Book Review: Sons of Encouragement
Tyndale House, 2010
She’s a best-selling author whose works have been translated into a dozen languages and sold millions of copies, a mid-life convert to born-again Christianity whose works are mainstays of Christian bookshops throughout the world. Her novels frequently come with Bible Study guidelines for readers, and in her various Acknowledgements, Jesus Christ is thanked with a fervor authors usually reserve for their agents. She is a genuinely kind and caring woman, and when at author meetings she asks her many fans how they’re doing, she honestly wants to know. She swears by her faith, and the religious elements of her prose have changed the lives of many of her readers.
So the key question is: for a secular humanist, is it a sin to like Francine Rivers?
Even readers totally unfamiliar with the sub-genre of Christian fiction will have some sense of its limitations, because they mirror the limitations of evangelical Christianity as a whole: weak fancy, moral intolerance, and a certain eunuch quality to the prose. In most Christian fiction, characters routinely squash not only their desires but their talents and personalities, in service to a tent-revival deity who seems to spend most of His time finding new things to dislike. No matter how fast this stuff moves book-and-movie sales to the faithful, it can’t help but strike the outsider as more than a little repulsive, Leni Riefenstahl with crosses instead of swastikas. If Francine Rivers is one of the best-selling purveyors of this sub-genre, it stands to reason her books must share the same drastic weaknesses as all other didactic fiction; nobody reads Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for enjoyment, after all.
A test case might be Sons of Encouragement, a handsome trade paperback recently issued by Tyndale House Publishing out of gorgeous little Carol Stream, Illinois. The book collects five slim religious novels Rivers wrote in the mid-aughts, here repackaged with a new cover (stalwart model Paul Marron, gazing into the sun, gripping his own upthrust spear with both hands) and individual – you guessed it – Bible Study guidelines for readers. There’s a distressingly prominent theme here – all five ‘chapters’ in this book deal with men who play supporting roles in the Bible – but still: readers curious to know if there’s any gristle to the Francine Rivers phenomenon will find six or so years of work gathered in this one volume – in fairness to their overbooked reading schedules, they need look no further to see what she’s about.
The Manichaeism practically hits you over the head. These stories are immediate good reading. Coming from Christian fiction, this in itself is confusing – until we remember that Rivers was Saul before she was Paul: for years, she was a romance author dedicated to thrilling the extremely worldly audience of romance readers. It was only after she saw a blinding white light on the road to Carol Stream that she began singing to the choir, and the lessons she learned while toiling for Mammon are abundantly evident in Sons of Encouragement. It’s doubtful that hand-wringing authors writing about virtuous Amish girls would go quite so readily to bawdy humor, and yet Rivers happily does so, in the scene where Joshua looks in on his friend Caleb, who’s just had the pointed religious experience of adult circumcision:
Joshua came to see him. “Don’t get up, Caleb.”
Drained by the fever, Caleb remained upon his cushioned pallet. He chuckled bleakly. “You are blessed among men.” Joshua had been circumcised as a baby. Few among the Jews had continued the practice once they were enslaved by the Egyptians. “How are the others faring?”
“Better than you, old friend.”
Caleb grasped Joshua’s extended hand and pulled himself up. “Youth has its advantages.” Wincing, he waved Maacah away and walked … slowly … tenderly … outside.
The fact that she’s a canny veteran of the writing game is most obvious, however, when she’s serving up drama, and her stories – Caleb, friend of Joshua, Aaron, brother of Moses, Jonathan, beloved of David, Amos, the fiery 8th century prophet, and Silas, the scribe who sacrificed his wealth to follow Jesus – are nothing if not dramatic. Repeatedly in these stories, light (i.e. Christian teaching) vies with darkness (i.e. great storytelling)(or perhaps vice versa?), to the point where even the most faithful will have a hard time knowing who to root for. Take the scene from “Aaron” where the Moses family are gathered around the evening supper, tensely listening to the calamity falling outside on the Egyptians who live all around them:
A scream rent the air. Aaron’s skin crawled. Miriam stared at Moses, her dark eyes wide. No one spoke as they ate. Another scream was heard, closer this time, and then ailing in the distance. Outside someone cried out in anguish to Osiris. Aaron shut his eyes tightly, for he knew Osiris was nothing but an idol made by men’s hands, his myth crafted by men’s imaginings. Osiris had no substance, no power, other than the fictitious power men and women had given him over the centuries. Tonight, they would learn what men design cannot bring salvation. Salvation is in the Lord, the God of all creation.
