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Memphis Flyer Good-Neighbor Policy

By Leonard Gill

MAY 11, 1998: 

Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble
By Charles Turner
Lion Publishing, 235 pp., $10.99 (paper)

Even your most dyed-in-the-wool atheist has to admit there are days when God works in mysterious ways, but what of the ways of His Son? In the novel Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble, you can try the following ways for starters:

A Presbyterian minister preaches the parable of the Good Samaritan before his East Memphis congregation and ends up losing not only that congregation but what looks to those near and dear to him to be his senses. A wealthy widow and former Cotton Carnival Queen takes said parable to heart, adopts a vagrant outside of Seessel’s, and ends up dead. Said vagrant, charged with murder and in jail, admits to his partial guilt in the death of the widow, admits to his widespread guilt in previous matters, begs repeatedly for a drink from said minister, and ends up with it inside a communion cup. The vagrant’s grandmother, broken-backed and bedridden, holds out for both grandson and Son and ends up miraculously on her feet one moment, and just as miraculously, back on her back the next. A young couple out on a joy-ride kidnap then nearly kill the minister and end up not only in his care but caring for said grandmother. And finally, a homosexual, worried over what to do with his “impulses,” ends up still worried but likely a little less worried in the company of a CPA from Little Rock.

Christianity may be many things to many people, but as “fleshed out” here by Memphian Charles Turner, it is nothing if not action-packed.

Turner, with one previous novel under his belt (The Celebrant), a children’s book (The Turtle and the Moon), and a work of nonfiction (The Feast: Reflections on the Bread of Life, with coauthor Gregory Post), is good at knowing at least what to do with that action – even action this stretched. The phrase for it is “keep it moving”: moving toward what certainly looks like a sequel to this open-ended novel, but moving too in its depiction of a radical Christianity that asks not only that we believe but that we act on that belief and at our risk. The pastor in Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble, George McKenna, brands it “Untamed Christianity”; his more cautious wife Margaret prefers the label “adventurous.” That way, in her more balanced view, it comes with “a softer pedal.”

Soft-pedaling isn’t McKenna’s way and it hasn’t been Charles Turner’s either, as writer or as true believer. As he told me recently, “My intention is to write stories that above all don’t ‘sin against reality.’ And so many so-called Christian stories do just that. As a believer in the Incarnation, I’m always interested in that point where the Word becomes flesh. Was it Thomas Merton or Flannery O’Connor who said we don’t know what we believe until we see what we do? What takes place in Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble is really an extension of the Incarnation. Christ out of the grave and loosed among us.”

Sounds spooky and frankly is spooky to Turner’s characters, but not half as haunting to them as half-formed faith. Live less as a “Christian” and more as Christ, each of them learns, and you just might free yourself of some of the abiding mystery. Best-case scenario: you lose your pastorate; worst-case: your life.

Is Turner’s latest novel, as he’s used to hearing, “too religious for the secular market and too secular for the religious market”? It’s a question that prospective publishers have had to ask themselves in the past – all of them, save his latest: Lion. The fact that this is the very house that initially picked up on an unknown known as Jan Karon, a town she called Mitford, and eventual best-sellerdom suggests that a worthy writer, Charles Turner, may have found himself at last a good home.

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