By Michael D. O’Brien
445 pages, $24.95
To order: ignatius.com
For centuries, historians have argued over the identity of Theophilos, the man for whom St. Luke wrote his Gospel. In his new novel Theophilos, Michael D. O’Brien breathes fictional life into Theophilos, giving readers a glimpse into first-century life in Palestine and Greece, while at the same time creating an unforgettable life.
O’Brien paints Theophilos as a Greek physician and the adoptive father of Luke. When Luke comes to him, he is already a young adolescent. They quickly find that they are very similar to one another: reasoned, measured, thoughtful and following the wisdom of the ancient philosophers. But when Luke travels abroad as a young man, he encounters the first Christians and the revelation of Jesus Christ. He realizes that beyond reason and intellect lies their beautiful faith, and he too begins to believe.
Highly skeptical of the new religion and afraid for his son, Theophilos travels to ancient Palestine, determined to investigate this new cult and reveal its falsehoods to Luke. In the process, however, he discovers that the realm of knowledge and logic cannot explain everything.
Theophilos is about two things. First, the dichotomy between reason and intellect and revelation and faith, an examination that is just as crucial today as it was two millennia ago.
But secondly, and more importantly, it is about how reason and intellect, revelation and faith join together to reveal to us the light of Truth. As Luke explains to his father during one of their discussions after his conversion: “Now reason finds its proper role. Indeed, it is a pale shadow of what has become flesh. Yes, Theophilos, the Word of Love himself has become flesh, and this is the transforming of the world we once knew. This is the birth of a new world that is without end.”
While the themes of faith and reason are at the forefront of Theophilos, O’Brien ensures that the reader is immersed in the culture that first saw Christ. Within Theophilos’ pages, we are surrounded by ancient languages, simple foods and the rough hand-woven clothes of first-century Greece and Palestine. We are introduced to the neighbors of the Holy Family who describe Jesus as a child and as a young man. We meet those who are close to Our Lady during her elderly years, the skeptics, the believers, the zealots and the Pharisees. We experience the charismatic movements of the very beginnings of the Church. Indeed, we almost become part of the extraordinary awakening that first-century Greeks and Jews experienced when they realized that Jesus, “the son of Mary” and “the carpenter’s son,” was the Messiah — God made flesh. It is a high achievement of O’Brien’s to create such an authentic and vivid portrait of possibly the most important time period in our history. It creates an immediacy that the reader feels almost firsthand, one that is certainly worth taking the time to ponder and perhaps to even bring into prayer.
O’Brien has opened up for us an entire world and created a story that isn’t simply read, but felt. Theophilos is a novel, but it is also a leg in our journey towards greater union with God.
Joy Wambeke writes from Marshall, Minnesota.