Sunday, January 6, 2008

They Shall See God

Athol Dickson, an architect-turned-novelist, wrote They Shall See God in 2002 (published by Tyndale House, a reliably evangelical publishing house). This novel, a love story but really more of a suspense thriller, has several Jewish characters, including two rabbis, one of whom is a major character in the book. Rabbi Ruth Gold's character is nuanced and complex. Though the novel is a suspenseful story of a serial murderer, underneath the author deals with various religious and social issues, including interfaith understanding, conversion to a different religion, and loyalty to one's own religion. While Jews are not stereotyped in this novel, nevertheless they do not fare well. One commits suicide. Four are killed (one is shot, one is poisoned, one is mauled by a tiger and then drowned, and one is burned to death by boiling tar). Two are shot at (in separate scenes) and one of these two almost dies. Another is stabbed but survives. Two die of fatal diseases. One appears to have a mental disorder. Three Jews convert to Christianity (two of these three are already dead by the time the book begins, but are introduced in flashbacks. The third is a secret convert who is not revealed to be so until the end of the book).

Some of the Jews and Christians in the novel are involved in interfaith (dating or marriage) relationships. Most of the characters in the book are good, decent people, albeit with flaws. No one has all the answers. Both Christians and Jews in the book are portrayed from their own religious point of view. I don't think the book has as its intention to convert anyone, just to promote interfaith understanding and to provide a good suspenseful read. A nice change of pace from your typical evangelical novel with Jewish characters.

The plot as it unfolds reveals three characters in the book who were born Jewish and then convert to Christianity, though these conversions happen chronologically before the events of the book take place. On the other hand, there are no converts to Judaism in the book. (Not that this is a surprise. Evangelical novels rarely depict Christians converting to Judaism, and if they do, the results are not pretty).

Sometimes the dialog between Jewish characters seems a bit pretentious. Witness Rabbi Ruth Gold, who early in the book says to her boyfriend, Steve: "Instead of rounding up a minyan to say kaddish, I was wondering if you'd come to Mama's grave to light a yahrzeit candle with me, and say shehecheyanu?" (p. 3). Hmm. How about a little lox with that shmear?

The author, through some of his Christian characters, makes clear his philo-semitic intentions: "The Last Supper was a Passover celebration led by Jesus, who was called rabbi at that table in the upper room," said the minister. "Jesus was a Jew, of course, as were all of his apostles and most of those who believed in him. Yet we often make the mistake of blaming his crucifixion on the Jewish people, as if they were of one mind in the matter." (p. 34).

Reverend Cahill, one of the few unambiguously good characters in They Shall See God, goes on with his sermon:

"The Roman soldiers in Pilate's Jerusalem garrison were from many countries around the Mediterranean. It might have been Spanish hands that drove the spikes through Jesus' wrists, or Greek. If God had wanted us to believe that Jews are guilty of Jesus' death in a special way, why not allow them to stone our Lord to death in the Jewish fashion? It is no accident that God chose the Roman cross instead, as a reminder that all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, has an equal share in the guilt of sin." ... "So when our Bibles speak of 'the Jews' condemning Jesus, we must remember that term is a kind of literary shorthand for 'the Jewish leaders.' And we must remember that not even all the Jewish leaders opposed Christ. Our Bibles describe some Pharisees and even temple priests accepting Jesus as their Messiah and their God."" (p. 35).

A member of his congregation, obviously a bit deranged, responds to Reverend Cahill by screaming out, "The Jews rejected Christ! They killed him! They killed Stephen! They stoned Paul! And God has abandoned them to their sin!" ... "Read your Bibles! Read Acts! The Jews were a curse on the first Christians! A curse!" (p. 36).

More Jewish rituals from our rabbi protagonist:

Rabbi Gold lit a yahrzeit candle, placed it on her parents' tombstone, and said the shehecheyanu: "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higianu lazman hazeh. Amen." "She felt a peace creep into her heart. It was the comfort of tradition, of belonging, of knowing she was merely a link in the chain that stretched from Abraham and Sarah to the Messiah, may he quickly come." (p. 41).

Wandering Jude is interested in this Reform rabbi's wish for the coming of the Messiah. Ah, perhaps it's only metaphorical....

