As a believer who has struggled with legalism from early on in my Christian life, I found the promised premise of Randall Arthur’s Wisdom Hunter intriguing. As the story of a legalistic preacher who is forced to reevaluate his beliefs and rebuild his faith from the roots up, I was excited to read about a novelized struggle between legalism and love. Initially published in 1991, over 125,000 copies have now been sold over the years, remaining in steady demand and justifying a reprinting this year.
At the time of its initial printing, Wisdom Hunter resulted in the loss of Arthur’s job and much of his financial support for his European church planting. Readers today may find that surprising, as a greater understanding of legalism has developed in the church since that time. The exciting back cover blurb and glowing testimonials from notable Christian recording artists and from those in ministry had me fired up about reading the title, and it jumped to the top of my to-be-read pile. I spent 20 minutes explaining my excitement and reading from the testimonials to my husband – a very rare occurrence despite the number of books I read annually.
Pastor Jason Faircloth is a man who’s driven his daughter into fleeing from her family home, and contributed to the emotional collapse and death of his wife. Seeking to redeem himself, he plunges headlong into a worldwide search for the granddaughter he’s been forbidden to meet. Along the way he seeks to cast aside the attitudes that led to the collapse of his family, and allow God to remake him into a gentler, more authentic expression of God’s love for him.
I read rapidly through the pages of Wisdom Hunter, digging for the gold that would most certainly be hidden within if the praise I’d read was to be believed. Confronted by shallow characters for whom I felt little, surprising and not entirely explained shifts in character, lengthy passages of sermonizing and reflection, and more telling than showing, I persevered.
Through stock characters – an elderly Asian pastor who speaks like the mystic Karate Kid sensei transplanted into a Christian setting – the stiff-necked legalistic minister suddenly transformed into a free-wheeling wanderer, and so on, I found Wisdom Hunter soon becoming a painful reading experience. Though I expected a well-written book from the glowing reviews, I soon discovered that this novel is what I call “teaching fiction” (which I’ve never found to be well written).
While I truly appreciate Arthur’s heart for the church, and resonate with his desire to see believers reaching out with the love and compassion of Jesus into a hurting world, to see believers humbly ministering to each other in honest, transparent relationships, I wish his message had been packaged in a subtler, well-written package. My Sister Dilly by Maureen Lang is an excellent, yet underappreciated example of such an approach; a touching, message-driven, yet well executed novel.
It’s times like this that I’m reminded of the tendencies in the Christian reading community to elevate message over style. I firmly believe that the two can be skillfully combined; Christian readers shouldn’t have to settle for less.