Sunday, 20 June 2010

Book review: The Testings of Devotion by Cheryl Dellasega


Dellasega, C. (2009) The Heavenly Host, Book I: The Testings of Devotion (Sisters, Oregon: VMI Publishers). ISBN: 978-1-933204-70-3. RRP: $14.99/£9.72.
Have you noticed that I haven’t reviewed a book on here since December 2008? No? Well, I have. Time to put that right, with a look at a novel about spiritual warfare. The Heavenly Host trilogy, of which this is the first part, apparently aims to take an angel’s-eye view of the history of the universe. The universe as imagined in this novel looks like this:
Heaven is divided into three levels: the 3rd level is where ‘The Almighty Divine’ resides (that’s God to you and me), the 2nd level is inhabited by the archangels, plus a special council of dead humans, and the 3rd level is occupied by the angels the other dead people. After the initial event of rebellion by Lucifer and his followers (more on which below), each of these angles is assigned a particular role such as prayer, praise or welcoming newcomers into the ‘community of resting mortals’. The angels watch what’s happening on earth on big screens, controlled by dials and buttons. If all this gives you the impression that the angels all have bodies a bit like our own, then you got the same impression that I did, although they don’t eat, drink or sleep, but ‘refresh’ in armchairs.
Our heroine is Sophia, a prayer angel who is quickly and somewhat surprisingly promoted to ‘Senior Servant’, i.e. the one in charge of all the angels and overall operations on the first level. In that position she is supported (albeit often grudgingly) by two ‘Selected Servants’: Miriam and Faras, her deputies. The relationship between these three is one of the most important sub-plots of the novel. Sophia is often visited, encouraged and instructed by Gabriel, the archangel, the messenger. Gabriel passes on all God’s instructions, since ‘The Almighty Divine’ apparently doesn’t do that kind of thing himself – to the point where Miriam at one point expresses her devotion by saying ‘I’ll do whatever the Almighty Divine tells Gabriel to ask of me’ (p 126). If all that sounds a bit Muslim to you, then you got the same impression that I did.
The battle between Lucifer and Michael the archangel is described as occurring after the former has already tempted Adam and Eve to sin. So, in that case, what prompted Lucifer to tempt Adam and Eve? Apparently he thought it was the best thing to do to protect ‘The Almighty Divine’ against the evil that humans would later do. If that confuses you, then your reaction is the same as mine.
Perhaps this will make things clearer: the best place to start when analysing this book is on the back cover, where we read the following:
What The Shack did for the Trinity, The Testings of Devotion does for the heavenly realms, shedding light on the spiritual battle waging continually around us.
To summarise my review right now: that comparison is valid – perhaps, I suspect, more valid than the author would like. Like The Shack, The Testings of Devotion is a well-written page-turner of a story. But also like The Shack, it is theologically dubious – to the point where I can’t honestly describe this novel as a Christian book with integrity. The real point of conflict between the devil and his cohort one the one hand, and the angels who instead choose to serve ‘The Almighty Divine’ on the other (apart from, y’know, the whole thinking they know better than God thing), is that only the former believe humans to be intrinsically evil. The latter believe the reverse:
  1. ‘You think that they [humans] come up with evil ideas on their own? I assure you they do not.’ (Gabriel to Sophia, p 52).
  2. ‘I’ve always been a champion of the inherent goodness in mortals’ (Sophia, p 169).
  3. ‘Like you [Sophia], I believe mortals are basically good’ (Hector (another angel, sort of the Sergeant Major of the first level), p 215).
  4. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the argument in the face-off in the final scene is mainly about this very point.
To which I say:
  1. I assure you that they (we) do: Romans 1:30, Mark 7:20-23.
  2. I have not: Romans 7:18.
  3. In what sense are we ‘basically’ good, though we are evil? (Matthew 7:11).
  4. By the standards of this book, it seems that, on this point, I am on the side of the evil one.
And yes, that makes me uncomfortable. In this book, human sins are attributed to anything other than human sinfulness – most often to some combination of demonic activity and our short attention span. A prime example of this is the continuing suggestion that the ‘bad’ people you know might be the issue of a demon/human liaison (see Genesis 6):
The Nephilim exist, and they’re the cause of the worst and most unexplainable suffering on earth – as you just saw. Any time there’s a senseless tragedy and mortals wonder how one of their own can be so completely evil, it’s likely the Nephilim are involved. (p 90)
Maybe some of my readers can see a pattern emerging from the problems I’ve already described: firstly that God is portrayed as distant, and secondly that no account is taken of human sinfulness. However, big as these problems are in a book from a Christian publishing house with an orthodox statement of faith, they are small next to the near-total disregard shown to the truth about Jesus Christ, a disregard which is at the centre of the plot.
The ‘testings of devotion’ of the title is a tactic used by the heavenly forces in their battle with the forces of hell for human souls, whereby potential spiritual warriors are put through setbacks and suffering in order to force them to depend on God. So far so good. The thing is, in order to make this plan work the angels apparently have to recruit a woman named Ruth from out of the ‘community of resting mortals’ in order to help them understand human psychology from the point of view of someone who remained faithful despite enduring terrible suffering. Sophia justifies this move to Miriam as follows:
“So, if we’re in such high favor,” Miriam protested, “why do we need her? It’s not that I mind extra help, but we’ve never had a mortal on the first level before.”
“You are in high favor,” Sophia reassured her. “But you have no idea what it’s like to be a mortal.” (p 124)
The thing is, our Lord has every idea what it’s like to be a mortal (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:18; 4:14-15), and so the idea that angels would have to recruit some other human to explain to them how it all works is most charitably interpreted as bizarre. A single mention of ‘the Saviour Son’ is not going to rescue the situation, particularly since the novel also implicitly denies the exclusivity of salvation in Christ: at one point Gabriel illustrates how bad things have gotten on Earth by explaining that
“There are many who have strayed from their faith […] Look at how few places of worship remain, even at the holiest of sites.”
He touched a button and she [Sophia] saw the ruins of churches in Rome, collapsed temples in India, and abandoned mosques and synagogues in the Americas.
The implication that Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews are all worshipping the same ‘Almighty Divine’ is most charitably interpreted as disastrously mistaken. So, I’m afraid, those theological problems rather spoiled the book for me. It does no-one any favours to imagine God as distant and to deny human sinfulness, the incarnation and the exclusivity of salvation in Christ.