COMMENTARY: Grisham’s testament to his faith

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of Religion News Service.)

UNDATED _ John Grisham writes what he knows.

The former attorney has built bestsellers using the law as his structure and lawyers as villains and heroes.

Grisham is also a man of faith who has steadily introduced struggles between good and evil, materialism and spirituality into his recent novels.

In"The Testament"(Doubleday), Grisham has finally tipped the balance toward a story that is more about faith than law, more a study of grace than legalism. He has managed to do this in a way that still produces a"good read"while offering an unabashed introduction to the Christian faith.

Grisham opens his latest book with the thoughts of a man named Troy Phelan, a successful, miserable billionaire who has gained the world but lost his soul. His ex-wives and children are a bunch of selfish, spoiled vultures who have spent the fortunes he gave them and are circling around, hoping the aging patriarch will die soon so they can feast on the remaining billions.

The only good to come of the man's life is an illegitimate daughter who is living among the Indians of Brazil as a medical missionary. Although Rachel knows who her real father is, she has turned her back on his wealth and hidden from him in order to go about the business she feels God has called her to.

In an intricate plot, Troy manages to convince the rest of the family that they will inherit his wealth while actually leaving it all to Rachel before he dramatically commits suicide.

The lawyers who must administer the estate are left to search for the heir, a difficult adventure that takes a partner named Nate O'Riley out of the jungle of Washington, D.C., and into the jungles of South America.

Nate is a burnt-out case; a twice-divorced, bankrupt litigator who is coming out of detox for the fourth time when we first meet him. His trip down the Paraguay River is a metaphorical journey in search of both the heir to a fortune and his own salvation.

Grisham doesn't make Nate an easy target for conversion."He had surrendered to Higher Powers so many times that he could almost deliver the sermons. He had been counseled by ministers and therapists and gurus and shrinks of every strip and variety." Fresh out of the latest rehab, he falls off the wagon in record time, all the while denying he has a problem. When he finally meets Rachel, his professional interest is nearly supplanted by what he thinks may be a physical attraction.

Yet what draws him to Rachel is a quality he has searched for his whole life: a peace that defies understanding. She is a woman who lives without the basic comforts of life but refuses to consider accepting the vast wealth, even when Nate tempts her with all the good the billions could do.

She is too spiritually centered to succumb to any of his brilliant arguments or charming ways. Instead she offers him pure acceptance and the assurance his sins can be forgiven. When she finally holds his hand it is to pray with him, a rite he finds both confusing and strangely comforting."There was an odd sensation as his burdens seemed to be lifted; his shoulders felt lighter, his head clearer, his soul was less troubled. But Nate carried so much baggage he wasn't certain which loads had been taken away and which remained." Rachel has surprisingly few lines for playing such a major part in this spiritual epic. Grisham portrays her as someone who fears neither hardship nor death itself; a woman more interested in the eternal than the temporal. Her only fear seems to be that she will be distracted from her calling of saving souls.

Grisham has his usual twists, turns and surprise ending. He doesn't make things too neat and clean although he shows his disdain for lawyers and respect for believers in stark terms.

The author is, himself, a very wealthy man by now, with 110 million books in print, according to Time magazine. But he devotes months to mission trips of his own in the very same region he writes about in"The Testament"and is known for his generosity to local causes. He seems to understand that his fortune is both a gift and a responsibility.

Grisham, a lifelong Baptist, seems to be gaining the world without losing his soul. He is a best-selling author who has now earned the right to be something of a preacher. He is a man who might prefer to be ministering in the jungles of South America, but instead is called to offer spiritual answers to millions under the guise of a bestseller.

Grisham writes what he knows in a way that will still entertain those who understand the material better than the spiritual. And for those who are beginning to see that success isn't all it's cracked up to be, he offers a compelling portrait of true spirituality and the basic principles that will point a sinner toward grace.