Thursday, November 22, 2007

Historical Christian Fiction (with a Jewish Flavor)

Wandering Jude does not normally put 1st century historical fiction in the same category as conversionist novels, simply because 1st century Christianity was really a nascent form of Judaism, one of many Jewish sects. But some authors seem to think that 1st century Jews are alike in every way to their 19th, 20th, or 21st century co-religionists. Not so, says the Wanderer. Here are some samples:

Joel: A Boy of Galilee.

Annie Fellows Johnston, our favorite authoress of Chattanooga Jews and Shirley Temple vehicles, wrote this in 1904. She states in the preface that "it has been the purpose of the author to present to children ... as accurate a picture of the times of the Christ as has been given to older readers through "Ben Hur." With this in view, the customs of the private and public life of the Jews ... have been studied so carefully that the descriptions have passed the test of the most critical inspection. An eminent rabbi pronounces them correct in every detail. While the story is that of an ordinary boy, living among shepherds and fishermen, it touches at every point he gospel narrative, making Joel, in a natural and interesting way, a witness to the miracles, the death, and the resurrection o fthe Nazarene."

Throughout the book, Joel seems to be quick to believe in "Rabbi Jesus", especially when he notices (or others point out) the apparent fulfilled messianic prophecies. When Jesus dies there are some doubts all around, but after witnessing the risen Jesus, Joel believes anew, as does his Aunt Leah. She says "Oh, I believe then that He is the Christ!" ... "I have thought all the time that it might be so, and the children are so sure of it." "And Uncle Laban?" questioned Joel. She shook her head sadly. "He grows more bitterly opposed every day." (p. 250).

Uncle Laban is not the only Jew opposed to Jesus in this book. But every book must have its villain, no doubt.

The Bronze Bow.

Acclaimed children's novelist Elizabeth George Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal Award for The Bronze Bow. "Set in Galilee in the time of Jesus, this is the story of a young Jewish rebel who is won over to the gentle teachings of Jesus." Wikipedia describes the controversy, which has not been insignificant.

Forbidden Gates A Story of Stephen, the First Martyr.

Denise Williamson wrote this historical novel in 1990. The blurb on the back cover tells us that "Nathan Bar Benjamin was only one day away from the ceremony marking his entry into manhood when he met a boy named Dorian on the streets of Jerusalem. Dorian's quest to enter the forbidden gates of the Temple led Nathan to break the Jewish law and become a fugitive. But it was Dorian's older friend Stephen who showed Nathan what it means to be a real man of God."

Nathan and his father are among the Jews in this book who become believers in Jesus (although their conversion doesn't occur until near the end of the book).

Wandering Jude notes that scholars disagree whether the modern bar mitzvah ceremony has its roots in the 1st century or earlier, but we won't quibble about this minor detail.

A Voice in the Wind

Well-known and prolific Christian novelist Francine Rivers wrote A Voice in the Wind in 1993. The main character, Hadassah, is a young Jewish woman in first century Rome who becomes a believer in Jesus. A question that is implied in the following article from the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin is this: Is it legitimate for Christian authors to use Jewish characters for Christian means (and ends) if they are writing solely for a Christian audience? See http//

Wandering Jude answers this implied question with a qualified yes. Be careful out there, Christian novelists. Writing religious fiction (which can easily become propaganda) is tricky enough, but utilizing main characters from another religion can put your book on dangerous shoals. Be honest about what your protagonists are really doing and who they really are. Avoid stereotypes and try not to convert too many characters to your own personal philosophy of life.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ivan and Esther: A Tale of Jewish Life in Russia

Wandering Jude would like to return, for a moment, to the conversionist novels of the late 19th century. Ivan and Esther: A Tale of Jewish Life in Russia tells the story of (you guessed it) Ivan Kaufmann and Esther Blitz, a Russian (Christian) young man and Jewish (Christian) woman (living in Russia but of German Jewish extraction) who live a life of hardship in Czarist Russia. (The novel was written in the late 19th century but its setting is in the early 19th century).

Our heroine Esther has, by the time the novel begins, already converted to Christianity. And not just any Christianity, but an evangelical form of the religion that sees Russian Orthodox Christianity and traditional Judaism as equally misguided. We have described for us several incidents of anti-Semitism, including the burning of a Jewish-owned factory and the roughing up of some Jewish men. Meanwhile, Esther deplores her situation: the Jews despise her for being a Christian and the Christians despise her for being a Jew.

