In his book, The Advocate, Singer writes the first historical fiction book that I found myself actually enjoying. The characters where realistic, the use of varied cultural and physical setting added to the author’s use of conflict in the story, and the use of scripture was engaging but not overwhelming.
As I implied in the opening, I am not a huge fan of historical fiction. Often the characters are trite, two-dimensional representations of what people were like at that time in history. Singer strikes a balance with his characters. While some of his characters, like Nero, were thoroughly despicable from beginning to end, most of his characters showed growth. Ultimately, their hubris turned to more affable qualities that make them easier to like, appreciate, and understand. This comes across particularly clear in Theophilus’s first-person point of view. As you read, the book’s protagonist changes from a self-involved boy with a shallow understanding of the world into a thoughtful and wise man. His struggles and regrets become palatable as we grow to know and even like the man he becomes.
While little is known about the actual person Theophilus, and viewpoints about the culture in this time period is varied, Singer does a reasonably good job of presenting Roman, Jewish, and early Christian cultures. There’s clearly a heavy slant towards the Christian position; however, since this is written in a first person point of view we have to assume the narrator (Theophilus) is biased. This is one man telling a story about his life and his perceptions, not a historical or theological scholar reviewing details after the fact. Therefore, Theophilus is, of course, an unreliable narrator just like Huckleberry Finn or Atticus Finch.
What was a pleasant surprise was that the book wasn’t simply a retelling of the Passion of Christ (which is what I was afraid of). Instead it was a blending of places and cultures that came together fairly well. This book takes you on a journey with the character allowing you to experience Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem from one man’s perspective. Finally, the author makes a decent attempt at helping the reader understand the first century mindset: the depravity of Rome and the conviction of The Way. It is however flavored with a lot of current mindsets and values as well, but after all, it is fiction.
There were only two weaknesses in this book that bothered me. The first was that the transitions were not always clear. I occasionally found myself wondering where the author was going only to figure it out much later. The second was a tendency to fall out of narration into explanation which might cause readers to forget that this is a fictional book with just some sections of fact and subjective truth to engage the audience. I think of the memorable phrase of Dan Brown, in reference to his own book, “What section of the book store did you buy my book in?” It’s fiction — not theology or history.
The reader of the audio version, David Cochran Heath, did a good job overall. As in his readings of The Explicit Gospel and To Live is Christ, To Die is Gain he spoke in a clear measured tone that was easy to listen to and very relaxing. The pace at which he read was a little slow for me, but I simply increased the playback rate and it was great. This is not the kind of thing that everyone finds a problem however, and if you are one of the few for which it is, now you have an easy solution. Overall this was a good book. I will likely look into more of Pastor Singer’s books to read in the future.
Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.
A copy of the book was generously offered to Dr. Nicholson by christianaudio.com in exchange for this unbiased review.