Unfortunately, the problems in Bill Myers'Angel of Wrath are legion.
Wallowing. I've found that there is a feel to most thrillers that's troubling, and this story follows that trend. It's as though the writer revels in the violence, fear, and death, and that's just wrong. The focus here seemed thoroughly negative. No doubt there's some kind of amazing epiphany later, but I don't think it's possible to go negative for two-thirds of the story and suddenly reverse the effect on the reader in probably well under one-third.
Holier Than They. Also, there's a kind of sanctimony involved here, and it's a bit misplaced at times. For example, there's an undercurrent of glee in the sinful churchgoers getting theirs. Now, most of the victims have some kind of moral or ethical problem--put more bluntly, they are sinning in some fashion explicitly condemned in Scripture. (Some might argue about the abortionist, but I think even many "pro-choice" people will admit that there's an understandable problem.) But there is an odd man out--supposedly a false teacher. While I am not an evolutionist, I don't see that an evolutionist would necessarily be a false teacher from a Biblical standpoint. His teaching is in a secular context (as a high-school teacher), not in the context of teaching Scripture or doctrine. The remarks about evolutionary racism are also ill-considered. While some racists have justified their views through evolution, some have used the Bible for the same purpose. Christians shouldn't engage in strawman tactics.
Evil Christians! I can understand wanting to avoid an unnecessarily rosy portrayal of Christians, but here Christians actually seem more evil than others. The pastor is more concerned with image than with God. His father (also a pastor once) sexually abused his own daughter. Then there are the aforementioned Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Psycho. I guess it wouldn't bother me so much if there were a counter-balance--an opposing view that would relieve the bleakness. The closest thing is the Praise-and-Worship geek, and since she's an unbiblical pop-theology construct, that's no great comfort.
Fairness Doctrine. The author gives more time to some bad theology than I'm comfortable with. There's a bit more detail on Black Mass than is necessary--I know kids can find out that sort of thing on Wikipedia, but we shouldn't do the lookups for them. A fair amount of the bad stuff is imitable, and the Coolness Factor of reproducing some of it will far outweigh the clearly fictional consequences.
We Don't Need God; We Have Physics! There's a strong tendency these days to rationalize God into some really quirky quantum phenomenon--another troubling trend this story follows. Apparently in the previous episode, a machine--a non-spiritual object--enabled people to access the Voice of God. Jazmin, a quasi-prodigy, becomes God-conscious as a result, and that enables her to pick out the Praise Geek as the Only One Who Gets What's Happening.
One of the things that bothered me was the whole business of bringing in string theory and vibrations, as though string theory is going to reduce God to a formula or phenomenon. Also, the use of the Fall of Jericho and Jehoshaphat's victory over the invading armies is inaccurate. What brought the walls down in the first case was obedience to God's command, and the fighting that followed was apparently normal. The idea that sound was involved is a back-reading of modern faith in physics. That leaves us with Jehoshaphat, where again obedience was probably the key, yet even so it's anomalous: the exception, not the rule. Normally, God expected the warriors to do their job, not stand around while the praise band did its thing.
We Don't Need No Steenkin' Prayer! While I haven't finished the story, I strongly suspect that the demon is routed by by an Amazing Praise and Worship Extravaganza. This is nonsense. Contrary to what many believe, such things don't really bother Satan. Think about it: presumably the continuous chorus of praise in Revelation has been there for some time, yet Satan still came before God in Job without apparent trouble. On a personal level, some of the worst Satanic activity I've encountered occurred in a worship setting.
This calls for a quote or two:
Cindy the Praise Geek: "What would you think if I contacted a few of the choir members and we got together?" "For prayer?" [the pastor] asked. "No, uh--" "For singing," Jaz interrupted. [small cut] "I could call them up," [Cindy] said. "The ones who wanted could meet us over at the church." "To sing," [the pastor] repeated. "To...worship, yes. And we could pray, too." (pp. 198-199, ellipses in original)
Prayer is apparently an afterthought here.
The Envelope, Please. Okay, I just checked the ending. Singing, not prayer, is the big deal. Maybe Jesus should've said, "This kind doesn't go out except by Praise and Worship." Reality check: the song in question is used by various non-Christian groups. It has no inherent power to drive out demons, and as mentioned above, praise and worship have no noticeable effect on Satan. Oh, and familial love (with repentance, yes) turns out to be strong enough to clock a demon. (And it is familial love: it is stated in precisely those terms on p. 288.) But only God's love could succeed there; human love of any kind is too weak.
