In Book 3 of the “Thy Strong Word” trilogy, I learned that many of the reservations that led me to give Book 2 a less-than-enthusiastic review were really the result of Middle of a Trilogy Syndrome. Character arcs and dramatic vectors that seemed to want more development in that book, get it in this one. I don’t know if what I’m saying right now is to repair harm that my previous review did, or to report that the author repaired the shortcomings of his previous book. A good reviewer never commits himself as to whether an error was his or the author’s whose work he has reviewed. But like film critic Roger Ebert, who passed away a few days before this writing, I am not too big-headed to revise my evaluation. Reading all three books (Love Divine, A Great and Mighty Wonder, and this) of “Thy Strong Word” as sections of a single, larger novel, I see merits that may seem wanting in each individual book. Or perhaps this third book is just better.
Whatever the case, this novel by a sometime colleague of mine in the Lutheran Pastoral Ministry was particularly touching to me. For one thing, I knew exactly on whom several of its characters were based. The fact that I have visited the exact church depicted in one passage (under another name), chatted with its leading members (also depicted under interesting pseudonyms), and am casually acquainted with one of Pastor Justin Corwin’s pastoral colleagues (very thinly disguised), might disqualify me from giving an impartial review. But apart from the surprise of Pastor Corwin’s decision at the end of the book, whether or not to accept a call to the above-cited congregation, these recognitions were not what most deeply moved me.
What gets me right here (*chest thump*) is the ordeal Pastor Corwin goes through, inflicted by an equal mixture of worldly church bureaucrats, back-stabbing fellow pastors, and disgruntled individuals in the parish, who can make life utterly miserable for a faithful, caring servant of Lord. The outcome of Pastor Corwin’s ordeal, developing throughout the trilogy, is perhaps more optimistic than I am after witnessing several such pastoral ordeals, and enduring one or two myself. It is a scandal and an offense that leads one to question why any good, honest, devout man would want anything to do with parish service. But it is also an encouraging testimony to the belief that it is worthwhile, and that perseverance will be blessed.
Meanwhile, Justin’s beloved bride Beth struggles with her own heartbreak as the door finally closes on the possibility of having children of her own. Beth takes solace in her relationship with Julie, the teen she and Justin unofficially adopted the year before, and in a sideways career move into juvenile law enforcement. She helps a boy from her husband’s catechism class deal with a school bully. And she and Justin keep up a patter of gleeful repartee that lightens a book that, for all the role she plays in it, really focuses on showing what it is like for a regular, flesh-and-blood guy to be the type of pastor all of us need to have, and that some (like Alan and me) ought to be. I have often regretted that meetings and conferences need to be as much a part of it as this novel depicts, but that’s the ministry for you. I have often wished that opening the Bible, saying “Hear the Word of the Lord,” and following a reading relevant to the occasion (any occasion) with a well-premeditated prayer, were as much a part of the ministry in reality as in these books; but that is something for us to strive toward. If only a few Christians, and particularly Lutherans, would read this novel and honestly consider, even for a moment, the sincere witness it bears to the relationship between pastors and laypeople, the thoughts and discussions thus stimulated might be good for the health of the church. And to make that possibility more probable, author Kornacki coats this medicine in a smooth, palatable, well-shaped novel.