Review of ‘The Robe’ (a novel)

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Roman soldier who, at Christ’s crucifixion, cast the winning lot for the robe? That is the premise of this 1942 New York Times bestseller, written by Lloyd C. Douglas. The Robe follows Marcellus Gallio, a Roman patrician, and his Greek slave Demetrius. One night at a party, Marcellus made an unguarded remark about the emperor’s heir. His punishment was to be made the commander of a dreary military outpost in Palestine, which is how he came to be at Golgotha that day. A series of events leads up to his making a journey through Judea, Samaria and Galilee on a quest to find out more about Jesus. The garment known as the Robe (yes, with a capital ‘R’) shows up every now and then in the narrative, greatly affecting all who touch it.

I loved the first 100 or so pages and the last 100 or so pages: Rev. Douglas certainly had the talent for writing captivating sentences. Why that skill took its leave in the middle portion of the book escapes me. In addition to being boring, I found the central section to be rather perplexing on account of the anachronisms it contained, and the author’s theology.

As with other novels in the historical fiction genre, it is difficult to tell whether the author departed from the historical record by design or by accident. Granted, Douglas wrote ages before Google and Wikipedia when fact-checking involved hours and hours at a library. On that basis, I can forgive him for messing up the genealogy and chronology of the Roman emperors. But I would have expected an ordained minister to display more knowledge and/or respect for the biblical record.

The events described in the novel cover a period starting from several weeks before the crucifixion through to a year and a half after it. In this relatively short time, there are numerous Gentile believers—our protagonists included. But wouldn’t that invalidate the need for Peter’s vision in Acts 10? The Jews and Gentiles in the novel are also rather chummy with each other, travelling and eating together[]. A keen reader of the Bible would know that Jews didn’t interact with non-Jews any more than they had to (Acts 10:28, 11:2). Douglas takes other liberties with what we know from Acts, for example placing events that are recorded in Acts 7, 12 and 3 in one chapter. In that order. It just felt so wrong reading Douglas’s fictional account of Stephen’s martyrdom that I was driven to put down the novel and pick up Acts chapters 4-6.

As regards his theology, Lloyd Douglas was a man of his time. One of the prevailing thoughts of his day was that the biblical miracles all had natural/ scientific explanations[1]. (Thankfully, that kind of reasoning isn’t as popular as it once was. But doesn’t it make you wonder what biases we are blind to today that will be glaringly obvious to a person living 70 years from now?) Hence, the feeding of the 5,000 was a miracle of generosity: Everyone who’d been sitting on their packed lunches pulled them out on seeing the boy’s noble deed of sharing. Other miracles are recounted in the book, but it seemed to me that the characters believed in them against their better judgment. Conspicuously absent is the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is never mentioned), and an angel is written out of a story.

The emphasis is on Jesus’ ethical teachings, with only one mention apiece of sin and repentance. To oversimplify things, being a Christian according to The Robe is about treating slaves well and being a pacifist. And resisting hostile authorities. Incidentally, all the opposition to the Christians comes from the Roman authorities and not the Jewish religious leaders as we read in the early chapters of Acts. The author may have chosen that plotline in light of WWII, or simply because it made for a more compelling story.

Conclusion

I find reading writers from previous generations to be a mind-stretching exercise, as they tend not to write in the dumbed-down manner of contemporary authors. For example, I picked up the following words: persiflage, tatterdemalion, withal, prating, addlepated, dunnage and badinage. Indeed, from a literary point of view, I find much in The Robe that is commendable. However, when it comes to worldview, which is what matters more to me, I’m not so sure.

So, if you want to read a good story set in the 1st century, go ahead and dig into The Robe. If you want to know more of Jesus of Nazareth, read the Bible.

[1] To learn something about early twentieth century liberal theology, listen to these three talks or read this article.

Correction
[] It turns out it was possible for Jews to eat with Gentiles, provided that the Gentiles hadn’t prepared the food themselves. Source: James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity, pages 145-154. In case you’re wondering, no I haven’t read the source material; I just saw it referenced elsewhere.

Review of ‘John’s Story’ ( a novel)

John's Story by LaHaye and Jenkins

I’ll open by saying that I did not enjoy reading this book. Perusing others’ reviews, I concluded that those who had an experience similar to mine were those who could point out flaws. So, if you nurture any hopes of deriving pleasure from reading John’s Story, don’t bother with the rest of this post.

