Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secrets of Leaven

Every attempt I have made to write this review of Todd Wynward’s novel, The Secret of Leaven, has sounded far more negative than I intend, so let me say up front that I enjoyed the book on several levels. One should be aware, however, that the book should properly be read as a fairy tale or, at the least a fable for the Church. Read it as alternative history or conspiracy theory fiction with a theolgogcal bent and with good guys as the conspirators. That means suspending your disbelief about the following:

1)                  There is a secret world-wide society known as Leaven that is the ‘true’ followers of Jesus. Francis of Assisi was a member, and so was Dorothy Day, but the membership is very small; the group has fewer than fifty people scattered around the world, including a Greek Orthodox monk, a zen meditation instructor, and an archeologist, who in 1992 finds the ossuary of James, the older brother of Jesus. How do we know James was older than Jesus? Because the author says so. This is just the first of many truths that have been hidden from the Church since ancient times.

2)                  The protagonist of the book, however, is thirty-year-old Thomas Whidman, a third year seminarian, who is just coming to grips with the reality that horrible things happen to good people and God does not stop them, which causes him to lose his belief in God. For some reason, though, he can’t stop talking about religion with his girlfriend, the above mentioned meditation instructor, and just about everyone else he meets, and most of those conversations seem forced by the author to make sure his theology is coming across. Actually, none of these people can stop talking about the nature of God except his girlfriend and his college roommate, Ed, who consequently are the two healthiest people in the book.

Will Thomas join the Society of Leaven? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.

3)                  There is a curious mystery in this book, one that will keep many readers hanging on for the 500 page ride. Thomas has a great uncle who was a preacher in the early twentieth century. Josiah Whidman predicted the rapture was coming in 1923 and gathered a following in Gilman, Arkansas for the occasion. However, he vanished on the night before the rapture was to come. In the present, Thomas’s uncle Ben, also an evangelist, has attempted to wipe out all trace of great uncle Josiah, but Thomas accidentally learns about him.

What happened to the uncle? Thomas makes Josiah the focus of his thesis and determines to find out, jaunting off to Arizona and Arkansas following clues. How many classes he has missed and how he is paying for last minute plane fares on a seminarian’s income are probably questions we are not supposed to ask. And driving to Arkansas is simple; in this version of America, Thomas just gets in his car, and it’s a short hop down the Interstate.

4)                  Finally, there is the difficulty one has to struggle through of the weirdly fraudulent action that the secret society of Leaven pulls at Ben Whidman’s revival, justifying it as ‘holy mischief’.  I won’t tell you what they do exactly, but you will guess at it long before that part of the book happens. The morality of hijacking an event for your own purposes as being justified speaks to the basic problem of adopting a teleological view of ethics. I am not sure that was one of the theological concerns we were supposed to ponder in the book.

This is the first of a trilogy, so the full consequences of these actions will have to be lived out in the other two books. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter, but, in the end, it is kind of fun to watch. Just don’t expect to be seriously enlightened if you have done any reading from emergent church leaders, new evangelicals, or Richard Rohr, or have ever listened to a Homebrewed Christianity podcast. Judging by the glowing reviews on Amazon, most of the readers have not. Of course, the book takes place in 1992-1993, so most of these ideas would be unknown to any character who was not a part of the secret society.

I’m not sure if we are going to see the full realization of the Kingdom or just learn that the Society of Leaven is responsible for the rise of emerging Christianity, but we at least know Thomas is on a journey of discovery; by the end of the book, he will have gone far, and the author hopes, so will we. Hopefully, Wynward is working his way up to the present; will he be able to carry his thoughts into the future?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.