(This is a review of A Journey in Roman Catholicism, by Richard P. Belcher. The book was published 2004 by Richbarry Press, Columbia, S.C., United States of America. ISBN: 1-883265-25-8. The version which I reviewed was paperback, 220 pages. I would like to thank my good friend Lena Kittrell for shipping the book to me from the United States).
Apparently this book
comes from a series of books by Belcher, all written as
'theological novels'. In his Introduction, we learn of at
least eleven earlier books of this kind. Of course, without
doubt, many will have avidly read them all.
But the whole concept of a 'theological novel' is entirely new to me, and I quickly wondered if I would be able to cope with what, to me, is a somewhat odd mix; after all, is not theology a most serious and vital discipline, indeed, a discipline which many of us preachers/writers just wish that the average church-goer would take a whole lot more seriously?
I also hold strong views on fictional writing even though I rarely read fiction any longer. To me, there are the truly great writers and novellists, such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Ibsen, Chekhov, Eugene O' Neill, Steinbeck, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Then there are a huge army of 'lesser mortal' writers; some of these are quite reasonable writers, but my belief is that a large majority of this army simply write trash and are quite content to go on writing trash, especially if it is profitable trash.
The great writers seem to me to have perfected the art of writing. Much of their work is moving, inspiring, comforting, encouraging but challenging too; they were masters of their craft.
I also firmly believe that standards in almost all areas of human endeavour have fallen during the twentieth century; we see this in what kind of music is now considered 'acceptable' (is John Cage really any kind of an improvement on Tchaikovsky, or Elgar?); we see it in 'Christian understanding' (somebody said to me the other day that Word-faith, or the 'prosperity gospel' is probably the most fitting theological correlation/exposition of a society in which greed, gain and success are now seen as supreme deities!); we see it in standards of human behaviour (can anybody explain to me why our modern western media think that modesty and decency are a joke, but that scoffing, derision and the regular use of foul language are very much 'in' and 'cool', even though if you or I called at the home of any media tycoon and started to use foul language we would be quickly ejected?).
Certainly in the area of writing and drama we are faced with a lamentable situation in which our children and young people are no longer built-up and inspired by the words of Holy Scripture, or by Ibsen, Dickens or O'Neill (the latter three writers of course, were not inspired by God as Scripture is, but certainly have the power to challenge and to inspire), but instead are bombarded with the uselessness, meaninglessness, banality and frequently immorality of television soap opera. This cannot even be called "drama" in its more noble tradition and much of it seems to have as much to do with quality writing as the late film actor John Wayne had to do with embroidery!
In short, we no longer seem to encourage our children to strive for high goals and high ideals, but seem to be saying to them, 'If you just want to lay down there in the gutter and wallow in the mire, that is a perfectly acceptable "alternative lifestyle"', so much so, that schools now often have 'wallow in the moral mire' lessons on the curriculum for their pupils!! (Of course, they give these lessons 'posh' names like, 'An appreciation of alternative lifestyles', or, 'Understanding the issues of sexuality').
Okay, I have digressed from our subject quite enough, back to Dr Belcher's book!!
I would say two things about this book:
1. Great reformed theology which is carefully explained in a manner which anybody should be able to cope with.
2. Not very good fiction! I was reminded of Chandler's Philip Marlowe in that the 'side plot' was just too preposterous and hard to swallow; Chandler got away with it because of a certain speed, flair and swagger, but not the writer here. The character 'Dink' too could be out straight of Philip Marlowe:
'"Hey, Preacha, where ya goin' sa fast?" he inquired.' (Page 2).
The plot centers around the framing of a Baptist minister, Ira Pointer - not a murder framing, a la Marlowe, but the frame-up is that he has written a book extolling the virtues of Roman Catholic theology! I was just amazed that everybody, especially the Principal at the seminary at which he lectured, quickly believed and fell for the frame-up hook, line and sinker! Had Dr Pointer never built up any previous credibility?
Okay, so the side plot did not work for me and, very soon, I did not read the portions of the book which kept this story going, and went straight to the theology!
But I was pleasantly pleased with Dr Belcher's style of theological explanation. In the story, Ira Pointer goes right through the main and pivotal differences between Protestant reformed and Roman Catholic theology. Dr Belcher sets out to do this in a simple and logical way, just for the reader who has never taken a theology degree. In this, he brilliantly succeeds! And Richard Belcher should be congratulated for this.
Belcher shows an outstanding flair for clear, logical and concise explanation. He notes many points from the history of the Roman Catholic Church and compares many of these theological/doctrinal points with clear biblical statements. Yet his approach is always 'lets just take one step at a time'. He finally builds up a powerful case against Catholicism for misappropriation and abuse of the Scriptures. Of course, many of us never doubted this, but Belcher should be commended for adopting an approach which is so easily accessible to all.
Let us imagine a lady called Joyce. Joyce has never done much in-depth scriptural study, yet she is of God's own Elect and knows the truth. But how can Joyce explain - in relatively simple terms - how her equally sincere Roman Catholic friend, Ruth is wrong in her adoration of Mary? Any explanation needs to be really simple and straightforward for both Joyce and Ruth. It needs to be based on showing what certain Scriptures clearly say then comparing that with how Catholic theology made changes away from the truth of Scripture and toward certain traditions which sounded rather appealing, despite having no scriptural basis. Any such explanation would need to be clear, logical yet always relatively brief and concise. Richard Belcher's book succeeds brilliantly in this role. This book is just right for the many thousands of Joyces in this world.
I really warm to the way he tackles one point at a time, explaining in 3 or 4 points what the position is, then comparing this with Scriptural teaching. In fact, my admiration for his clarity made me consider his on-going dramatic sub-plot (which certainly did not work for me) once again. My feeling is that many may warm to this style and may enjoy the story. It is well known that in an age of television and video many have much shorter attention spans than their grandparents did. I think that Dr Belcher can succeed here, with his determination to keep things simple and clear, and brief, accompanied by a story of intrigue which will certainly appeal to some.
Another thought occurred to me:
The paperback version of this book has a picture of a cathedral on the cover and, of course, it is called 'A Journey in Roman Catholicism' - is it just possible that a few people will purchase this book because they may feel it is a brief explanation of the teachings of a Roman Catholic Church they are feeling strongly called towards?? And might not this book provide a powerful warning to these people?
Congratulations, Dr Belcher!
Robin A. Brace