Allison's Book Bag

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon

Posted on: March 25, 2012

In His Steps has long been one of my favorite Christian novels. Upon reading it for the first time in my teens, I tried for a long time to live by the question asked of its characters: “What would Jesus do?” While I don’t remember the results of my attempts, I do recall having long conversations with my dad about how as a Christian I should approach writing fiction. Thus, I felt both apprehensive and excited at the chance to read In His Steps again for our family book discussion. Anytime I reread a novel that I’ve first encountered years ago, I worry that it won’t hold the same appeal. Yet remembering how much In His Steps had impacted me as a Christian, I really wanted to still love it. For the most part, I do.

A lot of interesting stuff happens in the all-important first chapter. For example, the first scene always grabs me. It’s Friday morning and the Reverend Henry Maxwell is trying to prepare his Sunday morning sermon. He’s been interrupted several times and thus is growing nervous. It’s such a tiny incident, yet one to which I fully relate because of how frustrated I feel when my work is interrupted. Next comes an ironic moment. The Reverend is writing about how Christians should follow in Jesus’s steps, when a shabbily dressed man knocks on his door. Although the Reverend is polite about it, he basically tells him he doesn’t have time to deal with his needs and so loses the chance to minister as Jesus might. Moving quickly forward, it’s now Sunday morning and the Reverend is standing in his pulpit and feeling proud of his church, congregation, and sermon. However, his comfortable and orderly world is about to be turned upside down by the presence again of the tramp. One week later, the Reverend challenges his congregation to pledge to do everything after asking: “What would Jesus do?”

As for the subsequent chapters, I appreciate how real the church members are who accept the pledge. These aren’t your average stereotypical Christians for whom following Jesus is the easiest thing in the world. For example, there is Edward Norman, editor of the Raymond Daily News. Anyone who has responded to a call for repentance or renewal at a religious service will relate to how hard it is to keep these promises when living in the “real” world again. Similarly, as the regular life of the paper starts on another week’s whirl of activity, Edward wavers in his resolve and so must turn to God for strength. And before the morning is even half over, he’s already facing decisions about what kind of stories to run. Will he cave? And if he doesn’t, will his paper survive?

Then there’s Rachel Winslow, a beautiful and talented singer. Rachel has received an offer of a place with a large traveling company. Moreover, the salary is large. All of her high society associates keep telling her a voice like hers belongs to a larger audience than First Church. I like the description Sheldon provides of her uncharacteristically outspoken reaction to one of those associates: “But with all her repression there was possible in her an occasional sudden breaking out that was simply an impulsive, thoroughly frank, truthful expression of her utmost inner personal feeling.” Rachel might be popular and pretty, but she’s also complex. As a Christian himself, Sheldon knows that Christians aren’t all cut from the same cloth.

A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet

A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several other engaging stories, but I’ll note just that of Jasper Chase. The heroine of his first novel had been his own ideal of Rachel Winslow, with whom Jasper is in love. One night as he walks Rachel home, he openly reveals his love. When Rachel rejects him, Jasper throws himself into his next novel. As he writes, he continually struggles with the question: “What would Jesus do?” Naturally, he served as the inspiration so many years ago when I asked my dad about how as a Christian I should approach writing fiction.

In His Steps is full of interesting situations and unique characters. It also contains a thought-provoking theme. Yet it’s not without flaws. Sheldon’s writing style sometimes feels overwrought: “What were the flippant, perfumed, critical audiences in concert halls compared with this dirty, drunken, impure, besotted mass of humanity that trembled and wept and great strangely, sadly thoughtful under the touch of this divine ministry of this beautiful woman.” There are also some redundant moments such as the inclusion of a letter by the Reverend Calvin Bruce, wherein readers essentially receive a summary of the events which have transpired to date at the Raymond Church. What caused me most to skip paragraphs however was the prohibitionist agenda that it’s clear Sheldon wanted to push. The increasing number of tirades for prohibition especially in the latter part of In His Steps grew wearisome.

Despite these few criticisms, In His Steps remains one of my favorite Christian novels. I’m also thinking again about how to answer the question: “What would Jesus do?”  And so, in a highly entertaining form, Sheldon has successfully gotten across an important message.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

4 Responses to "In His Steps by Charles Sheldon"

I thought that the first half of the book was pretty decent but then all it seems to be getting at was of how bad it was to drink and all:(

One of my immediate ways of responding to the “What would Jesus do?” question is to take Sundays off from blog commitments. God rested on the seventh day. It’s time for me to do that too. And so from now on, my posts will run from Monday through Saturday.

A good review of an interesting and motivating book!

Your second criticism (“There are also some redundant moments…”) prompts me to share my opinion that In His Steps would be a better book if it omitted the letter and the chapters between it and the book’s closing chapter. However, despite my thinking that, In His Steps remains one of my favourite Christian novels. And, like for you, it again has me thinking, “What would Jesus do?”

Thank you for bringing this important book to the attention of a new generation of readers.

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