Friday, July 31, 2009

The Vienna Passage

Our latest installment on Jewish conversionary novels (with a hint of romance) was written by David Porter and published by Crossway Books in 1995. The Vienna Passage is a “coming of age” story featuring protagonist Toby Burgate, a young man who is British but goes to Vienna to teach English in 1912. He encounters a different world and different cultures, with many Jewish acquaintances but also a great deal of anti-Semitism.

In the opening chapter, an older Jewish scholar named Solomon Meshrach is acosted and beaten by anti-Semitic ruffians. As is almost always the case in the evangelical novels with Jewish characters, we feel great sympathy for this particular victim of anti-Semitism (and on the other side of the coin, the reader will probably feel disdain for the anti-Semites).

Another Jewish character appears. Lev Beikelman is a Dutch friend of Toby's who is a music student (and who Toby later discovers is Jewish when Toby observes Lev saying the ha-motzi before his meal).

And then we meet yet another Jew: Rachel Guntersheim is a Jewish friend of Frau Onkel, the matriarch of the family who Toby is staying with (which is part of a strict Calvinist sect). At Rachel's home, Frau Onkel:

"let her gaze wander round, picking out the Jewish items; a nine-branched Hanukkah candlestick on the bookshelf, a few ornaments, a star of David embroidered on a wall hanging, and on the door the mezuzah -- the tiny cylinder that held, Rachel had once explained to her, the verses of the Shema Yisrael, the ancient Old Testament prayer to the one God.... After all, Onkel knew all about the Old Testament. It was Onkel who talked knowledgeably to visiting Saints. It was Onkel, indeed, who had recently spoken eloquently at one of the meetings at the Hall on the subject of God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people, now to be inherited by all the Lord's People who Sought to Do His Will... But then Onkel ... did not hate Jews; he simply could not escape the clear scriptural teaching of their complicity in the death of Christ."

But this is Herr Onkel, clearly the villain of the book. Frau Onkel, on the other hand, does not believe this about the Jewish people. She is our heroine to Herr Onkel’s poor, deluded Calvinist anti-Semite.

Our anti-hero Herr Onkel tells Toby that "the Jews, having crucified Christ, were doomed to suffer and be rejected for ever." Just swell, says Wandering Jude.

As Toby meets more Jews, he begins to reevaluate his attitudes toward them, which had been cultivated during his younger years in England. He had always thought of them as chosen by God but also as inferior since they had "crucified Christ."

"... they bore the blood-guilt of the Saviour's death; his blood was on their hands; they had been given a great privilege, and had thrown it away.... Jews were a people with a special need to be saved, who had sinned in a way that other races had not, and were therefore different." "This was an opportunity to witness to an Unbelieving Friend.... He should engage Lev in theological discussion, confront him with the consequences of his halfhearted faith, and lead him to the point where he could make his own Decision for Christ. Lev, Toby knew, needed to be saved, and he, Toby, was the only person around to show him how. And yet there was a simple piety in Lev's voice that stopped him. There was a dimension to Lev's experience of God, even though it fitted no categories that Toby possessed, which Toby could not match. Comparing Lev's straightforward gratitude and rudimentary theology with his own array of biblical learning, devotional vocabulary and mainly secondhand views and opinions, he felt curiously depressed; especially when he realised that his background and spiritual history meant that he belonged in Onkel's camp rather than Lev's. And yet... and yet. He knew, and was not yet prepared to abandon the knowledge, that more was required of Lev than mere gratitude of a benevolent God. He knew that the road to God was narrow, that few found it...."

Toby tries to explain to Herr Onkel why he loves the music of Arnold Schoenberg. But Onkel responds:

"'You are saying that this music talked to your spirit, that it moved your heart.' 'Yes, yes!' he agreed. 'It is a spiritual matter.' ... 'So you are receiving spiritual instructions from a Jew,' he said with loathing, 'Opening your soul to one whose people rejected the Messiah.'"

Herr Onkel turns out to be not just an anti-Semite but a hooligan and vandal, smashing Jews' windows at night and other kinds of terroristic activity. But through it all he was not really a hypocrite because he truly believed he was doing the Lord's work. He ends up being killed by Hans Braun, a Jew who had disguised himself as a Christian and who took part in Onkel's vandalism but later revealed himself to Onkel and murdered him.

The true hero of the story is Sally, Toby's American friend (who he has a crush on), who turns out to be an evangelical but a more moderate one than Toby is used to.

Interesting to note that some real life Viennese Jews inhabit this book, including Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. There are no conversions in this book, except for perhaps Toby who learns much about life and realizes that life is much broader than the strict religious sect that he had grown up in. Unlike most conversionary novels that Wandering Jude discusses in these pages, The Vienna Passage gets a “thumbs up.” While trying hard not to lecture his Christian friends, Wandering Jude wishes that more evangelical works of fiction were as nuanced and tolerant as this one.

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