by Brock Benson
Before I start let me begin by saying this is the first novel I’ve read in a pretty long time. But I’m glad I did. Normally my reading is consumed with theology and or church leadership works. Why? To be transparent, it’s because I am selfishly depraved and blinded by my own ambition.
I hope my review of this book will enlighten and strengthen believers at Revive and abroad through what God has shown me as I read.
Set in the 1940’s within a small Cajun community of the Deep South, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines is a novel that wrestles with some of the deepest questions anthropology has to offer. The story line follows a young black man named Jefferson and his journey with his friend and teacher Grant Wiggins through the darkest 6 months of their lives.
Jefferson is on trial in chapter 1 for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of his friends attempt to rob a local liquor store when their attempt goes bad. Jefferson’s two friends and the store owner all end up being killed in the shootout leaving Jefferson alone holding the proverbial gun. This crime scene does an incredible job of foreshadowing the entire premise to follow as Jefferson’s journey is an overall lonely path.
Chapter 1 is probably the hardest chapter of the book to read because of the sheer darkness it represents. Near the end of the chapter Jefferson’s attorney, in an attempt to protect him from the death penalty, resorts to using an analogy that creates angst in any believer’s soul. Referring to Jefferson, his attorney instructs the jury that if he receives the death penalty it would be as if they the jury were simply killing a hog because that’s all Jefferson was.
Obviously Jefferson’s attorney believes the logic and strategy of divesting Jefferson of his true Imago Dei dignity to be valid and even an accepted tactic which would be understood by the white male jurors. But it wasn’t. And the real message of the book begins. There is more to being a man than living. Neither Jefferson nor Grant understand this premise initially and the book shows us the journey of how they both uncover their true identity together thru one another’s help.
Jefferson and Grant’s relationship begins early on in the book as Grant is approached by his local friends and family to be a mentor of sorts to Jefferson as he awaits his fate on death row. Jefferson’s godmother “Nannan”, a God-fearing woman, believes in the Imago Dei Jefferson has been created with and has one wish for Jefferson – that he understand who he is before execution. She along with Grant’s aunt employ Grant who, as a college educated black male local school teacher, is a rarity in the community. Grant’s goal is simple; help Jefferson see who he truly is by committing to visit him weekly in prison.
Reluctantly, Grant finally agrees to help Jefferson. But the real issue is Grant himself is having trouble seeing who he truly is. Even in spite of all his education. He is consumed with leaving town and running away with his girlfriend to find a better life. In this we see Grant believing the lie that running away will “solve” all the problems of emptiness and frustration he faces in his current community. Grant’s struggles create a continual question in our minds.… How can the blind lead the blind?
I need to make a confession. I really despised both Jefferson and Grant as I read. Neither of them really drew me in as there seemed to be no hope for either for the majority of the book. Chapter after chapter passes and Grant’s prison visits seem to be getting nowhere as Jefferson is a motionless blob in his cell, unwilling to even do the most basic forms of communication. But as I reflect on this point alone I realize my frustration with them is the fact that my struggle is so similar to theirs. Whether it’s feeling sorry for myself like Jefferson or believing that a change of scenery will help me feel better. Like Grant I’m no better than they are. Maybe this is the secondary message of the book – we all can buy into the enemy’s lies.
I won’t ruin or give away anymore of the book for those who may want to read it. But I will end by simply saying this. The author Ernest J. Gaines gives us a genuine fairy tale ending. But you won’t see it if your reading from the world’s script.
I think it’s my job as a Pastor to exercise a certain level of shepherding to anyone who might decide to read the book. So here is my one caution; realize that Gaines does not write this book as a purely Christian work. If you don’t heed this caution you’re going to struggle with how to process certain things. There are gospel centered themes woven throughout the pages. But there is also plenty of sin too. Arrogance, racism, apathy, sexual immorality, cruelty, self-righteousness and violence just to name a few.
Now why would I point this out and be telling everyone about a book that I’ve read and has such themes? (I’m a pastor for crying out loud!) I think it’s important we realize not everyone we interact with or read shares our world view. So we shouldn’t be surprised when stuff comes up that’s not rated G. Newsflash the Bible isn’t rated G either….sin is real. Am I saying sin is ok? No. But it does exist. Many times Christians I am around, and I need to include myself in this crowd too, tend to act like it doesn’t exist. Or we are so shocked when we are around people who live in sin that we can’t create meaningful conversation with them because our body language is awkward, unloving and unnatural.
Why the book matters
Given the current cultural climate of our day, this book’s message needs to be heard. Black lives matter. And blue lives matter. Because life matters. Furthermore, the dignity God has placed into man means all life should matter. Gaines does a masterful job helping white readers such as myself see the pain and tyranny white supremacy has created for black Americans. Whether or not I like it or even believe it, racism is real. It always has been. Not only between different ethnicities but within the same ethnicities. How is that possible? Well if we really dig into racism there is a deeper rooted sin that feeds it. And the deeper rooted sin that feeds racism is the same deeper rooted sin that feeds and manifests itself into all other sins. Pride. We want to have the authority only God is designed to have so that we can be the god of our own journey.
The second reason this book matters is because it really forces us to rethink one of the cultural axioms we’ve all grown up with. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This simply isn’t true. Jefferson’s attorney who issues the plea for him to be spared the death penalty, does so at the cost of denying him the only thing he really had left. And consequently ends up damaging him in a deeper way than the death penalty ever could. Word’s matter.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”