Revelation: a book review

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.

Cross Road to Freedom: a book review

Cross Roads  by Wm. Paul Young

William Paul Young‘s first novel, The Shack, was a publishing phenomenon. Young wrote the novel for his children to explain his thoughts on God and his theological convictions.  More than 18 million copies later, Young had an international bestseller which touched the lives of people all over the globe. Itt has got people thinking about what kind of God, God is,what the Trinity really is and how the persons of God relate to one another.

Cross Roads is Young’s second novel and while sophomore efforts seldom live up to the hype generated by a best selling debut, for my money this is the better novel.  While there is a certain similarity between the two novels (i.e. both are about profoundly broken men who are bitter at God after experiencing the loss of a loved one, both books bring the protagonist into a transforming  and healing encounter with the triune God) the Shack was less crafted and preachier. Cross Roads is as interesting (and as varied) as it is profound.

If I were to describe the experience of reading this novel, it is a bit like if you cross The Shack with A Christmas Carol, The Great Divorce and Being John Malcovich.  The Story begins when Anothony Spencer, a businessman who is highly successful but who has alienated everyone in his life, has a cerebral hemorrhage and slips into a coma.  He awakens to find himself in a deserted wasteland where he follows tangled paths up a hillside. There he meets a mysterious stranger named Jack who tells him the place where he is, is not exactly hell but it is not exactly home. Jack gets Tony to think hard about the nature of truth and reality. Soon Jack leaves and Jesus and a mysterious Lakota woman show up (the Holy Spirit in disguise and instructs Tony to call her Grandmother).  After that things get really interesting and they send Tony on a journey which will result in his ultimate healing, though not in the way he initially envisions.

The twists and turns in this book make it a fun read (I have tried not to give too much away).  This is great storytelling and well worth it.  In The Shack  Young gave us a picture of his theology by encapsulating it in story. This book is no less theological but it doesn’t try to say everything about God. The theology that is explored here is integral to the plot.

What I really appreciated about this book (and The Shack) is that Young is great at imagining a pursuing God who does not give up on those who, because of the damage and hurt they have suffered, have become embittered souls. The God in these novels is actively seeking, pursuing, calling, but never forcing. The triune God doesn’t demand, but invites. Anytime someone ‘images’ God they get something wrong, but I think these aspects of the book are profoundly right.  So go on, read it!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Silent but Non-Violent: a book review

The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green

The life of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews who came to set his people free. In time, he would be revealed as the new Adam–the first person of the new humanity and the one who ushered in the Kingdom of God by his life, death and resurrection.

But if Jesus’ life is the greatest story ever told, the story of his boyhood may be the greatest story never told. Outside the nativity story and the visit of the magi when Jesus was a toddler, the only glimpse of the boy Jesus in the Bible is when he ditches his parents to discuss theology in the temple, confounding the religious leaders. When Mary confronts him with her worry, Jesus says, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49)

In a novel exploring Jesus’s life from birth to Beatitudes, Alan W. C. Green attempts to lift the veil of what the boy Jesus was like (actually much of is Jesus as a young man before he started his ministry. The Silent Years denotes the period of Jesus’ life which we know little about.  This is the story of Yeshua bar Joseph narrated by his maternal uncle, Benaiah bar Jabez, a Galilaen Pharisee who instructed Jesus in Torah when he was a little boy.

Green draws together biographical strands from the Synoptic Gospels and imaginatively reconstructs his vision of Jesus and the formative influences in his life. In some details Green is faithful to the gospel traditions: his vision of Jesus affirms the virgin birth and the adult Jesus is described as a healer. At other points he diverges from the traditional account: Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem  because of a vision of Mary’s and not because of a Roman census, the visit of the magi and the death of the Holy innocents is passed over without mention, nor is there any mention of Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt, The adult Jesus sets up a fish and wealth distrbution program with some Capernaum fishermen, and Jesus is clearly depicted as a holy man but does not seem to be the sinless Son of God (though God does give him the title of Son of Human).

Green’s Jesus is motivated by a series of crisis points. As a boy he is overcome at the sight of some crucified protesters.  He rejects Benaiah as a teacher because the witness of peace in prophets (especially in Isaiah’s Servant Songs) while Benaiah holds out hope for God’s violent overthrow of Israel’s enemies. When Joseph dies, Jesus learns of the mysterious circumstances of his birth and resolves to serve God by patterning his life after Isaiah’s suffering servant. Another crisis point happens when he is beaten by some renegade Roman soliders and forced to watch his pupil Mary Magdalene get raped.  Jesus has to face his own rage, especially when Simon and his fishermen friends avenge him by murdering the Roman soldiers. But his own encounter with God in the wilderness gives him purpose as he dedicates his life to sharing the good news of God’s kingdom and God’s great love.

In the end, the Jesus of Green’s novel looks a little too much like a twenty first century, humanist do-gooder. Jesus starts a redistribution center and with Mary Magdalene organizes a women’s literacy center. Certainly the inclusion of women and the poor were kingdom priorities to Jesus, and he challenged the traditions of his day, but  I think Jesus’ was more than a proto-communist/feminist.  These and other details (like Salome’s psychoanalysis on Mary Magdalene) seem anachronistic to me. I also found the story telling a little stilted. So while there are some interesting elements to this story I did not find this to be a compelling account.

But certainly it is fun to imagine what events shaped young Jesus and influenced his psychological development. He was God, but he was fully human. I liked the idea behind this novel better than the execution.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.