The book itself is indeed about a Catholic college professor who is asked via his dreams to begin writing down a Third Testament to the Bible. This Third Testament was to be the story of God’s people after the death of the apostles (well, actually it includes the martyrdom of the apostles). If the Old Testament is the story of the Israelites--and of Man’s Fall and the promises and prophesies of his redemption--and if the New Testament is the story of Christ and the establishment of His Church--the fulfillment of these prophesies and promises--then the Third Testament was to be the story of the Church after the apostles, and of the spreading of that promise throughout the world. Fred Sankt--the main protagonist of the novel--muses about this challenge presented to him:
The last readings were from two thousand years ago. Has nothing important happened in two thousand years....Certainly, there has not been anything as monumental as the coming of Christ, but the Old Testament doesn’t have anything that monumental either....Was the story of God’s people in the last two thousand years any less important than the story of his people in the two thousand years preceding the coming of Christ?
Of course, to be a prophet of God carries a price, a sort of burden against sin and temptation. Sankt learns this when he is faced with a lawsuit from an accident he was involved in two years prior to the story. The suit is an aggressive one which seeks to take away all of his personal assets--his house, his savings, and so on--for a simple automobile accident. Actually, the way in which all of the lawyers are treated in the novel makes me wonder if Mr (Dr?) Eklund has a grudge against the profession--one with which more than a few people can sympathize.
Sankt’s troubles with the lawsuit are not the most significant of his problems as the novel unfolds. It is revealed that his wife dies of melanoma before the setting of the novel; thus, it is with great horror that Sankt learns that his only daughter has also been diagnosed with the dread cancer. As if the lawsuit itself is not bad enough, now he is forced to watch his daughter suffer the slow death which cancer brings. The temptation to give in to despair, or to feel anger against a God Who would permit so much unjustice (on the one hand) and suffering (on the other) very nearly overwhelms Sankt; though he finds some consolation in his writing. Actually, this temptation to doubt and despair comes to a climax when Sankt joins his closest friend at the bar to relax and help take his mind off of his (and his daughter’s) troubles:
At about the same time I was breaking down, four men at the table behind us broke out in loud laughter. At first, I was too caught up in my own pain to take notice, but then they became quite boisterous. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were laughing about, but I did catch part of a crude comment. Jerry turned around to face them, but when he did, something clearly startled him--he looked as if he’d seen a ghost.This suffering is not ultimately without purpose, as it has a profound effect not only on Fred Sankt but also on his friend Jerry, a lapsed Catholic.
“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
Jerry just shook his head, unable to answer, but I knew there was something not right about the raucous men. They definitely were not choir boys.
“Are those men crooks?” I whispered.
At that moment, we overheard the men exchange several perverted remarks, followed by more boisterous laughter.
“Do you see the man in the black leather jacket?” Jerry asked. “The one with the loudest laugh?”
I carefully took a closer look at the large man in black. “I see him.”
“That man is Sylvester Jones [the plaintiff in the lawsuit].”
Before the word even left Jerry’s lips, I had figured it out for myself. At first I hadn’t recognized him because his back was to me, but then it became clear. The bald head with curly black hair on the sides and back, pulled into a short ponytail; the neck as thick as a tree stump; the gigantic torso--it was without a doubt Sylvester Jones.
For a moment I did nothing but stare at him. His enormous frame shook violently with each bout of laughter.
Seeing my accuser there, in such good spirits, was surreal. I felt numb inside. There was no other way for me to feel--I was too depressed to be angry and too exhausted to feel self-pity.
As I sat there, speechless, another perverted remark poured forth from Jones’ lips, this one about their waitress. It was followed by still more laughter....I could still hear Sylvester Jones happily laughing as we walked out the door.
Seeking consolation in his task, Sankt perseveres in writing his Third Testament. For its part, Sankt’s (and thus, Eklund’s) Third Testament reads as part history, part theology, and part prophesy. He chooses just the right amount of biographical detail concerning the saints and sinners depicted to make the Testament entertaining as a story; and just the right amount of their actual words (written or spoken and remembered) to be edifying to his Catholic readers. There are stories of conversions, or miracles, of maniacal monsters such as Nero and Domitian and Frederick II and Hitler and Stalin; of prophesies, mostly from the appearances of Our Lady, but also through non-Christian sources such as Nostradamus (portrayed as a sort of puppet of the Devil). There are saints--many, many saints—and of course there are sinners. The whole Testament comes together in a way which engages the mind, not only through reason but through imagination.
However, Eklund’s book is not without its flaws. His writing style seems to improve throughout the work, which unfortunately also means that the writing early on isn’t as good as the writing in the rest of the book. And while most of the stories and excerpts which were included in the Testament were pretty good (I especially enjoyed the Tale of Thor’s Tree, and his own Parable of the Humble Servant), there were also some selections which were not so good. After all, if this is supposed to be a Third Testament, the events, stories, and texts which it contains ought to be divinely inspired. I especially found the “Psalms” analog to be lacking, both in some of the selection (at least in Sankt’s draft) and some of the texts left out: “On Eagles’ Wings,” the works of John Newton (some of which are good), and “Be Not Afraid” in--but “Adoro Te Devote,” (or the hymns of Saint Thomas Aquinas in general)* “Te Deum,” “Lead Kindly Light,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent” out? To be fair, this is using the list from the “rough draft” version in the story. Nor would I quite rank Billy Graham with John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I also note a few crucial omissions on the “Devil’s Minions” list: Nietzche, Sanger, and Julian the Apostate jump immediately to mind. Perhaps this is only because this particular list is meant as a rough draft--but then again, most of these remain in the final list, too (though Julian, at least, is discussed at some point).
To be fair, these particular flaws tend to be few and far between. The book is overall very enjoyable, and the stories collected therein are both uplifting and edifying, especially to Catholic readers. At times it is reminiscent of the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, or of Warren C Carroll’s history of Christendom. I would recommend this book to my Catholic readers, and even to some of my Protestant readers. It certainly includes a number of points of Catholic history, culture, and even (perhaps) legend which are too often lacking in Catholic households, schools, and indeed parishes today.
*Although he does include Saint Thomas Aquinas "Pange Lingua", which is perhaps better known because the last two stanzas--the "Tantum Ergo"--are traditionally used during Benedictions.
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