It’s only on the title page of The Christmas Sweater that you’ll learn that Glenn Beck enlisted the help of two co-authors in the writing of his book. I don’t know just how much each of the three writers contributed, but I have a guess: though the book is uniformly plain throughout, there are segments that feel like little more than a glorified movie of the week, and others that produce some decently composed examples of subtlety, imagery, and thematic development.
The narrator’s running interior dialogue favors crediting himself with unlikely, convenient leaps in self-understanding and psychological perception; at times I half expected him to become aware that he’s a fictional character being manipulated by an author. However, one specific character trait rings true each time it’s used, and done so with increasingly frustrating realism: his conscious decisions to shut people out and embrace the cold comforts of anger and self pity. We’ve all been there, and it’s a dark place, one from which we do need to decide to be rescued.
That is The Christmas Sweater‘s strong point: ultimately, it’s a sermon about letting God into your life to help you find joy amidst life’s nearly-crushing sorrows. Though most of the story reads like a preteen’s coming-of-age after school special, the climax is surprisingly effective: the protagonist confronts the dark world “of his own making” in a very real way. That scene is genuinely harrowing, and his path through it (not around it, through it, with God’s help), makes the whole thing worthwhile. It’s a satisfying illustration of the power of the Atonement in our lives, and isn’t shy about telling readers as much up front.
Last week a popular evangelical Christian web site removed an interview with Beck about the book because of complaints that, as a Mormon, Beck shouldn’t receive any warm quarter from “real” Christians. Though this would be a perfect opportunity to vent my incensed spleen as a Latter-day Saint myself, the protesters, if they want to keep the mainstream gene pool unpolluted by Mormon toxins, might do well to avoid The Christmas Sweater. Beck’s story isn’t a doctrinal exposition of proxy atonement so much as it’s a Pilgrim’s Progress-like allegory about life–the forcefully labored moral here is that we are all the spiritually and emotionally broken narrator, desperately lost in the ruin of our fallen natures and in need of deliverance (though I quibble that the Christ-like figure in the story comes across as less of a Savior than as merely a friendly guide). In both its phraseology in conveying this sense of life and in its insistence that life is a test that requires us to endure adversity well by relying on God’s power, The Christmas Sweater is a thoroughly Mormon vision of religion.
Most readers might find a useful parallel for Beck’s metaphors in the old Footprints story, and that is a useful comparison, but any LDS reader will immediately recognize a better companion for The Christmas Sweater: Lehi’s vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi chapter 8 in the Book of Mormon. Beck explains in his epilogue that among the other mostly true elements in his little novel, he really did have the dream that is depicted in that penultimate chapter. This isn’t unexpected: the Book of Mormon often uses fundamentally plain language to reveal basic archetypes that are common in the human family’s psyche, archetypes like the dark field with a path towards a light at the end. Still, I hasten to add that a non-believer in the Book of Mormon would still find plenty of enjoyable comfort and inspiration in The Christmas Sweater.
Now, while the basic message of The Christmas Sweater is good, I must end my review in a drastically different tone. The last chapter is nothing less than a cowardly betrayal of the reader. After spending an entire novel walking with us through an exploration of successfully moving through life’s darkness with God’s grace, most strongly realized in the powerful chapter about which I’ve been going on, Beck gives us a conclusion that negates the reality of suffering completely, magically removing everything the protagonist had gone through. I’m tempted to spoil the ending because I was so disgusted with it–especially after being so impressed with the previous chapter–but suffice it to say that the “happy ending” Beck gives us is not an Atonement, it’s just denial. Such shallow wishful thinking doesn’t help anyone, and is an insult to the moving truths so pleasantly offered in the pages leading up to it. Glenn Beck owes me an apology.
Do yourself a favor: get a copy of The Christmas Sweater to read.
But tear out the last chapter.