Aug 29, 2018

A Lutheran Novel Based on the Lives of Reformation-Era Christians

A Flame in the Dark by Sarah Baughman
Concordia Publishing House, 2018
Review by Caitlin Magness

Lutherans know the tremendous impact of the Reformation on history, Christianity, and the Church, but what was its impact on ordinary Christians living in the sixteenth century? Sarah Baughman explores this question in A Flame in the Dark, a novel set in Wittenberg when the gears of the Reformation were just beginning to turn. The novel follows Heinrich Ritter, a young man studying under Luther at the University of Wittenberg, as he comes to a deeper understanding of grace, faith, and God’s love. A large cast of supporting characters aid, hinder, and challenge him in turn, all while struggling with their own burdens and vocations.

At the beginning of the novel, Heinrich is living in Wittenberg with his host family, the Diefenbachs. An intelligent, studious, disciplined man, he has a bright future; beneath the surface of his enviable life, however, his mind is in turmoil. Although a law student, he longs to study theology, but his commitment to caring for his younger sister after their parents' death prevents him from pursuing this dream. He harbors romantic feelings for the Diefenbachs' oldest daughter, Marlein, but she is too busy caring for her family to respond to his tentative attempts at courtship. Heinrich's life is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of his sister, Brigita, who shows up hungry, frightened, and hiding a secret that may put her and Heinrich's future in jeopardy. With the counsel of Luther, Heinrich must learn to stop relying on his own strength and look to Christ in the storms of life.

Readers will appreciate the rich detail with which Baughman renders the world in which her characters live. While her prose occasionally falls into the principal temptation of historical fiction—focusing on the setting at the expense of pacing and plot—readers will have no trouble imagining Wittenberg and the daily lives of its people. In particular, the ins and outs of the Diefenbachs' candle-making business are shown with keen attention to detail and vivid sensory description. I'm no historian, so I can't judge the accuracy of the novel's portrayal of sixteenth-century Wittenberg, but its depth and detail certainly ring true.

Another area in which the novel stands out is in its portrayal of depression. Early in the novel, the reader learns that Keterlyn, the lady of the Diefenbach household, has been suffering from severe “melancholy” after losing several of her babies. Her illness is realistically and sympathetically portrayed, as the novel neither blames her for her suffering nor prescribes any miracle cure or spiritual quick fix. Rather, it focuses on how the other characters come to understand Keterlyn better and bear with her in her suffering, and how she comes to understand God's love and take each day as it comes. At the same time, though, there is not much to Keterlyn's character beyond her melancholy, and the novel tends to focus on how her depression affects the other characters rather than her own experience of her illness. This means that, while the novel realistically portrays mental illness, it may resonate more with friends and family of people with mental illness than with those living with mental illness themselves.

In terms of its portrayal of the Reformation, the novel focuses less on the intellectual nuances of Luther's ideas and more on the impact of those ideas in the lives of ordinary people, as they learn to let go of their personal burdens of guilt, shame, and worry and cast them on Christ. This is a welcome and inspiring message; however, it occasionally verges on simplistic. For example, several major characters struggle with “sins” in their pasts that, upon objective inspection, cannot possibly be called sins at all. In real life, the solution for someone bearing such a burden would not be to seek forgiveness, but rather to let go of a false sense of responsibility for circumstances beyond her control. While the novel acknowledges these characters aren't actually guilty of their imagined wrongdoings, it still uses their unhealthy feelings of guilt to further its message about grace. This is problematic, not in the least because it means the novel misses out on a chance to explore the actual process of conviction, repentance, and forgiveness. I suspect that Baughman didn't want her main characters to be too unlikable and so saddled them with personal traumas rather than true sins. However, this decision ultimately robs the novel's central message of grace and forgiveness of some of its impact.

This problem reflects a more general weakness of the novel, that of one-dimensional characters. Not all of the characters are flat; Heinrich and Marlein in particular both have complex motives and personalities. However, several supporting characters seem to exist only to advance the plot. An example, ironically, is Luther himself. Throughout the novel, he flawlessly fills the role of the wise mentor figure, rarely deviating from that archetype. His infamous temper and abrasive personality only appear in a few passing instances and are jokingly dismissed. While not every character in a novel can be equally well-developed, there are enough characters of this type to warrant a point of criticism.

Despite these issues, A Flame in the Dark is unrelenting in its central message of grace, forgiveness, and God's work in the lives of ordinary people. Its compassionate treatment of sensitive issues, from mental illness to unplanned pregnancy to sexual assault, makes it a relevant read for our time, despite its sixteenth-century setting. Historical fiction fans will appreciate the richly rendered setting, romance fans will appreciate the simple, charming love story, and Lutheran readers will appreciate the many references to Lutheran history and theology. In short, A Flame in the Dark is a well-conceived novel with a lot of heart and the potential to appeal to a wide variety of readers.



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Caitlin Magness is a freelance writer and fiction lover living in Missouri.

3 comments:

  1. Great review Kaitlin. Can i get this book in any bookstore or only in Christian bookstores? or is it only available through CPH?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jerry! The book is available on Amazon, and since Christian Book Distributors carries it on their web site, it's probably to be found in some Christian book stores as well (in addition of course to CPH).

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  2. This is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I just loaned my copy to a friend, and she loved it too!

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