To say The Hammer of God is an episodic fictional history of a rural Swedish parish, spanning 130 years, is like saying that Hamlet is a play about a boy home from the university. It is a wonderful novel with a long publishing history, but I've known about it for less than a year.
The reason why I haven't known is a mystery to me because the denomination in which I am a pastor had its beginnings in the theological and spiritual ferment that furnishes the context of the novel; not so much in universities and bishops' palaces, but mainly in rural parishes like the one described in the book.
The author was a Swedish Lutheran pastor named Bo Giertz, who wrote it at the very beginning of World War II. When it first appeared, it was high on the best-seller list in Sweden. I read a revision of a 1960 English translation.
Giertz's literary career was cut short when he was elected a bishop of the State Church and gave himself wholly to preaching and the writing of devotional and theological works. He lived long and productively, dying in 1998 in his 93rd year. When the official state church newspaper asked its readers what single individual had had the greatest influence on the church in the 20th century, Bo Giertz received the most votes.
As important in their own day as his preaching, teaching, and leadership were, I suspect that the abiding influence of Bo Giertz will continue to come from this novel that he wrote in his early thirties.
The reader becomes familiar with the parish first through the eyes of a aristocratic young priest [a clergyman of the Swedish state church, though Lutheran, is ordained to priesthood like the clergy of the Church of England and is addressed as "Pastor"]. Though he is a very young man, he already holds a university doctorate. He is a worldly man, a child of the enlightenment, which in those days was a New Thing. He has become a priest not of piety but because he loves the scholarly life and prestige that the Church offers him.
So he is resentful when the aged Dean of the parish, his superior, sends him away from a fashionable party at the Deanery to the deathbed of a poor farmer.It means hours in a horsedrawn wagon, one way.
When he arrives, he discovers two things: First, the dying man knows the Bible better than he does, and still has no assurance of heaven. Second, the pastor is humiliated and heartsick when he realizes that he is useless in the crisis.
He is rescued by the arrival of a neighbor woman who knows what to say and do. At the end of her forthright exchange with the sick man, he reaffirms his faith. Then she says comfortably, to the priest's great surprise, "Now God's work has taken place. Now you must ask the pastor to give you the holy sacrament."
This and more is said, arousing the senses of the reader to an appreciation of the time, place, smells, speech, and ultimate concerns of people who are not like us, yet are just like us.
When the pastor returns to the Deanery the next morning the Dean is waiting with anxiety.
"How did it go?"
"Thank you, sir. It went very well. Johannes found peace; and I, the opposite."
The Dean's eyes widened a bit. "Did it go that well?"
Until this exchange the reader does not know why the Dean sent the curate out. Nor is the point belabored.
The rest of the young priest's story takes up the first third of the novel. It is not the story of one victory after another building on this beginning, but of one struggle after another.
The second part takes place about fifty years later, in the same parish, and the third about seventy-five years after the second. Each set of characters is fresh and vivid, corresponding to the time and circumstances of Sweden and the parish in its time. I came to care about them deeply.
Should the novel interest a non-Christian reader? Why not? We don't ask that question, at least I don't think we do, concerning those who read The Brothers Karamozov or MacBeth, neither of which could have been written as they are outside the context of Christianity. Yes, The Hammer of God contains a lot of theology; it's about people whose lives are either driven by, or in reaction to, the Christian faith and its holy scriptures.
Having said that, I want to clarify: The Hammer of God is not a good religious novel, or a good Christian novel. It is a good novel, without qualification.
The Hammer of God, Revised Edition, by Bo Giertz. Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2005.