Book Review: Little Do We Know and the Importance of Doubt
July 1, 2018
Last week, I finished reading Little Do We Know by young adult novelist Tamara Ireland Stone, a book I’ve been anticipating pretty much since I finished one of her other books, Every Last Word, about two years ago. I’m inspired and riveted by her powerful storytelling and multidimensional teen protagonists, as well as the way her work speaks into my own life. For example, Every Last Word focuses on the ability of language to rescue people, centering on a teenage girl who struggles with OCD and finds freedom in writing poetry. Having battled depression as a teenager and literally been saved by the ability to write, it struck a chord with me at a very personal level. At a time when so many people are falling prey to society’s stigma against mental illness, it is an extremely timely read and one that I highly recommend.
Little Do We Know did not disappoint me in the slightest. The novel is told through the eyes of two best friends, Emory and Hannah, whose friendship is rocked by a traumatic event that leads to a bitter, ongoing fight during their senior year. The two couldn’t be more different—Emory is a flamboyant drama student who is obsessed with her athletic boyfriend, Luke, and always seeking attention, while Hannah is a quiet, introverted daughter of a well-liked local pastor who sings in an a cappella group at her Christian high school. When an unexpected tragedy hits home for both of them, though, Hannah and Emory are both forced to reevaluate not only the events leading to the dissolution of their friendship, but also their core philosophies of life and how they fit into the narratives they’ve always believed.
I’m going to make a rather bold statement about this novel that some readers who enjoyed it may heavily disagree with: Little Do We Know is a great Christian novel. It isn’t marketed as such, and many of my fellow evangelical believers would probably be baffled by that statement if they read it. But it nonetheless is. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the ineffectiveness of writing and filmmaking that caters purely to an audience of Bible-believers; the stories are typically maudlin, the characters are made out of cardboard, and the whole thing serves as little more than a Christian pep rally while alienating the very groups they want to reach. If that isn’t “good Christian fiction,” one might ask how I as a writer would define the genre. Here it is:
Christian fiction is a story that realistically showcases the world’s response to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether through acceptance, condemnation, indifference, or questioning.
In a previous post, I explained why Flannery O’Connor’s writing created some of the greatest works of Christian literature of all time. It costs her characters something to interact with Christ, whether they accept or reject Him. Most of the time, it isn’t hunky dory. Even those who are saved typically must contend with traumatic or difficult events. It is dangerous to depict people being totally okay after receiving the Lord Jesus as Savior. Beginning a relationship with the Creator of the universe is a tall order, one that frequently brings testing, grappling with serious questions that have no easy answer, and yes, even doubt.
In Little Do We Know, Hannah begins to question her faith after a series of difficult events unfold in her life. Her father betrays her trust, she begins a tentative relationship with a male figure in her life that makes her reevaluate a lot of things, and most significantly, the tragedy that forces her and Emory to reconnect with each other causes her to ask questions about the nature of life and what happens after we die. “Two weeks ago,” she tells a character who faced death, “I would have told you in no uncertain terms that you got a three-minute glimpse of heaven […] that there was only one choice: to ask Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior. To ask for forgiveness of her your sins and choose to be born again. That’s what I’m supposed to tell you right now […] but I can’t. I’m totally fascinated by what you saw. But I have no idea what it was.” The book ends with her questioning her faith and unsure what she believes.
Many people who share my faith might read it and call it a failure, a ploy to get teens to fall away from their faith at a time when this has become the norm rather than the exception. That isn’t how I see it. The truth is, doubting one’s faith proves that it’s real to begin with. I believe with absolute certainty that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is a literal narrative of His view of human history, and that the Lord Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead for me and is coming back. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about the logistics of the whole matter, been baffled by the big questions of my faith, and even encountered long, dark periods of doubt about who God is.
Doubt isn’t something to be afraid of. It doesn’t mean you have lost your salvation or weren’t saved to begin with. It means that whether you realize it or not, you care too much about your faith to simply take what it says at face value.
If you need proof, just look at the Bible itself:
Abraham and Sarah doubted that God would actually make good on His promise to bring them an heir.
Thomas doubted that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Peter looked down while walking on water, got scared, and started to sink.
Gideon doubted that God could really use him to end the oppression of Israel.
Job questioned why God would allow him to suffer.
That’s by no means an exhaustive list, and this issue isn’t even limited to just the Bible. Martin Luther faced a dark period of doubt that lead to bouts with depression. Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying that even the strongest Christians question what they believe. John Calvin even said doubt is not only normal, but should be expected: “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”
Little Do We Know does not end with Hannah repenting of her doubt and witnessing like crazy to her friends. She doesn’t go confidently into her future after high school with total certainty of her beliefs. But that’s okay, and in fact, it makes for a better, more realistic ending. I of course like to think that as an adult, she’ll be able to reclaim her faith as a Christian and understand what it means to believe on her terms without the pressures of being the only child of a pastor (even though she’s a fictional character and this point is really moot). But within the text itself, I find it as a believer in Christ to be more than an acceptable conclusion. It is normal to ask questions. It is normal to doubt. It shows that a person loves God enough to want to understand Him better, even if it may not feel that way. I’m really thankful to Stone for writing a mainstream book that portrays my faith honestly, without whitewashing it, without goody-two-shoes characters that spout platitudes and wear WWJD t-shirts, without saying it is dangerous to learn to think for one’s self.