Saving Erasmus: Crossing the Threshold of Trust
Saving Erasmus: The Tale of a Reluctant Prophet by Steven Cleaver is a quirky little novel that I read for book club. I just joined the group and they are working through a list that was made up long before I joined so I don’t know who suggested books or why. It makes reading each one a bit of an adventure as I have no idea what I’m jumping into. It’s rather fun. But I’ve found that when I go to the book club meetings I don’t have anything prepared to say. Add to that the fact that they are in the evenings and that I’ve got Lucia with me and I don’t feel like I’m very much of a contributor. So I’m thinking if I read the book early and write a review before the book club meeting, then I’ll be going in having something to say.
Anyway, this was a quick read and that was good because I wasn’t sure I liked it very much as I read. It was as I said, quirky, the tone frequently irreverent, and I never really got a handle on what the author was trying to accomplish. The tone reminded me a bit of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books, which I enjoy quite a bit. But where Koontz is a master storyteller, this is Steven Cleaver’s first novel and, well, it felt more like a first draft that needed to be fleshed out than a fully accomplished work. (The reviews on Amazon were all really positive, though, so there is definitely an audience out there for the book.)
The first person narrator is Andrew Benoit, who has just graduated from St Augustine’s Seminary and is on his way to his first assignment as a pastor. As he arrives in the small town of Erasmus he has a vision of the Angel of Death who informs him that he has a week to convert the town of it will be destroyed. He’s very much a Jonah character, a reluctant prophet who at first tries to shirk his assignment, opting first for the cushy assignment of St Exupery but on his way there finding his bus attacked by various plagues (frogs, locusts, cats and dogs) until he gets off and heads toward Erasmus.
Much of this book seems odd to me simply because the Protestant world where it takes place is rather a foreign landscape. But beyond that all of the characters except the narrator feel like caricatures and even Andrew often feels more like a type than a real person. Maybe this is a deliberate stylistic choice, if so, I don’t quite get it. The town of Erasmus, controlled by the greedy Mrs Davenport, feels like a Potemkin village which the author has constructed for the purpose of the story, not at all like a real place. Exaggeration for effect? But what effect? Likewise the faith that is the central concern of the novel seems a very shallow sort of faith. Most often the characters don’t mention God at all, just “faith.” Also God, when he does come up, seems very distant and impersonal. Jesus is never mentioned at all. Come to think of it, I’m not sure any of the Bible references in the novel are from the New Testament. Jonah is mentioned of course and then Ecclesiastes. And then there is an odd conglomeration of figures, a mishmash of various Christian traditions: the Angel of Death; Saints: Patrick, Benedict, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Francis make appearances in visions, St Therese is mentioned. Then there are Protestant Reformation references: One character is names John Luther Zwingli, the narrator puts 95 post it notes on the door of Mrs Davenport’s factory. There is the body of an incorruptible saint (the dead wife of the town’s founder who saved the city and renewed their faith) guarded by a Knight Templar for your dash of Dan Brown funky. Then there are the pop culture icons: the “mystics” who call themselves after tv comedians of the golden age (Harpo, Mae West, Lucy, John Wayne) and finally childhood icons: the Velveteen Rabbit, Jackie Paper and Puff the Magic Dragon.
As I’ve been mulling it over I’ve found that Sherry Weddel’s idea of thresholds of conversion from her book, Forming Intentional Disciples has been very helpful. These thresholds or stages were discovered by a campus minister named Doug Schaupp who asked a group of his students about their spiritual journeys. He found that they all went through five distinct stages of conversion that culminated in a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple. The stages are 1. Initial Trust, 2. Spiritual Curiosity, 3. Spiritual Openness, 4. Spiritual Seeking, 5. Intentional Discipleship. Weddell writes:
Each transition to a new threshold was a genuine work of grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit, but each threshold also required real spiritual energy and real choices on the part of the person making the journey. Conversion didn’t “just happen” for these young adults. It required their ever-increasing commitment to more and more profound choices.
