Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Format: Hardcover, 312 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Pub Date: September 11, 2012
Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney is a book about three siblings, who in their distinct personalities come together in a road trip towards a mega-church in Wichita, Kansas, where their mother once had a powerful faith experience, and where they, too, must come to terms with their own form of spirituality, for or against what is known to be the evangelical right.
There is Connie Foster, the eldest of the siblings who struggles not only with the recent news of her husband’s bankruptcy after a comfortable life of independent business and wealth, but also with her own fears of failure in motherhood and pious, spiritual authenticity.
Hannah Crowe, liberal both in thought, tradition, and sexuality, is desperate to have a child with Norman Peach, the man she loves, but who is determined to resist her desire for parenthood. She must confront her feelings of insecurity with her family and her own childlessness.
And Zeus Ortega, their adoptive brother from New Mexico who works as a therapeutic clown in a children’s hospital responds to the loss of his boyfriend by planning to meet his biological family for the first time since his adoption.
While the clarity of the language of the novel attributes to it being easily readable, it is also written in a way in which the characters themselves feel distant from the reader and become performers rather than characters with whom the reader can fully empathize. Aside from a few tender and authentic connections, the characters can sometimes come across as almost too self-absorbed.
And rather than take the opportunity to write with grace to show an authentic spiritual struggle like Anouk Markovtis does in her tender and more complex book, I Am Forbidden, the novel, Sweet Jesus, is quite opposite in its view of the evangelical right as would suggest by its title.
Which is unfortunate since its intended message of religious and cultural inclusivity instead comes across as a blatant attack on conservatism, Christianity, and the evangelical movement, thought process, and way of worship as depicted in the described “circus” of the Global Kingdom of Salvation Center in Wichita, Kansas.
The book in its narrative, superficially observes and sheds in a poor light, the evangelical movement, its thought process, and style of worship as an extreme example found in a “weekend service” without the thoughtful consideration and explanation of its theology, significance and translation of its unique worship style, and potential faith experience.
It’s rather a sad statement to yet again see a novel so easily ridicule, mock, and target the Christian evangelical right more so than any other Christian denomination and/or other religion without a backlash.
It seems to be an easy route, one in which in my mind, is too often accepted, abused, and ignored. While readers, writers, and fictional characters are privileged with the freedom of thought and entitled to disagree on various issues, the care needed to divulge and discern discussions that are meant to enlighten and advocate inclusion and community, especially on such topics as religion regardless of their foreign, elusive, and what can be sometimes deemed as “different” or “strange” practices, deserve at the very least. mature understanding and respect.
This is especially true due to the sensitive nature of the topic of religion as in its discourse, theology, and its practices, regardless of what religion it may be. This is especially true because the heart of religion is in its very nature, not merely and simply about a set of ideology, but a personal, spiritual discourse in which real people of various beliefs ascribe to and find, if not “Christian redemption,” an alternative understanding, direction, comfort, and faith.
Aside from its religious argument, a tender connection is found in the book that I not only enjoyed, but was thoroughly moved at that I cried at its reading. It was the well-written and authentic voice of the love letter received by Zeus Ortega from his boyfriend, Fenton Murch, before his personal loss.
If only the book as a whole was written with such openness and tenderness, the inclusivity and religious freedom and respect everyone deserves and aspires to would some day come to fruition, both in literature and in life, in which literature often reflects. If only.
A special thank you to McClelland & Stewart and Random House of Canada for providing me with a media copy of the book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.
What ways do you suggest you can act as an individual to further advocate the inclusion of freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and authentic encouragement of personal growth and community?