Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

nformal summary of the plot of "The Fifth Gospel," in an email I sent to a friend:

["The Fifth Gospel." is about 2 brothers. Simon is a Roman Catholic priest and his brother Alex is an Orthodox Catholic priest. It takes place mostly in the Vatican. The Orthodox priest has a son (okay in the Orthodox church). Some other guy (could be a priest too) who's a friend of theirs gets murdered just before he's about to put on some highly anticipated art exhibit or something.]

From the tempo of my email you may be able to tell that I was initially excited to be reading "The Fifth Gospel. But things changed. My review:

I had really enjoyed reading "The Rule of Four" by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. I thought it was much better by far than Dan Brown's book, "The DaVinci Code," which was published in the same year as "The Rule of Four," and which walked off with all the plaudits of the reading public that year.

It seems that Mr. Caldwell has decided to cater to the poor judgement of the reading public of that year by writing a kind of "DaVinci Code Redux," and I like his new book about as much as I liked Mr. Brown's original book, which I didn't like at all. I made a sincere attempt to read "The Fifth Gospel" through to completion but I just couldn't do it. I kept putting the book down, fighting the urge to leave the book down, picking the book up again, only to finally despair of reading it through to the end.

In "The Da Vinci Code" there was a "bad guy" who belonged to a cult in the Catholic Church known as "Opus Dei." I knew nothing about this cult prior to reading that book. As I recall, this guy, (I'm pretty sure he was a priest,) tortured himself, so that he would always be mindful of the sufferings of Christ. In "The Fifth Gospel" we find that Simon (the Catholic priest brother of Alex, the Orthodox priest) also apparently tortures himself by tying some sort of cord around his thigh and yanking it a bit if his mind wanders when he's off at social gatherings while on Church business, causing this cord to cut into the flesh of his thigh. My impression was that Simon did this to himself when his mind began to drift toward the charms of the women at these events.

So is Simon a member of Opus Dei? I never found out. Nor did I find out if there was some particular point the author had in mentioning this odd behavior of Simon...except that it fits in with other odd things Simon does or did in the past, like grasping the blade of a knife in his bare hand in the middle of a knife fight between two ruffians and refusing to let go. But to what point are we told this stuff? I found it distracting.

The same goes for the large amount of Catholic trivia. Did you know (I didn't) that when a pope dies he gets buried in a triple coffin? (Who cares?) If I recall correctly, one coffin is made of pine wood, one is made of cedar, and one is made of lead. Reading this caused my mind to wander...why the lead coffin? I guess the pine coffin symbolized poverty; and I guess the cedar coffin smells very nice, so if the Pope wakes up at least the smell will be nice; but why the lead coffin? I wondered about lead poisoning...Dismissed that idea. Maybe the lead would afford protection in case of nuclear war and radioactive contamination...but to what purpose? And the author says the lead coffin is the middle coffin. This confused me. I assumed the outside coffin would be the pine. Showing the people that the pope was poor. And I figured the coffin which actually contained the pope's body would be the nice-smelling cedar coffin. So the lead coffin would then be the 2nd coffin in, fitting in-between the pine coffin and the cedar coffin. But considering the coffins as an architectural structure of three dimensions, the middle coffin would be the innermost coffin, and therefore, the pope's body would be inside the lead coffin. Well, maybe one of you readers will work it out.

Of course there is some very good writing here; Mr. Caldwell is a highly talented writer. The problem I had was more with the subject matter; I have little patience when the subject is organized religion. I can deal with organized religion in small doses but not in big lumps of four-hundred-odd pages. You might say that I am an acolyte of Freeman Dyson. (Which is funny because an acolyte is a kind of altar boy.)

So the fault, my friends, may be with me; not with the book. I have the deepest respect for those of you who find organized religion a solace and a source of inspiration and hope in these troubled times. And I mean that sincerely. There was a time when I shared that feeling. And along this line of thinking, I recently watched an interview of E. O. Wilson, the esteemed biologist/entomologist on C-Span2 in which Wilson said that religion is of profound importance, but that "Religion has been hijacked by Faiths." This pretty much sums up my own personal feelings on religion.

Considering that the book goes off on tangents and is very slow reading at times, and that it sometimes gets overly sentimental, I would give it a rating of two stars. However, the book is filled with details of church history, canon law, etc., which make it almost a scholarly tome for those of you interested in such matters, giving it a redeeming value. Add to that the fact that I have a small bias against the subject matter which few readers will share, and that I absolutely loved Mr. Caldwell's previous work, I find I must in all fairness give this book a rating of three stars.

I hope you enjoy the book. And I look forward to Mr. Caldwell's next book. I hope it doesn't take him ten years to get around to writing his next book, and I pray that his next book isn't about religion. God bless.

Your humble minister, (p.s. your sins are forgiven you if you read this review.)


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