The plot of Conversations with a Stranger is at once both simple and difficult to describe. Two men meet; one utterly unconcerned with the question of whether God exists. The other dedicated to proving His existence. An age-old dance played out in a coffee shop between two nameless men, previously unknown to one another. Without names these individuals are difficult to describe. The first could be Anyman, unconcerned with the larger questions of life, thriving on work and routine. It is he who shares this story with us. The second offers to meet the challenge of the first, and provide proofs drawn from notable Christian thinkers and apologists throughout the ages.
Generally speaking I approach books that scream “teaching fiction” very cautiously. Many notable titles in the vein are filled with fluff and nonsense, not to mention being poorly written. Think The Celestine Prophecy and you’ll understand my ambivalence for the genre. Thankfully Conversations with a Stranger is an entirely different kettle of fish.
Debut novelist Larry Tate has penned a brief work that is nevertheless densely written with a firm foundation based upon biblical truths. Tate isn’t swilling snake oil; he presents us instead with useful tools for evangelism while inspiring and re-focusing our eyes on the commission Jesus left His followers with. I rarely re-read fiction, but the comprehensive notes to the text provide detailed explanations of each of the proofs for God’s existence allowing for further study. This one is a keeper and I intend to dig deeper in order to make them my own and to use them myself.
The arguments presented are drawn from the work of Blaise Pascal, St. Thomas Aquinas, Henri Frederic Ameil, St. Anselm and scripture itself. Presented both conversationally during the casual and friendly debates of the two men, and in greater detail in the notes, the mental work required to engage the proofs are cushioned with the mundane details of life. Rather than devolving into an ongoing My Dinner with Andre tableau, taking place at a single table, Tate thankfully interjects changes of scene that inevitably lead back to the table for another round of civil verbal sparring.
Highly cohesive, the single-pointed message flows smoothly throughout all shifts in location as our Anyman continues the debate internally. His thought processes ring with doubt and conflict, a nearly universal experience during the transition from disbelief to belief. Having come to Christ in a violent fit of surrender, I found his extraordinarily rational and polite dealings with matters of faith surprising.
Perhaps there are such collected individuals living amongst us, I’m not certain I’ve ever met one. In fact our Everyman is a rather bland fellow and lacking a full complement of emotions and depth of character. This isn’t too concerning however, considering the fact that he simply serves as a placeholder for you, or me, the neighbour down the road or the stranger in line ahead of you at Starbucks.
While the apologetics angle is certainly a drawing card, the heart of the novel is faith. Our standing with God is not determined by our intellectual assent to arguments for His existence, or even in mentally acknowledging the claims of Christ. Rather it is that elusive gift, bestowed by God Himself, that effects the transformation. Still we must ever labour in the harvest, planting seeds, stirring up questions and encouraging conversation – let’s get busy!