Wineskins Archive

February 10, 2014

Book Review: “Leaving Ruin” (Jan-Feb 2003)

Filed under: — @ 2:42 am and

Jeff Berryman, Leaving Ruin, New Leaf Books (now Leafwood Publishers), 2002.

A customer returned the new novel Leaving Ruin to a local Christian bookstore with a complaint.

The complaint? The reader didn’t get what many consumers of Christian fiction have come to expect: ideal characters in an evil world, battling triumphantly against the odds in near-perfect perseverance. For every such reader searching for this mega-Christian persona, however, another is combing the shelves for authentic characters with whom she can truly identify.

The reader looking for genuinely human characters will find them in Leaving Ruin, in which first-time novelist Jeff Berryman, according to Annie Dillard, “has taken an evangelical preacher, and turned him into the most unexpected thing: a human being.”

No doubt the reader’s complaint was about the main character’s earthy life: the pastor of the First Church of Ruin, a fictitious West Texas town, wrestles with lusting after his wife’s best friend. Given the church sex scandals of this year, this viewpoint of Cyrus Manning, pastor of the First Church of Ruin, is even more intriguing. Who doesn’t want to know what makes a quirky (and sinful) preacher tick, particularly when he or she is leading our children and us spiritually?

Most gripping about Berryman’s novel is the reader’s vantage point inside the mind of a pastor. Church pastors who have read the book have asked Berryman, “How did you know my thoughts?” This is not the Mitford Series, though like Jan Karon, Berryman combines memorable characters in a strong sense of place. No, this is not Mitford—it’s West Texas, cowboy, and Berryman has captured the true grit of a West Texas preacher with humor, serious doubting of his faith, and poignant turn of phrase.

The key conflict in the novel and the drama is a church scandal. The First Church of Ruin wants to oust Pastor Cyrus Manning. Members want a preacher who gives sermon outlines and more absolutes, asks fewer questions, does not struggle with depression and definitely one who doesn’t make out with his wife on the porch. Cyrus, meanwhile, has to fend off his own doubts in God and lust for a former girlfriend while preparing a eulogy for a close friend and wondering what old lady Loreen meant when she said she would be giving him “gift to die for.”

This year, Berryman, also a dramatist, has hit the trail with a one-man drama of Leaving Ruin. He has performed the drama at Willow Creek’s staff retreat and the National Conference on Christianity and the Arts and will perform a four night stint in a community theatre this month in Portland, Oregon.

The dialogue (and monologue in the drama) is fresh and real, but there’s not enough of it in the novel. And for Cyrus, God doesn’t talk enough, either. “How hard can it be for a God to speak?” Cyrus says.

The strength of the novel is that it provides what many readers of Christian fiction do not look for: dog-eared, funny, imperfect, left-hanging lives. That a preacher can fight depression, doubt, lust, and marriage problems can be disturbing for some readers, but it is precisely this that encourages others, like me, that prophets are human, too. Says Cyrus, “I don’t suppose families fighting, and marriages breaking up is just a big city problem; people yell in Ruin, too.” The line, though not the first in the novel, reminds me of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

While marriages and lives fall apart around him, Cyrus realizes that his own wife needs his words more than his church wants them. The first line in the novel—“Last night, Sara and I talked”—returns thematically through dynamic conversations: in the First Church of Ruin family, where members dissect Cyrus’s life and preaching on the board room table, in Ruin(ed) families, where Cyrus is nearly crushed under the weight of death and secret sins of the community, and Cyrus’s own family, where at one point Cyrus raises a toast to his wife Sara, their children, and their struggling marriage:

“To Sara, and coffee, and her willingness to live with a stupid man.”

She gave little quarter.

“To me, that I’m willing to live with…and love…a stupid man.”

…She kept her eyes on me, and though the worst of the storm was past, I knew it wasn’t quite over…

“If you ever touch another woman, you lose me. And the boys. Do you understand that?”

I nodded, my throat too tight to speak…

“Cyrus, I need your words. When are you going to start talking to me again?”

Cyrus had been so consumed with the church ouster and the silence of God, that he himself had become mute to Sara. In the end both Cyrus and Sara learn that they must drink from the cup they’ve been given, to somehow find joy and meaning in it.

The cumulative effect of Leaving Ruin is not merely a story of a “stupid man,” but of a pastor with passions like the parishioners, who is brave enough to face the intense West Texas gale of temptation, drill the depths of doubt, spit in the wind and laugh, even in the face of Ruin.

Greg Taylor

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