Most of the books I enjoy, fiction and non-fiction, are 100+ years old, and the Christian market doesn't offer much to my taste. As Christians, I believe our storytelling should be more Christ-centered. We have peace with God through Christ, which is something no other religion or belief-system has, and it is sad that our art isn't more saturated with this message. At the same time, I want to interact with current, living authors and their work. I recently discovered Katie Schuermann's novel The Choir Immortal, and it excited me, because she not only does she tell a sweet story, she reminds readers of the gospel in the process.
Katie's book centers around the body of Zion Lutheran Church and chronicles their struggles, sins, and joys together. The characters and themes in this book are decidedly Lutheran. Though I am not Lutheran, I and many in my church body have benefited from certain Lutheran teachings, and with its themes of forgiveness, eternal life, and peace in trials, The Choir Immortal appealed to me even as a non-Lutheran. Her flawed but loving characters endeared me as they continually brought their sins and trials to the foot of Christ's cross, and Katie masterfully weaves the sorrows of Zion's people with their joy and rest in Him. Far from didactic, this novel presents real people with a real Savior who receive from His hand both good and hard times. Oftentimes, books with lively characters in sweet small towns are unrealistic, a bit “too good to be true.” With its focus on small town life and its vivid character development, Katie's work has been likened to L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, a comparison that attracted me to her work. However, The Choir Immortal contains a realism that the Anne series lacks. That realism is an acknowledgment of the cursed nature of this world and the people in it coupled with the freedom and life we have in Christ. Katie doesn't turn a blind eye to sin and its consequences, but she does offer hope. She provides a legitimate answer for joy. The way her characters have hope and peace even amid trials truly blessed me, because it pointed me to the facts that God is our good Savior and one day we will be with Him. In the words of Zion's choir director Emily, we are in “the hands of a loving God” (257).
One of the most poignant ways Mrs. Schuermann brings the themes of God's goodness and our safety in Christ to light is through the hymns she uses throughout the novel. These are songs Zion's choir sings together, and their meaning seems two-fold. First, the hymns themselves directly relate to the circumstances the people of Zion face and comfort them in Christ. This hymn in particular greatly encouraged me:
Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near
With His cheer;
Never will He leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God's Son
For me won
When His life was given?
When life's troubles rise to meet me,
Though their weight
May be great,
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving Savior, sends them;
He who knows
All my woes
Knows how best to end them.
God gives me my days of gladness,
And I will
Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
Day by day,
Come what may,
Guides me and defends me. (LSB 756:1-3, found on page 101)
As the people of Zion receive grace from God through song, readers are also reminded and comforted with the good news. I found myself singing along literally and figuratively. At the same time, Katie weaves musical language and culture throughout the novel. Quite a few scenes take place at choir rehearsal and multiple characters work as musicians. However, by the end of the story, readers are aware that the music and the choir are not just backdrops for the plot; the believers of Zion are part of a living choir, a church that is larger than themselves, singing on earth and in heaven, “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5). Describing polyphonic music, Martin Luther wrote, “How strange and wonderful it is that one voice sings a simple unpretentious tune while three, four, or five other voices are also sung; these voices play and sway in joyful exuberance around the tune.”* The voices of Zion dance joyfully with many other voices around the same tune. By the end of the story, Christian readers realize that they too are part of this choir, singing with all God's people of the glories of Christ and His triumph over sin and death.
As a note, a non-Christian character says what many would consider a curse word on page 131. I believe it is within Mrs. Schuermann's Christian liberty to portray her character using this language, but I wanted readers to be aware in case it bothers any of their consciences.
*Quote found in this article - http://thirdmill.org/articles/joh_barber/PT.joh_barber.Luther.Calvin.Music.Worship.html