Merry Christmas! This post will go live on Christmas eve, so I hope that this finds you safe, well, and with ones you love. It feels fitting to me in a holiday that is about redemption, we’re exploring that theme together through Terry Brook’s A Knight of the Word.
At the very center of KOTW is a crisis of faith. John Ross has been a faithful knight-errant for the forces of good when a tragically failed mission breaks him. The reader immediately feels the depth of his sorrow – it is a miscarriage of justice that we would not wish on our worst enemies. John has had enough. His prophetic dreams of a terrible future never change, and he cannot live a normal life while in service to the Word.
So he quits.
He is tormented by questions that have assailed real-life theists for centuries.
If God is both good and all-powerful, then how can evil exist? There are intellectual answers to this, which are far beyond the scope of a simple book blog, but I’ll give it a brief shot anyway: In this writer’s opinion, the answer lies somewhere in the necessity of choice. For good to be real, we must be able to choose it. If we can choose good, then we can also choose not-good. Not-good is, by definition, evil. That said cold, academic answers like the one just outlined do nothing to heal a broken heart. The certainly do not help our hero, John Ross.
He is frustrated by the seeming pointlessness of his quest for good. For every demon he slays, every wrong righted, ten more evils take their place. The never-ending need for active good wears him down. We discuss this in our last reflection on Running With the Demon.
Can John (or, indeed, can we) truly ‘un-believe’ something? In the text, it is not as if John ceases to believe in The Word. Quite the opposite. He travels to Wales hoping for a personal audience. He just stops acting as if he is a follower. This turn of events parallels real-life apostasy. Some theists may come to faith by being intellectually convinced of spiritual truths. Anecdotally, these logical faithful seem to be few and far between. Much more often, people seem to believe what appeals to them and then justify it afterwards. When we live as if we no longer believed what we once did, are we “un-believing,” or are we trying to hurt someone or something that we believe has hurt us first?
John’s crisis of faith does not destroy his life. He works hard battling homelessness in Seattle. He finds love. He finds friends. He is happy and purposeful. He feels fulfilled in this new life until a new crisis forces John to examine what he really wants.
John’s ultimate redemption carries a ring of truth that lines up with this paradigm:
He returns to the Word when his Word-less way of life is proven to be a sham. Stephanie, his girlfriend, is a demon, and his job abandons him. Ross reaches for the Word when he has a great emotional need for its support. He has been beaten and broken by the forces of darkness. He is angry, and desperately wants to defend the defenseless. His return has nothing to do with logic, nor, indeed, does it touch the original tragedy that triggered his crisis. John must accept the past for what it is and move forward. His return is driven by a new and greater need:
“…he had been driven to his knees by something so foul and repulsive he could not bear another day of life if he did not bring an end to it”
Another interesting part of the redemption scene is that The Word never left John. It was with him the whole time, waiting for him to call it:
“He called for the magic of the staff, called it with a certainty that surprised him, called it with full acceptance… The magic did not come at once, for it lay deep within the staff, waiting for the call to be right, for the prayer to be sincere. He could sense it, poised and needful, but recalcitrant. He strained to reach it, to make it feel his need, to draw it to him as he would a reluctant child… silver light enfolded the Knight of the Word with bright radiance, and he was alive anew. And dead to what once he had hoped so strongly he might be.. Ross lifted his head….eager to serve.”
And so The Word – the divine, good analogue for god – never left Ross, even when he could not feel its presence, even when he could not call the power. The power was with him all long, waiting for him to return.
It is clear that despite the good he was doing in his work with the homeless, John Ross knows that his purpose, his calling, the particular good that he feels in his bones he must accomplish, is his service to The Word.
I think every person of faith will go through seasons of doubt. It goes with the territory. The lesson from A Knight of The Word for those in that valley is that doubt does not disqualify you from service. That’s what redemption is all about.