Books: Congo Dawn

If I had to describe Congo Dawn in one word it would be this: gripping.

I cared about the characters, their situations were completely believable, and as the conflict moved toward a climax my heart was beating faster out of concern about how things would turn out. Considering both the setting (war-torn Congo) and the theme of God bringing good out of suffering, I could hardly feel confident that the author would arrange for all the good guys to make it through alive.

I have read a number of missionary biographies (as a teenager I planned on becoming a missionary myself), but I’m not sure any were of missionaries in Africa. I remember reading about missionaries in South America, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and the Far East. I have read some novels set in Africa, but not in the Congo, that I can remember.

As I read, though, I was reminded of various articles I have read over the past few decades about the violence in parts of Africa. The boys forced to become soldiers and seeking escape through drugs from the horrors they witness – and commit. The corrupt leaders, who promise a better life but pocket the money and food meant for the starving masses. And the Western democracies that intend to help but sometimes make things worse.

I haven’t read as much about the role of U.S. and western European corporations in exploiting the African people and their land, but it isn’t all that hard to believe. The villain in this novel is a well-respected businessman, someone who didn’t start out to do evil but let financial considerations take precedence over ethics. And people who work for him think they are helping the African people, unaware of what is really going on.

The light in the middle of all this darkness comes from people with faith in Christ, the Light of the World (Yesu, nuru ya ulimwengu in Swahili – a song beginning with those words is apparently a favorite among the Congolese). Missionaries to that region centuries ago left a legacy of strong faith that continues to this day, despite all the suffering.

It is this faith in the midst of suffering that Robin (the main character) does not understand. It makes her angry – mostly at God, for allowing so much suffering. One chapter, in the latter part of the book, discusses the whole issue at length. It is one place with the fast-moving story slows down quite a bit. I think the issue is well-presented, but I wonder if some readers will be too impatient to read it carefully and absorb the deep ideas on a difficult subject.

There is sometimes discussion, among people who care about Christian fiction either as readers or writers, about how much the writer should try to present Christian truth in an explicit manner, versus just telling a good story that gets the reader to think and become more open to another perspective. There is so much “preachy” Christian fiction out there that I tend to lean toward preferring the other approach.

But I’m sure I’m not the only reader who does enjoy discussions of ideas, especially on important matters like faith and God. I can be at least as absorbed in a lengthy exposition of theology as a suspenseful plot. Perhaps more so, because ideas – both good and bad ones – give me insight into how other people think, if not always into “how life really works.”

One of my favorite set of books is Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series. So much time is spent on discussions of church practice and theology that I was surprised to discover how many other people like them as much as I do. Of course, it helps that in this example, each of the six books in the series presents a different approach to the Christian faith. It’s clear that the reader is invited to consider different views rather than accept any particular one. If I ever wrote a novel I would want to present ideas that way.

Another place where Congo Dawn may be perceived as slow is at the beginning. I read one review that found it slow to get started, taking too long to go through background information about Africa – history, politics, war, and natural resources coveted by various groups. Since I am very interested in that kind of information, I didn’t find it slow at all.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how my own difficulties seem so small in comparison with what these people have to undergo. Yet their faith shines so strong. Does having an easier life make it harder to have a vibrant faith?

I also notice how people in the novel – as in so many Christian books – seem to find such peace once they turn things over to God. I do, sometimes, but then the anxiety comes back. Again and again. And I know I’m not alone in that experience.

I suppose a novel that featured a main character like me would probably not make it as a “Christian” novel. When I was younger I used to hope for some kind of transformative experience that would settle my doubts once and for all and give me an unshakable trust in God. Sometimes I wished I could discover that I was not saved after all, because it would explain my spiritual difficulties, and then I could get saved and have the kind of faith I wished I had.

instead, my faith turns out to be more a matter of trying to trust God despite the doubts, reminding myself to bring my anxieties to God even though whatever peace I find seems to be so short-lived. Perhaps I would find it reassuring to find a character like that in a novel. But I doubt the typical readers of Christian fiction would appreciate it – unless the character were used as a cautionary lesson of what not to be like.

Perhaps that is a large part of why I don’t read more “Christian fiction.” But this was one Christian novel I definitely enjoyed, and an author I will consider reading again. I may not end up with the kind of faith and peace and joy I see displayed by characters in this novel, but I can certainly hope to become more like them.

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