Stereotyped Pretence

Small Giant, by Phyllis Woodruff Sapp. Zondervan, Grand Rapids. $3.00.

This novel is one grand contrivance without adequate characterization, genuine emotion, or artistic merit. In fact, it is not a novel at all, just a stereotyped pretence. As an evangelical Christian I deplore the supposition that such stuff is intended for me and others like me. Yet this novel is the winner of a big prize offered by a Christian publisher!

It is hard to know where to begin a review, for the sleaziness starts with the first page of the book. As a sample of the totally trite style let me quote a few sentences from page 14: “A hush settled over the room and his heart seemed to stop beating. Wouldn’t these people applaud even for politeness’ sake? Then a spontaneous burst of applause echoed and re-echoed around the room and Phil sank back in his chair, swallowing his heart out of his throat.” It would be hard to discover in the same number of words anywhere in print (unless in a parody on triteness) an equal spate of cliches.

Among many bad things the very worst is the hand-me-down emotions throughout the book. They are here in melodramatic abundance but in unbelievable paucity of expression. Although the novel is under three hundred pages in length, such phrases as “dark pounding in his heart,” “heart began to hammer against his ribs,” “his heart thudded heavily” occur over seventy times. Expressions such as “he clenched his hands,” “smacking his fist into his palm,” and “beat his fist into his open palm” occur at least sixty times. Another set of cliches such as “she moistened her lips,” “licked his lips,” “wet his lips” is repeated at least thirty-five times, and about twenty-five times we have the hero or somebody else gritting his teeth or chewing his lips. Most objectionable of all is a set of phrases such as “pleased flush crawling up his neck,” “angry flush came crawling up his neck,” and “a hot, aggravating flush crawling up his neck,” which make it sound as if the hero is a sort of human thermometer. These five stereotypes of pounding heart, clenching fists, moistening lips, gritting teeth, and flushing neck and face occur, believe it or not, over one hundred and fifty times. Were they sporadic they would be bad enough, but in this book they are chronic. Sometimes, indeed, they fall thick and fast. On page 147, for instance, we find Jane’s heart “thudding against her ribs.” Then in the next sentence she “clenched her hands together,” and before the end of the page she has “moistened her lips.” On page 128 Jane “bit her lip,” Phil’s heart was “thudding against his ribs,” Jane had “clenched fingers,” and twice Phil “pounded his fist into his palm.” All on one page. Toward the end of the book we note that Jane’s heart “started a strange, insistent pounding” and, a few pages later, Phil’s heart “began a strange, uneasy pounding.” No reasonable person could ever believe that either of their hearts could have a strange pound by this time, for their hearts have been thumping since page one in every way conceivable to the human mind, even flipping clear over on occasion.

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Beyond these trite expressions is the equally serious psychological fallacy that to say a character has an emotion is the same as causing the reader to feel an emotion. When the lack of artistic talent and vision is total, a writer has no recourse but to fall back on described rather than portrayed emotions. It is something to note when the evil of described emotions has added to it the superabundance of pathetic cliches found here.

Even though this novel has been published almost solely on the basis of its plot, that also will not suffer close examination. Phil Sanders, a young lawyer, discovers that if he breaks up a liquor and dope ring in his town he will at the same time ruin his prospective father-in-law, the District Attorney. Phil has to decide his course of action in this matter and also to discover legal cause for his intuited suspicion of Mel Morrison, one of the other assistants to the D.A. who turns out to be the brains of the dope racket. Mel Morrison happens also to be in love with Jane Lawson, daughter of the D.A., who comes to love Phil and fear Mel. Apart from its traditional detective slant, there is nothing wrong with, such a plot. But because the complications become simply too much for the author, characters and action are shoved around with relatively little regard for logic and the nature of things. There is space for only an illustration or two. Early in Phil’s career he goes out and inspects a flimsily constructed honky tonk called Sam’s Shanty and becomes suspicious that it is peddling liquor and dope to minors. Then one night the building eatches fire. Conveniently, Phil happens to be at the police station talking about the matter when the fire alarm goes off, so he and the police hurry to the scene. He stops one hundred yards from the flaming structure, and even at this distance the heat is strong. Shortly a big black Cadillac just like the one owned by Mel Morrison tears up and the door is flung open so quickly that Phil is knocked to his knees. That’s how close he was. Next we learn that several suspicious looking men jump out of this car and feverishly fill the seats, not with burned boys and girls but with “large wooden containers.” Where did these villains—for that is what the reader knows them to be—get the boxes? The building was in total flames and surrounded by police and firemen. The heat was intense at one hundred yards. We are told that the whole sky was lighted by the flames. Did Phil, the shrewd young attorney in charge of dope and liquor peddling, get suspicious that at arm’s length he has the racketeers if he will only nab them while they are stacking their car full of these big boxes? The author says naively: “He supposed it really wasn’t important.” Later—sixty pages later—since it suits the strained plot of the novel—Phil discovers what the reader knew all the time. There are other episodes equally awry. The final resolution of the plot hangs pretty largely upon the fact that the D.A., who turns out to be a user of dope, keeps his heroin and paraphernalia for its use in his desk drawer and is careless enough to leave the drawer open to passing gaze.

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Space prevents further discussion of the plot, the shallowness of character depiction, the flimsy contriving of motives and movements and the total lack of artistic touch and symbolic imagination. It can be said that the Christian element is introduced with moderation and some sense of propriety, but that aspect is hard to evaluate in the unstable perspective of the book as a whole.

In offering prizes it is doubtless the aim of Christian publishers to improve the quality of their publication. This is laudable. At the same time, it appears doubly bad to be placed in the position of having to advertise a book like this as the winner of a prize. Would it not be better to stipulate that no prize will be given if disinterested judges think all entries unworthy?