Conclusion. So this winds up being a pop-theology fantasy of a dangerous kind: it encourages false views that could harm those who believe them. And the attitude issues don't help. If you don't like thinking through implications and don't care about theology, you'll probably like the book. Otherwise, skip it.
This will be an odd review: I haven't finished Bill Myers'Angel of Wrath, and I don't intend to. Yes, the review's going to be rather negative. But I'll start with an overview and some strong points.
Overview: Someone has decided to remove erring members of Calvary Cathedral from the church forcibly and permanently. Calvary Cathedral is a stereotypical megachurch that has lost its way and soul during its quest for ever more members, so it's not hard to find sinners in its midst.
The senior pastor happens to have a sister with an FBI background, and she has a quasi-boyfriend with a Special Forces background, who in turn has a niece with a deaf background. (A deaf foreground, too. But I forgot to mention her uncanny sensitivity to spiritual things, a sensitivity owed apparently not to God but to Man: human technology, that is.)
Meanwhilst, a would-be coven is sacrificing cats and good taste in an attempt to conjure up Something. Little do they know. Oh, sorry, that should have been, "Little do they know that their group is secretly led by the guy committing all the church-related murders." (They still don't know much...) This leader is ex-Special Forces himself, so soon he and the pastor's sister's squeeze-only-not are comparing personal badness. Come on, guys, just see who'll eat the nastiest bug or something!
Anyway... The Bad ex-Special Forces guy believes that Jesus and Satan have decided to bury their personal hatchet, but they still want to purge sinners from whatever megachurch is handy. It's a logic hole you could drive a spirit apparition through, and that's handy as well. Yes, it's the pop-culture creature from Hell, and it's running amok. This is good, because otherwise amok would drift about aimlessly, which can be messy.
Good points. Basically, the pacing and action are good. Also the bad guy's fate is reasonable.
[Addendum: It's been pointed out that the resolution of the relationship between the ex-FBI sister and her dad is well handled. That is true; it's one of the redeeming features of the story, and I should've mentioned it. The resolution of the breach between pastor and son works less well, however, being based on modern, extra-biblical ideas, so they somewhat cancel each other out.]
Language. I am a language geek, as I've said many times already, and there are a number of issues here. To begin with, I strongly doubt that "Rhi Bran y Hud" could become "Robin Hood." ("Ribbon Hid," maybe...) About the only way to account for such a thing would be to posit that "Robin Hood" already existed as a generic term for a robber (perhaps even as the trickster character already mentioned) and the two merged.
Then there's the fact that Friar Tuck, repeatedly identified as a "Saxon," persists in using the Irish term "boyo." Perhaps he picked it up from an Irish priest.
The languages proper are harder to justify. The French strikes me as the sort of thing you might get from BabelFish. The Latin is also problematic: Tuck at least once uses "pax vobiscum" in addressing one person (pax tecum). Lawhead uses "Cymry" for "Welsh" or "Welsh people," even though it specifically refers to Welsh people as an ethnic group, not to the individual cymro or cymraes or to the language (cymraeg). And so on. But especially, the more French you know, the harder this is to read.
Kumbaya, M'Lord! There's what I consider an unwarranted sunniness here in places, where most everyone's heart is eventually in the right place and We Really Need to Sit Down and Talk. He sets up for this, though sometimes to the point of making the outcome obvious or at least likely. Lawhead isn't reflexive about this optimism, however: Tuck's initial efforts are thwarted by good-old-fashioned evil. (Huzzah!) But would he even have tried? I'm not sure. The idea that he had a "Christian duty" to seek peace under such circumstances probably wouldn't have occurred to the average eleventh-century cleric. A modern one would think of it, however. It's a backreading of modern attitudes, in other words.
