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Leland Ryken has taught literature—specializing in the classics—at Wheaton College for 44 years. So when he describes a book as “one of the best literary ‘finds’ I have ever made,” I take notice. I asked him if he would explain:

Bo Giertz’s fictional work The Hammer of God is one of the best literary “finds” I have ever made.

I discovered this novel-length series of three novellas while co-authoring a soon-to-be-released, co-authored (with Philip Ryken and Todd Wilson) book entitled Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature. Initially Giertz’s book came onto my radar screen as a candidate for the handbook section of our book on the portrayal of pastors in the literary classics, but once I started to read the book I could hardly put it down. My son quickly agreed that The Hammer of God merited a full-scale chapter and not just an entry in our handbook section.

The story of the author is nearly as interesting as the masterpiece of clerical fiction that he composed in a span of six weeks while serving as a rural pastor in Sweden. At the age of only 43, Giertz became a bishop in the Swedish Lutheran church. The best-known biography of Giertz calls him “an atheist who became a bishop.” The publication of The Hammer of God in 1941 brought Giertz immediate fame.

The design of this trilogy of novellas is ingenious.

Each of the three stories follows a young Lutheran pastor over approximately a two-year span at the beginning of his ministerial career, all in the same rural parish. The overall time span for the work as a whole is 130 years.

Each of the three pastors arrives fresh from theological training and decidedly immature (and perhaps a nominal rather than true believer).

Each of the three attains true Christian faith through encounters with (1) parishioners, (2) fellow pastors, and (3) assorted religious movements that were in fact prominent in Sweden during the historical eras covered.

There are thus two plot lines in the book: one recounts the “coming of age” spiritual pilgrimages of the three young ministers, and the other is an episodic fictional story of a rural Swedish parish.

No other work covered in Pastors in the Classics covers more issues in ministry than this one, and it has the added advantage of being packaged in three manageable units.

In an essay entitled “Fiction as an Instrument for the Gospel: Bo Giertz as Novelist,” published in A Hammer of God: Bo Giertz, Gene Edward Veith Jr. makes a comment on Christian fiction in general:

Fiction lends itself well to the exploration of spiritual issues, since the form gives life to ideas, making them tangible and relating them to human life. . . . And yet, good Christian novels are rare. . . . It is preachy, contrived, and it does not ring true.   The story is often formulaic, and the characters are stock “good guys” or “villains,” with no complexity or inner lives.  The obligatory conversion scene is often unrelated to the on-going plot, coming as an interruption rather than as a believable development in the character’s life.  And, ironically, much of today’s Christian fiction is moralistic, rather than evangelical, presenting good characters to emulate, rather than sinners being forgiven.

In contrast, Veith points out that “Giertz’s characters . . .  have a duality that makes them complex, in stark contrast to the one-dimensional stock characters of most religious novels.” “Most Christian fiction today,” he writes, “lacks [Giertz’s] kind of grounding in the tangible, the concrete, the actual, honest realities of human life and of divine revelation.”

Here Veith summarizes the essence of this trilogy of novellas as follows:

What Bo Giertz does is explore that Gospel and the false theologies that obscure it by bringing them down to earth, showing what difference they make in the lives of ordinary human beings. He shows “tortured souls”—often made such by the legalistic religiosity they embrace—and how the Gospel of Christ is the “medicine” that alone can heal them. He works not with abstract propositions but with concrete individuals and situations. He makes the case for orthodox evangelical Christianity not by setting forth an intellectual argument, but by writing a novel.

So for those who lament the mediocrity of much of what passes today as “Christian art,” and for those who are tempted to think that all explicit presentations of the gospel in art end up being preachy or moralistic or cheesy, perhaps we should simply tolle lege (“take up and read”) The Hammer of God.

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16 thoughts on “The Best Christian Novel You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. Interesting. Provocative. Especially for any Christian who labors in writing.

  2. Reg Schofield says:

    I have been so hungry for something in good fiction to read so thanks for this info. I will place it on my list of must haves .

  3. John says:

    I am so happy others are discovering both this work and Bo Giertz. The Hammer of God is a book I read again and again along with probably having given away 15-20 copies on my own.
    It is very important to get the later edition (cover in picture) and not the earlier English edition which for some inexplicable reason leaves out the final chapter of the third novella.

