The War in Heaven
by Theodore Beale
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
I need to give you fair warning. I think Lucifer may have been guiding my fingers as I wrote this review. So if you don’t want to go to hell, I’d advise against reading further because there’s gonna be some serious blaspheming going on ’round here!
Now then, I’m gonna tell you about a book. It’s a bad book. It’s a very bad book. It is so bad, on so many levels, that it’s hard to believe that its source of inspiration was the Good Book. Yes, I mean The Bible. The book is called, The War In Heaven by Theodore Beale. The cover blurb describes Beale as a writer of Christian Fantasy in the tradition of, among others, C.S. Lewis. To that, I can only say Lewis would be rolling around in his grave if he hadn’t completely rotted away long ago.
Let me start off by saying that I have nothing against Christian-themed Fantasy. I’ve even written a fair amount of it myself. When you get down to it, all Fantasy novels draw their source material from one ancient myth cycle or another. Germanic, Anglo, Norse, Greek, Celtic, Egyptian. And while the names of the gods and heroes may change, all of them follow the same basic story archetype of good vs. evil. So Christian mythology is as good a source of inspiration as any. In fact, I think it can be used to even better effect, because so many people can relate to it on a personal level. So why, then, aren’t there more run-away best-selling Christian-themed thrillers out there?
After much careful consideration, I think I’ve figured out the answer: most writers of Christian-based Fantasy suck at writing. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, most of them are preaching at you to boot. It does not a good combination make.
Beale is a perfect case in point. The War In Heaven tells the story of awkward teenager Christopher Lewis, who is recruited by a fallen angel named Kaym to become a warrior in Satan’s war against heaven. Right there, you see why I have no problem with the idea of Christian Fantasy. If you remove the Christian-specific references, it sounds like any other Fantasy novel. But once you get past the cool-sounding premise, Beale’s work doesn’t hold up under close study. Kind of like Christianity…
Let’s put religious ideology aside for the moment and look at the book strictly on the merits of its writing. Despite a premise with so much built-in potential, Beale manages to weave a story as flat and two dimensional as the pages on which it’s printed. His characters are either so non-descript that they’re forgettable, or so cliché that they’re ludicrous.
Let’s start with the main character, Christopher. I think Beale was going for a boy who is awkward, lost and directionless—a by-product of our wicked, godless, society. But when you come down to it, Christopher is just plain stupid. Oh, and a psychopath to boot. I can’t think of any other way that he would willingly get in league with the forces of darkness, and revel in the slaughter of the battles he eventually fights when he becomes one of Lucifer’s generals in the war against heaven. But Beale is careful to tell us that Christopher is fond of violent video games, and learned everything he knows about battle strategy from campaigns he’s waged while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Ahhh… That explains it all.
Aside from Christopher, the story centers on his sisters, twins named Jami and Holly, who also get tangled in the war, but on the side of good. But they are so poorly written, they’re all but interchangeable. You never get a clear sense of which girl is which. And in the end, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, since neither of them do anything very compelling anyway.
It was the same with the angels, fallen or otherwise. You had your breathtakingly beautiful, majestic angels, your modern-day demons dressed like cool bikers complete with tattoos and Ray-Bans, and your twisted Hell-spawn imps, complete with horns and pointy tail. There wasn’t one surprising supernatural entity in the bunch, good or bad.
Beale had the same lackluster imagination when it comes to describing Heaven. Heaven, in Beale’s view, is a city where the streets are literally paved with gold. They’ve built a wall to keep the riff-raff out, and you can only get in through a couple of sets of pearly gates—and I mean gates literally carved out of pearl. The only thing missing from this hackneyed cliché is St. Peter seated behind a ledger, waiting to greet the new arrivals. But that’s probably only because Beale is a Born Again Christian, and Catholic Saints have no place in his startlingly unoriginal version of heaven.
When reading, you get the impression that Beale is one of those ultra-devout born agains who takes every word of The Bible as the literal word of God. No metaphors. No allusions. Only gospel truth. Of course, if you followed that logic to its conclusion, you’d have no choice but to believe that when they call Jesus the Lamb of God, that he was, in fact, an actual lamb, of the baaa-baaa variety.
