Strange things are happening in Antioch, Washington. A crucifix weeps, the crippled are made whole, and Jesus has appeared on the outskirts of town. A heroic Pentecostal pastor fights demons and rescues the heroine-in-peril in a heart-stopping final confrontation.
Meanwhile, a less supernatural scenario unfolds on the opposite coast. Eccentric billionaire Troy Phelan leaves his entire fortune to his illegitimate daughter, Rachel Lane, and then throws himself out of a window—much to the dismay of his lawyers, his three ex-wives, his six legitimate children, and a greedy flock of grandchildren. Rachel Lane is unaware of her good luck; she's teaching the Bible to Stone Age Indians, and Nate O'Riley (lawyer, alcoholic, womanizer) sets off into the Brazilian jungle to find her.
Millions of readers have already visited Antioch and Brazil, led there (respectively) by Frank Peretti's new novel The Visitation and John Grisham's most recent bestseller, The Testament. Until now, Grisham has written earthy books, in which characters are too busy extricating themselves from man-made messes to pay much attention to the spiritual realm; in Peretti's novels, the real conflict is always in heaven, not on earth. Peretti's heroes have typically been larger-than-life prophets of God, while Grisham's heroes are sometimes not much better than the villains. Peretti sells at Heaven and Earth; Grisham, at Barnes & Noble.
But these new novels show an unexpected reversal of perspective. Peretti's The Visitation is narrated by Travis Jordan, a disaffected Pentecostal pastor who is fed up with miraculous healings and words of knowledge; Grisham's The Testament stars a selfless missionary and a holy small-town priest. The Visitation has a table of its own at my local Books-a-Million; The Testament is now being stocked by Christian bookstores.
Near the beginning of The Visitation, Travis wanders through his hometown, reflecting on the nostalgia central to church culture: "That old-time religion was good for our fathers and mothers and it's good enough for us. I knew Brother Fudd was singing the same tune down at the Baptist church, just him and the same dozen people every night, 'taking the town for Christ.' " In telling Travis's life story, Peretti knocks down the excesses of various denominations, one by one. "No one … has ever … taken a city for Christ," Travis lectures an enthusiastic young pastor. "Not Paul, not Peter, nobody. Not even Christ took a city for Christ." Later, he warns a colleague to beware a fellow pastor: "Bob Fisher's Southern Baptist, so he's sound and solid. Just don't get into a doctrinal dispute with him. He doesn't like being disagreed with."
Even more startling is the variety of heroines in The Visitation: one is an independent female reporter who is "into natural foods, a little yoga, and probably voted for Clinton," while another is a minister (granted, she gets saved after 20 years in the ministry, but Peretti doesn't remove her from the pulpit immediately thereafter).
In The Visitation, Peretti's voice is unexpectedly mainstream. But in The Testament, Grisham writes like a Southern Baptist at home among friends. His missionary grabs Nate O'Riley's hand and squeezes it: "Close your eyes, Nate. Repeat after me: Dear God, Forgive me of my sins … " This dialogue is dead on, but when one of Troy Phelan's lawyers informs us that Rachel Lane "ministers to Indians," we hear Grisham's intrusive voice; this is not a phrase that would come naturally to the lips of a secular attorney.
The presence of evangelical-speak isn't the only startling element in The Testament. Grisham's novels have always been concerned with social issues (reviewer Stephen Trapnell calls him the "mass-market national conscience"), but The Testament is about out-and-out conversion. Not spirituality, mind you, but Jesus. Nate O'Riley finds God when he finds Rachel Lane, a redemption that even the perpetually sardonic New York Times finds "quite convincing." In a Brazilian chapel, Nate O'Riley gets saved, plain and simple:
In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. … [He] felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. … Nate saw the face of Christ, in agony and pain, dying on the cross. Dying for him.
Different as these novels are, one clear parallel exists between them: in both books, the Almighty is difficult to find, intangible, present only in faith and in the soul's eye, discovered most clearly in the lives of his people. This is good theology, but it causes trouble for both novelists.
For one thing, The Visitation has no angels. This Present Darkness and its sequels were full of muscular heavenly creatures with swords, but the good in Antioch is much more subtle. "How can I describe it?" Travis asks, struggling to explain the presence of God. "Jesus was in the Trooper with me. … I could hear the same voice in my heart I'd been hearing since I was in kindergarten." Peretti has taken a light-year's leap toward realism in his depiction of the divine.
Yet he chose to put demons in Antioch. In The Visitation, evil is physically real; the demons are visible and strong enough to rip a pet dog to pieces. The demon-angel conflicts of This Present Darkness were, at least, fairly evenhanded; without angels in Antioch, there is not a whole lot of God compared to the overwhelming presence of evil.
Grisham's depictions of God are just as subtle as Peretti's. Nate's call to conversion is in audible, a quiet "voice from within." In The Testament, the divine has a human face, and God's presence is most obvious in his people. Almost more than God himself, Rachel guides Nate's redemption: "Somehow she'd known he wasn't a drunk anymore, that his addictions were gone. … She'd found his calling for him. God told her." But Troy Phelan's nasty heirs are the only villains in The Testament, and when Grisham speaks of the demon alcohol, he's speaking metaphorically. Grisham's evil is just as human as his good—which makes The Testament the better balanced book.
Unfortunately, Grisham's good characters are stencils. Rachel is unworldly, unselfish, and totally unbelievable. The evildoers in Grisham's novel are fascinating, but the good characters are just plain boring. And while Peretti's demons may be cartoonish, Travis Jordan, the woman minister, the Clinton reporter, and a dozen other minor good folk are compelling, interesting, real.
The Visitation, as a novel, is more successful than The Testament: better at holding the reader's attention, better at suspense, and far, far better at dialogue and character development. If Peretti can learn from Grisham how to portray vice more convincingly, his next novel could be the one that lands him on that front table at Barnes & Noble.
Susan Wise Bauer teaches literature at the College of William and Mary and is the author of the novels The Revolt (Word) and Though the Darkness Hide Thee (Multnomah).
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