    May I offer a reading suggestion: Don’t read the preface first. Read all three novellas and then the preface. Otherwise the wonder of the stories are underminded.

    Though I am not Lutheran, his insight into the gospel and how theology works it way into daily life is extraordinary. Giertz was a lone voice in the Swedish State Church who was an inerrantist and a complementarian all the way to his death.

    He has been rightly labeled the CS Lewis of England except I would call him a cross of Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. He single-handedly translated the New Testament into modern Swedish, wrote many NT commentaries, a superb work on preaching among many other books that are available in Swedish and German but precious few in English.

    I have a rare copy of a long out of print work called “In My Own Eyes” which is an astounding retelling of the major passages in the NT through the eyes of participants in the Biblical narrative. (Though he opens with a passage on King David). There is simply no other book like it and no copies available in English. In my library of too many volumes it would be probably be the second volume I would rescue if my house was on fire. I found mine in a rare-book story in England.
    I have long lobbied Concordia House to make more of his works available in English. If you enjoy Hammer of God, join with my voice in lobbying Concordia House to make more his works available in English. Pastor John Ramer

    1. Lobbying Concodia Publishing house is a lost cause. They need translators who know Swedish. And they don’t know how to treat them or respect them. So i find other outlets for Bo Giertz works now.

  4. Bjarte says:

    Yes! I love the title of this article.

    The hammer of God was for many years recomended to all graduates at the Lutheran theological seminary in Norway: All ministers should read this book no less than once a year.
    Rev. Bjarte

  5. Jerry says:

    My daughter tells of a missionary husband-wife team who stayed with her; they both came each with their own copy–The Hammer of God is so thorough it’s required reading in some comparative theology classes

  6. I’m always so happy to hear of others being turned on to the works of Bo Giertz. I first read him when my dad gave me the book while visiting me in Rome. I think I read it in just one day. I too couldn’t put it down. It was instrumental in my decision to enter the ministry. Since then I have been collecting and translating his works. More and more are finding their way on to the market.
    For instance, the best devotional ever written “To Live With Christ” is now available through Concordia Publishing House, though you get a better deal on Amazon.
    Last year I translated and published another one of his novels “The Knights of Rhodes”. Great novel depicting the theology of the cross, and by the way, some great pastoral characters in the book…
    There is also “A Hammer for God” a book of essays by and about Bo Giertz, in which you will find Veith’s essay quoted in this article, and one by me.
    Recently a friend of mine translated a great volume of his called simply “Christ’s Church” which is phenomenal. Hans Andrae did a great job.
    I am currently translating a compilation of his ordination sermons title “Then Fell the Lord’s Fire” I hope to have it out this year. Therein is balm for a pastor’s soul. It has done wonders to sustain me in rough times.
    So if you like “The Hammer of God” then check out some of these other titles.

  7. Josiah says:

    I read this book in seminary, and it is indeed an excellent novel, or series of three novellas. It is interesting to read these commentators writing about how he makes the argument for orthodox, evangelical Christianity–I believe that he does, however, in so doing he also explicitly argues against pietistic, baptistic Christianity. In other words, he persuasively argues for paedobaptism, and in favor of a sacramental understanding of the Church. In fact, one of the crises that the young ministers has to deal with is whether or not to be re-baptized as an adult, and what to do with those in his congregation who are being re-baptized.

    Anyhow, I do believe he is orthodox and evangelical in the best meaning of those terms. His theology, however, is explicitly Lutheran, which comes through the novel in spades–and is probably different than many readers of this blog. That said, allow me to repeat: the novellas are brilliant and I heartily commend them.

  8. AC Walter says:

    Yes, the Giertz book is a must-read. And another fine piece of Scandinavian fiction about a pastor is Olafur Johann Sigurdsson’s novella “Pastor Bodvar’s Letter,” to be found in the Sigurdsson collection _The Stars of Constantinople_.

  9. The Swedish filmer Rolf Hamark has made a lovely film LÅNGFILMEN STENGRUNDEN, in English THE HAMMER OF GOD. The film is translated in English. You can buy the film at

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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