I have a particular interest in the portrayal of people of faith in literature, so I was intrigued when Iowa City author Kate Kasten contacted the Source to ask if I would consider reviewing her self-published novel, The De-Conversion of Kit Lamb.
To be honest, I didn’t have very high hopes for the book. The title narrows what sort of story the reader should expect while giving away the ending. Kasten provides this explanation of the book’s origins: “I wrote the novel partly because I was dismayed when I heard about the seductive ‘Left Behind’ thrillers that encourage readers to scramble for a place in the hereafter at the expense of our ailing planet, and I wanted The De-Conversion of Kit Lamb to serve as a fictional alternative to this world view.”
As a result, I expected to find a didactic novel filled with straw-men characters who would serve as easy marks for the arguments Kasten desires to make against Christianity. To Kasten’s credit, however, The De-Conversion of Kit Lamb is more nuanced than that.
The story follows the overly symbolically named Kit Lamb to Guatemala in the early 1980s during the period the country was under the control Efraín Ríos Monett, a “born again” dictator who claimed to be leading the country toward democracy and Christianity. Kit, a relatively new convert to a strain of charismatic Christianity, is forced to confront the terrible things that are being done in the name of his religion—particularly when some of those terrible things are done to him. His experiences lead him to question the idea of Hell as a literal place where unbelievers are eternally punished, which in turn leads to the dissolution of his faith.
Given her project, Kasten is quite respectful to her characters, regardless of their religious convictions. Kit’s pastor, Ezra, for example, is not a charlatan nor showily pious; rather, he is a man with sincere faith who works to bring comfort and hope to his flock. In the book’s early going, Kit’s own eager Christianity might grate on the people he encounters, but Kasten doesn’t mock him for it.
Instead, Kasten offers a range of fleshed out characters struggling to come to terms with horrific events. That internal negotiation quite rightly involves reflecting on issues of faith. However, neither the disingenuousness of Monett nor the naïve support he received from Christians in the U.S. (including Ronald Reagan) are necessarily sufficient arguments for rejecting faith. Kasten does herself and her book a disservice by framing it as a sweeping condemnation of religion rather than as what it is—the largely sensitive portrayal of a group of characters on individual journeys.