Note about page numbers: I’m using an iBook copy of this book. With iBook (and I believe most electronic books work this way), the book repaginates based on your font settings. As such, I’m not sure how useful it will be to give page numbers. For anyone who wants to know, I’m reading my iPad in portrait mode using the smallest font size, with a font setting of Palatino. That’s how I come by the page numbers I list in the post titles.
As I prepared to discuss the next passage in Frank Peretti’s book, “The Visitation,” I was struck with how Peretti misunderstands his own characters. The introduction of Arnold Kowalski, the custodian of Antioch’s Catholic church, makes that abundantly clear. Arnold is a likable fellow, and I believe that Peretti takes care to present him as such, unlike the way L&J tend to present their non-RTC characters in the left behind series. Arnold is depicted as an elderly, devout Catholic who takes great pleasure in serving his parishioners and someone for whom we are encouraged to feel compassion for as he goes about his job in pain from his worsening arthritis.
However, I’m not convinced that the internal monologue is in line with the character being presented. Certainly, it is understandable for an old man in near-constant pain to wonder why God would leave him in pain. If Arnold didn’t wonder that, I would wonder about his basic humanity. Instead, what I take issue with is Arnold’s impulse to wonder how he can bargain with God:
Maybe I’m not serving God enough, he thought. Maybe I need to work longer. Maybe if I didn’t take any money for what I do here…
Among evangelical Christians — especially of the pentecostal stripe that makes up most of Peretti’s own environment — this line of thinking is quite common. The idea that serving God brings on blessings and that the sign of trouble might be a sign of not being sufficiently faithful to God are common among such people. If Arnold were the custodian of the local Assemblies of God church or even a nondenominational mega-church, the above line of thinking would make perfect sense.
But the Arnold presented in this story is a devout Catholic, and my personal — albeit anecdotal — experience suggests that this line of reasoning is not common among Catholics. In my experience, Catholics are not particularly susceptible to bargaining with God or expecting HIm to take away their suffering. Indeed, Catholics might be more apt to identify with their suffering and identify with Jesus. After all, they consider the suffering of the Crucifixion to be far more central to their faith than most Protestants — especially of the pentecostal and nondenominational variety — are, hence their love of crucifixes.
Speaking of crucifixes, Arnold notices that the huge crucifix in the church appears to be shedding tears, so he seeks to investigate. He checks out the tiny rivulet of water that is running down the crucified Christ’s cheek, verifying that it is not being sourced from a leaky roof or a fault in nearby plumbing before reaching out to touch the apparent tear, expressing some anxiety and fear:
He reached, then hesitated from the very first tinge of fear. Just what was he about to touch? Dear God, don’t hurt me. He reached again, shakily extending his hand until his fingertips brushed across the wet trail of the tears.
Again, this strikes me as a case of Peretti not truly understanding who he established his character to be. Why would Arnold fear a bit of water — even unexplained as it was — on the crucifix? Does Peretti think that Arnold — and Catholics in general — are afraid to touch their crucifixes? This would not surprise me, given most Protestant’s misunderstanding of how Catholics view such thing. To many Protestants, Catholic crucifixes are seen as idols, and they make the mistake of thinking that Catholics see such idols as inherently holy or in some way magical. So the thought of touching a crucifix — especially one that appears to be crying — would be some fearsome thing.
In my experience, Catholics are much more practical-minded than that. While they certainly view their crucifixes as important reminders of the Holy suffering of their Savior and why that suffering is worthy of respect, honor and praise, the crucifix itself deserves no such honor. Catholics do not genuflect before the crucifix to give honor to a wooden figure, but to give honor and respect for what is represented by it. It’s a distinction I think that Peretti is failing to understand here.
The other possibility is that Peretti is portraying Arnold as a man who, having determined there is no “natural” explanation for the tears, now thinks it’s from a supernatural source (be it demonic or divine). As such, his fear is regards to what will happen to hem when he comes into direct contact with this supernatural phenomenon.
This explanation doesn’t ring true to me either. We have just learned that Arnold is in near-constant pain which has been increasing over the years. Given his circumstances and his reluctant resignation to his lot in life, I find it strange that he’d be ready to expect the supernatural already. I think it far more reasonable that touching the tears would simply be the next step in Arnold’s so-far methodical and common sense investigation of what he’s seeing. At this point, he should be touching the “tears” to see if they’re actually there or a trick of the light on the grain of the wood.
It turns out, however, that the tears are indeed supernatural and they cause Arnold’s arthritis to instantly go away. I suspect that this is the real reason for Arnold’s trepidation, written in by an author who wanted to a build a little suspense while leading up to this miraculous occurrence. Those motives are understandable, but doing it at the expense of understanding how Arnold as described might act is problematic, all the same.