians in our generation have done some extraordinary work in re-establishing the intellectual credibility and the integrity of the Christian worldview in a secular and pluralistic age. What we haven’t done, though, is find new ways to communicate these great truths to the masses who are so confused on issues of religious truth and the meaning of life. I thought I would try my hand at writing something that would appeal to people I know who would never read an apologetics textbook or a philosophy article in an attempt to engage them with clear thinking on the issues that matter most.
Who is your intended readership? And can you tell us about some of the reaction to the book?
I had certain folks in mind when I was putting the story together. Think about the millions of people who watch Oprah every day – they are open to spiritual and religious ideas, but want to connect with them first on an emotional level. They are open to thinking about the big issues if they are presented in a relevant and engaging way.
Forget about my intended readership for a moment, though. The book has been out long enough so that we know who is reading it – and it is really remarkable. Everyone you can imagine. Octogenarians, non-Christians, teenagers, women, men, people who haven’t read a novel in decades, Christians, people in the highest ranks of the federal government, major TV stars, pastors, atheist college professors, a woman from Liechtenstein, a stuntman from Brazil, an Israeli soldier, a missionary in Cambodia, and on it goes.
As an evangelical Christian, it is very exciting to receive feedback from non-Christians who are reading it and caught up in the story and the ideas presented. I’ve heard dozens of accounts from unbelievers who read the story and then contacted me or other Christian people they know. The book really throws them for a loop. They resonate with all five of the “crossings” and find the main character very attractive—but at the same time they know that these are Christian ideas being presented. It’s as if they needed to hear the big issues of the Gospel in a compelling new way. I intentionally wrote this book to break down stereotypes of Christianity and provide a fresh look at eternal truths. As one life-time agnostic told me after reading it, “we’ve got to talk about this – if this is how you look at the world it is far more rational and attractive than I have assumed.”
Why should philosophers and apologists read fiction?
Christian philosophers and apologists need to read fiction (and poetry, and listen to music, and at least occasionally watch films and TV) in order to be culturally relevant. Jesus led his revolution primarily by telling unforgettable stories that stuck with people who heard him. Humans are wired for hearing and telling stories. The great ideas that are so compelling and persuasive to high-level Christian thinkers need to become part of the mindset for people in all societal strata. Therefore we need new channels of communication to make these ideas relevant to everyone. This is a creative project of the highest order. Although philosophers and apologists may not be the ones writing the novels, screenplays, and operas that ultimately move the culture, we need to be familiar with these modes of communication and discourse if we want to see our ideas last beyond the life cycle of our latest book from a university press.
Are there fiction writers that you admire or use as your model?
No, I can’t say I used anyone as a model. Although I would recommend that anyone wanting to try their hand at what I call “didactic Christian fiction” should, for two reasons, read widely among very popular novelists whose works fill the racks at popular bookstores and airports. First, so you can see what level of discourse and style the general population finds engaging (after all, these are the people who you are seeking to influence with this kind of writing project). Second, it will encourage you because I think for the most part your reaction will be: “Oh my goodness, I can do much better than that.” You might be wrong, but it will help overcome your insecurities about shifting gears to fiction writing.
Can you tell us what it was like to write Five Sacred Crossings?
The thing I enjoyed the most was discovering myself where the story was going next. I did not have a detailed master plan before writing, so every day was a little surprise with regard to the unfolding of the narrative. I am still surprised by my own ending. Re-reading it was an experience that I certainly have never had when writing academic books and essays. I picked it up started to read somewhere in the middle and couldn’t put it down. I wrote the darn thing yet got caught up in the story myself! It was far more exciting and emotional than I remember when first writing it out.
What would you like to see happen with this book?
Of course, I would like to see it recommended by Oprah so it gets the widest possible reading! Okay, so maybe that’s not going to happen, but it’s a good dream. My book probably won’t get that kind of exposure, but I hope some other compelling, thoughtful, stereotype-breaking Christian literature does. I think this is going to be most likely if those of us in the community of Christian philosophy and apologetics interact with the Christian creative community more intentionally and intensely.
From where you observe, as the Director of a cutting-edge Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University, can you say how we – as American Evangelicals – are doing in our apologetic efforts?
How are we doing with apologetics? Not bad. There is one advantage when secular culture encroaches more and more on the Church’s turf – the Church seems to awaken to some of the important things she has neglected like the apostolic command in 1 Peter 3:15 to “be prepared always to give an answer.” By any measure the interest in clear-thinking Christianity has been on the increase. This may just be a regional phenomenon, but huge crowds come out to Biola to hear lectures and debates now that would have only attracted a handful twenty years ago. We have a long way to go, but I think significant progress has been obvious and measurable.
Our greatest weakness with regard to apologetics is that by-and-large the average Christian and pastor still thinks that knowledge and faith are non-overlapping realms of human endeavor and experience. Our greatest strength with regard to apologetics is that so many leaders and teachers in the movement model that fact and that it is not just about giving answers and winning arguments, but rather it is about living a full-orbed life in Christ.
How might Five Sacred Crossings cultivate the strengths of our apologetic efforts?
I think Five Sacred Crossings is centered on this key strength I just mentioned. The book uses arguments and persuasion, but the key characters model grace, kindness, courage, love, and sacrifice to make the arguments real and weighty. I see my colleagues in apologetics and philosophy at Biola doing this every day and it is more inspiring than just about anything you can encounter. These are men and women living the great answers to life’s questions, not just speaking them.