Why Did Christ Die?

A Critique of the Theory of Vital Atonement, by James A. Nichols, Jr. Vantage Press, New York, 1955. $2.50.

Dr. Nichols is Professor of Theology at the New England School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. The purpose of this book is to examine and refute the view of the atonement held by the late Clarence H. Hewitt, and expounded in his book, Vital Atonement (Warren Press, Boston, 1946). After an initial statement of Hewitt’s views, there follow five chapters which show the inadequacy of this interpretation of the atonement from various points of view: doctrinal, biblical, and historical.

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All evangelical Christians will welcome this spirited defense of the vicarious-substitutionary view of the atonement over against Hewitt’s conception, which seems to this reviewer to be a rather novel combination of the mystical and moral influence theories. Dr. Nichols quite rightly opposes Hewitt’s contention that Christ shared the inborn corruption of our nature. The book under review is a strong refutation of the notion that there is no punitive wrath in God which needs satisfaction. The point is very well taken that the one great question which Hewitt’s interpretation of the atonement leaves unanswered is, “Why did Christ have to die?” (p. 36). The reader is impressed anew with the fact that the only adequate answer to that question is: He died as our substitute, to bear for us the wrath of God against sin.

Despite the merits of this book, however, there are certain unfavorable features. Its chief weakness is its excessive use of quotations from other theological writers. All in all, the 91 pages of text contain 115 quotations, a number of them being longer than half a page in length. The author, it seems to me, leans too heavily upon other men; he could often much more effectively have stated his views in his own words. In some instances mere quotations from other theologians are used to settle theological issues, when careful Scriptural exegesis would have been far more compelling. The book would have been greatly strengthened if the chapter dealing with the biblical evidence had been placed at the beginning instead of near the end.

It also appears to this reviewer that Chapter VI, in which the historical background of the “Vital Atonement” is discussed, could have been strengthened. A more thorough survey of Irenaeus’s Recapitulation Theory, and of the general emphasis of the Eastern theologians of the early church on “atonement by incarnation” would have been very helpful in understanding Dr. Hewitt’s views. A brief exposition of Abelard’s Moral Influence theory of the atonement and of the Example Theory advanced by the Socinians would have made clear the affinities of Hewitt’s views to these erroneous doctrines. A good deal more could have been made of Schleiermacher, with whose mystical conception of the atonement the so-called “Vital Atonement” has much in common. And Ritschl’s aversion to the idea that there is a punitive wrath in God which needs to be satisfied ought to have been cited as part of the historical background.

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Furthermore, the author should have shown that the idea “that men’s depravity disposes them to sin but is not actually sinful in itself” had its origin, not just in New England theology (see p. 89), but in the Semi-Pelagianism of the 5th and 6th centuries; that it was an essential aspect of the scholastic anthropology of the Middle Ages; and that it was held by Remonstrant Arminianism in the 17th century.

A theological weakness of the book, it seems to me, is the absence of the covenant concept. On page 17, for example, the author defines the uniqueness of our Lord’s relation to the human race only in terms of his Creatorship. He adds, “This relation shows how he might rightfully share our guilt and suffer penalty for us, although it did not obligate him to do so.” An explication of Christ’s covenant relationship to his people, as their head, their federal representative, their second Adam, would have greatly clarified and illumined the doctrine of the atonement at this point.


Glorifying God

The Psalter in the Temple and the Church, by Marie Pierik. Catholic University of America Press, 1957. 101 pages. $3.00.

It is very much to be regretted that this excellent little book was not written by a Protestant and published by a Protestant publishing house.

I say this, not because even the greater part of its contents represent the Protestant point of view, or is agreeable to it (though I am sure it does and is), but because the sort of interest in the truly inspired songs of the Bible and biblical music which the appearance of such a book would indicate, would be a wholesome sign of a much needed change in some things associated with Protestant religious music of which we are not proud.

One has but to listen to one or two programs on the radio of so-called “popular religious music,” presenting silly, sob-sentimental torch songs and jazz in the trappings of sanctity, but vocalized by the familiar throaty effects of the nightclub and accompanied by the sensuous rhythmic beat of a dance band, to long for a return to a usage by Christians of the inspired songs of Zion, and a rendition and accompaniment which lift the spirit upward. So much of popular religious jazz (and some of it appears in some very good song books, and is heard in some amazingly respectable churches), conveys the subtle, subconscious impression that there is very little difference between religious sentiment, which is supposed to be elevated and ennobling, and the sentiments of the flesh (and unregenerate, sinful flesh, at that).

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Miss Marie Pierik is a long-time student and teacher of music, and an authority on the Gregorian Chant who has been recognized by the Vatican as well as by other important critical circles in Europe and America.

Included in her book are chapters on: The Psalter, The Titles of the Psalms, The Contents of the Psalms, The Music of the Temple, The Modes of Semetic Music, and Forms and Rhythm in Temple Music and Psalter.

She quotes freely from well-known authorities, and even includes a quotation from Prothero, and one from Rabbi Akiba (executed in 135 A.D.), “who, either as a little boy witnessed the Temple service before its destruction in 70 A.D., or heard from some of the survivors a description” of the types of re-sponsorial public singing found there.

The latter part of the book is devoted to a study of Psalmody in the Chant of the Church and presents chapters on: How Gregorian Chant Developed, Roman Psalmody, and Preliminary Breathing and Vocal Exercises for the Practice of Gregorian Chant.

The second half of the book, being somewhat technical, will appeal mostly to musicians and music directors. The first half will interest any serious Bible student. That such an excellent study has appeared is a challenge to us all, not only to produce one as scholarly and informative, and simpler, if possible, but especially to return whole-heartedly to a much greater use of the inspired Psalms in the worship of God.


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