Peggy Payne‘s imaginative first novel Revelation (first published in 1988) tells the story of Swain Hammond, a mainline Presbyterian pastor of a respectable, educated congregation. His life is turned upside down the day he hears God speak to him. What is the essence of this Divine communication? Nothing spectacular, at first. Swain hears God call him “son.” Later he hears other words he can’t quite make sense of, or explain to anyone else. Then he receives his ‘call to ministry’,’ fifteen years into his pastorate.
The words from God have a profound effect on Swain. At the start of the novel, Swain is a reasoned and rational minister of a late 80’s liberal congregation–traditional in its worship style, de-mythologized in its exegesis and not open to charismatic expression. When the respectable Reverend Hammond begins talking about hearing God in his yard, the church elders think he’s come unhinged. And he has. The supernatural breaks through his carefully constructed rationalism and he finds himself wrestling with emotions and feelings of abandonment rooted in childhood. He punches a parishioner after an accident which blinds a little boy. While visiting the boy in hospital, Swain tries his hand at faith healing (responding to a power he senses in the room) and tells the boy to remove his bandages and be healed. As these deeds come to light, it brings Swain into conflict at his church.
Swain Hammond is a man of contradictions. He is a vocational minister and preacher who has committed his life to helping others. But he harbors vitriol for those he serves. He hates kids and feels superior to just about everyone. When he hears God, his feeling of superiority grows. He also fantasizes about an affair with a congregant (the blind boy’s mother). He continues to serve his congregation and do good, but he is a difficult protagonist to actually like.
I enjoyed Revelation. Payne spins a compelling tale of a conflicted man coming to terms with God. But he does change in the end, and experiences healing from his difficult past. This is not a ‘Christian novel’ as such, but a spiritual novel and accessible to anyone who has longed for a richer experience of the divine. Swain’s eventual transformation comes after a vocational crisis. In the end Swain is less isolated and more gracious with those around me.
I give it three-and-a-half stars.
Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy and the author in exchange for an honest review.
Payne’s novel is available as a Kindle E-book for $2.99 US from Amazon.