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Michael O’Brien
The Valley Gazette
Michael O’Brien

Stings like a bee

Books | A closer look at the works of novelist Michael O’Brien

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

Six years ago I called Canadian Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World (Ignatius, 2007) one of the best Christian novels about forgiveness and grace I’ve ever read. I’ve relished since then his novel Theophilos, which plays off Luke’s research in writing his Gospel and the book of Acts, and The Father’s Tale, a 1,000-page search by a father for his prodigal son. (See WORLD, Dec. 29, 2007, and July 16, 2010.)

Now I’ve read three of his older works—Father Elijah (1997), Sophia House (2005), and Plague Journal (2009)—along with a just-published new one, Voyage to Alpha Centauri, all put out by Ignatius Press. Reading these three allows me to say that O’Brien is up there with Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor in the pantheon of fiction writers from Roman Catholic backgrounds, but his style is in some ways the opposite of the sly and humorous Percy, who floats like a butterfly; O’Brien stings like a bee, or maybe a sledgehammer.

Father Elijah has as its protagonist a Jewish refugee from Europe who is upwardly mobile in Israeli politics until a terrorist kills his wife: He turns to Christ, becomes a priest, and years later finds himself, at papal request, suddenly thrust into a battle of wits and wants with an upwardly mobile anti-Christ. Sophia House is the backstory, with the teenager who becomes Father Elijah hiding from Nazis in the home of a man with a troubled past and a Christ-like present.

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The hero of Plague Journal is a small-town Canadian editor who runs afoul of a local schoolmarm and other politically correct folks, and then has to run for his life. The editor sees the reality of Aldous Huxley’s prediction (in Brave New World Revisited) that future totalitarians will not be like Hitler or Stalin, but will attempt to create a society “painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” O’Brien shows that “this kind of totalitarianism is the worst of all, the most inhumane, impossible to throw off because it can always argue that it’s not in fact what it is.”

In all these books O’Brien sprinkles insights. About abortion, he writes that young people don’t blame Herods: “They know that their absent brothers and sisters fell under a knife, not at the command of a malicious king, but at the word of their mothers and fathers. They have grown old too young.” He observes, “Everyone in our era needed to be loved first. We poor men with our pathetic male egos—we needed women to love us so we could be strong enough to love them. And they needed us to love them in order to be able to love us. Somebody had to go first, and practically no one felt he should be the one.”

O’Brien’s new novel is a venture into science fiction centered on a 19-year trip aboard a sleek, huge spaceship, with the narrator learning of oppression in the heavens as on Earth. O’Brien skillfully portrays a clash of worldviews without end, amen, with big brothers watching and demanding lying conformity.

Why Christianity?

The colorful tales in Sandra Silver’s Footprints in Parchment: Rome Versus Christianity, 30-313 AD (Author House, 2013) make up for some general book disorganization, and the end result is an empathetic look at people who died for the freedom to say Christianus sum, “I am a Christian.” The importance of that statement becomes evident in James Anderson’s What’s Your Worldview? (Crossway, 2013). Since each generation stumbles into its own ways to learn about God, Anderson simply but brilliantly appeals to those who grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure books, where the outcome depends on the choices readers make. He has readers answer basic questions about God and nature, and then shows how those answers lead to theological views readers may not know they had. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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