The Testament. By John Grisham. New York: Random House, Inc., 1999. 533 pp. (Paper), $7.99.
This is yet another in a long line of novels by Grisham, who has become a fixture at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Many of his previous titles have become blockbuster movies—The Pelican Brief, The Firm, and The Rainmaker immediately come to mind. Perhaps The Testament will follow suit, but if so, I suspect Hollywood will have a tougher time dealing with its content.
Grisham, who has called himself “a Christian writing popular fiction…I’m not writing Christian literature,” has included overt conversions to Christ in previous novels—The Street Lawyer and The Chamber—but I found the story in The Testament more compelling. I won’t commit the cardinal sin of revealing the plot—and will let Larry King’s assessment that “it has the best first 50 pages for pure storytelling impact that I have ever read” suffice for me. You will enjoy the story. Grisham’s gift, which he himself calls a “God-given ability,” will see to that.
Beyond this, however, you will enter a world where faith becomes real in a way you may have never experienced. Our fast-paced, distraction-cluttered lives too often eclipse the “still, small voice” that Elijah rediscovered in a cave at Horeb (1 Kings 19). The vast Pantanal region of Brazil is the “Horeb” for the unlikely anti-hero in The Testament, but the awakening and progressive persuasion that there is more to Christian faith than a set of creeds, and that in some mysterious way simply believing in Jesus Christ makes sense in a senseless world, comes through loud and clear. There is life-changing power in faith alone in Christ alone, even (especially?) for those whose lives are in the most desperate straits. The lessons of this book are a reminder that Christians, discouraged by a culture in turmoil, need to heed. Jesus Christ is the only answer for every person in the world.
As expected in a popular novel, the theology is vague at points, and confusing at others. Reading this book with a theologically critical eye would be a travesty. Still, in general, those who hold the grace position and keep faith uncluttered by Lordship theology’s addition of works will find little objectionable. For example, there is a suggestion that salvation involves not simply saying you believe, but living it. While this might be taken by some as an affirmation of the Lordship view, in the context I took it more as pre-evangelism.
Again, confession of sin is suggested as the way to be saved, and the “prayer of conversion” in the story is not far from a line in the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive me of my sins, and help me to forgive those who have sinned against me.”). Considering the nature of the story, however, I was in a forgiving mood. The message that God through Christ could forgive sins, and would for those who believed that He would, was implicit. In actuality, the prayer seemed like a “first step” in coming to understand the wonderful grace of God. There is nothing flippant in the dialogue, however, and when it is over, the absolute assurance of salvation for those who receive it is made clear. “Your sins are forgiven,” the missionary says. “Which ones? There are so many,” he replies. “All of them,” she says. Later, when this initial awareness of grace has matured, there is another, simpler prayer to God: “Please help me.” If not always in the terminology, I still found in the spirit of the story a commitment to salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ, who alone can deliver us from our sins.
Finally, although this novel contains the normal disclaimer that “any references to real events, businesses, organizations…are intended only to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity,” Grisham himself acknowledges in a postscript note his indebtedness to Carl King, a Baptist missionary in Brazil. The mission in the story bears resemblance both in name and function to New Tribes Mission, an excellent organization which works throughout South America. It may be mere coincidence that the names of the two main characters are Nate and Rachel, evoking memories of Nate and Rachel Saint, the brother and sister who made first contact with the Auca Indians in the 1950s (Nate was one of the five men martyred by the tribe).
As one who resonates with the challenge of missions, this story is especially captivating. For the enjoyment of a good story, and the unexpected charge of spiritual awakening, I highly recommend this book.
Elgin Bible Church