It might help us understand The Bronze Bow if we realize that it was published in 1961, at the height of Hollywood's preoccupation with biblical epics. Ben-Hur, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and countless others used the setting of Roman Judea to bring compelling stories of violence, oppression, and redemption to countless 20th century Americans.
These movies were pretty good at depicting action, picking up on the resentment the Jews held toward their Roman conquerors, and showing the foreignness of ancient Near Eastern culture. They weren't typically very good at theology, historical detail, or evoking the attitudes and worldview of either Romans or Jews.
So it is withThe Bronze Bow. There's quite a bit of adventure (including fighting, narrow escapes, rescues, chases, and spying), a love story, and references to important people or customs in Galilee and the surrounding areas. There's even Jesus of Nazareth, who converses with the hero of the story and plays a pretty crucial role in the unfolding of the plot. But there's also a lot lacking.
The book begins with a brother and sister, Joel and Malthace (or, Thacia), climbing a mountain outside their small village of Ketzah on a holiday. They meet Daniel, a local boy who's run away from his blacksmith master Amalek and joined the rebel thief Rosh, who lives in caves in the hills. Joel is to be a rabbi, and envies Daniel's freedom and life of adventure.
Eventually a friendship develops between Daniel, Joel and Thacia, but their lives are very different and for much of the novel they must meet only in secret, especially hiding their relationship from Joel and Thacia's Pharisee father. Daniel sees Rosh as the leader of the coming revolt against Rome, possibly even the Messiah, and Joel quickly comes to share this view.
But Daniel is also the friend of Simon the Zealot, a former revolutionary and blacksmith who gives up everything to follow this new rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Gradually, the boys begin to wonder if it is Jesus, and not Rosh, who will bring the kingdom. This belief grows as Rosh shows his true miserable colors, and as Jesus preaches with authority and grace.
For Daniel, though, the fact that Jesus preaches against violence is the biggest barrier to accepting him as Messiah. Daniel's father was crucified unjustly by the Romans, his mother died soon after, and his sister Leah has suffered from a fever (often referred to as demon possession) ever since. Daniel has vowed vengeance, and hatred of the Romans has been the only thing he's lived for since childhood. How can he accept Jesus's preaching of love?
Eventually he does, though it happens so suddenly at the very end of the book that it's pretty hard to swallow. Overall the story is fairly interesting, but even the story breaks down at this point as Daniel suddenly does an about-face while on his way to kill the Roman soldier who loves his sister. Everything else about the book falls apart much sooner.
Elizabeth George Speare's previous Newbery Medal winner, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, was also historical fiction, and similarly inaccurate. The problems with The Bronze Bow from an historical perspective are many. Not only does Speare misrepresent Jewish culture and religion, she gives her characters fully 20th century worldviews, making them think and act in ways that ancient Near Eastern people never would, but that 20th century people would find only natural.
This is bad enough, but the theological inaccuracies are far worse. In Speare's book, the message of Jesus isn't one of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, but of bland love, the brotherhood of man, and the supposed "truth" that God loves everyone because he can see into their hearts.
Well, God does see into everyone's hearts, and that's why we're all in trouble, unless we repent of our rebellion against him and turn to Jesus Christ his only son as our sole salvation. This is definitely not the message of the Jesus of The Bronze Bow. He does not preach a violent grace, but a shrinking from violence into hand-holding and kindness.
At one point, Speare even has Jesus tell a crowd that his message is that they should be kind to one another. While kindness is certainly a fruit of the Holy Spirit, having Jesus say "be kind to one another" rather than "before Abraham was, I am," completely misses the power and the greatness of Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, crucified and resurrected for us.
Elizabeth George Speare has been credited with setting the standard for children's historical fiction. If that's true, we're all doomed, because her books are not good history, and therefore aren't very good fiction, either. If you're going to write about a past time and place, you better bring it to life. Speare doesn't, and The Bronze Bow is as lifeless as the theological liberalism to which its author clearly subscribed.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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