Not Heartwarming Christian Fiction

Dripping sweat on the paperback's pages, I speed-walked and read for one hour and twenty minutes holding this book in my hand so that I could finish it before my routine was over. That was two weeks ago. Since then I have been trying to figure out how to describe the way it has affected me. It’s mainly because of the Dad, Jeremiah Land.

I am talking about Leif Enger’s first novel, Peace Like a River. Abraham said I should read it. If my sons tell me to read a thing, I do—at least so far.

I fear saying something trite. I read one reviewer who said, “heartwarming.” Like a rifle bullet in the head, it’s heartwarming. The heart needs something bigger and deeper than warming. And this book helps.

The year is 1962. The narrator is Reuben Land, the son of Jeremiah. Here’s the story of his birth when he almost died—or maybe did die.

I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.

Dad lifted me gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.

“Breathe,” Dad said.

I lay in his arms.

Dr. Nokes said, “Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes.”

“Breathe!” The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair short and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.

Dr. Nokes approached him. “Jeremiah. There would be brain damage now. His lungs can’t fill.”

Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it—a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining, I have it still. He left my face uncovered.

"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, “there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won’t pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood.” Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. “Lungs that can’t expand to take in air. In these cases,” said Dr. Nokes, “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breath.” (2-3)

Christians don’t usually deck their doctors. That’s part of why the book works. There’s faith in it, but not like your usual faith. More strange, like the Bible.

Then there’s the way Mr. Enger writes. It’s not artsy. But, listen! It’s not your normal prose either. Stay with me. Here’s a few lines.

  • "Once torched by truth...a little thing like faith is easy." (33)
  • "Routine is worry’s sly assassin." (27)
  • "...a man whose face was a minefield of red boils..." (63)
  • "Exile has its hollow hours." (310)

The book is a witness. It ends:

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?


No sir.


All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.


I’ve been there and am going back.


Make of it what you will. (311)

What do I make of it? Wrong question.

What is it making of me?

More alive to everything true, I hope. More steady in the wind. More hopeful. Less anxious. Eager for Christ to show up.

Yes. This is a recommendation. Ask for it for Christmas.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.