This novel is set in AD 94-96, the last years of the apostle John’s life. The main characters—all named after historical people—are John, Polycarp (John’s disciple), Ignatius (another of John’s disciples) and Cerinthus (a heretic). The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Part 1 is largely John dictating his gospel to Polycarp. Their dialogue serves as padding for the biblical text. (This section runs from page 3 to page 165 in the edition I read.)
  • Part 2 starts with John’s exile to Patmos and ends with his death in Ephesus. This section contains much of the text of Revelation, again padded with dialogue. (Pages 169-215)
  • Part 3 comprises the 5 NT books attributed to John printed out in their entirety in the NKJV translation. (Pages 219-310)

Doing the calculations, roughly 1/3 of the book is pure Bible. The other 2/3 is more than 60% Bible in my estimation. Conclusion: your time will be better spent reading the Bible.

Following, in no particular order, are what I consider to be some of the shortcomings of this book.

First, John seems to be clueless:

  • About  how Roman justice works. We know he’s an old man and the novel alludes to his extensive travels, yet it falls to a guard to enlighten him on his fate following his arrest. (I guess the explanation was for the reader’s benefit, but it could have  been executed better)
  • About the NT writings. The John in the novel is unaware of what Paul, Peter and even Jude had written concerning false teachers. When Cerinthus is presented, fake John (sorry, I have to distinguish him somehow) acts like nothing like this has ever happened before—or at least that’s the impression I got. I guess the authors were trying to convey the seriousness of false teaching… Additionally, fake John doesn’t behave much like the person who wrote the epistles, which have so much to say about love for God and others.
  • About what to do in general. He seemingly couldn’t do anything without Polycarp’s and Ignatius’ backing or at their suggestion. For example, Polycarp is the one who convinces him to disseminate Revelation among the churches (p186). Otherwise, John would have kept it all to himself!

Second, I wonder what the expression on my face was when I read that the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was found in the Pentateuch (p19). How did such an egregious error make it into the print version??

Third, we never really get to know any of the characters. We learn that John suffered from ill health as a result of his age and that he worried constantly about it.  Polycarp was red-haired and Cerinthus was a persuasive talker. Ignatius? I don’t recall anything special about him. Aside from a few place names, we’re not told anything about the culture, customs, architecture, etc. of any of the locations in the book—which is one of the appeals of reading historical fiction.

Fourth, was Cerinthus in the novel a gnostic or a works-religionist? Gnostics were big on secret knowledge and despised the material world, among other things. Earning/assuring your salvation through doing good works, as stated more than once in the novel, wasn’t one of their ‘things’. Some who read the book may come away thinking that they can identify a Gnostic…  (I’ve written a little about Gnosticism, using resources mentioned in this post.)

Fifth, all the believers in Ephesus met in one location. Everyday. In a chapel.

(5.a) It had been at least a generation since Paul spent 2 years there. Surely there had been some numeric growth in all that time?

(5.b) Ancient sources attest that Christians met weekly: (i)Pliny the younger, a Roman official whose job description included torturing Christians, wrote:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. […] Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.

(ii) Justin Martyr, a Christian, in his First Apology wrote:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

One reason for not meeting daily was that many believers were slaves who didn’t have free time.

(5.c) I’m not too sure, but I think that there weren’t purpose-built structures for worship in the first century.

Sixth, at the beginning of the book John’s imprisoned in the Colosseum in a cell from which he can see gladiators practising. (a) The Romans had proper prisons nearby (b) Even the movie Gladiator got it right: practice was held in the ludus magnus, next door to the Colosseum.

Seventh, when John is dictating to Polycarp, the latter says things like, “I’ve never heard that before.” Others in the book express surprise at, or mock him for, his memory. I recently skimmed through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham states that not only were eyewitnesses well-known in their communities, but that they also often retold their story. They hardly kept silent. It is therefore unlikely that John would spend 60 years not saying some things only to spill them out a year before his death. As to memory, the scholar in the video I embedded in this post explains it quite well.

In conclusion, I’m left wondering how much research Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins undertook. If the omissions and misinformation contained in the book were deliberate choices, an authors’ note to the effect that they were taking liberties would have sufficed to silence me and my nit-picking ilk. John’s Story had great potential, and I’m disappointed that it wasn’t realised.

Review of ‘Byzantium’ (a novel)

Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead
Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

Here’s the opening sentence of this novel:

“I saw Byzantium in a dream, and I knew that I would die there.”

Puts the reader in a certain frame of mind, doesn’t it?

Byzantium tells the story of Aidan, an Irish monk. Together with his companions, he sets out on a pilgrimage to the eponymous city. From the moment Aidan leaves Irish soil, his life suffers an acute shortage of dull moments. In quick succession, there’s a violent storm at sea, a pirate attack, a shipwreck and another pirate attack. The monks are separated and Aidan is taken captive.

He is enslaved (multiple times), learns to speak the language of the Vikings and that of the Saracens, learns to like foreign food, gets himself entangled in imperial court intrigue, survives a battle in the desert, serves as a slave in a silver mine, gets engaged to marry an Arab noblewoman, survives a battle at sea… It is no wonder that he also suffered a crisis of faith, concluding that God had abandoned him.

