Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Great Beyond: A Jewish Story

Another turn of the century conversionist novel by "E.W." (Elizabeth Wheeler) is The Great Beyond: A Jewish Story, published sometime in the late 1890s or the early 1900s in London.

In this story, Naomi Isaacs is the wife of Evan Isaacs, a formerly wealthy merchant who has recently lost most of his money in a stock market crash. Evan is the son of Abraham Isaacs, who has recently passed away and for whom money and wealth was the only goal in life. The narrator states that through the pursuit of money, Abraham "lost his health and his strength, and empty his soul embarked on the sea of eternity" (p. 7). Thus, Evan naturally is thinking about the "great beyond" as the story begins.

"At last his health broke down... He spent his hours in vain regrets, and, with nothing better to occupy his mind, he became weaker and weaker. He knew nothing of the Heavenly Comforter. ... Many [Jews] have oft found comfort in the reading of the Psalms, and they know their great Jehovah as the beneficent Creator, full of compassion, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy, and thus they pour out their heart before Him. But Evan Isaacs knew not this, and thus despair took possession of him. He dreaded entering the confines of an eternal world. All was darkness, and he was afraid of the plunge; but once or twice came the words, "Have mercy upon me, O God," words which had often been read, but carelessly heard, in the synagogue. Then again and again would he repeat them, but no comfort he got" (p. 12-13).

Another important character in the books is Michael Isaacs, who is Evan's uncle. Angry and bitter, Michael had left the family for Australia some twenty years earlier. Michael was learned in the Jewish Bible and "all the endless rites of the Mosaic ritual he well knew" (p. 15).

"He was an intelligent young Jew. He had been taught to look for the Great Deliverer, the Great Prophet of his people" (p. 16). Michael arrived in Melbourne penniless, but he was befriended by a Christian businessman who took him in and offered him a job because "My Saviour was a Jew.... Your Jehovah became a man, a Jew, to atone to the mighty God for my guilt. From one of your nation I heard the glad tidings, and I hope to spend an eternity with Jesus, the sinners' Friend. So, for His sake, I offer you a situation and a home with me. I have no son, and you may fill the place" (p. 19).

Eventually Michael becomes a Christian and a wealthy businessman. At age 50, Michael reconnects with his family, mainly Evan, and decides to go back to England to try to convert Evan and his wife to the Christianity that he has come to know and love.

Michael does not at first explicitly tell Evan and Naomi about his new faith, but he reveals it by singing Christian hymns to Evan and then later speaking to him about it. Michael says to Evan: "My poor boy, I have crossed the ocean wave to tell you of Jesus, the sinners' Friend" (p. 28).

"The evenings were spent in conversing of eternal things, and to Evan's inquiring mind his uncle unfolded much that caused the former to wonder at. He was as a child, for he was ignorant of the Scriptures -- they were as a sealed book to him -- but his interest increased more and more" (p. 29).

After a few days of discussions, Evan is persuaded to believe in Jesus. He also slowly gets better from his physical ailments. [Coincidence? I think not!]

"No fear now of the Great Beyond, for now he knew that the dark, deep torrents of death another had braved for him and bridged them by Himself, and in the arms of His Saviour he would be safely carried across to Canaan's shore" (p. 32).

Because of Evan's poor health, Michael takes him to Australia, where his health improves with Michael's nurturing. Evan writes his wife a letter, and her reaction is consternation:

"The traitor!" she cried, "to come to our house and to rob me of my husband, to get him among the Gentile dogs to forsake the religion of our fathers. My husband an idolator! Oh, if he dies, Abraham's bosom, he will never enter. I shall never see him more. Oh! to me he is dead for ever" (p. 43-44).

When Naomi's father (a certain Mr. Maurice Davis) hears of what Evan has done, he says "The scoundrel! The sneak!" (p. 49).

Evan begs his wife to consider Christianity in letters he writes from Australia:

"I have found the One who has bridged the dark waters for me, and lighted up the valley which leads to that other land. Our fathers for many centuries, through the veil of types, were shown Him, but they will not, cannot see Him but by the Spirit of our God. Oh! Naomi, God had His own way of showing me Himself. He stripped me of all things here... Naomi, if you will not believe the gospel that the Christians preach, after it has been put before you, God alone knows the sorrows He will bring you through to have you for Himself... The beauty of our Scriptures surpasses all comprehension. As their meaning unfolds I am lost in wonder, and in wonder, too, in not having seen the heaven-sent Lamb through the veil of types ere this. It is so plain" (p. 53).

