Monday, 10 February 2014

Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels: a review

I hadn't heard of Philip Gulley until the morning of this past Christmas Day, when I discovered a paperback edition of one of his "Harmony" novels ("Signs and Wonders") in my Christmas stocking. 
  • I started reading it sometime on Boxing Day. 
  • By New Year's Eve, I had ordered the other novels in the "Harmony" series from an online bookseller (the one named after a river in Brazil). 
  • By the end of the first week of February, I had read all the novels in the series except the two specifically Christmas-oriented books (which I'm saving until next December as a Christmas treat for myself). 
I think I'm hooked on Philip Gulley's books.  (I may have to start on his non-fiction.)  As a writer, he's almost unknown here in Australia, unfortunately (which is why I needed to order his books online).

Philip Gulley's novels are set in the fictional rural community of Harmony, Indiana, in the Midwest of the United States.  They tell with great humour the story of the ministry of Sam Gardner, the pastor of Harmony Friends Meeting (i.e., Quakers), both his frustrations in ministry and the joys he encountered.

(For my readers in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the Northeastern US, the idea of a Quaker Meeting having a pastor may be curious.  These books are set in the context of a strand of Quaker life - common in the Midwestern US - where the Meetings for Worship are much more formally structured than they are among classical Quakers, and where the congregations - as a result - have pastors.)

Some of the review notes on the covers of the books compare Philip Gulley's accounts of life in a rural community to those of James Herriott's accounts of his life as a veterinarian in rural Yorkshire and to Garrison Keillor's broadcasts of life at "Lake Woebegone", Minnesota.  Affirming the links with Herriott and Keillor, I see other parallels in Gulley's work to some of my favourite recent writers.

In the way he accurately (with some license allowed for dramatic exaggeration) depicts the work of ministry in a local congregation, both the real frustrations and the real satisfactions, both the personal drama and the unintentional comedy, as the context for his story-telling, Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels resemble Harry Kemelman's "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late" series of mysteries.  A person considering that ministry (in any faith tradition) is their vocation is well-advised to read these books (as well as to read Kemelman).

In terms of the way he weaves mature, reflective theological commentary into his storyline, Gulley's work is very similar to the late Father Andrew Greeley's mystery novels featuring Bishop "Blackie" Ryan.   Not only does he tell a good, entertaining story, but Philip Gulley (like Andrew Greeley) teaches good theology in way that is accessible to readers who are not theologically trained.

(Note:  For fans of Harry Kemelman's "Rabbi" novels and Andrew Greeley's "Blackie Ryan" novels, please note that Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels are not mysteries.)

In terms of celebrating the authentic humanity, the real diversity, and (at times) the vulnerability of the people found in the typical worshipping congregation (including the really mixed-up ultra-conservative types), Gulley's books remind me of the stories of Adrian Plass, particularly his "Sacred Diary" series.

In terms of the ability to find both gripping drama and high comedy in people such as your own neighbours living their day-to-day lives, Gulley's books remind me of the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

Some of the theological themes in Philip Gulley's novels have been developed further in his non-fiction books.  One of these, a theme which has also featured in a post in this blog, is the affirmation of the universal nature of God's grace, the belief that God's grace will ultimately prevail over all things, including an affirmation that (in my own words, not Gulley's) "God will not condemn people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong".

Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels are definitely worth reading.  He tells a good story, with some good theology wrapped up in the story, along with some genuinely funny moments.  If you're outside the US, it may necessitate a visit to the website named after the Brazilian river, but it's well worth it.


Titles of the "Harmony" series: 
  • Home to Harmony
  • Just Shy of Harmony
  • Signs and Wonders
  • Life Goes On
  • A Change of Heart
  • Almost Friends

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.