Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?

I prefer books.

Diving into a novel feels like swimming in a lake. Watching a movie, on the other hand, feels more like staring at a fishing bobber from a jon boat.

How can this be? How can words on a page compete with the music, color, adventure and scenery of a good film?

Some folks would cite imagination as the key variable. This is true, but only in part. The element missing in most films, but present in every novel, is a narrator. The subtle voice of this behind-the-scenes “director” not only positions actors within a given setting, but actually guides the reader into the inner world of the story’s main characters, revealing their thoughts, memories, emotions, doubts and sin.

The novel, Black River by S.M. Hulse, provides an excellent example of this beneath-the-surface dive into life, in particular, the reality of sin. The story centers on a retired prison guard with scars—physical, emotional and spiritual—from having been held hostage and tortured during a riot.

Hulse’s writing is vivid and its impact is as sharp as a prison shank. A movie adaptation of this book would surely make me wince, perhaps weep. But reading the story produced a more lingering effect. To this day, the novel’s treatment of sin and reparation continues to hover in the back of my mind each day that I minister at a nearby penitentiary. The intense scenes, some brutal, others ruggedly tender, persist in alerting me to the battles deep in the souls of those I serve.

Recently, another novel exerted a similar effect. Tobit’s Dog by Michael Richard recasts the Book of Tobit in the American South during the Depression. The story depicts the Archangel Raphael as a traveling singer named Ace Redbone. His young friend and cousin, Tobiah, is an African-American mechanic. The family dog, Okra, soon accompanies the pair on a journey to retrieve payment on an old debt.

The connections between North Carolina and biblical Nineveh are numerous and striking. Episodes swerve from horrific to miraculous. Throughout the tale, injustice lurks in broad daylight, families unite in the face of distress, demons get expelled and heroic valor shows up wearing worn boots and frayed overalls.

Each time that I put Tobit’s Dog aside to attend to day-to-day obligations, my own canine companion, Guapo, would sidled up to my knee. The nudge of his nose and the gratitude in his eye would collapse the distance between my mundane world and the novel’s revelatory realm.

I wish I had a word to describe the way grace appears at such moments. What would I give to capture, in a word, the way a mere book begets profound longing for God?

Clearly, countless doors to the sacred exist: music, cinema, architecture and poetry to name a few. But, for book lovers like me, those golden doors swing open at the turning of a page.

08 / 30 / 2023
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