“Most would-be Christians, he said, insist too much on faith. But all God looks to find in us is desire. If we want him, belief spills in. It rises to His level, and it will fill the void. Isn’t that right, Lord. Real faith isn’t about laws, moral prohibitions. No, Lord. He cited early Christians, the saints who’d received his visions. Like them, he heard God’s voices. He’d seen his face, and lived. But all this could be made available to us, if we tried.”
R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
R. O. Kwon’s début novel is the story of an apostate (Will), a seeker (Phoebe), and a cult leader (John). It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and in a way, it is—the pain and bewilderment of the first two characters, and the tragedy of their unanswered longing spills out of the pages in such a way that one can’t help but be touched by it. Will was converted in a Pentecostal church as a child, but later leaves when, in the wake of his mother’s hospitalization and his father’s abandonment, God fails to give him the sign he’s looking for. Phoebe was a child prodigy until her mother’s untimely death arrested her budding career as a concert pianist, and John Leal is the mysterious figure who escapes a North Korean concentration camp and returns to the Ivy League university where Phoebe and Will are students. Through a series of memories told from the perspective of Will and John, we watch the inception, culmination, and ultimate downfall of Will and Phoebe’s attempts to heal the pain of their past, their relationship, and Phoebe herself.
As a lapsed Christian, Will understands the yearning for transcendence and longing for a fixed identity that fuels Phoebe’s attraction to John and the God he purports to represent, but he’s concerned by the fascination he holds for Phoebe. Will’s background allows him to recognize John’s chicanery early, but his love and respect for Phoebe restrain his impulse to rip the veil away, and he begins to attend meetings. Naturally, his questions about the consistency of John’s testimony (and his own research into John’s background) drive the fissures in his relationship with Phoebe deeper and wider until it’s irrevocably broken. A few years later, when five women’s health clinics are bombed and John, Phoebe, and the cult are implicated, Will attempts to contact her until he’s informed by the agents working the case that she’s committed suicide. He knows this to be untrue—he even sees Phoebe once or twice—but their lives have effectively diverged.
The Incendiaries isn’t so much a great story as it is a sort of impressionist’s portrait of the human yearning for transcendence (Will actually uses the phrase ‘God-shaped hole’ to describe this impulse twice), the extremism that results when our worship of our projections of God consume us, and the pain of the loss of identity. Humans were created for communion with God; the question is whether or not they’re communing with the Triune God or the one they’ve made up. Will was waiting for God to reveal himself; to provide him with some assurance of his presence and love. Phoebe wasn’t waiting for God when she met John Leal and Will—she was satisfied with the thin, seduced intimacy she found in sexual encounters. John has an unwavering certainty that he is God’s proxy (and so experiences the least anguish of the three characters) but (arguably) inflicts the most damage—he’s so convinced of God’s immanency that he celebrates the deaths of the women killed in the clinic bombings as a great achievement. Phoebe is so enraptured with this newfound identity and the purpose it brings that it’s she who suggests bombing the clinics. While Will continues to flounder in uncertainty and grief over the loss of both Christ and Phoebe, he finds a semblance of peace when he realizes that despite his best efforts, he can’t save his mother from her illness, Phoebe from John, or himself from the sorrow and loneliness of a life lived apart from its creator.
In an interview with PBS Books, Kwon discussed her Christian upbringing and her current spiritual estate:
I grew up deeply religious—I was like Will in that I really wanted to become a missionary or a preacher; that was my ambition in life. Then I lost the faith, which was incredibly hard for me, I can’t overstate how difficult that was—I would have rather lost my parents than the Christian God I loved. My idea of him was that God will restore everything we’ve lost, so you can’t ever lose anything, which was my idea of him, which is very different from my idea now.
She later discusses one particular aspect of what led her to renounce the faith:
I remember when I used to read points of view that made me uncomfortable, I would feel a door slam shut, and I could feel myself push against that knowledge—learning about evolution and Confucius felt dangerous, because they weren’t going to heaven. The more I let myself be open to that danger, the more I was learning, and it did lead to being kicked out of the garden, but I wouldn’t change that. I would rather live like this than keep slamming that door.
Her comments called to mind a recurring theme in Will’s discussion of how he lost his own faith—the tension between what he knew of the world (his experience of it) and who he believed God to be. His frustration at his inability to heal his mother, his father’s negligence, God’s failure to send the sign that he’s looking for contribute more to the lapse of his faith than anything about Christ or God himself. It wasn’t that Christ himself didn’t live, die, and rise from the dead, it’s that there was (for Will) no reconciling what he knew to be true about his lived experience in the world and who God claimed to be.
In the interview, Kwon described herself as an apostate, but Will doesn’t—he speaks of losing his faith, but not of renouncing Christ. This is why I have referred to him as a lapsed Christian (though Kwon, possibly, would not)—what comes through in his story is disappointment and grief over the loss of the joy of knowing the God he served, not a sense of betrayal that God has lied to him. This is understandable—the tension between what see and experience in the world that is still governed by God’s common grace and how he says he cares for us is, at times, excruciating. The prophets testify to it in their laments over the fall of Israel into idolatry and captivity as God gives them over to the consequences of their sin; the apostles did not scruple to share the pain of their imprisonment, torture, and sorrow with the early church. The road from Egypt to Zion is not an easy one—there are stones in the road, fatigue from the long journey, and the loss of fellow pilgrims—and there are some for whom turning back is preferable to pressing on. Being in that place—where the meat pots and bread of our captivity begins to smell better than the bread and wine of our weekly communion—is not easy, neither for the person tempted nor their brothers and sisters. The Incendiaries is a reminder of the reality of the strain of the already-and-not-yet life, the choice we daily make to plow forward, and the vital necessity of our brothers and sisters to help us continue on the journey.
Brooke Ventura is the digital editor of Modern Reformation. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.
 All quotations have been edited by the author for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, please click the provided link.