"Benny Rothstein sat in a circle of light, enjoying Rashi's commentary on the Talmud. He licked his thumb and turned the page. Such wonderfully simple and straightforward insights, yet so filled with deeper meaning. Such a perfect way to close this Rosh Hashanah evening. Morton preferred Ibn Ezra, but Benny thought he was difficult to follow sometimes, even on the third or fourth reading. Benny was of the opinion that complex writing concealed incomplete thoughts. It took tremendous wisdom and clarity of mind to explain the great truths of Torah in ways that anyone could understand, and for clarity, you just couldn't beat Rashi. But of course, it only made sense that Morton would be wrong. How could he know anything? He was a man who worked on Erev Rosh Hashanah when he should be home or at temple busying himself with Torah." (p. 57).

While Wandering Jude can be cynical at times, he must admit that Dickson does a nice job of getting into the minds of his Jewish characters without patronizing them or telegraphing his character development intentions. If only more Christian novelists could reach these heights.

The villain of the book, Rev. Orvis Smith (sort of a mix between Jerry Falwell and Adolf Hitler), thinks to himself about "the godless Jews." ... "Apostle to the Hebrews in this day and age? It took the patience of Job. Yet, after everything the Jews did to the Savior, after the terrible persecutions they had inflicted on Christians and all those centuries of denying Jesus, God still chose to reach out to this children with the message of salvation." (p. 66).

Well, Dickson's villain is not very nuanced, but perhaps that's what really goes on in the minds of anti-Semites.

"Normally [Ruth Gold] didn't eat nonkosher meats, but like many Reform Jews, she wasn't rigid about keeping kosher, and today, the catfish was a small gesture of acrimonious defiance against a God who allowed murderers to go free and good men to die and anti-Semitism to endure for centuries." (p. 74).

Rabbi Gold is described several times in the book as being an "exotically attractive woman" who had "olive skin, short black hair, and huge, dark brown eyes." (p. 80). Oh my. Wandering Jude knows many individuals who would like to meet Rabbi Gold.

Kate (a lapsed Christian) and Ruth have a conversation after meeting for the first time in 25 years: Kate says, "My husband was raised Conservative." He was Jewish?" "uh-huh." Ruth looked at Kate appraisingly. "Did you convert?" Kate met her eyes. "No. He did." Ruth looked away. Kate said, "I mean, he had already converted when I met him in our singles group at church." "I see," said Ruth, still looking away. .... "So. You're a rabbi. Who would've guessed? "My dad, for one." "He was a rabbi too, remember?" "I don't think I ever knew that." "Yes. If there's a single reason for my choice, I guess that'd be it. He raised me to love Judaism." So if your father was a rabbi, I guess that means rabbis can get married?" "Of course. There's no vow of celibacy. That's a Christian thing." ... "But John, my husband, didn't have any Jewish friends and didn't talk much about his backgroun. And I haven't met very many Jews, except for him and his parents." ... "Actually, when John became a Christian they had a falling out. And they didn't like him marrying me. That pretty much shut down all communication until the kids came along. Then they thawed out a little, but we're still not real friendly, you know?" (p. 82).

Ruth asks Kate if she is raising her children as Christians or as Jews. "They're Christians. I mean, that's what I am, and like I said, John was Jewish, but he was a Christian too." Ruth smiled slightly. "That's like saying your car was a Ford, but it was a Chrysler." "Well, you know what I mean." The rabbi nodded. "I suppose." (p. 84).

The reader gets a glimpse into Kate's mind:

"The moment Ruth had mentioned coming to her temple, an unreasoning terror of the unknown had seized Kate's mind. She remembered the bitter baricade of mistrust and anger that had once stood between John and his parents. They had lashed out sometimes, actually calling him a traitor. They had accused the church of brainwashing him, as if it were some sort of cult. They had accused Kate herself of playing a role in the "indoctrination" of their son, ignoring the fact that he had chosen the Christian faith long before they met. John had done his best to help Kate understand their animosity. He had spoken of evils in the Dark Ages and of anti-Semitic affronts in the present. Still, as she considered Ruth's invitation, such hostility was hard to forget. What if I say the wrong thing? I don't even know how to dress. Should I take my Bible, or will the New Testament offend them? What if they say something bad about Jesus? Should I speak up? If I do, will they throw me out?" (p. 133).