Raphael Blitz is Esther's father, a kindly person but a man of business, and not one to feel sentimental about religious matters. But he knows he is a Jew, and he's proud of it. He can't understand his daughter's religious convictions, but nevertheless, she is his daughter and he remains loyal to her.

There is quite a bit of turmoil afoot in Russia; pogroms go hand in hand with talk of revolution against the Czar. The upheaval reaches Ivan and his girlfriend Esther, and they and their families become homeless, with no source of income (due to the destruction of Raphael's factory). Ivan is conscripted into the Russian army (which was often a death sentence in those days), and Esther and her father feel that there is no choice for them but to flee to Palestine.

After a few years in Palestine, we discover that Raphael has become a Christian through the constant badgering of his daughter. Did Wandering Jude say "badgering?" He meant to say "witness." At any rate, whether Raphael's conversion was through sincere conviction or because he simply wanted to please his daughter after so many years of pressure from her and persecution for both of them, one cannot say for sure. There continues to be a small allotment of anti-Semitism in Palestine, doled out at the hands of the Turkish Mohammedans. But this is nothing in comparison to the anti-Christian behavior of the Jewish authorities, who assault the ears of Raphael and Esther regularly with polemical diatribes.

Raphael Blitz is no longer a businessman. He is a missionary to his former co-religionists, though it's not clear how he makes any income out of this. No matter. The Blitz family lives modestly, and in any event the final third of the book is taken up with their conversion efforts toward Jacob Cohen, Raphael's former business partner and now an old, poor blind Jewish man living in Jerusalem. Esther visits Jacob at the house of "Rabbi Joseph," who chastises Esther for her "outreach" to Jacob:

"He leaves your house because you take advantage of his weakness, and would fain make an old man turn from the true belief of a long life, and in the end dishonour God."

Touche! What can the missionary say to this?

But Esther responds with with her strongly worded testimony of faith in Christ, and the two combatants engage in a bit of theological repartee. After a couple of pages of this, Esther leaves but not before Rabbi Joseph expresses his desire to burn all Christian books (and the Christians who read them).

Eventually Jacob Cohen does succumb to the pressures of his Jewish Christians friends and becomes a believer in Jesus. This enrages Rabbi Joseph and his minions (or should we say, minyans?), and they proceed to excommunicate Jacob and burn all the books and pamphlets belonging to Raphael and Esther that they can get their hands on.

But Jacob does not yet learn his lesson. Intent on leading his Jewish acquaintances to Christ, he goes to the synagogue one day and begins to preach the gospel. This does not go over well with the Jews of Jerusalem. They call Jacob all sorts of filthy names ("Christian dog!") and push him out of the synagogue. Being blind, he falls down the marble steps, bangs his head sharply, and before we know it, he's dead. A martyr for the cause.

So Jacob has died in the service of his Lord, but Esther and Raphael remain to carry on the work of missionizing the Jews. They are sad that their old friend is gone but they know he is in a better place. And who should now return upon the scene but Ivan, who was having a hard time in the army (sent to Siberia at one point because he wouldn't stop talking about Jesus), but is miraculously released and reunites with his gal Esther in Palestine. Ivan talks of returning to Russia with Esther to be a missionary, but how can he afford to do that? Raphael steps in, provides a large amount of money (that he had secretly saved up) to support the young couple, and the two of them head back to the "land of exile" to perform the work of Christ.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Mark of the Beast

The Mark of the Beast is Sydney Watson's sequel to In the Twinkling of an Eye. I was somewhat disappointed when I read Beast, because I had hoped to learn of the fate of our anti-heroine, Rachael Cohen, who had been left behind after her newly converted family were raptured up into heaven. But sadly, Mrs. Cohen does not make an appearance in this book. There's not a trace of her. One wonders....

The reader finds him/herself in the 7 year Tribulation period, and Lucien Apleon, who we discover is the antichrist, is revealed to be Jewish on page 69. But thankfully there are also some more noble Jews imagined in this novel. For example, a "Rabbi Cohen" is a character in this book who is chosen to be the first high priest of the new Temple in Jerusalem. His acquaintance, Ralph Bastin, who is a bit of a wet blanket, says to him, "I wish, dear Cohen, you, and your dear people could see how futile all this work is! I do not want to hurt you by speaking of Jesus of Nazareth. .... And that, dear Cohen, will be the end of your beautiful temple -- it will be destroyed in Judgment, and soon -- all too soon -- it will be cursed and defiled by the abomination of desolation...." (p. 83).

