(Copyright 2016) Review by Lee Duigon
College has long been a difficult environment for Christians, and never more than now.
I knew a good Christian boy who went off to college for four years, 1967–1971, and came out a Christian in name only. The whole time he was there, he consciously resisted—or thought he was resisting—indoctrination into unbelief. But while he was resisting the obvious, heavy-handed, hard sell for secularism, it was the petty, everyday, scarcely noticeable temptations that got him in the end. He still thought he was a Christian, but he was wrong. And so, he was led into some thirty unprofitable years of wandering in a spiritual wilderness, living on scraps of egotism, cynicism, selfishness, self-worship, and bitterness.
That young man was me.
God’s grace, a blessed marriage, and a firm Christian foundation laid down in my early years by a solid Christian family, at long last brought me back. Give God the glory for that.
So I expected to empathize strongly with the hero of this story, a young Christian man who goes to college, is subjected to various temptations, and must be rescued by God’s angels, sent to the college for that very purpose. I was sure this book would speak to me.
Alas, it comes up short.
First Prepare the Ground
Heaven Breaks In is patterned after C.S. Lewis’ famous work, The Screwtape Letters. Through the medium of letters back and forth between an apprentice devil and his infernal supervisor, Screwtape tells the tale of a demonic campaign to lead a soul to perdition. Cappas gives us letters by the Archangel Michael and his angel in the field, Littleton, as they try to save young Davis Chandler from drifting away from God.
All right, that’s a good idea; and I wanted it to work. But I have to give Cappas an A for good intentions, but a D+ for execution.
I’m going to be hard on this book because I think I ought to be. Would you be satisfied with a “Christian boat,” built by a Christian boat builder, if it always leaked? Or a “Christian car,” manufactured by a Christian auto manufacturer, that couldn’t make it up a hill? Does the label “Christian” compensate for shortcomings that would be unacceptable in the same product if it were made by non-Christians? Do we allow the label “Christian” to be synonymous with “second-rate”?
As Christians we ought to face the fact that our popular culture has largely been conceded to the enemy, and has become more secular than Christian. Can anyone deny it?
This is ground that has to be won back for Christ’s Kingdom. If we are going to sow seed here, we must understand that, owing to our long neglect of it, the ground has become hard and unwelcoming—hard for our seed to take root there.
Because of the condition of the soil, Christian seed will not prosper if all it has is preachiness. The ground has to be broken up, softened, and fertilized. If we are novelists writing in the service of the Kingdom, we can’t expect our readers, long conditioned to stories that are entirely separated from the Kingdom, to be taken in by simply preaching to them. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile” (2 Cor. 12:16).
In Screwtape, C.S. Lewis used guile in the form of scintillating wit and wry humor. That book is captivating, even for non-Christian readers, because it’s so compelling in its twists of plot, so dazzling in its prose, and so much fun to read. You just can’t help enjoying it, being fascinated by it, smiling at the author’s penchant for the unexpected. And while the reader is enjoying himself, the writer is breaking, softening, and fertilizing the ground so that the message can take root. That’s why that book enjoys enduring popularity—seventy-five years in print, and still going strong.
Imitating Lewis is a fool’s errand. He was unique. The writer who wishes to follow in his footsteps must find his own voice, employ his own craftiness.
Nicholas Cappas follows C.S. Lewis in his basic approach, but his literary skills are not up to the challenge. The concept of a “reverse Screwtape Letters” is a good one, and maybe someone, someday, will succeed in bringing it to fruition.
Some Large Distractions
There are certain aspects of Heaven Breaks In which I found unfathomable. Trying to understand them proved distracting.
The college Davis goes to is a weird place that seems frozen in some time around 1958. One expects to run into Ozzie and Harriet. It bears no resemblance at all to the colleges that feature in our daily news. No crazed left-wing professors. No minority students protesting this or that. No sensitivity training for dissenters. No restrictions on free speech. No gender fluidity. For a while I thought Cappas was cleverly avoiding those obvious potholes on the road to higher education so that he could concentrate on showing the subtle influence of the ordinary minutiae of college life. But after the first hundred pages, it just seemed inexplicable. I mean, what university on the planet is like this?
Equally strange is the vast amount of spending money that Davis and all his fellow students seem to have. Whenever the mood strikes them, they just chow down at some really posh restaurants. Davis also has a thing for clothes-shopping. At “a traditional men’s clothing shop,” he drops $750 for one tweed sports coat, $65 for a bow tie, and a bit more, for a total expenditure of over $1,000 (p. 79). What kind of college town clothing store charges prices like that, and what kind of college kid is able—or willing!—to pay them?
And then there’s Davis’ really big temptation: during spring break, should he go to the Bahamas with his new friends, or on a missionary trip to Kenya with his old friends? Either way, it’s bucks.
Along with all the fraternity life, competing campus ministries, football games, and total absence of the social pathologies and educational malpractice that go hand in glove with universities nowadays, the lads and lassies at Davis’ college seem unusually chaste. It’s not that anybody has to resist powerful cultural pressures and inducements to sleep around. These kids are all just … chaste. Cappas offers no explanation for this, and I couldn’t think of one myself.
This depiction of college life came across as spectacularly unconvincing.
Throughout the novel, the angels keep saying they’re having a hard time fighting off the devils; but because we never see what this entails, because Mr. Cappas never shows us, it has no impact. And their letters are considerably diluted in their believability by the use of such un-angelic language as “guys,” “kids,” “hanging out,” and other slang. I would be disappointed to think that angels really talk like that.
Of course the good guys win. It’s the missionary trip to Kenya—on spring break—that does the trick. Intense culture shock, exposure to horrific poverty, makes it hard to be blasé. If it all seems really too easy, and you wind up wondering what all the angels’ fuss was about—here, sit next to me.
Isn’t there any missionary work to do in America? Like, for example, on any real-world college campus? D. James Kennedy used to say the most needy mission field he knew of was the churches in America. And then there are the inner cities, Appalachia, Indian reservations (where R.J. Rushdoony did his missionary work)—you don’t have to go halfway around the world to find people to evangelize. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with foreign missions. Davis going to Kenya just seemed overly dramatic. Maybe Cappas was going for the contrast: again, potentially a good idea; but again, it didn’t quite work.
Had I been Mr. Cappas’ editor, I would have held out for a rewrite. If a writer is going to be this ambitious in his concept, he has to bring his style and his substance up to speed with it. But I don’t think he had an editor, other than himself. And self-editing is usually nowhere near as good as submitting your manuscript to someone else who can look at it objectively.
“Christian writers” need to do better. Our work must be at least as good as the novels written by non-Christians, and better, if we can manage it. Much better.