This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: Light from Distant Stars

Probably because I teach English at a Christian university, I get wrangled into conversations about what defines Christian literature. Does the content need to be explicitly Christian? Can a work be Christian if the author is not? Can a text be Christian simply because its creator is?

Light from Distant Stars
Light from Distant Stars

I pondered these questions again thanks to a Twitter thread started by the author Shawn Smucker, who wanted to know what connotations the words “Christian fiction” have for readers. Although Twitter is not normally a place for nuanced conversation, this thread was thoughtful in its consideration of Christian fiction.

The collective sense of the responses was that novels exploring deeply Christian truths would not necessarily be labeled “Christian” by marketers, nor would such books resort to treacly religious cliché or to broad dogmatic statements intended to evangelize.

I realized that I have staked my entire career as a professor and a writer on this definition of Christian literature.

Smucker’s latest work, Light from Distant Stars, his fourth novel, definitely meets these criteria, as it expresses a Christian worldview that shows the deep faith of its author.

Smucker challenges readers to consider the nature of good and evil in a redemptive narrative, beautifully written, with empathetic characters and a compelling plot — the benchmarks not only of good Christian literature but good literature, period.

Light From Distant Stars tells the story of Cohen Marsh, a middle-aged funeral director who discovers the almost-dead body of his father in the basement of the funeral home where they both work. Facing the death of his father and keeping vigil in the hospital, Cohen reflects on his complicated past, his difficult relationship with his parents and a childhood encounter with evil, appearing in the form of an all-too-real dark Beast.

Chapters seamlessly move between Cohen’s past and present, connecting the father’s death — and the investigation surrounding its cause — with events that happened decades earlier, for which Cohen continues to atone.

Smucker creates complex, flawed and multi-dimensional characters. Cohen Marsh is a sympathetic character, both as a child on the edge of losing his innocence and as a middle-aged man contending with his demons, the unreliability of his memories and the challenges of discovering one’s parents are imperfect, too. Fearing he is responsible for his father’s death, Cohen recalls his parents’ many faults, which are presented in a manner that makes them fully human and sympathetic.

Cohen’s memory returns to a childhood experience when he meets two kids his age, Than and Hippie. They are on a quest to confront and destroy a Beast who is itself bent on destruction and who has ignited a mobile home in the woods, killing the children who lived there.

The Beast takes on supernatural form, large and imposing, strong and violent. It careens through the woods and then the city, leaving behind a trail of black sludge. Cohen attends to Than and Hippie’s journey and embraces their cause, even when this decision puts them all in physical jeopardy.

The book transitions between the past and the present, as Cohen contends with his dad’s imminent death. Troubled, Cohen slips away from his father’s hospital room to visit an Episcopal church and offer confessions to its priest.

He also befriends a teen, Thatcher, who is sitting vigil by his grandfather in the room next door. Cohen watches as Thatcher’s angry father violently confronts grief, accusing the medical professionals of causing death rather than preserving life.

The complicated relationship between fathers and sons is at the heart of Light from Distant Stars. This tension resounds through the paired relationships of Cohen and his dad, alongside Thatcher and his. It is the novel’s most compelling theme.

Smucker challenges readers to consider their own complex relationships with their parents. Are the sins of fathers and mothers truly born out in their children? How do we come to terms with the imperfection of parents, whose love is also imperfect, expressed in ways we might not ever truly understand? What about parents who are so broken they cannot love at all?

Cohen’s struggle with the Beast becomes a representation of the evil we are called on to fight, whether manifest in a supernatural being or embodied by real people.

Smucker’s depiction of the Beast is entirely believable, a supernatural element integral to the story, seamlessly woven into the realistic landscape Smucker has created.

By transitioning between past and present, between the supernatural and what we presume to be real, Smucker calls on readers to interrogate their own understanding of memory — whether we can trust what we remember to be true, how we experience evil in our lives and what it means to find redemption from a Christ who is wholly present, even in the darkness.

Light from Distant Stars succeeds because Smucker tells a beautiful story, one that kept me up late at night, eager to find out what happened next. But the novel is also inherently Christian, as it touches on themes found in the Gospels: what it means to overcome evil with good and the redemptive power of knowing you are loved by others and by God.

Smucker’s novel strikes me as the best type of Christian literature: one not built on religious cliché or simple biblical tropes but on the art of creating a compelling story and calling it good.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!