If suddenly confronted with the devil and a proposition to fulfill your dreams, would you take it? A new novel by Thomas J. Davis, professor of religious studies and associate dean for academic affairs in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, puts his protagonist in that very position and ponders the sacrifices people are willing to make in order to succeed.
The Devil Likes to Sing (Cascade Books) tells the story of Timothy McFarland, a failed theology student who begins writing fiction. Feeling he’s a hack, McFarland strikes a deal with Lucifer, who offers to shape him into a success.
"The book is a look at self-identity," Davis says. "How we think of ourselves, who we are, whether or not we accept who we are. Within all of us we have these self-doubts, thinking there is a way to change who we are that will make us more acceptable to others."
Davis always wanted to be a storyteller long his first foray into fiction, but he focused instead on his education and academic career. The jump into novel-writing was eventually triggered by his family memories.
"My father was grieving about the disappearance of a way of life in the north Georgia mountains that he had known as a boy," Davis says. "He would tell stories about when he was a kid, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to capture my father’s sense of wonder in a novel and write about north Georgia through his perspective.’"
That exercise grew into his first novel, The Christmas Quilt (Rutledge Hill Press), a story about a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother’s final months of life. The book earned a Reader’s Choice award and was a selection in the Doubleday Book Club. "That book came from my need to pay homage to my ancestry," says Davis.
Where ancestry inspired his first novel (and his second, The Aluminum Christmas Tree), Davis’s academic research and teaching play a large role in The Devil Likes to Sing. He says the new book also works as a meditation on Christian theology, filtering historical figures like French theologian John Calvin-one of Davis’s favorite research topics-through the devil’s perspective.
But storytelling also plays a role in his classroom. "Much of what I teach is the history of Christianity, and it tends to be very narrative-I tell a lot of stories in class," he says. "I’ve noticed that students tend to be drawn in with a good story."
Indeed, Davis says storytelling is a good way for students to see how certain religious ideas, rituals, and institutions developed over a period of 2,000 years.
In his new novel, the devil also takes the storytelling approach, only he twists religious history to suit his needs. Davis warns that the epigraphs that open book-selections from Milton, Blake, and the Christian New Testament on the nature of the devil-are important for the reader. He also includes a warning at the end that readers shouldn’t take the devil’s word on matters of Christian faith and practices at face value. "He is, after all, somewhat biased," Davis says.