“What we want is not more little books about Christianity,” C. S. Lewis once said in an address on Christian apologetics, “but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”
I thought of Lewis’s remarks as I read Joel C. Rosenberg’s new thriller, The Third Target. The plot centers on New York Times reporter J. B. Collins, whose sources have informed him that ISIS has captured a cache of chemical weapons from the Syrian government. As Collins pursues this story across three continents, he and his friends are drawn deeper into the violent clash between Islamic terrorists and the civilized world.
What makes Collins’ investigation even more pressing is that King Abdullah II of Jordan—Collins uses the real monarch as a heroic character in his plot—has somehow managed to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. There is a real chance that ISIS might use its captured Syrian WMDs to scuttle the peace deal and prosecute war inside the moderate Hashemite kingdom.
It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Third Target in a way that both reveals how gripping a read it is while leaving the cover on its plot twists and turns. Perhaps it is enough to say that I enjoy thrillers that involve a desperate race against time, found the book’s plot believable and pace exciting, and was stunned by the book’s ending.
But here’s where Lewis’s quote comes into play. Rosenberg is an evangelical Christian, and Tyndale is an evangelical Christian publishing house. Rather than making his Christian faith latent, Rosenberg has chosen to make it patent, and this patency detracts from the value of the story he tells.
J. B. Collins, we learn, is nonreligious. His mother and brother aren’t, however. They are evangelical Christians. Indeed, his brother Matthew is a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts—a school I myself briefly attended. Rosenberg uses Matthew to give voice to two evangelical interests: biblical evangelism and personal prophecy. In a long conversation with his brother, Matthew explains the contemporary relevance of biblical prophecies concerning the territories that constitute modern-day Jordan. Additionally, Matthew repeatedly presses J. B. to come to Jesus before it’s too late.
Of these two interests, the latter—the concern for religious conversion—could’ve been presented in a way that felt more integral to the plot. Faced with the death of people on every side, J. B. begins to ponder his own fate. Is he ready to die? Is there life after death? Psychologically, these are natural questions for people to ask themselves when death comes calling. My complaint is not that Rosenberg included the matter of religious conversion in the plot, but that he did so in such a ham-fisted way.
His treatment of biblical prophecy is what annoyed me most, however. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan encompasses territory that in Bible times belonged to Moab, Ammon, and Edom (moving from north to south). These kingdoms are mentioned throughout the Old Testament in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Rosenberg believes prophetic references to these kingdoms have contemporary relevance. By placing such prophetic interpretations in the mouth of a Gordon-Conwell professor, he gives them a patina of academic respectability. To be honest, however, I’m not sure any scholar at that institution would treat the prophecies as he has done. In other words, his use of biblical prophecy does not seem credible and—more importantly in a work of literature—does not move the plot forward. In a race-against-time thriller, such slowing down is a cardinal sin.
Now, I recognize that my fellow evangelicals will shake their heads and tut-tut at my review for expressing online my reservations about the prophetic and evangelistic elements of the book. But here’s the deal: The secret of good novel writing is showing rather than telling. The good parts of Rosenberg’s book show; the parts that slow him down tell. The Third Target would’ve been a much better book had Rosenberg integrated the comfort of faith in the face of death into his plot in a more integral way and left out the Bible prophecy material entirely.
Rosenberg is a terrific writer. But next time, he should steal a page from Lewis.
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