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.

 

A Door That Shouldn’t Be Opened

SPOILER warning!

I finished Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris a couple weeks ago, which is the first fiction book I’ve read in a long time. The only reason I’d give it even 2 out of 5 stars is because I was so desperate to read fiction that it seemed excellent. Kind of like when you’re really hungry and even that cardboard-like leftover pizza from five days ago is wonderful.

Anyway, Behind Closed Doors is the typical domestic violence thriller, pitting husband against wife. Grace is a 30-something woman, and her younger sister, Millie, has Down syndrome. Grace is finding it difficult to get a decent guy who accepts her and her sister. Her dreams appear to have come true when Jack Angel appears out of nowhere, dances with Millie at the park, then asks Grace out. Of course, is the perfect guy: good-looking, intelligent, and makes a ton of money as a highfalutin lawyer who defends battered women. Naturally, Grace falls for him, and in a matter of only three months, he asks her to marry him. She accepts. Her life becomes hell.

My first thought upon learning that the villain’s name was Jack Angel was “well, that’s a screamingly obvious technique to reveal that a seemingly good guy is in fact the bad guy.” Turns out that Jack is not actually his real name but a “clever” alias he developed for himself after he murdered his own mother. Classy guy.

I found it a bit unbelievable that Grace would end up marrying Jack in the first place. She supposedly had a lot of experience with dating, so you’d think she would know the warning signs, or her “creep radar” would start going off. But if you read the literature about psychopaths, which Jack revealed himself to be in short order, you know that they are initially charming and adept at fooling people. The entire time I was reading the book, I was picturing Jack looking something like Ted Bundy.

Behind Closed Doors is the kind of book in which you want to reach inside the fictional world and and kill the character yourself. It was also the kind of book that makes you feel uncomfortable the entire time you’re reading it, because you’re waiting for the next horrible thing to befall the protagonist. I didn’t particularly care for that kind of suspense vibe because everything that happened to Grace was just plain sick. Jack ended up wanting to get to Millie because she would be easier to scare (being that she had Down syndrome), and he apparently lives off the feeling of fear that he invokes in his victims. Fortunately nothing happened Millie, but just the thought that Jack would hurt her was very off-putting, like the author was making a cheap shot at people with disabilities.

Most suspense novels are incredibly fast paced and don’t have much description of settings and characters. Both applied to Behind Closed Doors, which I finished in less than 24 hours. Because there was so little description, it was hard to picture anything beyond Ted Bundy in an immaculate house torturing Grace, who I vaguely imagined to look like Gwyneth Paltrow. At a couple points in the book, the characters traveled to Thailand, but I couldn’t picture it at all from the author’s (lack of) description.

Other reviews have made comparisons to The Girl on the Train, but Behind Closed Doors was not as good or as memorable. What would have been more interesting is if the story had been written from Jack’s perspective; I would have liked to know more about his backstory. I suspect he was lying when he told Grace that he killed his mother. It is also rare to read a book from the perspective of the villain, especially a book in this genre.

Basically, I’d recommend this one if you have a few hours to kill or if for some reason, you want to feel very uncomfortable. Other than that… stay away from it.

Who’s Winning the Culture War?

One of my favorite nonfiction books is a tiny volume by Peter Kreeft, titled How to Win the Culture War. It was published in 2002, when most people believed that the culture war announced by Pat Buchanan had ended and talking about it was a moot point. If the so-called culture war was between the Right and the Left, the Left had surely won, and they seem to be gaining more victories even today.

In Kreeft’s book, the culture war isn’t about Right versus Left per se; it’s about an ancient war: the culture of life versus the culture of death. In short, the culture war is about where you’re going to spend eternity, and whether we like it or not, we all will have to make that choice. The secular culture hinders our journey toward life.

We often mistakenly believe that other humans are our enemy. If you’re a Democrat, Republicans are the enemy and vice versa. If you’re an NC State fan, then you may think UNC fans are the enemy. If you only drink Pepsi, you just can’t understand why some people drink Coke, and so on. Humans like to create animosity and rivalries. It’s just how we are.

But the enemy is not a human. The enemy has been causing our demise for thousands of years. The enemy is the devil. Now some people may laugh at that and say that the devil doesn’t exist, Christianity is a fairy tale, and so forth. But that is exactly what the devil wants you to think. The book by Kreeft outlines ways that we can be aware of the devil’s presence in our lives and how he has infiltrated the secular culture, and how we can fight against the secular society even though it appears that the other side has already won. We are each in a battle for the fate of our own soul, and we are called to help others fight that battle as well. The trick is helping others in a tactful and compassionate way, and that is a whole ‘nother blog post. 🙂