Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Intelligently Believing : The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

Photo: from KirkusReviews.com (which gave it a good review), at this website.

In America today, we are living through days that juxtapose intelligence versus blind faith. This book shows, as I also believe, that you can have blind faith without sacrificing intelligence. That you can believe and still think, and that you don't have to believe what someone tells you, but should instead read, think and believe for yourself. Having blind faith in someone like Jesus is fine; having blind faith in what someone tells you Jesus said and thought maybe is not. Why not read the Bible, think about it yourself, read about the Bible, think about that, and then read the Bible again? I did that, and still do. I don't know yet what I believe, but whatever it is, I assure you, it's mine, and not anyone else's. You're responsible for your beliefs, so they'd better be your own.

This book, blessedly, says that. Father Alex is a Gospel teacher, but not a blind believer. He's very religious, but doesn't believe everything--and for good reason. He reads and he thinks for himself, and his beliefs are stronger, and more pure, because of it.

A good lesson for us all. In politics, in religion, in everything.

Very well-written, intelligent and character-focused novel about a murder, an exhibit in Rome, and a "fifth gospel" that involves different branches of Christianity and the Shroud of Turin. There's a lot of biblical history here; never is it too much, or too heavy. There's a lot about the daily life of an Eastern Orthodox priest (who can marry and procreate) and his son in Rome. This man's brother, also an important priest, is accused of murder, and he still hasn't recovered from his wife's departure.

Despite the very good, but not over-long or overly-descriptive writing, and despite the biblical history, the Papal history, the Roman history, and the mystery itself, the crux of this book is actually the relationship between father and son. They need to survive together, which is difficult in itself, but also must survive the abandonment a wife, a mother, and, later, of a brother and of friends. All they have, it seems, is each other, and it's going to have to be enough. Yet he wants to teach his son to do what's right, including thinking for yourself amidst much theological noise. He also wants to live an authentic and honest life, and to teach his son to do the same.

We read some really good writing about these characters, about characterizations, about Rome, and a Catholic trial, and a lot of history that never bores or overwhelms. The mystery is not over when you think it is, and the characters ring true, as does the final end of this mystery.

It's told in first-person, present-tense, which is an interesting choice. Normally an author chooses this tense when he wants to keep the writing thrilling, with a you-are-there kind of feel. That's not necessary here, and isn't really accomplished, and it's not a failure. My guess is that Caldwell chose this tense to make the reader like he's walking in Rome, in this mystery, with Alex, the main character, and with his son. This is done as much for the local flavor and sightseeing, like the reader is walking with a travel guide through Rome, through the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's, through the streets. It's a good choice, though I didn't realize it until the middle of the book and saw its effects.

This book took 10 years for Caldwell to write, and it apparently led to a lot of hardship, as he mentions in his acknowledgements. Ten years is a long time to follow up a monster best-seller (2004's The Rule of Four); this apparently upset his publisher at the time, and they apparently let him know it, probably by taking away an advance, or canceling a contract, or something like that. But he stuck with it, and his agent stuck with him--ironic, as the main theme of this book is faith, strength, integrity and abandonment. Art imitates life.

If you're interested in any of the things described above, read this book. It's not as esoteric as this genre often can be, and there's no judgement, and there's a fair share of intelligence and deep emotion--a hard balance. I didn't like The Rule of Four, but I took a chance on this. I'm glad I did.

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