The Sunday after I told my regional bishop (while walking in disgust out of a parish meeting) that I was resigning from the clergy roster of our church body, I was supposed to serve as a substitute preacher for the author of this book. The first phone call I made was to give him the bad news that he would need to find a “substitute substitute” on really short notice. He is evidently a forgiving soul, because in spite of that bad turn, he was kind enough to send me free autographed copies of all three novels in his “Thy Strong Word” trilogy, of which this is Book 2. I want to return the favor and give it a nice review. So I’ll start with this book’s strengths.
First, its depiction of a doctrinally and liturgically conservative young Lutheran pastor in Small Town, USA, has a certain verisimilitude—particularly, in my experience, where conflict with grumbling parishioners, meddling brother pastors, and gangster-like district officials are involved. Yet at the same time it is a beautiful act of faith to depict the pastor’s vocation as a thing of joy, changing hearts and making a difference in lives through the power of the truth.
Second, the novel makes a strong emotional impact with its themes of death and grieving, childbirth and childlessness, guilt and forgiveness, and families and couples finding each other in the midst of adversity. Many of the incidents Pastor Justin Corwin experiences in this year of his dual ministry to the Lutheran congregation and the Fire Department of Carousel, New York, were familiar to me—including baptizing a preemie in the minutes after his birth (which, in my case, was my very first “pastoral act”). We find Beth mentoring the troubled teen who stabbed her in Book 1; Justin helping a firefighter move beyond an accident he survived because another did not; both of them experiencing a sort of parenthood when a girl in their community suddenly loses both parents; and Christian role-play gamers having to defend themselves against accusations of witchcraft and satanism. Each of these episodes is bound to leave the reader shaking his head, or choked up, or at least challenged to think.
Third, the banter between Justin, his new wife Beth (a detective in the local Police Department), and pretty much everyone else, is full of fun and wordplay, references to pop music and movies, and comfortable friendliness that often provides just the right light touch to set off paragraphs quoted wholesale from the hymnal, the church agenda, the Bible, and Luther’s Catechism. The book displays the pastor’s work in a variety of forms and settings, and models perhaps how some of us ruefully wish we had done it, or could be doing it now.
But to do full justice to the book, and to be of service both to my fellow readers and to my author friend, I feel obliged to point out a few weaknesses too. Somewhat like the first book in the series (Love Divine), only perhaps more so, it comes across more as a series of loosely related episodes than as one intricately-plotted novel. While some of the narrative threads do run all the way through it, many of them tail off without any further follow-through, or come back much later when they have gone out of mind. What becomes of the preemie and his family? How do things work out for Kevin? What kind of trouble do the pastor’s antagonists have brewing in their squat cauldron? If I were in a position to suggest improvements to a book like this, my main suggestion would be to swing the spotlight back onto such characters more often. Not only might it help the book seem to hold together better, but it might also bring more conflict and jeopardy into the scenario, and so make it a more powerful story.
As it is, the book is a warm, comfortable, amiable portrait of a faithful, happily married young pastor—sometimes almost sentimentally rosy, occasionally perky to a fault. Perhaps if it were more like I was suggesting, the verisimilitude would become too painfully exact—the story would become more about how things tragically, really are, and less about how they and should and maybe could be. Perhaps the inevitable result would be a pistol-packing secret-agent pastor (who actually exists in another series of novels), or a Father Brown ripoff who solves murders between the men’s breakfast Bible study and the women’s afternoon quilting club. Or maybe Beth could solve the crimes (we don’t seem to see her being a cop very much), while Justin does the reverending. Be my suggestions worthless or worthwhile, I guess what I’m saying is that the second book of this (so far) trilogy fell a little below the quality of the first book, in my judgment; but not so low that I lost interest in reading Book 3,One Thing’s Needful.