A FLAME IN THE DARK: A Novel about Luther's Reformation
A FLAME IN THE DARK: A Novel about Luther’s Reformation. By Sarah Baughman. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018. 344 pages. $12.99.
A Flame in the Dark is a novel that follows Heinrich Ritter, a law student from Braunschweig, attending the University of Wittenberg in the year 1518. Heinrich’s eyes are enlightened by the gospel as he attends Martin Luther’s lectures on the book of Hebrews. These refreshing theological insights, paired with Luther’s homilies at the Stadtkirche permeate all aspects of Heinrich’s life, which is as messy as our own.
Heinrich lives and works with the Johan Diefenbach family. The Diefenbach family is financially well-off, but not all is right in the household. Matron Keterlyn suffers from debilitating melancholy, Marlein, the desirable daughter of marriageable age is sacrificing her own future as a wife to stay at home and serve the family to compensate for Keterlyn’s weakness. Matthäus is an apprentice and widower haunted by the tragic death of his wife. Sifrit is an immature and often-unhelpful apprentice. Emnelda is…well…Emnelda, and Brigita is Heinrich’s sister, who unexpectedly arrives in Wittenberg under great and cryptic distress.
In the midst of all this drama is the tectonic shift in theological thinking that’s occurring at the time. Martin Luther has only just recently posted his 95 Thesis and the questions it’s raised are only beginning to surface. A Flame in the Dark excels in showing the confusion that occurs within a family when there is a paradigmatic shift in thought as it pertains to theological foundations. A family and community that has spent their entire lives feeding on an obscured gospel must now reevaluate all their actions and vocations in light of the purely proclaimed gospel. It’s not a seamless transition. Earthquakes never are. There are misunderstandings, doubts, fears, and even skepticism. A Flame in the Dark chronicles all these things as they occur in the Diefenbach household.
Author Sarah Baughman has written an enjoyable book. It took me awhile to get going as I struggled with juggling the names. Like reading a high-epic fantasy novel, I spent a long time trying to figure out how to pronounce the names of the characters in my head. I know enough German to know that when two vowels go walking, the second does the talking, but I never could get my brain to read Marlein as MarLINE instead of MarLENE. I’ve never seen an umlaut over the letter ‘i’ in German before, so Sifrit’s name was a challenge, and I’m still not sure how to pronounce the name Matthäus, but once I got going, the story moved quickly and easily, and it wasn’t too inhibitive.
This is a fine book to add to the church library. In a world brimming with secularized novels and shoddy theological ones, Sarah Baughman has given us A Flame in the Dark, which is neither poorly written nor theologically inept. This is a book that you can easily add to your summer reading list. To the best of my—albeit limited—knowledge, I know of no other book like it. You can follow author Sarah Baughman on Twitter at @SarahBaughman. Buy her book, read it quickly, share it with friends, and drop her an encouraging word!
Thus ends my spoiler-free review. If you wish to know nothing more of the book, please stop here, because spoilers follow as I make a few observations for those privy to the plotlines and subsequent resolutions.
WARNING!! SPOILERS FOLLOW
This book trumpets the sufficiency of Christ’s love and grace. This is good. It was heavy on application to those suffering from shame. Keterlyn’s shame and accompanying melancholy, Matthäus’s shame of failing to save his wife, and the shame of Brigita’s pregnancy. These sources of shame might rightly be labeled “moral injury” (see my post here about a Bible Study published on this very topic) and Christ is, indeed, the solution.
Where I thought Baughman could have done better is incorporating a character where the shame they endured was justly brought on themselves. Brigita was raped, so the shame is real, but it wasn’t her fault. Matthäus’s shame of failing to rescue his wife wasn’t really his fault either. It was more of an unfortunate circumstance. An accident in the true sense of the word. Similarly, Keterlyn’s depression was depression over the loss of multiple children, which again, wasn’t her fault. Thus all these instances of shame were instances of shame without true guilt. They were truly innocent of horrors. It would have been good to have a character whose innocence from their shame could only be attributed to the sacrifice of Christ. For example, if Brigita had seduced Nicholas, or if Matthäus had been drunk and caused the fire that took the life of his beloved Petrissa, then we would have seen shame handcuffed to penetrating gruilt. I think that would have added an extra “oomph” to the Gospel’s sweetness and application in this book.
This quibble aside, the book was fine book and is sure to entertain and please many.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.