Ruth thinks: "What had Katy said? Oh, yes: "I think God wants me to be there." Ruth gritted her teeth. She knew what that meant. Asking Katy to come to temple had been a mistake. Deep down, Christians were all the same. No different than those obnoxious ones who stood out by the parking lot with their cardboard Jesus signs." (p. 138).

"As sunset approached, Ruth labored at a large table in the temple library, surrounded by open volumes of Talmud and Torah commentaries. Preparing for the Shabbes Torah study was usually the high point of her week, an opportunity to immerse herself in texts and commentaries, to walk Herod's Temple with Hillel and Shammai, to dialogue with Maimonides and Ibn Ezra, to reflect upon the mind of God, and in one sense perhaps, to see his face and live." (p. 140-141).

Helen Blumenthal, a Jewish psychiatrist, thinks: "Tonight, the rabbi had spoken of the need to credit God with who we are. Helen wondered where God had been when her father lost his home to the Nazis at the age of thirteen. Where was God when an eighteen year old girl inherited the duties of her dead parents, raising her sisters without help? Where was God while she slaved on the graveyard shift in an all-night diner for fifty-cent tips, and endured the pompous abuse of professors all day? God certainly seemed to have little mercy for the never-ending stream of lost and dispossessed patients passing through her office week after week, each one a walking example of the futility of faith." (pp. 150-151).

Rebecca Betterton, a middle aged Jewish woman, thinks deep thoughts to which the reader becomes privy:

"[She] tried to imagine what it would be like to be dead. There seemed to be three possibilities. Either nothing happened and you just stopped, or you went to heaven or hell. She didn't believe she might come back in another life. Not for a minute. That was just silly. And if this world is all there is, why then, what difference does it make? When you're dead, you're not going to care anymore, right?" But what if there was a heaven and a hell?.... To tell the truth, she wasn't sure where she'd end up. Her parents had done their best to teach her about the Jewish faith. ... Neither of them cared much for the Orthodox ways of their youth, so they had joined the Reform temple over near the park and raised Rebecca to believe it was her right to choose which parts of her heritage made the most sense. When she was sixteen, she quit going to temple. They tried to force her, but she turned their own logic back on them, saying she had a right to choose which parts of her faith to observe, and she chose to have nothing more to do with it." (pp. 164-165).

"Suddenly, [Rebecca's first husband] was nailing a mezuzah to the doorframe and running around town wearing his yarmulke in public. "What are you doing?" she had asked, afraid she'd be seeing the fringes of a prayer shawl dangling from under his shirt any day. "My duty as a father," he had replied. Sidney had tried to get her to join an Orthodox synagogue, but she wasn't about to sit behind the mechitza, screened off from the men like some inferior person. She had told her husband he would wait a lifetime before he got her to worship God Almighty from the back of the shul behind a curtain.... After a couple of weeks of the silent treatment, Sidney had proposed a compromise. That was how Rebecca had found herself rejoining Temple Brit Yisrael after almost ten years. She and Sidney had paid their dues and attended services almost every Shabbat. Aaron grew up playing at the Northside Jewish Community Center on Saturday afternoons after temple, and going to the children's classes on Sunday mornings. When it was time for his Bar Mitzvah, Rebecca had been so proud to see him standing on the bima in his yarmulke and talit, reading Hebrew like a little rabbi." (pp. 165-166).

Kate begins a romantic relationship with a Jewish man, Jake Singer, but she has misgivings and "conflicted emotions. No good can come of this, she thought. He's a Jew and I'm a Christian. What am I doing?" (p. 189).

Ruth remembers a conversation with her brother ten years earlier. Ruth asks Isaac why he still wants to go to high holiday services even though he has made a profession of faith in Christ. "What kind of question is that? I'm still part of this family! I'm still a Jew!" "No, you're not, Isaac. You threw that away." His head jerked back but his shoulders remained motionless. It was an odd reaction, as if she had struck a physical blow. For a moment they stood still, staring at teach other, and then Isaac turned and left without another word." (p. 193).

Ruth and Kate have a conversation about proselytizing:

"All I'm saying is, sometimes honest conviction looks like arrogance to outsiders. If you really believed you had something that could make everyone's life better, not just here and now but for all eternity, wouldn't you want to share that good news with the world?" "I wouldn't try to cram it down people's throats!" But wouldn't you want to share something like that? I mean, if it was true, wouldn't sharing it be the only right thing to do?" Ruth erupted. "How would you feel if we showed up outside your church next Easter with signs that said 'The Messiah hasn't come yet,' or 'Trust Moses'?" ... "I'm not defending what they're doing. I'm just saying ---" "I know what you're saying, and I'm not buying it. If those people really cared so much about us, they'd give us some respect and behave with common decency."

