LOVING ISAAC. By Heather Kaufman. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018. 352 pages. $12.99.
Loving Isaac is the second novel of Heather Kaufman published by CPH (her first being The Story People). Loving Isaac is about Hana Howard, who is trying to leave behind a disturbing past and step into an uncertain future. Between her past and her future is her layover in Altus, Oklahoma where Hana temporarily lives with her sister Kara while she prepares to move to her new home in Richmond, VA by summer’s end.
Hana has a son named Isaac—not ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ or ‘cutie’ or ‘buddy,’ but Isaac. Isaac falls on the moderate range of the autism spectrum, and has an unwavering love for all things turtles.
On account of her disturbing past, Hana hasn’t darkened the doors of a church for quite some time. She finds herself attending Hope Lutheran Church with her sister Kara where she meets Pastor Matt Schofield, who naturally connects with Isaac in a way that no else seems able—or willing—to do. Hana’s feelings for Pastor Schofield are more than you would find in your typical parishioner-pastor relationship. Pastor Schofield’s feelings for Hana are more than you would find in a typical pastor-parishioner relationship, but his vocation as a pastor, along with her mysteriously dark past and the temporary nature of her stay in Altus, complicate matters in this regard.
The narrative navigates all these complications in a sincere and warm way that makes Loving Isaac easy and uplifting reading. Kaufman has a natural writing style. Her metaphors and turns of phrases never feel forced, and the book never feels agenda driven. Loving Isaac is a simple and well-told story about unconditional love and the journey of forgiveness under trying and uncertain circumstances. If you like to read wholesome novels, you can't go wrong with this one.
With that said, this book could have improved on its theological element. Loving Isaac is ripe with Christian themes such as service, forgiveness, and “caring for the least.” All of these themes are addressed but they are thin on Jesus Christ, gravitating far too much toward generic sentiments about God. God’s love and patience are lauded as transformative virtues (because they are), but in the novel these virtues aren’t shaped by the suffering and death of Jesus. Jesus is mentioned by name ten times in the book but never in reference to his suffering and death on the cross. The closest the reader gets to Calvary is near the end of the book where Hana reflects, “I was reminded that God allowed His Son to go through great pain and darkness, . . . I think I can understand just a little how God felt watching His Son suffer.”
This, then, is my challenge with reviewing Christian fiction. I want to judge a story on its story. Is the story a story or is it an agenda masquerading as a story? Heather Kaufman gets an A+ on this front. She’s a good and natural writer, and she tells a story, not an agenda. But the book is Christian fiction, so I must judge it on its theology, too. Is the novel cruciform in shape? Does Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection drive the theological element that allows this book to be labeled Christian fiction or is Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection only tangential? In this book it’s tangential. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus and what that means for how the characters of this novel conduct their lives is assumed of the reader rather than shown to the reader.
If this book were published by any other publishing house, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But Loving Isaac is published by Concordia Publishing House. I expect more of them. After all, on their website, CPH says, “We exist to support congregations in proclaiming the Gospel. We strive to be the premier publisher of products faithful to the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions.” Given a mission statement like that, you’d expect the Sacraments to make an appearance somewhere in this book, but they don’t. Instead, you get lines like this, “The day Jesus became Lord of his life . . .” A statement like that loaded with meaning in Christian circles, but it is rarely, if ever found, in Lutheran ones. Lutherans prefer to let the rich language of baptism do the heavy lifting here. A book about a divorced woman and her autistic son who struggle with judgmental stares, chronic bitterness, and an uncertain future, sounds like a story ripe with opportunities to talks about a person's baptismal identity in Jesus Christ, but baptism is not referenced or even alluded to once in this book. Neither is the Lord’s Supper, or the resurrection of Jesus. This, then, is my strongest critique.
I remember one of my homiletics professors at the seminary offering the following complaint about some pastors’ preaching, he said, “Far too often you get the feeling that pastors are preaching Jesus to save the sermon and not the people.” This sentiment applies to Christian fiction as well.
I don’t want a novel that unnaturally references Law and Gospel or Word and Sacraments so as to “check off” the box of Lutheran distinctives and thus justify its publication, nor do I want a novel that is strong on Lutheran distinctives but only barely passes the standards of being a good story. I want a novel that has rich theology as its lifeblood, not its agenda. And that is exceedingly difficult to do (which is why so few people have done it).
Loving Isaac is a good and wholesome novel. It’s uplifting without being violent, vulgar, or vain. My only wish is that Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, delivered to sinners by the means of grace and been more prominently—and naturally—incorporated into an otherwise well-written and uplifting book.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.