Monday, June 25, 2012

Blurring the Lines -- Review


BLURRING THE LINES.   By Jerry Zehr.  Self-published, 2012.  203 pages.


I was asked by the author of Blurring the Lines to read and offer my thoughts on this first novel.  As an author, I must commend Jerry Zehr for taking on the task of writing a novel that would offer a compelling story while also providing a platform for readers to explore spiritual things.  Narrative is an increasing important vehicle for us to share faith stories, but it's not an easy genre to master, especially in a first novel.

Taking into account that this is a first novel, we can let question of style and formula take a back seat as we try to inhabit the story that Jerry wants to tell in these pages.  We're invited to see the world  in all its beauty and ugliness (and there's a lot of ugliness in this story), through the eyes of Thomas, a young man who grew up Mennonite in a small Indiana town that is predominately Amish.  His father had left the Amish tradition but remained present in the broader Anabaptist community.  Thomas has this faith as a foundation, but he seems to hold it loosely.  He may have religious foundations, but he is, like so many young people today, a spiritual seeker.

In this story Thomas leaves his Indiana home for Los Angeles, where he seeks to fulfill his dream of making big in Hollywood.  It’s a dream that many have sought to fulfill, and of course many fail at it.  LA is full of waiters and hotel desk clerks who have the same dream.  Thomas ends up taking a job as a desk clerk in a Beverly Hills hotel where stars stay who don’t want to be seen.  As he seeks to find his way he ends up being drawn into the Hollywood scene of drugs, sex, and gambling.  He falls in with the wrong crowd, in large part because he feels the need for money, which leads to some drug running escapades.    But, he also falls in love and he has to wrestle with what it means to be true to that relationship.   I won’t say anymore so as not to spoil the journey with the book, except to let readers know that the language and descriptions are at times graphic.  It’s not surprising considering the crime drama/Hollywood dream genre, but while this is a religiously oriented book, it could offend some readers.

The other element of the story is Thomas’s spiritual quest.  Jerry Zehr is a Disciples of Christ minister (like me), who is committed to interfaith work (like me).  I will confess that we approach this matter of interfaith work somewhat differently.  Like many of my colleagues he has followed the path farther than me in the direction of a more generic/eclectic spirituality.  I’m committed to interfaith work, but my own faith confession is more traditional.  What Jerry does, however, is offer a way for the growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” people to explore matters of faith and spirituality. 

Diana Butler Bass is one of many writers who are reminding us that things are changing.  The old ways are failing to grab the attention of increasing numbers of people.  Religion is giving way to spirituality.  They are dissatisfied with narrowness of belief and practice.  But what is it that they desire?  Is it a defined spirituality or an eclectic one that borrows as much from East as West (and in this book it seems that East is the dominant spirituality).

The vision that Mr. C. provides in the book, one that seems eclectic and even perhaps New Ageish is attractive.  The reader will have to decide if it works for them.  And a story like this is useful.  Mr. C. the “good guy” in the story is a religiously committed person, who is compassionate and self-giving.  He cares about Thomas and watches out for him (and others).  It’s a vision that should be attractive and it should push us to ask the question – does my faith cause me to reach out and care for others?

The book ends with a cliff-hanger, and Jerry promises a sequel, so that we can see where Thomas’ faith takes him. 

Stylistically this is probably a typical first novel.  It’s somewhat formulaic and predictable.  It slows down at points, but I expect that the writing will improve over time.  In the stylistic vein, I would suggest that in future editions to consider a more traditional (Times Roman) type face.  The current sans-serif style makes the book look self-published, which it is.  But that’s just me.   Again I commend Jerry for taking on the task of writing in this form.  So, if you’re interested in spiritual narratives that push beyond the traditional religious books, then give Jerry’s book a try.

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