The Order | Book Review


**********SPOILERS ALERT**********

Daniel Silva has written some of my favorite suspense novels. The Order is not among them. While the book’s topic—the antisemitism of Europe’s far right, and its intermingling with Catholicism—is both interesting and relevant, the book’s execution is not.

Let me, first, deal with the topic. Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, as well as the United States. One source of that is the European far right, whose nationalist parties verge on or veer into fascism. Historically, some of those parties held close ties with traditionalist forms of Catholicism. The fact of those ties is not a matter of dispute, though their extent is. (Think of the strenuous debates about Pius XII the Shoah, for example.)

One of the reasons for Catholicism’s antisemitism problem—and for Protestantism’s too—is the anti-Jewish polemic of several passages in the New Testament. For example, during the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, we read this in Matthew 27:25: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” This verse historically served as the basis for the Christian accusation of deicide against the Jewish people.

These two elements—far-right antisemitism, Catholic antisemitism—are the fuel that drives The Order forward. And Gabriel Allon seems like the perfect driver for Silva’s vehicle. The lone child of a Birkenau survivor, a young assassin who meted out justice against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes, the director of Mossad, a spy with friendly ties to the current pope, if anyone can stop far-right anti-Semites, Allon can. And should.

But, and it’s a very large but, the way Silva executes the plot strains credulity. My two rules for successful suspense novels are that they 1) keep me turning pages and 2) don’t push my willing suspension of disbelief too far. Silva is such a talented writer that he easily satisfied my rule. I read this late into the night one Saturday evening.

The Order fails at the level of my second rule, however. Why? Largely because Silva steers the plot onto Christian origins and drives it badly there. 

I’ve noted Matthew 27:25 and hinted at other New Testament passages that have served as the basis of Christian antisemitism, historically speaking. Instead of reading these passages as examples of intra-Jewish polemic, which they are, Silva’s plot requires that they be read as late historical inventions designed by Christians to curry favor with the Romans. This leads him to deny the historicity of these trials in toto, though not Jesus’ crucifixion.

To underscore the historical unreliability of the Gospel Accounts, Silva concocts a mysterious document called The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate that tells the unvarnished truth about Jesus’ death. (Of course, no such document exists, nor does Silva claim it’s real.)

At the same time as Allon and his colleagues search for this elusive Gospel, they uncover the machinations of the Order of St. Helena, a secretive and wealthy Catholic order with fascist ties and a desire to capture the papacy. To do that, the order murders Allon’s friend the pope, the event that sets the novel rolling in the first place.

The plot of The Order turns on whether Allon will be able both to find Pilate’s gospel and to reveal publicly the Order’s murderous designs. Since this is Gabriel Allon we’re talking about, the conclusion is foregone.

And yet, the book doesn’t work, at least not for me. I have graduate training in Bible and theology, so I’m aware of the debates about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. To be honest, I find the notion that such a trial could never have taken place not credible. The notion that Jerusalem’s first-century priestly aristocracy was too scrupulous and too busy to hold a night-time trial on the eve of Passover strains this reader’s credulituy. In fact, the first-century high priests were criticized by multiple segments of Jewish society. If you think the Gospels are rough on the Temple aristocracy, try reading the Qumran community’s view of them, or Josepus’.

Moreover, the entire plot of The Order depends on a cabal of religious leaders breaking and bending rules in order to arrive at a politically desirable destination. Does Silva not recognize the contradiction of saying that a power-hungry Catholic order can do precisely what he denies a power-hungry Temple aristocracy could do? This seems psychologically implausible to me. When power is on the line, powerful people can and do break the rules to maintain their grip on power. That’s essentially what the Gospels accuse the priestly aristocracy of doing in Jesus’ day. It’s what Silva accuses the Order of doing.

