"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.
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.
"She's getting in the way of the healing," Jordanna whines to herself. Despite years of training and experience, something about June's stubborn sadness threatens Jordanna and scrapes the wounds left by her own failed pregnancies. She resents this young mother's unwillingness to move on, accept God's comfort, and be grateful for her three healthy children.
When June disappears, apparently a suicide, Jordanna finds herself accused of psychological malpractice. "She was in agony," an angry relative confronts her, "and you were throwing little God sugar pills at her. You rely on God to fix everything - that was the whole problem, wasn't it? Instead of intervening the way a professional would have - you just trusted in God."
This is a brutal accusation for Jordanna to endure, but as the investigation begins, her trials diversify. She receives word that her moribund marriage is finally dead, a victim of the sadness she's been able to cover but never cure since suffering two stillborn deliveries.
"Can you look into the future," her husband writes from abroad, "and identify a point in time when you will look at me and not think of loss?" This is an extraordinarily intimate portrayal of the effects of grief on a marriage, the stress of healing at different rates that can tear hearts apart.
But the novel achieves its most remarkable feat with the relationship between Jordanna and her sister Abby. Abby loves Jordanna desperately but also critically, with a sensitive ear for the tones of egotism in Jordanna's self-sacrifice. She can't help being annoyed by the presumptive, manipulative power of her sister's love. "Why, Abby wondered, had she been chosen to suffer the aching desire to nurture this older sister, and the equally maternal, no less fierce, inclination to reconfigure her?" Basch refuses to take sides in this rivalry, but she perfectly captures the grating sound of a sibling's piety.
Despite these plot details, "The Passion of Reverend Nash" isn't Christian fiction in any exclusive sense. The author, in fact, is Jewish, and she uses the tropes of Christianity for a purpose that transcends denominations. The trials Jordanna confronts push her beyond the rhetoric of sermons or the advice of pastoral counseling, and force her to question the redemptive power of tragedy and the depth of her spiritual commitment.
Basch has a cool, witty voice that holds steady even when the scenes she describes convulse with grief. With Jordanna, she's created a character of giant sympathy, desperate love, and the small, ordinary failings that bring us all down. This is a novel that acknowledges the potential for joy even in the bleakest moments, but the author knows such freedom is hard won and that the deepest spiritual wisdom sometimes comes not from the pulpit but straight from the whirlwind.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.