Sophisticated arguments are not necessary the most convincing. I don’t know many believers whose lives were transformed as a result of reading brilliant books of Christian apologetics. By contrast, we all know people who’ve been profoundly changed by reading about the faith journeys of someone else, as if the transparency of that diarist or novelist became their own window into eternity. I’m having that kind of experience now by reading the novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven (Plume: 2009).

The book had an unusual gestation. It began with a short story by Jennifer’s mother, which the author turned into a screenplay, then a film, and finally a novel which proved to be surprisingly autobiographical. (“I feel like I opened a vein and bled upon the paper,” Niven says.) The story is written in first person, which heightens its verisimiltude, but even more convincing to my mind is the narrator’s unpretentious candor about her experience.

“I was ten years old the first time I got saved,” Velva Jean begins, and we see events unfold through the naive eyes of a child growing up in Appalachia during the cold, hungry days of the Great Depression. An analytical reader would say that Velva Jean’s theology is often wrong and her world view is seriously distorted. True enough. But her narrative is spot-on for authenticity, and her conclusions make perfect sense in light of what she sees.

“Why doesn’t God save me?” “Why isn’t Mama healed?” “Why can’t Daddy stay with us?” The questions tumble out, leaving Velva Jean without answers yet determined to live in spite of them. That’s too much like my own life to ignore.

I’m guessing that people find themselves by reading stories like Velva Jean’s, more often than reading Barth or Ratzinger or even Lee Strobel. A candid, vulnerable account of life (even if it’s a fictitious one) can be more insightful than a deliberate, logically coherent one hermetically sealed against the annoying accidents of real life.