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.

 

Concupiscence and JonBenet Ramsey

I saw her in the supermarket when I was eight years old. Her bright face adorned the cover of a tabloid, right beside the face of Bat Boy, who always fascinated me because I was never sure whether he was real.

I hated her. I hated everything about her in that one instant when her smiling face glowed up at me. She would steal everything. She was pretty.

“What happened to her?” I asked my mother, because I did not yet know what the word murdered meant.

“She was killed,” my mother said, shaking her head as she pushed the cart of groceries along and began to stack cans onto the conveyor belt. “Poor little girl.”

“Good,” I said, my mouth full of bitter poison.

“Bridget! How dare you!”

The reprimand made me hate the girl even more. She had a funny name, and that made it all worse. Some stuck-up, rich, preppy name. A name I couldn’t pronounce, but once I heard it pronounced, I was jealous all over again because the name sounded so perfect, just like her.

xxx

“Concupiscence!” the parish priest bellowed, his white robes flapping around him. He reminded me of a dove anyway with his beaky nose and black liquid eyes, and as he yelled now, he seemed to be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. “The tendency toward sin! No one is exempt!”

My eyes fell on the statue of Mary to the left of the altar. Except her. The epitome of woman. Blond and pristine as depicted. Blue, dewy eyes, looking nothing like she would have looked in reality. Not a dirty, dark-skinned, large-nosed Jew.

xxx

I had some female friends. Girls with blond hair and lovely, musical names like Selena and Alexandria, girls I eventually grew to hate because my name was Bridget, which sounded like a punishment when it was screamed and utilitarian when it was not. As if I was a chair.

Her name echoed back to me when I called the names of my friends. Selena, Alexandria. God forbid I call them Lena or Lexi. God forbid I ever call her Jonny, even in my mind.

xxx

The Christmas when I was eleven, we were poor. My father had fallen into depression and lost his job, so my mother could not afford presents. I wasn’t disappointed because the part of Christmas I liked the most was going to church at midnight and exiting the church with snow whirling around me, so when I looked back at the lights glowing from the sanctuary, I imagined that I was prairie girl Laura Ingalls Wilder, who took nothing for granted.

That morning, there was a box under the tree, somewhat heavy, and on the plain white label, in frilly handwriting, was “For The Little Mother.”

“Mom, this must be yours,” I said.

“I think it’s for you, Bridget,” she said, a secret in her smile.

I unwrapped the box, trying to hold back what would surely be disappointment upon realizing that the gift inside was indeed my mother’s.

A porcelain doll stared back at me, so delicate and flawless that she took my breath away. Her hair was stiff and white-blond, her eyes blue. Lily, I thought. She looks just like a Lily.

Part of me knew that I was long past the age when I should be playing with dolls, but a stronger part of me wanted to raise my doll. After all, I was “The Little Mother.”

My mother sensed my hesitation. “Are you sure you want her?”

“Yes,” I said firmly.

xxx

Lily went everywhere with me, except for school, where I would have been relentlessly teased for still playing with dolls at the ripe old age of eleven. I bought dresses for her, combed her stiff blond hair until it was soft and pliable, and read and sung to her as though she was my own child.

Until the day a heavy book fell on top of her and broke her where she lay in her carriage. Her porcelain face was smashed into three large pieces, and seeing her like that destroyed the illusion that she was a child.

She was just a doll, nothing more.

xxx

High school was a minefield, full of girls who would steal your boyfriend and your success when they were pretty and intelligent enough to obtain both on their own and you were hideous and desperate and grabbing at whatever you could get.

xxx

He had ugly teeth and uglier hair, several years out of style. I loved him because he paid attention to me. My face was dull, but I had a vagina, which was more memorable.

I still spent time with Alexandria, who had developed marvelously, somehow remaining slender and small while growing enormous breasts and child-bearing hips.

He fell victim to Alexandria’s claws and to her vagina, which was probably more memorable and special than mine.

I stopped talking to her, but she never stopped talking to me. Whenever her words went in one of my ears and out of the other, I could see the knife she held behind her back. I could feel it as she plunged it between my shoulder blades, twisting and pulling.

Eventually, I took that same knife and her own boyfriend, whose penis could hardly be seen under the flap of fat that was his stomach. The revenge was sweet, the sex not so much.

xxx

I married a man who was borne out of a dream. At his request, I sought bridesmaids to even out his posse of groomsmen. I thought of them as handmaids to my queen, and when they would swoop to attend to me on that most special day, the knives I imagined they held in their hands would turn to bouquets of flowers, their green scales to flowing blue dresses, their knowledge of makeup into words of wisdom on how I could heal myself from the hatred I still harbored.

They chatted among themselves in the room where we all dressed. I saw myself in the mirror, beautiful for the first time in my life, my lips somewhat resembling a rosebud, and again, she appeared in my mind. The hatred welled up.

My maid of honor came up behind me and squeezed my shoulders. “Bridget!” she squealed in her too-high voice. “This is the best day of your life! Are you excited?”

I must not have looked it as I stared into the mirror, still faced with the girl whose face should have faded from my mind long ago.

xxx

Now I have a daughter, six years old. From the moment she made her appearance, my husband and I adored her. She has his hazel eyes and curly blond hair, which I am sure will deepen to brown as she gets older.

When she looks into my eyes, when I tuck her in and kiss her good night, I tell her that she is my sunshine, but words cannot express all that she means to me. I would never prostitute her like that other little girl so many years ago, so that she falls into the wrong hands and her face adorns tabloids.

My daughter is pretty but not pretty enough to be used.

Her father and I look at each other after looking at her, and something in me believes that she is the glue that will keep us attached to each other.

I know it is selfish, but when my husband works late and my daughter asks when daddy will come home, I can’t help but think that a blond woman about our age, with pouting lips, filmy hair, and a voice like an angel will swoop him up in her claws, and he will be powerless to resist her.

Thursday Three #39

  1. This is a good article on the importance of writing things by hand rather than writing using a computer. It boils down to this: writing by computer distances a writer from his work, leaving him to feel as though he has little authority over it.
  2. It is hard to bridge the distance between myself and writing, and I don’t think it has anything to do with handwriting versus typing. I no longer feel as though I have time to form a coherent thought, but that’s silly because I need to make time. Priorities have gotten in the way, I suppose.
  3. On the brighter side, I have gotten more of a chance to read. (It is easier to immerse oneself in another person’s created world than to build one’s own.) I am reading Mischling by first-time author Affinity Konar. It’s about twin sisters who wind up as victims of Josef Mengele’s deranged “scientific experiments” during the Holocaust. The writing style is gorgeous; all of the metaphors are spot on. Highly recommended, even if you’re sick to death of stories about World War II.