Not So Good, But Necessary

CAUTION: This post may contain spoilers.

A good Christian novel is hard to find. Most of the ones I’ve read tend to be sickeningly sweet, have goody two-shoes characters, or have really unrealistic romantic subplots.

What’s even harder to find is a good Catholic novel, so when I picked up Pierced by a Sword (Bud MacFarlane Jr.), my expectations were high. The paperback was 571 pages in fairly small type, but it was written in a James Patterson–esque style with two- and three-page chapters, so it moved quickly. The author clearly had a lot of knowledge of Catholicism, history, and random trivia, which he scattered throughout the book to good effect. The result was a novel steeped in theology that made sense and coordinated with Church teaching. It was refreshing to read a novel that didn’t make fun of Catholicism or that isn’t ignorant about it.

However, as much as I appreciated the author’s bravery in writing the book and tackling some tough, controversial subjects, I didn’t like the story or the writing style as much as I thought I would. The plot was a typical save-the-world, action movie scenario, where a group of young Catholics band together against the forces of darkness in a relativistic world gone mad—a world eerily like the one in which we live today. The novel explores the historical Marian apparitions, in which Mary (the mother of Jesus) has warned the world of impending doom because people have turned from God and refuse to repent and believe in the Gospel.

I tend to dislike these “epic” novels because they are often gimmicky. Character development is shallow, plot elements are ones you’ve seen before in tons of previous action movies and thriller novels, and so on. I think Pierced by a Sword suffered from that to a great degree. I wished that it had been a bit closer to home and not on such a large scale.

The characters were simultaneously easy to relate to and difficult to like. Many of them were converts (or reverts) to the Catholic faith after living far less-than-holy lives. A drug dealer has a conversion and becomes a priest, a womanizer sees the error of his ways and becomes chaste, and a hardened Jersey girl finds her softer side. I loved that these Catholic characters were not portrayed as perfect or goody two-shoes types. But I didn’t really like or relate to any of the characters after their conversions, because it seemed like once they found the faith, they never faltered and never committed any major sins. In real life, finding faith is just the first step. You fail and fall over and over again and you’re still the same sinner you were before, just with hope that you’ll get better with God’s help and continued reconciliation and penance.

Thankfully, the author managed to avoid deus ex machina. Many Christian novels fall victim to situations where the main problems in the story are solved totally by God and not the characters. In this book, God (and Mary) was never far off, but the characters solved the problems on their own and recognized the extent that God could help them and what they had to do to help themselves.

The strangest thing about the book was that it was initially published in 1995, then was updated and revised in 2007. However, the person or people who did the updates did not do a good job, because the book was supposed to have been updated to take place in 2007, but it still felt like the events were occurring in 1995. The Internet is never mentioned, and hardly anyone uses a computer. At one point, it mentioned 9/11 and the twin towers, and in the next moment, one of the characters made some reference to being in the 90s. Even more strange, many of the characters talk as though it’s 1950. I’ll be honest; had the book not included Catholic themes and had not been written by a Catholic author, I would have given it a worse review because of those careless and easily avoided errors.

The overarching thought I came away with upon finishing the book was that it was good only because it was unique and needed to be written. It presented a view of a better, more holy world, and a much more healthy view of marriage, community, and spiritual warfare than we are accustomed to in modern America. People need to hear the messages the author proclaimed, but the messages were not presented in the wrapping of good writing, which was a shame. I learned that Pierced by a Sword is the first in a trilogy, and my first thought was that I wanted to read the second two books, just to hear the message of hope. But the sad thing is, I’m not expecting good writing.