The reason Silva seems to find such an accusation implausible is because of how that accusation was misread and abused in later centuries by Gentile Christians. And let’s be very clear: Silva is absolutely right that in the history of Christianity, passages such as Matthew 27:25 were used by Christian theologians and political leaders across centuries and denominations—Catholic and Protestant—to lay the charge of deicide at the feet of the Jewish people as a whole. This was and is both a sin and a stain, and such charges of deicide need to be firmly and persistently refuted.

But one can point out that a passage has been wrenched out of its original intra-Jewish polemical context and abused by Gentile Christians without undermining the basic historicity of the passage, as Silva does. The Gospels were written at a time when what became Judaism and what became Christianity had not yet parted ways. Many, if not most, “Christians” during this period were also “Jews.” Indeed, Josephus writes complimentarily about James, the brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem church up to the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So, was James a Jew or a Christian? It’s anachronistic to force a choice between the two.

One more thing before I conclude: In the course of debunking the historicity of the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ trial—among other things—Silva introduces a mysterious Father Joshua at two points in the novel, one crucial and another less so. To me, this figure—with stigmata, no less!—is so obviously a Christ figure that his appearance introduces massive cognitive dissonance into the story. On the one hand, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and divinity are unreliable. On the other hand, Father Joshua appears out of nowhere, provides Allon with crucial proof of Pilate’s gospel, speaks with a Galilean accent, and even appears at one point to be walking on the waters of Venice! If you’re going to be skeptical, be skeptical, Mr. Silva! Don’t also be mystical at the same time!

So, two stars from me for The Order. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it pushed my willing suspension of disbelief too far. The Order, if I may say so, is The Da Vinci Code if Dan Brown could write as well as Daniel Silva. But that comparison doesn’t improve the latest Gabriel Allon mystery, unfortunately.

Book Reviewed

Daniel Silva, The Order (New York: Harper, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada | Book Reviewers


When first published in 1992, Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada quickly established itself as one of the best, if not the best, treatments of the subject. The second edition of that book revises, updates, and adds to the original text. Its length (592 pages) and price ($55.00) will limit its readership to scholars and students in undergraduate and graduate institutions, who are likely its intended demographic. As a Christian minister in the U.S., however, I heartily recommend it to my North American colleagues who are past their school years because it will enrich their understanding of the development of our faith in these lands.

Noll divides his treatment of the subject into five parts:

  1. Beginnings (17th century)
  2. Americanization (18th-century)
  3. The “Protestant Century” (19th century)
  4. Tumultuous Times (20th-21st centuries)
  5. Reflections

As can be seen from these divisions, the book tells the story—or perhaps, stories—of Christianity in the U.S. and Canada chronologically, though he sometimes jumps ahead of the chronology in order to show organic connections across the centuries.

The book begins with a nine-page analytical Table of Contents that outlines the topics in each chapter, as well as a Preface that briefly describes the revisions, updates, and additions to the 1992 edition. The chapters do not contain notes, but each one concludes with an up-to-date list of Further Readings for those interested in pursuing the topic in greater detail. The book ends with a Bibliography of General Works and an Index.

As a layman to the academic discipline of history, I won’t pretend to offer an academic review of this text. Instead, let me identify several aspects of the book that stood out to me as particularly helpful:

First, as Noll himself notes in the Introduction, “The ‘plot’ of this text centers on the rise and decline of Protestant dominance in the United States. Along the way, full consideration is paid to Canadian contrasts, both Catholic and Protestant.” In large part, this is the story of “evangelical America,” which grew in the 18th century, dominated the 19th, and fractured in the 20th. If you’re looking for a historical explanation of why so many U.S. evangelicals believe that America is a “Christian nation” or feel that their worldview should shape American culture, Noll provides one of the best.

