A Review Book Review: Becky Wooley's Non-Prophet Murders :
In her biography Fighting Angel, one of the most famous and disaffected missionary children of them all, the Nobel Prize-winning Pearl Buck, tells the sad tale of her longsuffering grandmother. After years of cooking, cleaning, serving for an unappreciative husband and set of sons, one day, she simply sat down on the porch. She had had enough. No amount of demanding, threatening, pleading, or cajoling could ever cause her to lift a finger to serve again.
As a journalist and former church secretary, pastor's wife and veteran of fifteen congregations and seven university ministries with her pastor husband, Becky Wooley, as her biographical sketch assures us, "knows where the bodies are buried." She peoples this first novel in her projected "Grit and Grace Mystery series" with a cohort of women very much like Pearl Buck's grandmother.
For those who wonder what it is like to grow up in an ultraconservative Christian church, Becky Wooley is the expert. While her novel is clearly a great part over-the-top satire of fundamentalist culture, like all the best denizens of that genre, the book is profoundly serious at its core. She understands that, for many of us so reared, such an environment becomes our point of reference in the world—what we use for a plumb line to measure anything else we meet in thought and practice. No matter how much we develop or how far we stray ecclesiastically within the Christian community, cultural conservatism was home, and it retains an a priori claim on our thinking. This pull is so great that many do not escape it at all.
This is not to lay a blanket condemnation on fundamentalism as totally unacceptable and needing a Surgeon General's warning that it can be hazardous to one's health. Orthodox Christian fundamentalism honors Jesus as the sole way to God, upholds the Bible as the only completely reliable written source about Jesus, and reminds us that the world pollutes us in ways we often do not perceive, so we should all be more aware than we often are, especially with how our children are being leavened out. My conclusion from my own experience is that it is motivated by fear, and it is correct that there is a lot to fear in our world. At the same time, as any vigilante movement, it can be so focused on what is right that it can downplay what is loving and even what is healthy. Its white blood cells can kill every form of initiative, becoming like a cosmic black hole or the death star of Star Wars, sucking in the priesthood of all believers and subjugating everyone beneath a charismatic leader or set that would rather rule automatons than help believers find their spiritual gifts and their own places to lead. Both the positive and the negative aspects of hyperconservative Christianity are, respectively, reflected and lampooned in this novel. Consequently, the population of this book is a fascinating mixture of those who cannot emotionally leave fundamentalism; others who are halfway out, such as the series' two protagonists, the young Truman "Grit" Griffin, conservative-college dropout who is yet drawn irresistibly back to work for the school, and pastor's daughter Amy Grace Willis, both of whom are desperately trying to emerge; and still others who are out, but still living in town under the shadows of its great fundamentalist institutions, its several competing megachurches, and its mind-conditioning college.
Author Becky Wooley is a survivor of all the best and all the worst of conservative Christianity, and she captures the ethos extraordinarily well—all the security and the confinement of the mind are poignantly illustrated. One particular central concern, of interest to Priscilla Papers readers, is her portrayal of the plight of women in such churches. She captures perfectly, for example, the conflict that such a tradeoff creates in her depiction of one power-pastor's wife:
Martha was devoted. Devoted to God and Newell Post Lawson with a frightening passion. Lawson's natural charisma and pew-shaking bass voice stirred her spiritually and physically. She relished the admiration given to him by friends, disciples, peers, and strangers. He was her sun, and she counted herself most blessed of women to call him husband. What God had joined together, Martha Elizabeth Lawson would defend to the death. (32)
Another pastor's wife, Miz Dinah Willis, mother of the book's heroine, Grace, is another product of her upbringing:
She had attended Ladies' Bible lessons on child rearing and husband pleasing at least weekly since Grace was a baby-twenty-two years and eight congregations ago. How those lessons could be relevant to the majority of the women in attendance, elderly widows, she did not know. She also resented the fact that lessons for men on fatherhood and "husbandry" were never deemed necessary. With a few such lessons, Thomas Willis might not have dragged her and Grace from church to church like presumably indestructible Samsonite. (47)
The author adroitly captures the approach/avoidance pattern of dutiful attendance demanded by the culture:
She took a seat near the door, ready to leave as soon as the bell rang. She hated idle chitchat, and Ladies' classes were not the place to speak frankly. In Ladies' class you and your husband were not near divorce. In Ladies' class, you did not hate your daughter's boyfriend. Nor did a woman question One True Church leaders. If she complained, she was insulting the bride of Christ; if she questioned inequalities, she was "usurping authority"; if she expressed frustration with a cold or inattentive husband, she was not in "proper submission." (47)
When trouble befalls such a repressed individual, there is little recourse. If a husband, a leader, even a pastor sins, the wife is sentenced to "charm school, cooking classes, exercise, church endorsed bowing and scraping lessons" (52). Yes, this is dark irony bordering on sarcasm, but, in my experience growing up in such a culture, it is not at all far from the truth. Preserving the marriage was always seen as the responsibility of the wife, despite the fact that the husband is the understood "head of the house." If her marriage falls apart, the wife has only herself to blame and must try harder. Providentially, she can, of course, call on her "Christian sisters, who believed in and practiced only one spiritual gift, the gift of the 'casserole'" (87) to help her with their limited, approved set of solutions, but the resulting buildup of guilt and shame and frustration can produce a lethal combination. In the mystery novel (as sometimes in real life), it inevitably does.