One of Weddell’s most interesting discoveries about these thresholds is that many people who hold leadership positions in parishes are still lingering on those early thresholds. Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual has a personal relationship with Jesus or even a strong belief in a personal God. Sherry Weddell says, “the thresholds are strictly focused on one’s lived relationship with God rather than one’s baptismal status or knowledge of the faith.”
The novel is the story of a man who is crossing one of those thresholds. Although you don’t learn of it until the end of the novel, at the beginning of the story Andrew has been wrapped up in hatred of God, primarily because he blames God, at least in part, for his father’s desertion and his brother’s drug-addicted death. He wants to have faith but doesn’t at all trust God, the Church, anything. And then he has a profound experience:
“I’m tired of this,” I yelled. “I’m tired of being hurt.” I pulled myself up onto the shore. In a tiny pool of stillness, I could see my reflection. Wrinkles and pain marked the face that stared back at me. My eyes were sunk in the black of hopelessness. My face had become that of my Uncle Andrew.
“Why are you doing this?” I shouted. Professor Anderson’s words echoed in my ears.
“What is your question?”
“I don’t know,” I shouted. “I don’t know.” Clarify. Synthesize. Be clear.
“Am I to blame?” The water crashed even louder nearby. I shivered in the cold, and I could hardly muster the desire to live. The answer appeared to be yes.
I stared down at the watery blackness. No stars were reflected there. Darkness had enveloped the woods and taken the sky with it. I could feel my body tighten. The skin constricted around me, and I could feel a stiffening of my joints. I could no longer move. Even my lips were paralyzed. I huddled, freezing, barely able to speak.
“What is the question?”
I didn’t want to ask. I was terrified of the answer I would recieve. I could feel every last pain of my life welling up. I remembered every cause for resentment I’d experienced. I could no longer contain the anguish and sorrow I had kept hidden inside. What was my question?
“Do you love me?” I whispered.
Just asking the question takes just about all he has. But he is answered.
“Do you love me?” I’d asked this of my mother, when she was crying, asked it of the night sky, asked it of God, while my older brother lay dying. He had been unable to hear the response that came back. I would need to listen for us both.
“I love you.”
The tall pine tree was suddenly illuminated in a blue glow. The light enveloped the tree and embraced the waterfall and extended its warmth, surrounding me and holding me safe. Warmth entered my body, and the electricity of life resonated throughout. The trees stopped moving, the rain subsided, and the night sky began to clear.
Clearly he has crossed a threshold, but which one has he crossed?At first I though he was moving from Openness to Seeking, but the more I thought about it and re-read the crucial scene the more I realized that he was at the very earliest threshold, that of Initial Trust:
My tears fell easily for Jamie, my father, and my mother, and for the town of Erasmus. We share so much in common. We all had our dreams. We all wanted to feel important. We all want love and to be loved. We all hurt. I suddenly felt connected, and the connection felt stronger and better than it ever had.
I had hated God for so long. I had been angry, and my anger had only continued the process of Death. Long ago I had allowed my spirit to die, and it was only by the faith of a small boy, the belief of a town, and the magic of the night sky, that I had been resurrected.
Although Andrew has dedicated his life to the idea being a servant and a leader, leading others out of darkness and into the light like the star Polaris, although he has gone to seminary and accepted an assignment as a pastor, he has still been in a profound place of mistrust. He doesn’t really believe in a personal God who loves him. But by the end of the novel he has a profound experience that he is loved.
And he has accepted his role as savior of the town of Erasmus even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice himself for them:
“I don’t know if God believes in me,” I said, “But I do know that I believe in God.” Death listened solemnly as I spoke. “And I have faith in Erasmus.”
Death stood silently facing me. There was a profound sense of peace inside me. The buzzing and change that had been so strong inside my body had now disappeared.
“You can’t destroy Erasmus,” I said, “I won’t let you. I love them. You can destroy me.”
So I’m thinking that this could be a very powerful novel for people who are themselves still in the early stages of seeking. For those who have moved beyond those early thresholds to having an encounter with the person of Jesus, though, the movement of faith in the novel might feel somewhat shallow. Andrew has just begun to dip his toe into the river.