O’Brien: Theophilos

March 27, 2012

Michael D. O’Brien
(Ignatius, 2010)
450 p.

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

It is a good premise for a novel: tell the story of the early Church through the eyes of Theophilos, the otherwise-unknown man to whom St. Luke addressed his Gospel. Who was he? How did the new Faith appear to him? Why did Luke write to him? And what became of him? All good questions, and Michael D. O’Brien imagines us into a possible set of answers.

In his telling, Theophilos is Luke’s adoptive father, a Cretan with a classical education and a love of philosophy. A physician by trade, he has brought Luke up to follow in his footsteps, and is dismayed when he sees him falling in with a Jewish sect devoted to Christos. At Luke’s invitation, he journeys to Galilee and Jerusalem to meet his friends and others who knew Jesus during his boyhood and ministry.

All this takes place in around the year 65, when there are still men and women alive who knew Jesus as a boy, growing up in Nazareth. There are some who remember him simply as “the carpenter’s son”, and regard the story about Resurrection as a fancy. Others are believers. Theophilos meets several people who are themselves represented in the Gospels, being those whom Jesus healed, or to whom he spoke.

Generally speaking, O’Brien does a good job of bringing the reader into that first-century world in which Christianity was still nascent and strange. There are a few instances in which the development of doctrine seems to have been accelerated, but for the most part he succeeds in drawing a convincing portrait of how the Faith may have appeared to its first adherents. Interestingly, he brings in several elements most associated today with charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, in addition to the solid Catholic core.

The central thrust of the story concerns how Theophilos’ investigations affect his relationship to the new religion. I’ll not say too much about this for fear of spoiling things, but I will register a mild complaint, or, if that is too strong, a concern. I have read all of O’Brien’s novels (saving the most recent), and I admire his writing, but I believe that he does have a tendency to over-dramatize the spiritual life, chiefly, it seems to me, through what I will call externalization. When portraying a spiritual crisis, he tends to rely on certain external devices — voices, visions, things said in italics — rather than on the pain-staking (and admittedly extremely difficult) task of showing the subtle action of grace in the soul. For me, the voices and visions are a let-down because I have never experienced anything like that, at least not as overtly as they are presented in O’Brien’s work. Of course, there is no particular reason why the nature of my spiritual experience should be normative for writers, but I believe that my experience is not all that different from most people’s. Perhaps I am wrong about that. In any case, I would prefer to see something more subtle.

Having said that, I must also say that O’Brien is a very fine writer. He has a gift for dialogue, a good ear, well-developed characters, and he always writes with a seriousness of purpose that befits his themes. If there were greater justice in the fishbowl of Canadian literature, he would be having chats with Ms. Reisman, and his house would be as big as Mr. Martel’s. But such justice is eschatological.

4 Responses to “O’Brien: Theophilos”

  1. Janet Says:

    I haven’t read Theophilus but I’ve read all the others. I think that his writing is uneven, but that even in his worst books, there are some very powerful moments. I love Sophia House, and I think that his writing is most consistent in that one. I haven’t yet anyone else that liked it that much though.

    The latest is a pretty good book hidden within at least twice as many pages as would have sufficed.


  2. cburrell Says:

    I also think that Sophia House is one of his best, though my favourite is Strangers and Sojourners. You are right that SH is consistently strong.

    Normally I am impatient with overlong novels, but for the most part I don’t feel that way about O’Brien. Island of the World, for instance, which was awfully long, I enjoyed all the way through.

  3. Janet Says:

    Yes! Have we talked about this before. For years, people have been looking at me strangely when I said that Strangers and Sojourners was my favorite.


  4. cburrell Says:

    Yours too! I don’t think I knew that before.

    I once met Michael O’Brien and told him that S&S was my favourite. He was a little surprised, and told me it was a “minority opinion”. He also seemed pleased. I think it’s a beautiful novel.

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