But these letters to Naomi, basing the Gospel message on stories and passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, are intercepted by her father so she does not see them. Naomi finds out about this subterfuge and confronts her father, who feels guilty about it already, and there results a conflict between the two that leads to Naomi leaving the house (with the letters and a New Testament that Evan had sent her). She and her son Ben go to Australia and meet Evan and Michael, and soon thereafter Naomi becomes a Christian. (She had been primed for this by reading the New Testament on the voyage and through evangelistic efforts by kindly Gentile Christians who had befriended her and told her of their love for the "Jewish race") (p. 77).

Maurice Davis, Naomi's father, gets addicted to gambling and loses his fortune, becoming bankrupt. He is helped out by a kindly Christian businessman, the same person who had offered to help Evan Isaacs earlier and who had given Naomi the money to travel to Australia. Maurice becomes a poor peddler, barely able to make ends meet.

Michael Isaacs decides to travel to Palestine, where he meets a Jewish man in a cafe. Michael says to him: "[Jesus] was our Messiah." "Oh! said the Jew. "Our Messiah is to be king." "Yes, said Michael, "and so He will." "but our God is One God." "Yes; but our Hebrew word for God signifies plurality...." (p. 104). Michael stays in Palestine for several years.

Meanwhile, Evan and Naomi have become very rich in the ten years that they have lived in Australia, and they decide to move back to England and retire. They end up buying the same large house that they had lived in earlier, and one day Maurice comes by peddling his wares. There is a great reunion, and then by chance (!) the same day (!), guess who shows up for dinner? Yes, it's Michael Isaacs, returned from his visit to Palestine! He and Maurice have many conversations, and then, after Michael's peaceful death, Maurice finally converts to Christianity. He dies a year later, a happy man, finally at peace with himself and others.


The Great Beyond is one of the few 19th century conversionist novels that places the focal point of its conversion story on the fear of death and the afterlife. This theme is not entirely absent from other works of evangelical fiction. (See, for example, the short account of Rabbi Ben Uzziel in Adeline). But The Great Beyond makes fear of death the raison d'etre of believing in Jesus. It's an easy logical argument to follow (once you've accepted the premises of the argument): Believers in Jesus go to heaven after they die. Unbelievers go to hell after they die. Therefore, it's better to believe in Jesus. The well-known minister and political activist D. James Kennedy, founder of Evangelism Explosion, started his ministry back in the early 1960s with tracts that would ask, If you were to die tonight, are you certain that you would go to heaven? These kinds of scare tactics (for that is what they are, frankly) have been used before and since by countless agents of proselytizing. They feed on on a natural fear of the unknown, and they encourage conversion to Christianity during vulnerable periods of life, such as illness or peril. Think of foxhole repentance, death-bed conversions, and the like. One is much less likely to make a calm, rational, considered decision about religion when in the throes of a fatal illness; and under the same circumstance, imagine what happens to rational thinking when confronted by an evangelist who has just informed you that only born again Christians go to heaven, and all others spend eternity in the Lake of Fire?

In one of her other conversionary novels, From Petticoat Lane to Rotten Row, Wheeler writes about a fictional Jewish character with the last name of Davis who has a gambling problem. She repeats this plot device (another Jew named Davis who is addicted to gambling) in this book as well. I suppose that she's not the first author to do something like this, but still, I thought I should point it out.

In Wheeler's novels (and in many other conversionist stories), Jews who are mainstream in their beliefs (that is, they don't believe in Jesus as the Messiah) are often poor businessmen, whereas Jews who convert to Christianity are almost always wildly successful in business. Perhaps this is the forerunner of "prosperity theology," which teaches that the better Christian you are, the more God will bless you in financial ways. (And of course, what better way to succeed in business (without really trying) than to combine the financial shrewdness of the Jew with the guaranteed blessings of the Christian). Sadly (or happily, as the case may be), religion of any stripe has never ensured success on Wall Street.

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