Overriding all this cultural critique is a fast-paced, expertly written whodunit in which conservative pastors are dropping right and left like crumpled single dollar bills in an offering plate. In the midst of all this, Grace and Grit, two engaging young products of competing churches and the local fundamentalist college, have opened an emerging church called "Deeper Waters," since it is in the basement of a nearby tavern (appropriately named "The Dive"), while both still attend their old churches. The tensions build in microcosm as the deaths mount in macrocosm. As in any good mystery, suspicion falls on one character after another as the protagonists begin to wonder if the body count is due to the coincidence of natural causes, as everyone (even the police) has agreed to believe, or, if the unthinkable is actually true: a genuine calculating evil is generating from the inside and knocking off the town's pastoral leadership.
As far as critiquing the plot, I believe that anyone who has had even a brush with hyperconservatism will be ready to forgive any missteps for the sheer exhilaration, the fine writing, and the engaging characters. Fine-tuning for the second edition might include coming up with an articulated motive for the first murder that explains its timing. Why now, exactly? Why not some time in the past or in the future? Convergence is convenient, but a bit more locating of motive in the choice of time frame would help. An interesting phenomenon I have noticed these days (apparently due to the "spirit of the age," as the great William Hazlitt dubbed it) is that contemporary murders in novels and films are usually committed for two reasons: the victim deserved it (which is normally applied to those who turn out to be blackmailers, therefore suggesting the killer is actually doing the world a service), or the perpetrator is insane and, therefore, as much a victim as the murderee (all assuming the killer does not belong to the Russian Mafia, the former KGB, and, therefore, does not know any better). Plain evilness of character or a self-centeredness so utilitarian, so amoral, that it has itself become evil, which were both part of the motive corner of the traditional M.O. triangle of mystery novels (motive, means, opportunity), appear to be out of vogue. One must almost step out of the mystery these days to find such evil at large—for example, as well illustrated in the 2010 film The Social Network, where the leeching main character is comprised of one part envy and one part amorality of the Social Darwinist variety (read: survival of the fittest is the name of the game, and I am far more fit and, therefore, entitled to whatever I can steal from those who naively considered themselves my friends and coworkers).
The Christian-driven novel has more leeway as we affirm bad choices that precipitate bad morals and potentially fatal choices. Becky Wooley is very skillful and, I hope, having appeased the spirit of the age in this wonderful first outing, she will explore the nature of evil character in the future. As a craftsperson, she is first rate, creating a book that has the depth and range to keep us guessing the identity of the perpetrator. Like one pushing lobsters in a pot, she invokes no sympathy for most of the victims in the reader. But, then, this book is a satire, and that is one of its charms; it is not about "let's all live happily together." It is about ''I'm fed up with all this repression, and, if I weren't a Christian, this might very well happen off paper." The beauty of fiction is that victimized readers can vicariously enjoy all sorts of people, amazingly parallel to those who in God's name routinely make our lives miserable, getting their comeuppance. In real life, we have the grace to forgive them. That may not wash morally, but it serves in proxy a lot like punching a heavy bag or pounding a racquetball. In the larger world, despite a recent spate of top-drawer artistic entries, it explains why the non-A-level variety of kung fu movies still remains so popular. They are folk therapeutics.
