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Bigtime Christian fiction

Books | John Grisham gets explicit with his faith in his latest bestseller, as Frederick Buechner earns critical acclaim

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

John Grisham is one of America's biggest selling authors, specializing in thrillers about the legal profession, but he is also a Christian, a Southern Baptist, and a Sunday school teacher. Now he has gotten so big that he evidently feels that he can get away with putting explicit Christianity into a novel.

Although Mr. Grisham is not a great writer, he tells a good story. Testament is about Nate O'Riley, a washed-up Washington lawyer who is pulled out of detox by his law firm to chase down the heir to one of the world's great fortunes. It seems that wiley old Troy Phelan left a fortune worth $11 billion.

Trouble is, to whom did he leave it? Each of his six children expects a slice of the pie. They were named in his will. But after a hair-raising opening chapter it is revealed that Phelan had left another will, a final last testament that names his illegitimate daughter, Rachel Lane, as sole heir.

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But where's Rachel? Nobody knows for sure. She is supposed to be a Christian missionary to some primitive tribe at the end of a forgotten river deep in the jungles of Brazil.

Off goes Nate on a rickety riverboat into the rain forest in search of Rachel. Yes, he finds her. And-in perhaps the most surprising plot twist of all in a bestselling novel--she leads him to Christ. Mr. Grisham handles the conversion scene in a straightforward, understated way. Meanwhile, the Phelan kids--a disagreeable and greedy bunch of spoiled misfits--are hiring an army of fancy lawyers to contest the will, even as Rachel tells Nate she wants nothing to do with the money. She has devoted her life to caring for the medical and spiritual needs of her beloved Indians and is content to lay up treasure in heaven. Nate is profoundly moved by her devotion and sacrifice.

Of course, it all comes down to a lawyer shootout, Nate against the gang of shysters in black hats. Here Mr. Grisham is at his best, delivering tight scenes and believable dialogue.

Regrettably, most of the book is not as well-written. It reads like a first draft of a novel, dictated into a tape recorder and transcribed unedited. Facts about the jungle read like text from a tourist brochure. Mishaps on the river seem like stock footage from B-movie jungle adventures-here come the alligators slithering from the bank-that does nothing to advance plot or develop character. Mr. Grisham makes irritating shifts from first- to second-person voice and past to present tense.

That said, it's a compelling story. The plot has more twists than a roller coaster, especially at the end. It will be filmed; screenwriters will clean up the problems; and good actors will bring it to life. But what Hollywood will do with the conversion of Nate O'Riley is anybody's guess. Surely a writer with Mr. Grisham's clout can make it stick. Obviously, he's already gotten away with it in the New York publishing establishment.

Maybe the larger cultural issue here is that an inherent Christian-based conservatism in popular novelists like John Grisham and Tom Clancy resonates with millions of average, decent Americans, even if it is at odds with the literary leftist agenda of the New York/Hollywood establishment. For that, we can be grateful. Here's hoping that Mr. Grisham, the good yarnspinner, blazes the trail in that particular jungle, so that others can follow.

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Frederick Buechner is one of our finest living American writers. His novel Godric was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He is, moreover, a Christian and an ordained minister. Though his Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affiliation and its liberal theology sometimes shows through, most of his fiction is theologically on target.

The Storm, Mr. Buechner's 16th work of fiction, takes its title and main characters from Shakepeare's play, The Tempest. The Storm continues Mr. Buechner's exploration, begun in the 1950s, of the problem of sainthood: How does one find divine bliss in this messed-up world?

Kenzie Maxwell, the protagonist, is, like the author, a writer just turning 70. Twenty years before, Kenzie's search for spiritual reality led him to work with the Alosians in New York City, a ministry to homeless children. Like all saints with feet of clay, Kenzie stumbled. He fell in love with a teenage street girl who was one of his wards. She died bearing his child. The ensuing scandal drove him from New York and broke his relationship with his older brother Dalton, attorney for the Alosians.

Now Kenzie is living in contemplative exile on a coastal island in Florida. His wife plans a 70th birthday party and invites not only Bree, the love child, but also Dalton, Kenzie's estranged brother; Nandy, Dalton's estranged son; and Violet, who owns the island and hates Kenzie. As Puck said in another of Shakespeare's plays, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Yet as the winter storm gathers off the coast and as strained relationships begin to crack, God intrudes with his grace.

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