Second, my favorite chapter of the book, if that’s allowable in a personal review of an academic work, is chapter 11, “The American Civil War.” Noll divides the chapter into two sections: “The Civil War as a Religious War” and “The Civil War as Turning Point.” The war both reflected the “Protestant Century,” as each side was intensely religious, and began the unraveling of “evangelical America,” because though each side “read the same Bible” and “prayed to the same God,” as Lincoln put it, their common faith could not resolve their deepest differences. The title of an earlier book by Noll states the matter well: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Third, the comparison to the development of Christianity in Canada, whether in its French Catholic or Anglo Protestant varieties, was informative and humbling. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Canadian history generally, and Noll’s book helped begin to fill that deficiency. In the concluding chapter, Noll writes, apropos of the running comparison of American and Canadian forms of Christianity: “despite a national history without the ideology of special divine blessing, Canada has enjoyed an even better objective argument for having enjoyed the history of a ‘Christian nation’ than does the United States.” That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but a medicine we American Christians might want to consider taking, if only to alleviate our symptoms of nationalist pride.

Fourth, and finally, Noll raises the question of where Christians should find meaning in their histories of faith in the U.S. and Canada. He writes: “the history of Christianity in North America, as opposed to the history of North American Christianity, might not be so much about the gain or loss of culture influence as about ‘signs of contradiction,’ moments when the faith offered something unexpected to a person, a problem, a situation, or a region” (emphasis in original). He offers numerous examples of these contradictory signs, but concludes with this one: “They are illustrated supremely by the black acceptance of Christianity, offered as it was with a whip.” There’s much to unpack in these two brief quotes, but for those concerned with the practice of authentic Christianity, they need to be unpacked, for they demonstrate the “theology of the Cross” impinging on how we understand and write our history.

A final personal note: I had the privilege of taking two classes from Prof. Noll when he taught at Wheaton College, from which I graduated in 1991. He wouldn’t remember me—I studied philosophy, not history—but I remember him and his excellence as a teacher. I’ve read the majority of books he’s published, and I can honestly recommend each one.

Book Reviewed
Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

P.S. if you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

America’s Religious History | Book Review


American Christians, generally speaking, are ignorant of the history of their own religion in this country, let alone of other religions here. This is not due to a lack of excellent scholarly resources. If anything, there is a surfeit of excellent studies of American religion. The problem is that most Americans won’t read them because they are either too academic or too specific. (Or too long.)

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His faith perspective is evangelical Christian generally and Southern Baptist specifically. His scholarly expertise is colonial and early U.S. history. Earlier this year, he published a two-volume survey, American History, for college students. Now, he’s published America’s Religious History, a single-volume introduction to that topic, also intended for college students—it’s published by Zondervan Academic—but readily accessible to a broad readership.

America’s religious history did not start with Christianity, of course, which was only introduced to the Western hemisphere beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Kidd touches briefly on aspects of indigenous religious before colonization, but the main line of his story starts with first Catholic and then Protestant colonization efforts. While Catholicism always played an important role in the history of those lands that eventually became the United States, Kidd’s main focus throughout the book is on “the fate of Protestantism in America,” which is the nation’s “most powerful religious strain.” He does mention developments in other religions too, as well as in nonreligious, skeptical points of view.

As a Pentecostal Christian and ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, I was delighted by Kidd’s treatment of Pentecostalism in the last few chapters of the book. While I acknowledge that our tribe has problems—televangelist scandals, prosperity gospel preachers, etc.—our history also demonstrates a spiritual vitality and ethnic diversity that bode well for our future.

Kidd begins the book with three sentences that identify a thread running throughout America’s Religious History: “The story of American religion is a study in contrasts. Secular clashes with the sacred; demagoguery with devotion. Perhaps most conspicuously, religious vitality has existed alongside religious violence.” Readers looking for a chirpily cheery national history of Christianity specifically or religion generally will be disappointed by Kidd’s work. There’s much in America’s “lived religion,” its daily practice of faith, that is heartening, of course, but disheartening episodes abound too, especially when it comes to evangelicals and politics.

Kidd closes each chapter with a list of “Works Cited and Further Reading.” This list makes an excellent next step for readers who want go deeper on the historical developments surveyed in that chapter. While the publisher probably intends this book for use in a college classroom setting, I think it can also be used profitably by Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Or, of course, for the solitary reader seeking a better understanding of this nation’s religious history.

Book Reviewed
Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: