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Solo on a life built for two

Reverend Nash rides into an ash heap of troubles worthy of Job

By Ron Charles / July 10, 2003

"The Passion of Reverend Nash" is one of those novels that's so wonderful you're afraid to recommend it because if your friends don't like it, you'll just pity them. Rachel Basch's story of a Congregational minister tested beyond her limits inspires that sort of devotion.

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For readers interested in the stirring of faith, lift up your eyes and look on the fields of American fiction. The phenomenal success of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and the vast evangelical pulp-fiction market they lead obscures the fact that religion now regularly plays a role in literary fiction, where authors search to portray the unresolved challenges of faith rather than preach to the choir.

Having violated every other taboo of polite conversation, serious novelists have finally dared to enter that most intimate realm of American life: spirituality. Indeed, the bedroom seems downright staid next to this delicate territory, but romance readers shouldn't be misled by the suggestive title of Basch's novel. She's using the word "passion" in its Gethsemane sense. The paperback won't feature a chisel-chested minister astride some swooning parishioner in a hoop skirt.

Instead, this Reverend Nash is a "dangerously tall" woman riding a two-seater bicycle without a helmet. Jordanna's got big hair, big jewelry, the wrong clothes, and no embarrassment whatsoever. After their previous minister was defrocked for sexual impropriety, the members of the Hutchinson Congregational Church in Connecticut wanted someone entirely different. They got it. "Everyone looks up to me," Jordanna jokes. "I'm the tallest pastor east of the Mississippi."

Basch demonstrates a broad understanding of the relationship between a minister's public responsibilities and private concerns, a conflict that isn't, it turns out, so foreign to those of us not leading congregations. We see Jordanna praying, giving advice, trying to balance work with family, and struggling to live by what she preaches. She's a quick-witted woman with a deep capacity for pity and self-pity.

"She was convinced," Basch writes, "that nothing was more important than making the stunning truths of the Gospel real to everyone she met. God had blessed her with this outsize passion so that she could deliver it to others."

Indeed, her sister considers her the "Paul Bunyan of spirituality," a characterization that perfectly captures the overwhelming nature of Jordanna's spirit. To what extent, this moving novel asks, is the healer really seeking redemption for herself, using others' needs as an occasion for proving her own worth?

The book opens a year into her service at Hutchinson as she's delivering a sermon about the importance of welcoming change. It's an ironic thesis considering the series of crises that are about to wrench away her confidence.

She's already suffering from back pain that she knows is a psychosomatic reaction to the burden of carrying too many people's problems. One of her parishioners, June, is seriously depressed over the death of her sister, and Jordanna is growing annoyed that they've made no progress.