What I didn’t like. The cast of characters was very long. In order to keep them straight, I made a list which had 51 names by the time I was through. I wish Lawhead hadn’t given inconsequential characters the dignity of a name and occupation. For example, of the 27 Irish and British characters on my list, at least 15 did little to nothing in terms of plot development.

What I don’t know if I like or not. Only when I’d reached the end of the book did I realise that most of the characters who started out as baddies turned out to be really nice people and some of those who were neutral when first introduced ended up as nefarious villains.

Conclusion. A most enjoyable story! No doubt Mr. Lawhead did tonnes of research, which wasn’t wasted on this reader. Towards the end, there was a presentation of the Christian message which thankfully was neither heavy-handed nor shoehorned into the plot.

What of Aidan’s dying in Byzantium? you ask. I had to wait until page 870 to find out; I shan’t be divulging that here 🙂

Review of five novellas by Francine Rivers

A while back, I said I was done with (Christian) fiction. I changed my mind, making an exception for five short and (mostly) sweet novellas by Francine Rivers. I have been her fan ever since I read the Mark of the Lion series when I was newly arrived in Rome. That series was set in 1st-century Rome, and it was exciting for me to recognise locations either because I’d been there or because I’d studied them in the History of Ancient Architecture class I was taking. Since then, I’ve read almost all of her books, loving each one with the exception of  The Scarlet Thread—though I don’t remember why. My favourites, though, are Redeeming Love and The Last Sin Eater. Redeeming Love, written as a statement of faith after she accepted Christ, is a re-telling of the story of the prophet Hosea set in the Californian gold rush. The Last Sin Eater tells of the transformation of a rural Appalachian community with the realisation of a foundational biblical truth.

Alright, enough with this encomium and on to the object of this post.

Continue reading

Review of ‘Pontius Pilate’ (a documentary novel)

Pontius Pilate by Paul L. Maier
Pontius Pilate by Paul L. Maier

This book, Pontius Pilate, has gained itself a particular distinction in my life: just yesterday, it made me miss my stop on the metro (underground). Many other books have come close, almost making me forget that theirs wasn’t the real world, but none has yet turned me into a confused traveller. Now that you know how much I enjoyed reading it, I’ll try to share why. Continue reading

Review of ‘The almost true story of Ryan Fisher’ (a novel)

The almost true story of Ryan Fisher: cover
The almost true story of Ryan Fisher: cover

I have previously blogged about some spiritually and intellectually engaging books. To soften my image, I blogged about a DVD series. Now, to further soften my image, I’m reviewing a work of fiction, The almost true story of Ryan Fisher by Rob Stennett.

Here’s a quick summary from Amazon.com:

Meet Ryan Fisher. He’s young, energetic, and needs an edge in the real estate market. He’s found the perfect niche: Christians. His business doubles when he advertises in the Christian business directory, and he begins to think he could really cash in by planting a church. But when the church takes off, Ryan is in over his head. Continue reading

Not an example

I have not read The Shack. If I do, I’ll probably be intent on picking it apart, trying to see if I can identify all the errors that people more clever than I am have seen in the book’s theology. I have, however, watched a clip from an interview the author did on The 700 Club.

The interviewer (don’t recall her name, it’s been ages since I watched) quotes from the book:

My life was not meant to be an example to copy. (Jesus, p149)

Paul Young replies as follows:

“To me, the centrality of the New Covenant is not that He has come to give us the Holy Spirit to help us be like him. To me, following Jesus, being a Jesus-follower is not trying to be like Him, it’s allowing Him to be Himself in the uniqueness of our own personhood. And that to me is the New Covenant, that He has actually come to live inside of us. You know, Jesus is the only hope, not only for us as individuals, but… He’s the only hope for the world.”

I don’t want to be a Christian hating on another Christian, but this is IMHO one of those things that sounds so profound, but is unintelligible. I’m not getting what it means to allow Jesus “to be Himself in the uniqueness of our own personhood”. I’m always wary when people use important-sounding terms without explaining them: either they themselves don’t understand what they’re saying, or they don’t want me to understand what they’re saying. Of course, I could be wrong 🙂

And what about Jesus’ life not being an example? That troubled me to the point of looking it up in the Bible.There is no explicit command that I could find telling Christians to take His life as an example. There are a number of places where it is implied, though: 1 Corinthians 4:15-17, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Philippians 2:5-11. Sounds like the Apostle Paul was all for it.

That said, I do agree with some of the sentiments Mr Young expressed in the interview (e.g the prevailing view that God isn’t on our side). Based on my limited knowledge of him and his book, I really can’t and won’t say more…