I have never had a book dedicated to me before, but there it is at the front: "Dedicated to Michael Wenham". I feel I have to declare the fact, because I am about to recommend it, and I'd hate anyone to feel they'd bought the book under false pretences. And of course I am chuffed and honoured! The book is Love Letter by Karen Jones. It's the third in her trilogy of "Babe's Bible" novels, following Gorgeous Grace and Sister Acts. For those unfamiliar with this unique series of novels, they interweave a contemporary plot with a storyline based on books from the Bible - a gospel, Acts, and an epistle.
Should you think that the Bible's is a different world from our own, this book might both confirm and change your view. It will change your view in that Karen shows how human nature and dilemmas remain the same. It will confirm your view as she demonstrates how the historical and cultural context differs. This is in my opinion is one of the great gifts of the whole series, and not least of Love Letter. In this case it gives a context for Paul's letter to the Ephesians and for 1 Timothy. There's no claim that we are given the context, but we are reminded that the letters are written in some particular context and it is foolish to read them as if there were none. Paul was writing to people he knew in circumstances that he knew about.
If that sounds rather serious and theological, be assured these books are far from dull and heavy. The second great gift that Karen has for us is bringing Bible to life. We realise that the characters who flit in and out of the New Testament were people with histories and hang-ups, personalities and problems, just like us. We discover that there were tensions within contemporary Judaism which spilled over into the developing Christian church, and that the Roman impatience with the Jerusalem hierarchy was well on the way to the ruthless destruction of the city in AD70, and it is within that broad context that Paul was writing to the young churches and church leaders. Karen vividly recreates the history and its impact on her characters.
However, as I said, the novels combine a contemporary plot with the Bible-based story. In fact that narrative is written by Grace Hutchinson, the woman minister, of the modern story. Events in her ministry are what drive her time and again to examine the Bible story and what it says to her and her friends today. She works in outer London and encounters the most painful of modern life-situations, both herself and in the area in which she lives. I don't want to spoil the plot at all, but for me once I had reached James and Marie in hospital of Love Letter I was hooked.
Perhaps the publisher's advertising line will provide enough of a clue. "Karen Jones' unique trilogy of contemporary fiction for women, based on the stories of women from the Bible, concludes in Love Letter. Grace and Chloe's lives have changed immeasurably over the last decade. Grace's talents and wisdom as a priest have been recognised and she receives a unique calling which will change her life for ever. Chloe, by contrast, discovers that there are still no easy paths through life and the decisions of various members of her family cause her to question the very bedrock of her faith. Grace and Chloe's relationship is about to be challenged to the core. Love, sex and betrayal, forgiveness and healing are once again the powerful themes in this heart-rending saga." I'd demur from the publishers in one detail: it's not only for women!
What I also admire about the three books is how Karen kept tabs on all the characters in the two strands weaving together, and progressed the storylines in parallel. I have to confess I was moved to tears at one point (my family would say that's not difficult!). I believe Karen started on the project in order to bring the Bible to life for a younger member of her family. I imagine she succeeded! For anyone who thinks the Good News of grace is only for the religious, sissies and the soft, this is the perfect antidote. It's seriously hard core and contemporary good news.
Have I any reservations? Only one - and that is the proof-reading, to put it kindly, appears to have been rushed. However that's being pedantic. After all New Testament Greek had no punctuation. And it didn't interfere with my enjoyment. Highly recommended holiday reading. (Darton Longman Todd, £8.99)