And speaking of Jesus, he does of course make an appearance. And I don’t think I’ll be ruining the book for anyone when I say that he shows up in time to denounce the assembled hosts of Hell and disperse them with the mere flick of his hand, so awesome is his power. I mean, was there ever any doubt as to who would win? I imagine that this is the moment when all the good Christians reading are supposed to ball their fists in triumph and shout, “Yes!” But for the rest of us, it just doesn’t ring true. It’s too pat, too easy.
That’s another problem, not only with this book, but with Christian Fantasy in general. It’s already a foregone conclusion that Jesus will be triumphant. After all, The Bible tells us so. And this being the case, there’s no way to build narrative tension, no way to get the reader invested in the struggle of the characters, because you know that they’ll eventually hear the word of Jesus and stand invincible before the forces of evil, shielded in his salvation. This is actually very liberating for the writer, because instead of working on a credible plot and believable characters, they can devote all their energy to their real agenda: converting you.
And boy does Beale ever try. He has produced a work designed to turn you into a bible-thumping, aisle-dancing, mindlessly obedient creature of Christianity. Some passages had me laughing out loud. In one passage, a minor character is talking to one of the twin girls and says:
“It is not always for us to know why things must be, it is only for us to know what we should do, and do it. Understanding is good but obedience is better.”
In another passage, an angel is again talking to the twins and says:
“The Lord will make his will known. Trust me. When I was young and foolish, I often questioned the Lord, thinking that my understanding a task was needful if I was to perform it. But I have learned that while it is good to understand, it is better to obey. The why is not important. Only the what.”
Now tell me that if doesn’t sound like the mantra for every cult you’ve ever heard of. I mean, if anyone gave you the same advice in any other context, you’d never follow it. It just illustrates the hypocrisy at the heart of Born Again Christianity. They tell you God gave you a free will to make your own decisions; but what they really mean is that you have the free will to do exactly what they tell you, or burn in Hell for eternity. You know, even supposing that they are somehow right, I’d still pick Hell over a life of mush-minded groupthink. See? I told you there was gonna be some blasphemy going on.
Now I’m sure that Beale, or anyone else who’s been Born Again, is convinced that I’m firmly in the clutches of the Adversary. Beale relates the tale of his own conversion in his Author’s Note at the end of the book. He describes his lifestyle as being ideal by Hollywood standards: nice car, nice pay, hot chicks. But, he writes:
“Sin always finds a way to enslave you and corrupt you. After a while I started getting bored. The everyday sin that filled my life was no longer enough and I craved more excitement, more thrills, more of everything. I could feel my mind slipping away with the shards of my morality. I had to make a decision between following my own way and following the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Is it just me, or does this sound like the classic compulsive, self-destructive personality? It seems to me Beale is just as out of control as he ever was, only he’s now on a bender with Jesus. One final quote, and I’ll leave it alone:
“Hell is our natural destination,” Beale writes. “Each of us is already drowning in a sea of self-destruction, and God has thrown us his only Son as a rescue line.”
I’ll let that one speak for itself.
The War In Heaven is the first book in Beale’s Eternal Warriors series. Its sequel, The World in Shadow is also available, and the third book The Wrath of Angels will soon be released by Pocket Books under the Visionary Fiction imprint. But if you’re wise you’ll stay away from the limited vision espoused in these books.
If you want truly visionary fiction with a religious theme, try to find a book called Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. It’s about a young theology student and a washed up religious scholar who travel the world in search of a lost New Testament gospel. Along the way, it takes a hard look at religion and some of the thornier issues of faith.
Or for something with a lighter touch, pick up the novel Humans by Donald Westlake, in which an angel, dispatched by God to bring about the end of the world, finds that he kind of likes the place and doesn’t want to see it destroyed.
And of course, there’s the humdinger of all comedic apocalyptic fiction, the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, in which the Anti-Christ has come to usher in the end of days, and wacky mayhem ensues.
See? I don’t mind a good dose of Christian Fantasy. Just keep your prayers to yourself. In my opinion, good writing is salvation enough for anyone.