Rabbi Ruth Gold goes to a cemetery to visit her parents' graves. "[Ruth] believed Hashem in his mercy protected her here. Some rabbis avoided cemeteries because they were tref -- unclean -- but like most Reform rabbis, Ruth ignored that particular bit of biblical law. In the best liberal tradition, she chose to observe the traditions that seemed to fit her life as Hashem had created her, and she respectfully declined to be bound by the others." (pp. 243-244).

"The Torah did not speak of a life after death, at least not clearly. There was much rabbinic debate in the Talmud on the subject, and of course the references in the prophets and writings were well known, but one had to stretch the text very thinly to arrive at a teaching of afterlife in the five books of Moses. When pressed by an instructor at Hebrew Union College several years ago, she had taken the position that this life was all we could expect. If heaven wasn't in Torah, it probably didn't exist. Several times since her ordination, congregants and fellow rabbis had challenged her on that. She always returned to the Scriptures to defend her position, and yet, as Ruth stared at the carved names of her mother and father, her heart filled with an undeniable longing. ... a vague and inexpressible desire, like hunger for a particular kind of food that she had never eaten.... " (p. 244).

Rabbi Ruth prays:

"Hashem, I know Judaism is about making a difference here and now, but you have also filled me with a need to be rid of this world, to enter into something better. As Abraham and Moses rested with their fathers, I want to see my parents again. But I'm afraid. What if this is nothing but selfishness or egotism? What if I only feel this way because of my troubles? She sighed. Hashem, please show me the truth. Opening her eyes, she blinked against the sunshine and ... awaited God's answer. .... it would be nice to believe in a world to come. Maybe later she could find something in the Torah to offer reassurance. Ruth Gold believed all of the answers were there, if only she could understand." (p. 245).

"Jews bury their dead quickly because they do not embalm the bodies. It is a tradition handed down through the centuries, grounded in the hope that the resurrection will find the Jewish dead ready and waiting their bodies whole, including the blood..... Since Ruth did not believe in resurrection, she did not care one way or the other, except, perhaps, for the fact that the money saved by not embalming the body could be given to the poor." (pp. 255-256).

Kate is talking to her romantic interest, Jake Singer. "He [Kate's deceased husband] converted when he was eighteen. About two years before I met him." "Converted to Judaism?" "No, to Christianity." She paused. "His parents didn't speak to him for years. "Not at all?" "No." Jake shook his head. "Some of us are so suspicious of your faith that we do some pretty mean things." "Mean doesn't begin to cover it, Jake. And it wasn't just his family. Even some of his friends quit talking to him. He tried everything he could think of to get them to ... to take him back, I guess you'd say. But a lot of them -- friends and family both -- acted like he'd doen something criminal. They broke John's heart." ... [Jake responded]: I'll bet they said it was John breaking their heart." (p. 269).

Reverend Orvis Smith, the villain of the book thinks to himself: "The Day of Atonement. What hypocrisy! As if a few chants, an apology, and a toot on the horn of a dead animal could make up for a lifetime of miserable failure." (p. 305).

An evangelist says to Jews entering the Reform temple on Yom Kippur: "There's no atonement in that building! Open your Torahs! Read Leviticus! 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls. For it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.' Where is the blood in this Day of Atonement of yours?" ... "You have no temple in Jerusalem for your sacrifices because only one offering is pleasing to God now, only the crucifixion of Jesus Christ! Trust in your Messiah! Believe in his sacrifice for your sake and you will be saved!" (p. 306).

As the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur: "Tekia, shevarim - terua, tekia. Tekia, dhevarim, tekia. Tekia, terua, tekia. For a moment, in the midst of the impossibly beautiful sounds, Ruth saw an unbroken string of notes -- pearls hanging from a golden thread, rubies woven through time itself to connect her and this day with Moshe blowing the first shofar on Mt. Sinai. That first time, the purpose of the blasts had been to warn Israel not to repeat their sin with the golden calf while Moshe remained high above, receiving Torah. Now, the shofar called them to account for the sins they had already committed. Ruth closed her eyes as the last of the notes echoed in her heart. For a moment, she saw the path to repentance just ahead. She longed to set foot upon it. She longed for teshuva -- to return." (p. 317).