Plonked onto the scales like a brass doorknob, we’ve got that business about how Osiris is just a figment of the imagination, whereas Yahweh is as real as a heart attack (or, in this case, the first mass infanticide in literary history). Such stuff is expected, and in most Christian fiction, it’s all we’d get. But look at what else Rivers is doing in that passage – the brittle silence while the family forces itself to keep eating, the dramatic way the screams of the afflicted Egyptians are located audibly, happening haphazardly out in the night. It’s very effectively done, regardless of the accompanying spiritual admonishments. Likewise one of the scenes from the hardscrabble “Amos,” in which the titular prophet – having only recently heard the voice of the Almighty instructing him to call the Chosen People back into line – is told off by someone who remembers when he was just plain folks:
“You forget who holds the power around here.”
Amos rose, shaking with rage. “God holds the power!”
Chin jutting, Ahiam came close enough to stand nose to nose with Amos. “And He gave it to them to use as they will.”
Amos stood his ground. “The people of Judah have sinned -”
“All of a sudden, you’re the judge?” Ahiam gave him a hard shove. “Go home. Prophesy to your sheep.”
“Listen to me,” Amos cried out in desperation.
“If you made any sense, I might.” Ahiam glanced back over his shoulder. “Send him home.” He nodded to Bani. “We’ve got a business to run here.” Turning his back on them, he walked toward a customer looking over the lambs. Smiling, he spread his arms in greeting.
There’s a taut control in that scene, and part of that control comes from Rivers the writer being sharp enough to know what Rivers the convert perhaps would never admit: that prophets are mostly irritating people. Although it contains the least outright drama of these five novellas, “Amos” is in many ways the most accomplished thing of the five, and its scrappy, flawed eponymous character is a creation even the secular Rivers could have felt proud of concocting. Secular readers will be surprised by how much she makes them care about these figures from Sunday School.
Even more surprising for me was the discovery of a really good death scene. These are difficult to write well – they require precise pacing, and they work best when their writer is thinking on his feet. Given her audience, I expected Rivers to smear any such death-scene with momentum-killing sentimental jelly, so I was surprised to get to the moment in “Jonathan” when our brave young hero is pierced with arrows and meeting his end on Mount Gilboa:
Body tensing, Jonathan fought against death, his fingers digging into the soil.
Lord, be with my friend when he receives the crown. Give him wisdom to rule Your people Israel!
Battle sounds muted.
Everything within him fixed upon a single spot of light in the darkness. Surrendering, Jonathan sighed, blood bubbling in this throat. Then he felt lifted and drawn back like an arrow fitted into a bronze bow.
And then release!
Pain vanished. Grief fell away. He burst into freedom.
Not that Sons of Encouragement is entirely free from sin – that would be too much to hope. Whether through personal faith or to please her demographic, Rivers still works in lines here, scenes there, that will give less doctrinaire souls a deep twinge. One such doctrinal hiccup occurs in “Silas,” in a scene where the humble scribe reflects on just what is and is not proven by miracles:
“The proof is in this room.” He looked around slowly at each one of them. “When Christ comes in, we change.” He smiled, his heart lifting as he thought of others he had known. “I’ve seen thieves become honorable and generous. I’ve known temple prostitutes who married and now live as faithful husbands and wives. I’ve seen homosexuals become chaste servants of God.”
Spotted it, did you? And it’s not alone in this big book – but even so, politely insisting that homosexuals not do anything homosexual is admittedly more tolerant than insisting (politely or otherwise) that just being homosexual is a sin and a piece of Satan’s handiwork. A less confident dramatist would have been a less yielding dogmatist.
The revelation here is that Sons of Encouragement is, in addition to the more specialized functions it may perform inside the Christian community, a good book – full of great scenes, full of memorable characters portrayed warts and all, and full of some very confident, successful prose. Members of the faithful will no doubt appreciate the Bible Study questions, but even woolly old atheists will enjoy the nuts-and-bolts storytelling on every page. It turns out all those millions of readers are mostly right: Francine Rivers is a pearl of great price, God help me.