Catholic Novels: Theophilos
The title and subject matter for Theophilos, a novel by Michael D. O’Brien published in 2010, are taken from the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, where the evangelist writes: “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus” (Lk 1:3). The author describes his book, very accurately, as “an imaginative reflection on an obscure aspect of the Gospel.”
O’Brien, whose publisher is Ignatius Press, will be familiar to many Catholics as the author of such novels as Father Elijah—An Apocalypse, Strangers and Sojourners, Eclipse of the Sun, and Plague Journal, among several others. In general, his stock in trade is explicitly religious themes, and Theophilos is obviously no exception. O’Brien imagines his main character (the name means “lover of God” and, in the Gospel, may not refer to an actual person at all) to be the uncle of St. Luke, also a physician, who rescued his nephew from the plague, raised him through his teen years, and taught him his profession.
But Luke eventually strikes out on his own, comes into contact with Christians, receives the gift of faith, and becomes a trusted chronicler of the Christ. His letters to Theophilos increasingly reveal his attraction to this new cult, and the older physician finally sets out to visit Luke in the Holy Land in order to determine whether he has given himself over to a delusion. The novel studies Theophilos’ quest to prove (or, more likely, disprove) Luke’s convictions and, consequently, it explores Theophilos’ own confrontation with the still freshly remembered Christ, some thirty years after the crucifixion.
The very first thing one notices about this book is that O’Brien is a serious novelist. His work is meticulously researched for first century verisimilitude, his plotline is finely crafted down to the last detail, and his command of English style enables him not only to write very well, but to capture both the rational formality of an educated Greek’s mind and the seriousness required for a reflective examination of life and faith. The prose flows with an expressive dignity, often triggering meditation, occasionally triggering tears.
The second thing one notices is that what the author really wants to do in this novel is to make Theophilos’ dilemma our own. O’Brien employs Theophilos as a means of putting the reader face to face with the claims of Christ, in the hope that the reader will accept, or accept more deeply, the gift of Faith. This intention is obvious enough that it diminishes the power of the story, because the reader cannot escape that other purpose: Here, look at this evidence, and believe.
To this end, the book is painstakingly organized into sections which enable the author to put his case in a highly-structured and systematic way. In O’Brien’s defense (if a defense is needed), this structure does no violence to the plot or the characters. In fact, it might have been the way Theophilos went about things, were he a real person. The two-fold purpose of narrative and apologetics, in this case, fit together without distortion. O’Brien need not resort to anything beyond the confines of the tale, nor anything fantastical at all, to accomplish his purpose. It is hard to imagine a deliberately apologetical novel being done more seamlessly than Theophilos. And yet it feels contrived.
The problem is that the reader cannot forget that O’Brien is preoccupied with him as much or more than with Theophilos. The first major part of the book (“Journals”) uses excerpts from the Theophilos’ journals to fill in the background, establish his relationship with Luke, and engender concern about whether Luke is going off the rails. This is the best part of the book. But once Theophilos gets to the Holy Land, he agrees to Luke’s proposal that he should do a detailed examination of the case for Christianity by consulting, almost at random, as many witnesses to the life of Christ as he can find, interviewing them, and noting their testimonies pro and con. Hence the second section, entitled “Examinations”. Here the contrivance is most obvious, and these testimonies quickly grow tedious. They are best skimmed.
Then it is time for a still unpersuaded Theophilos to return home. In the third major section, “Morphaeon” (named for the Greek god Morpheus, the god of dreams), Theophilos experiences a series of dreams, nightmares, and interior terrors which progressively convince him that his own rationalist pride is preventing him from entering more deeply into reality. Again, one cannot escape the feeling that these experiences are meticulously assembled as much for the reader’s benefit as for Theophilos. Yet because the two purposes are not incompatible, the story is sometimes moving and always believable.
This is a case, then, in which the effort to write a “Catholic novel”, with the (assumed) obligatory presentation of the entire Christian message for the reader’s edification, is completed about as successfully as it can be. O’Brien does not fall into the trap of warping either his plot or his characters in order to fulfill his self-imposed preaching assignment. But that it is a preaching assignment the reader cannot doubt and, again, this does weaken its strength as a literary work because it interferes with the reader’s immersion in the experience of the story, from which he might learn and grow in ways that transcend the experience of the pulpit or the classroom.
My verdict? This is above all an intriguing work. Its prose rises to the level of what, in a good sense, we should call “literature”. Overall it is certainly executed well enough to be read and enjoyed as a novel. And as an occasion to reflect, under the tutelage of a fine writer, on the nature and purposes of “the Catholic novel”, Theophilos rates very high indeed—for better or worse.
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Posted by: AgnesDay -
Dec. 04, 2010 12:40 PM ET USA
I read all three of your essays before commenting. I have to admit that I am not a great reader of fiction because fiction is a contrived reality over an imaginary span of time. I have seldom seen this really well done. A truly "Catholic Novel" implicitly makes God a character in the story, and I have never seen this well done. If I were to fictionalize the story of my conversion, it would be panned by critics as unworthy of suspension of disbelief.
Posted by: -
Dec. 04, 2010 9:34 AM ET USA
I'm at the point where Theophilos is heading off to the Holy Land to find Loucas and address his concerns about the new 'cult.' I enjoyed the historical detail and opening of the characters' hearts. While it may become "contrived" in presenting the case for Christ, doesn't it answer the call for a 'new evangelization' of the culture? For those exploring the Catholic faith in a deeper way, it is a painless, entertaining way to challenge us to explore our beliefs & our response to Christ.
Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 -
Dec. 03, 2010 9:42 PM ET USA
Jeff, I hope you will review two from Sophia - Rachel's Contrition and Bleeder. If not, I'd highly recommend them. They're Catholic, but before that, they're stories. "I have to act civil when I see him. That was part of the agreement. So, I plaster a fake smile on my face and bat my eyelashes at him. 'Hello, Sinclair. I hope you had a nice weekend.' 'Rachel.' He says it as if my name is an answer." Those are the opening lines for Rachel's Contrition. Intriguing, to say the least.