Ruth is talking to Kate about the many horrors of Jewish history at the hands of Christians. "I didn't tell you those things to make you feel guilty, Katy. I mean, it's not like I think any of it's your fault. But if we're gonna be getting to know each other again after all these years, it's important for you to understand some things about me." "I think I do. You grew up in a culture that sees my faith as the enemy." "No, that's overstating it. Most of us don't think of Christians as enemies, and that's not what I meant, anyway. I'm talking about you and me.".... "I mean, imagine how we hate to tell our children these things. It's much more delicate than the birds and the bees ... having to deliberately begin the end of your child's innocence in order to protect her." (p. 377).

Kate says to Ruth: "But I believe [Jesus] was also God, who became one of us, one of the least of us, so that nobodies like me could know he really understands our pain, and believe in him, and be saved from just the kind of thing you're--" "You're preaching to a rabbi," snapped Ruth. "Don't try to convert me. It's insulting." (p. 379).

Ruth thinks she is about to die. She "covered her head with her hands and rocked back and forth, whispering, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohim Adonai echad. Shema Yisrael Adonai." (p. 404).

At a Jewish funeral, "many of the older women wore black lace veils. Most of the men wore yarmulkes. ... A group of ten men stood in a circle around the grave, chanting in unison, rocking back and forth slightly. Kate did not understand the Hebrew words, but the grief that rose with each syllable cast its bitter shadow upon her. Rabbi Samuel Gottlieb stood at the foot of the plot, leading the ceremony. Unlike his dress at most religious services, the rabbi did not wear his simple black robe with the gleaming shite strip of fabric draped across his shoulders, something Kate had learned to call a talit. .... She had come to understand that many of the trappings of Christian worship had their roots in the Jewish culture. A bishop's skull cap and robe, a minister's prayer shawl, the Christmas candles, the Lord's Supper, and a new believer's baptism -- all of these icons of her faith had been borrowed from the Jews." (p. 421).

Solomon Cantor reveals that he is a Christian. He "knelt before the simple wooden cross upon the wall. He clasped his hands together and bowed his head." (p. 423).

Solomon Cantor says "I told Gabby I still believe Adonai is one. I'm still a Jew. I am. But I believe in Jesus, too. I believe God is one, and I believe he's three. It makes no sense, but who am I to understand? I mean, he's God Almighty. You don't understand God. You just believe." (p. 425).

"Gabrielle Cantor had sacrificed son and husband to an ancient fear, and now Ruth could no longer flee the haunting memory of a very young woman, a foolish, untested rabbi who once did much the same. She whispered, "Are you saying all these evil things have happened because Gabby was angry when you converted?" ... "And in her mind, Ruth Gold saw the pitiful form of her brother Isaac on his deathbed." ... "Adonai, she prayed. Forgive me! And finally , she thought to push instead of pull, and the door flew open, and a brilliant white light came flooding in." (p. 428).

Concluding Thoughts:

Wandering Jude must admit that this novel, despite its minor flaws, is an engaging story filled with smart yet ambivalent characters. It tells the Christian story like it should be told, with sin and grace and repentance and mercy. Yes, there are some Jewish conversions to Christianity (though none occur during the events of the novel; all are told in flashback or some other kind of past tense literary device). But the conversions seem real, not forced. And the Jew we most of all expect to convert does not, though she changes in subtle yet life-changing ways. The rabbi remains a rabbi who does not believe in Jesus, yet she becomes more aware of Christianity's potential power and she finally forgives her brother for his conversion. The anti-semitic villain is sharply drawn; there is nothing good about him, despite his theological orthodoxy. His biblical allusions are empty and powerless, and ultimately violent, yet we feel pity for him. He is a pathetic figure, who knows the words of the Bible yet cannot grasp their meaning. In the end, his violent perversion of the Bible is contrasted with the life-affirming meaning found by both Jewish and Christian characters.

Athol Dickson, the author of this fine novel, is an evangelical Christian who, we are sure, desires the salvation of his Jewish friends. Yet he has written this book in such a way that (on some level) it's OK for Jews not to convert to Christianity. And that is probably the most we can hope for from the evangelicals among us. It certainly is a better alternative to the blatant proselytizing that occurs in so many books of this genre.

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