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Solid and contrived piety: Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah series

Elijah in Jerusalem: A Novel, Michael D. O’Brien, Ignatius Press, 2015, 288p.

For years, Catholic-minded friends recommended to me Michael O’Brien’s thriller, Father Elijah: An Apocalypse (Ignatius Press, 1996). I finally picked it up one day.

As the title suggests, it’s an apocalyptic thriller centered on the work of one priest who ends up bearing significant responsibility for the promulgation of the gospel in the midst of a new world order. Then, last year, Elijah in Jerusalem came out. It is a sequel — for some, much awaited, given the 20-year gap between the two books. And, with only a couple of exceptions, O’Brien delivers exactly what his waiting readers expect: a conclusion to the cliffhanger at the end of the previous novel.

I’ll start with the exceptions.

The first one immediately strikes the reader: The novel is, remarkably, somewhat short. Father Elijah was 597 pages, while Elijah in Jerusalem is 282 pages. More than just a cosmetic reality, this brevity two decades later may illuminate other realities about the sequel, which I’ll return to momentarily

Second, I was reminded of this paragraph from Father Elijah when reading Elijah in Jerusalem. In his usual didactic style, the narrator says to the readers:

[Elijah] also read a novel that he had promised himself for many years, Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi—the Betrothed. The struggle between light and darkness was in it, and the author had taken care to bring his characters to the brink of absolute hopelessness before rescuing them through the intervention of a saint. Like any nineteenth-century romantic Catholic novel, it presented the struggle as relentless and full of appalling twists and turns, but it was uninfected by the existential nausea of twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the disastrous events were restored to divine order, and there was the added bonus of a spectacular conversion. It seemed a little contrived until he realized with a some poignancy that his own encounter with Smokrev was, in its own perverse way, no less a miracle. Minus the saint, he thought to himself. (p. 360)

One can’t help but wonder if O’Brien was providing a review of his own work. Within his two novels, all these features are present  — light, darkness, the brink of hopelessness, spectacular conversion, relentless struggles, etc. — with one exception: the happy ending. As implied, both of O’Brien’s texts will make readers more aware of the work of God in the world, more grateful for his Church, and more wary of the temptations of the world. These are good, pious, and solid works of fiction, and reading them is, I think, a good use of time for Christians. Most faithful readers will be edified.

That said, both Father Elijah and, to a much greater degree, Elijah in Jerusalem can also feel “a little contrived.” The narrator’s didactic and at times condescending voice has returned in the sequel with a vengeance. Furthermore, the twists and turns are less surprising as readers have been trained to expect (contrived but) miraculous assistance for Father Elijah and other characters. Indeed, while it is commendable that the ending remains a suspense throughout, only a love for story and for the characters will keep most folks reading; the plot leaves something to be desired.

This feeling “a little contrived” brings us back to the text’s length. To be clear, I’m not saying it should have been longer, but the sequel feels much more like a quickly sketched-out epilogue rather than a true sequel. After 20 years, one was hoping for a second story, rather than simply a conclusion (however compelling) to the first one.

In To Change the World, sociologist James Davison Hunter wrote of the inadequacy of self-consciously Christian art for the purposes of social change (or change of any sort beyond the faithful).[1] I haven’t read enough of O’Brien’s corpus to evaluate him as a novelist, but Elijah in Jerusalem is so intentionally Christian that its overt piety sometimes obscures its noble and compelling story.

Again, and to be clear, I’m grateful for these two books. They’ve enriched my life and will likely do so for many others. It’s hard to ignore their weaknesses, but they are no reason not to engage, enjoy, and benefit from both works.


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010), pp. 84-88.


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