Cross Examined: An unconventional spiritual journey by Bob Seidensticker is a novel about a young man in his late 20’s who is a new convert to Christianity who has been taken under the wing of a pastor of a rapidly growing church, with a ministry for apologetics. A series of events surrounding the great San Francisco earthquake that appears to have been predicted by the pastor, leads the protagonist on a journey of questioning and doubt partly bound up with a secret past.
The Novel begins some months before the San Francisco earthquake on April 18th 1906, during this same period the Azusa Street Revival were beginning in Los Angeles. It is also the time of prominence for Democrat populist politician William Jennings Bryan. Yet the historic landscape is a world devoid these two very significant realities, the Azusa Street revivals and the life and political career of William Jennings Bryan. One keeps waiting for some mention, some recognition that this would have been in the consciousness of anyone in this time in American history and yet, though this apologist pastor offers a sign and wonder, the forms of Christianity that actually lived in the realm of signs, wonders and prophecy’s don’t exist. And the Democrat Christian Fundamentalist Politician of William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party of which he was a part also does not exist. This compromises what is in other ways is a novel with some really compelling characters, the Atheist Emerson, and the Abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Near San Francisco.
When the pastor seeks to run for political office, the author seems to assume that a person of faith would seek out the Republican party, but this fails to take into account that the Democratic party was the home of the populist fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan . The other shortcomings of the novel is that the only believable and truly sympathetic characters are those who aren’t Christian or who are in the process of questioning or losing their faith. The best characters in the novel are the atheist Emerson and the Buddhist Abbot. I did not find a convincing description of anyone with what I would consider true faith. No one with the exception of Mrs. O’Brien (who isn’t the most fleshed out of characters) even comes close to being described as having a faith that is a relationship with God. I understand that an atheist author may interpret such an experience of faith and God as delusional, but to describe most faith as merely ascent to belief without an actual experience of having relationship with a god (even if that relationship isn’t real) is a failure of imagination and willingness to enter religious experience. These two failures of imagination undermined the author’s tale.
In the end this novel would have been better written as a type of memoir of contemporary events and spiritual journey into and out of ossified Christian faith in the late 20th Century early 21st century. The early 20th century was an odd setting for the sorts of Christianity that the author wished to take aim. The late 20th century is really the Christianity he was seeking to describe, and the author of the book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, seems to be the type of Christian pastor celebrity found in the novel. The Author seems to project on early 20th century Christianity the ossified faith of the late 20th century and early 21st century American Religious Right. This anachronism is compounded by the failure to imagine compelling people of faith. The author fails to imagine that people of faith actually experience a relation to divinity. In Cross Examined faith is merely depicted as the adherence to a set of beliefs about the world, Rather, than imagining people of faith who actually experience a connection with the divinity they believe in. An atheist, may assume that such experience is some form of delusion, but to depict all people of faith as having no experience of a relationship to divinity is to fail to understand the nature of religious experience. The author was unable to imagine both an accurate historical context and any person of genuine faith.
I suppose I found Bob Seidensticker’s novel about as believable and he finds Christian faith. Which is disappointing since with a little imagination, he could have presented a very genuine and unsettling encounter between faith and atheism. What we are left with though is the world of the novel as mere backdrop for his mostly flat characters, who are foils for his atheist heroes, whom I really liked as people. If only the novel had been populated with more believable human beings.
Bob Seidensticker’s Patheos Blog