Ralph goes on in describing the horrors of the tribulation period to Rabbi Cohen:

"I could weep with very anguish of soul, dear friend, at all that you, and every truly pious Jew will suffer; when, at the end of the three years and a half ... the foul fiend whom you are all trusting so implicitly, will suddenly abolish your daily sacrifice of the morning and evening lamb, and will set up an image of himself, which you, and all the Godly of your race, will refuse to worship. Then will begin your awful tribulation, 'the time of Jacob's deadly sorrow.' It is in your own Scriptures, dear friend, if you would but see it." (p. 84).

Eventually Rabbi Cohen sees the truth of Ralph's words, after he witnesses the desecration of the temple by the antichrist. "Brethren, of the House of Israel, the Lord our God is one God. I am no Mehushmad, but in common with many of our rabbis, I have read the Gentile New Testament, and there, in the words of the Nazarene Prophet, ... He prophesied exactly what has come to pass this morning in our beautiful Temple." (p. 182).

The two witnesses in Jerusalem, said to be Elijah and Enoch reincarnated (or something like that!), are both depicted as Jewish. Which makes sense. Sort of. Well, maybe Elijah. But Enoch? Jewish? That's a bit of a stretch. Or so thinks Wandering Jude. But then again, judge for yourself.

There is a fair amount of intrigue and suspense as many Jews flee from Jerusalem in the wake of the antichrist's abomination of desolation. (For those readers not "in the know" about these things, the abomination of desolation is where the antichrist will supposedly sacrifice a pig on the altar in Jerusalem, ala Antiochus Epiphanes). The fleeing Jews include Rabbi Cohen, his daughter Miriam, and her boyfriend Isaac Wolferstein. This is termed "the flight of the Believers" (p. 204). Around the same time, Miriam "turned unto God and unto the Messiah who was so soon to come to deliver His people and to set up His kingdom" (p. 203). Eventually both Miriam and Isacc are tortured to death by the antichrist and his followers.

At the end of the tribulation period, Jesus returns to earth (the Second Coming) and a large number of Jews still living believe in him.

Final Thoughts:

(1) Wandering Jude wants to point out that designating the Antichrist as Jewish is an old tradition in Christianity. It was popular during the 1970s to speculate that Henry Kissinger might be the Antichrist. Nowadays it's less popular to aim the Antichrist accusation toward a Jew, but it still happens occasionally in some fundamentalist circles.

(2) In case you didn't realize it, the Beast (from the title of the book) and the Antichrist are synonymous. At least in this novel and in most dispensationalist theological treatises. And the mark of the Beast is the number 666 placed on the foreheads of all who would buy and sell during the Tribulation period.

(3) Is it only Wandering Jude who thinks that dispensationalist novelists (and theologians) take an almost gleeful "I told you so" attitude in describing the horrible persecution that Jews will (supposedly) face during the 7 year reign of terror called the Tribulation period? Let's see, how bad will it get for the Jews? Really bad. Heh heh. Really really bad. Sydney Watson, of course, wrote before the Shoah occurred, but his description of the Tribulation was chillingly prescient. Except that Jesus didn't come back in 1945. Unless you think that Eisenhower was Jesus.

(4) The event described at the end of the novel, where Jesus returns and all the remaining Jews convert to Christianity, is a commonly described event in evangelical apocalyptic novels and theological textbooks. It's based on a rather loose reading of Zechariah 12:10 ("they shall look on him who they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only son"), as well as Romans 11:26 ("and so all Israel shall be saved; even as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer; He shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob"). One problem is that the New Testament says that the passage from Zechariah was already fulfilled when Jesus hung on the cross. Another, even bigger problem, is that it's quite unfair to expect a particular religious or ethnic group (take your pick) to make an unbiased and unpressured decision to change their religion after being hounded and tortured and murdered for seven long years. Wandering Jude thinks that's undue pressure, not exactly what you want in a sincere religious conversion. And besides, many of Wandering Jude's Jewish friends and relatives would more than likely respond to the Second Coming (after those aforementioned 7 years of terror) with a certain hand gesture that is widely used in the Bronx but is considered obscene in most other parts of North America.
And who could blame them?