Syncretism. I admit that this is a hot button for me. The venerable Angharad is not simply a prophetess but a banfaith, a kind of druidic oracle, and although she makes Christian allusions, she does so through a pagan filter. What's with the Bird Spirit gear? And how does this influence the whole King Raven getup? Is this Christian-flavored paganism or pagan-flavored Christianity? The direction matters. When you reconstruct Greek philosophy with a Christian foundation, you wind up with Aquinas; when you reconstruct Christianity with a foundation of Greek philosophy, you get the Gnostics. I firmly believe that different culture should express Christianity in different forms but with the same content: Japanese Christianity should differ from American Christianity just as its hymns should. But the doctrines should be the same, however much their expression may vary, and pagan influences should be resisted. That doesn't appear to occur here, which is troubling at least.
Snarkiness. C. S. Lewis wrote that each age is blind to its own faults and alert to those of its predecessors. There's a certain amount of that here. While the clerics in general are good guys (Cardinal Flambard in particular is more positive a figure than I would have expected), there's a bit of a sneer about certain Medieval beliefs. While I don't consider myself an expert on praying for the dead and related concepts, I do think Lawhead is making a lot of noise about a splinter in someone else's eye, which leads me to wonder where a beam may be lurking. (This is particularly true when he goes out of his way to Christianize paganism in the person of the banfaith.) I usually observe that "Accuser of the Brethren" is not a title Christians should covet. Am I committing the same fault? Perhaps, though my goal isn't a comparison of personal godliness so much as a warning about a common temptation.
In any case, I do find it amusing that this very "fault" becomes in part the solution to the main conflict in the story. For the idea that killing even in wartime has undesirable consequences will lead to decreased willingness to kill, especially when an alternative presents itself.
Conclusion. So what about the book as a whole? If you know French, get a copy from a library, friend, etc., and check your tolerance. Otherwise, you'll probably find it an engaging yarn. Just avoid the snark and keep a skeptical eye on the banfaith.
Tuck Everlasting? I admit the size of the story put me off, and I thought early on that I'd probably have a "Tuck Everlasting" reference in my review. Amazingly, I do, even though it isn't as relevant as I then believed. For the story moves so swiftly and easily that length isn't a major consideration.
You are There. Although there are places where Lawhead is, I think, reading some modern idea or attitude back into the Middle Ages, there are areas where he recreates the feel of the time well. For example, the power and mystique of the longbow comes across well—the awe and consternation of the Normans confronted with what appears to be especially malevolent magic, as well as the weapon's terrible stopping power. Likewise the general feel of the period is well handled.
Balance. On the whole, Lawhead allows his characters good and bad points, and at least some of the villains have or gain redeeming qualities. While his depiction of the Church leadership is somewhat negative, that was common at the time, and it isn't uniform. It's mostly Abbot Hugo who's the jerk; the other churchmen are more sympathetic.
Speaking of balance, have you checked what the balance of the CSFF tour has to say?
Robin Hood has changed a lot over the years. Originally, the name was just a common name for a robber. Then it merged with the popular English stereotype of the trickster, and soon the character picked up some pious yet anti-authority qualities and eventually became the patron saint of redistributing wealth. But he also moved away from his common, lower-middle class origins to become linked with nobility (originally Saxon). Sir Walter Scott was one of the first to make him an anti-Norman freedom fighter in Ivanhoe.
So now he's a Welsh lord with a retconned name (Rhi Bran y Hud). It makes sense, because his weapon of choice was of Welsh origin. In a way the story is almost more about the longbow, which I think could be considered the first truly modern weapon. Instead of fighting face to face or at least at relatively close range, a Welsh archer could strike you dead before you saw him him and definitely before you could reach him. He was the first sniper, and his weapon must have seemed like the Devil's own magic. Only the crossbow came close, and given its comparatively pathetic reload rate, it didn't come that close.
(Cannons and trebuchets are more awesome to look at, but try wheeling them through a forest or targeting a specific person, and you'll see why the accuracy, speed, and agility of the archer made his longbow even more terrifying.)
Anyway--in Tuck we find Rhi Bran and his nemesis of the moment, the hissably icky Abbot Hugo, each facing sharp reductions in headcount without the other's knowledge. So they both decide to pick up some new fighters, which means in Bran's case a new character--Alan A. Dale, not to be confused with his kinky terpsichorean brother Chip N. The Lady Merian has her own clever ideas about recruitment that show the area badly needs a good newspaper with Society and Obituary pages.
But Bran's personal edition of Mission: Impossible is probably the best part, in which he somehow plays Salome without disrobing. (No, I won't explain that beyond saying Chip N. Dale isn't involved. Read the book.) Suffice it to say that it tests all Bran's fiber, and he learns an important lesson about gratitude.