Is there a saving grace for satire in Christian literature? People who think that every case of their victimization should be answered with a meek, "That's okay, I understand," are kidding themselves. They are simply cowardly. We do nobody any good if we allow them to victimize us. It is not good for their moral growth and does nothing for our faith in our fellow beings. When this response is required by victimizers—I'll oppress you and you accept it for Jesus' sake—the problem is compounded. The mystery novel has thrived for centuries because it is the literature of morality. Its message is simple: People who prey on others, no matter how sanctimonious they may present themselves and their actions, will get themselves done in in order to restore the balance of the universe. In that sense, mysteries are moral parables. In the classic mystery, good wins out. To draw the parallel to biblical equality, those who oppress women and limit them while puffing themselves up as God's elect are in for a fall. This satire suggests the need for selfexamination. While in real life the consequence should not be as terminally lethal as in a novel, the result is not pleasant in the bitter fruit of resentment.
A gifted but repressed spouse, or any female in a church, who is being worked to spiritual death with menial tasks unsuited to her God-given gifting is a time bomb that I, for one, used to see smolder and occasionally explode. Those who do not see this truth are skipping through a minefield and can surely expect to lose their "right arm," so as to say. That is why I consider a book like this one so valuable and worth our attention.
The point of satire is not simply to complain, it is to warn. And Non-Prophet Murders, with all its over-the-top and outrageous hilarity—the name choices alone take it over at points to out-andout farce—does just that and does it well. The book is clearly wit-driven, but running down the center of it is a pathos that turns it into something more than merely an amusing read. The power of such fiction is that it simulates experience in a way few nonfiction books can do (outside of a well-crafted autobiography). Readers experience in vicarious parallel day after day and night after night of a life that accepts limits that are both others-and self-imposed through verisimilitude (the mirroring of real life). Story can highlight human foibles that might be otherwise missed if not being fleshed out in characters recognizable to us. And, through simulated interaction, fiction can help us pause and reconsider specious religious reasons and motivations for limiting others that may be assumed but never examined in real-life church situations. Plato used this technique when presenting his philosophy. Instead of merely announcing it, as so many other philosophers have done, Plato constructed brief plays which invited readers in as participants in the free throw of ideas, as Socrates midwifed insights out of his hearers in what came to be called the maieutic (or midwifing) method of helping others discover the truth already embedded inside their own thought. I have always believed this is one reason why Plato's philosophical discourses have lasted and impacted humanity to a far greater degree than those of other philosophies: this brilliant method of inviting participation in the discussion. R. K. Harrison once pointed out to me that God inspired a similar technique in Moses when he recorded the temptation and fall. It is done as a Hebrew play.l This is not to say that the events did not occur—not at all. Of course, they occurred. Through the construction of the narrative, God, through Moses' depiction, invites us in to participate in this paradigmshifting event in a way so much more effective than would be done by simply telling us, "And, by the way, our first parents were tempted and fell." God-Among-Us, Jesus the Christ, taught in parables: stories with a point. Some of these became quite elaborate with striking characters such as the shrewd, dishonest steward, the angry, judgmental older son, and the empathetic, outcast Samaritan who knew what being ignored or shunned was all about. A novel like Non-Prophet Murders is an extended parable about the consequences that come with an overreliance on legalism and an underreliance on grace.
There's an old story I've heard passed among fiction writers about an author sitting hopefully at a book signing waiting for someone to notice and purchase her book. A customer picks up the novel with finger and thumb with the relish that one would a diaper some toddler had lost on the floor and asks accusingly, "Is this book true?" The hapless author, stung at the question, shoots back, "No, sir, it is not. It is truth!" My recommendation is this: When repression gets you down, I prescribe two chapters of Non-Prophet Murders and a cup of tea. It is better than getting lethal.
1. He does refer to "the 'religious drama' that describes the pristine rebellion of man against God (Gen 3:1-24)," but does not elaborate the point in his Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 556.