A Form of Godliness
Somewhere near in the future, it’s been ten years since the United States suffered a second major terrorist attack. Russia’s oil supply has just mysteriously disappeared, and the Arab nations refuse to sell any to the United States unless it withdraws its support for Israel. Meanwhile, it’s legal to euthanize children with birth defects, and an insidious organization called Life Quality makes millions through buying the children and then selling their body parts for medical supplies. Though the book has a host of characters, it mostly follows President Matthew Bridger, who faces increasing protests as he refuses to desert Israel, and Karen Foley, a young woman who becomes the PR Director of Sacred Child, the only group willing to fight Life Quality.
The situation has the potential for an exciting story; however, the book never rises above the mediocre. The prose is adequate at best, occasionally descending into melodrama. Info-dumps litter the early chapters, and Christian characters hold sermon-like conversations with unbelievers. Most of the characters have fairly flat personalities; only one of them undergoes any real change over the course of the novel, and she’s not one of the main characters. Karen Foley does have a faith crisis after a friend dies, but it’s resolved in about four pages–all it takes is an upbeat speech from a friend and a lucky break, and she’s fine again.
Nor the does book succeed as a story of suspense, because it doesn’t really have a plot. Things happen, and the situation gets worse, but there isn’t much of a climax, and the ending leaves many threads dangling–even though the book is the first of a series, it ought to have some resolution. Far more importantly, none of the characters really do anything. They run around and make speeches, but none of their actions change the situation. There’s a great to-do over how President Bridger mustn’t abandon Israel, but when Congress overrides him and withdraws, Israel trounces its enemies without any trouble. Similarly, all the victories against Life Quality are accomplished by random bit-characters stepping forward to reveal dirty secrets to the press. At the end of the book, I was left wondering why the author was following this set of characters when they were all clearly irrelevant to the action.
The book’s use of Life Quality is problematic as well. It’s a classic dystopian device and has great possibilities. But the author paints every single Life Quality employee in such villainous terms that it’s impossible to believe. He might get away with such evil villains in another story, but it doesn’t work here because Life Quality is such an obvious metaphor for the abortion struggle going on today. And there are people today promoting abortion who are capable of great kindness and believe themselves to be doing the right thing. Instead of exploring the ways in which “good” people can end up doing great evil, the author simply gives the reader a set of cardboard villains.
Unfortunately, the writing is not the worst part of the book.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, Islamic terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb in New York City, then say that they have nuclear bombs hidden in other major cities and will set them off unless the United States immediately withdraws. The characters are all rightly horrified at the evil of such a deed. But then, when Congress withdraws support from Israel, it defends itself from its Arab enemies by dropping a nuclear bomb on Medina and threatening to nuke Mecca unless they surrender in one hour. And none of the characters care. They don’t even mention it. When New York is bombed, the author gives us a detailed description of the horrific destruction–it’s one of the most effective passages in the book. But when Israel bombs Medina, there’s hardly any description; the final image we’re left with is “a proud blue-and-white banner . . . fluttered in the summer wind high above the Temple Mount.” What, is it terrorism to kill Americans but not Arabs?
The Israeli prime minister justifies his act by saying that Egypt and Syria have just acquired nuclear weapons, and if they don’t act now they will be destroyed. One presumes this is how the author justifies it as well. But President Bridger is praised for sticking by Israel in the face of nuclear threats; when Congress forces him to withdraw, the author says that “all it had cost was the nation’s soul.” Apparently, the moral is that it’s wrong to save yourself from annihilation by withdrawing support from an ally who doesn’t need you. But nuking civilian targets, that’s just fine.
In fact, the parallels are so perfect that I’m still wondering if maybe the entire book is a work of sophisticated irony. As support for that theory, I would bring up one of the quotations from the beginning of the book:
“To the extent that you did it to one of these [Jewish] brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” –Matthew 25:40
Biblically literate readers will recognize notice that the author has modified the verse. Now, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with the resulting message; in the original passage Jesus commands charity towards all people, which certainly includes Jews–and great evil has resulted from people forgetting it. The irony comes from the fact that, in A Form of Godliness, the Bible has been edited into a hippy New-Age feminist tract that affirms people in whatever they want to do. And all the Christian characters deplore it. Now, here’s this novel that approves of nuclear strikes on anyone except the U.S. and Israel. And what do you know, it’s prefaced by a Bible verse that’s been edited to limit a command of universal charity to just one set of people. Do you think there’s a message here?