Through it all, Tuck is a pacifist before the fight and a head-basher during it. This is called versatility. Despite numerous rebuffs, he keeps trying to find someone to join him in a duet of "Why Can't We Be Friends?" What a trouper.
Meanwhile, the rest of the CSFF bloggers are your friends, and unlike me, they'll probably be delighted to loan you money. Why don't you drop in on them and ask?
The Ark, the Reed, and the Firecloud by Jenny L. Cote
The Ark, the Reed, and the Firecloud does have some weak points, of course. Most are trivial: there are a lot of anachronisms, especially in geography, and a consistent language error in which Liz gets a masculine adjective (enchanté, malheureux) instead of a feminine one (enchantée, malheureuse). On the whole, however, there are no major problems until they're on the Ark, but the issues really pile up at the end.
1. The reed becomes more magical and talismanic over time. The first place it's a real problem is on p. 326, where Max effectively invokes the reed (not God) to perform a miracle--and a miracle God likely wouldn't have bothered with himself, considering what was actually going on. At first I thought it was a counterfeit miracle that would be acknowledged by the villain at the end. Not so: it gets worse, because the reed is the way to beat the villain (421-422).
2. The villain on the Ark is a bit of a yank anyway, but it also acts out of character. It advises Max to be open with his friends about his fears (305), though Satan generally encourages us to keep secrets like that. It apparently can be venomous (unless that's only off the Ark), yet doesn't use that to attack Noah and kin. It keeps some captive passengers alive for some reason, though being trussed up for a year without eating would likely have proved fatal to them.
3. There's a resurrection/immortality bit at the end that is a convenient plot device for a series, but it troubled me anyway.
There are other points I could mention, but these are the ones parents should be ready to discuss with the kids.
Conclusion. While the story has problems, especially toward the end, they can be useful teaching points--the parents may learn as much as the kids if they discuss the matters intelligently. So I would recommend this with reservations.
Edutainment. There's a fair amount of good information here. Reading it as an adult, I found myself occasionally annoyed at the anachronisms, especially where languages and geography were concerned. But I doubt that would harm kids, and they could pick up a little knowledge of of places, languages, cultures, and fauna. Is it all accurate? No, but it's probably at or above the norm for kids' books.
Spiritual message. The main point seems to be trusting God rather than yourself, and that point is well made, both in terms of Max's eventual temptation to rely on his spirituality and Liz's tendency to seek intellectual solutions. (She somewhat reminds me of Genie at times.)
Visual impact. It's no surprise that this story is being adapted for a movie; there are several scenes, such as the fitness sessions on the Ark, that seem written for a movie, so they should appeal to modern, video-minded kids.
Creativity. In scripture fiction, this is often a bad thing, but here it is generally positive. Cote has a different take on some things than a lot of people writing about the Flood. Do I agree with her views? Not always, but at least she's not writing like yet another clone. A lot of books like this are boring; I feel as though I've read them all before, and in a sense I have, because there's no significant difference between them. So a fresh view is a good thing, especially where kids are concerned. They need to learn that there are other views out there, and they deserve thoughtful consideration, not reflexive rejection.
The Ark, the Reed, and the Firecloud by Jenny L. Cote
The Ark, the Reed, and the Firecloud tells the story of the animals that boarded Noah's Ark. Though the narrative primarily focuses on the European group led by Max the Scotty dog and Liz the cat, it also touches on other groups in Africa, Australia, and North America as they travel toward an unknown destination. The second part of the story deals with their time aboard the Ark itself, including a plot to destroy Noah's family and perhaps the Ark as a whole.
The story opens with Max hearing a strange message whispering in some reeds, telling him to follow the "firecloud"--a cloud mixed with strange fire reminiscent of the one that escorted the Israelites through the Exodus. Max takes one of the reeds along, mostly to justify the title, and begins his quest. Early on, Max shows himself a mix of growing faith and childhood fear. Liz, meanwhile, is the stereotypically cerebral character who knows practically everything but what it all means.
Once they reach the Ark, they move from mere problem-solving to dealing with a more insidious threat. They must also come to terms with their own destinies, which for Max, Liz, and their consorts will be longer than life if not larger. We'll look at the particular good points of the story tomorrow.