Jerry Jenkins: 'Riven' and Redemption
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Senior Producer
Best known for writing about end times in the Left Behind series of books that he co-wrote with Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins tackles a new subject in his latest book, Riven. The gripping novel is book number 175 for this prolific author. In it, he explores the theme of redemption while also offering a thought-provoking look at the topics of death, capital punishment, forgiveness, and grace.
The story centers on Brady Wayne Darby, a teen from a dysfunctional family who turns to a life of crime, and Rev. Thomas Carey, a weary pastor who gives up pastoring churches to serve as a prison chaplain. When the two finally meet, both of their lives are changed forever.
I recently sat down with Jenkins to discuss the book.
You’ve described this book as “your life’s work,” why?
I think it’s just that I determine whether an idea has merit by how long it stays with me, and this is an idea I’ve had for decades. It’s just one I’ve always wanted to get to. I kept telling this story to my wife and to people in my orbit. Then as I wrote it, it was not a chore. It was a magnet that kept drawing me back to the keyboard every day. I write as a process of discovery. I have a rough idea where I’m going but I write to find out what happens. So I wanted to find out every day too where it was going. It’s the longest novel I’ve ever written. I always say I’ve written more books than I’ve read. I’m just thrilled at how it came out.
What initially inspired the idea?
It’s kind of bizarre, coming from my background, because I was at a retreat. We were in a Catholic retreat center. Having been raised Protestant, I had never really considered a crucifix before, but in the room I was in there was a crucifix on the wall. So having never really considered it before, I just took a good close look at it.
I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t the beautiful picture we often see with the halo and the little loin cloth and the beatific look. It was an ugly picture of what it would really look like for a man to hang on a cross. It just started working on me. I was thinking what if somebody was crucified today? I was also thinking that Jesus did this willingly. So what if a person did it willingly? That became the idea of a person, a man on death row, who has a spiritual background.
In my story this character has a godly aunt who takes him to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School , and things like that. He never really becomes a person of faith and doesn’t live like a Christian. In fact he’s a criminal. However, there’s enough there that when he finally winds up on death row, he realizes that he’s going to hell. Through the story he comes to faith, and then decides pretty much the way I just talked about that the more he studies what Christ did for us on the cross, the more he realizes this isn’t a beautiful picture. It’s an ugly picture, and people don’t really realize what Christ went through. He chooses crucifixion as his method of execution.
Of course that’s one of the reasons it’s such a long book because immediately you get opposition from Washington, from the state, and from the anti-death groups, so there has to be some way to make it credible. I hope I’ve done that. That’s basically where the idea came from.
What kind of research went into writing it?
Actually the best research I got was from interviewing a chaplain of a super max prison in Colorado. I was close to being allowed in, but those prisons are so closed and so secure that at the last minute the warden said they were not going to let outsiders in. But I did talk to this chaplain that served there for more than ten years. Almost all of the realism of the prison came from that, the idea of 23 hours behind bars and no contact between prisoners. It was all a real surprise to me because whenever you see prison documentaries you see a lot of interaction between prisoners, but at a super max, they just don’t. They are never outside their cell with anybody else.
Were you familiar with prison ministry at all before that?
Somewhat. I haven’t actually done prison ministry myself. Chuck Colson and I go way back, and I come from a law enforcement family. My dad was a police chief. My two older brothers were cops, so there’s a lot of background like that.
In the book we see the main character Thomas, who has devoted his life to ministry, getting discouraged. Do you think a lot of people in ministry today will relate to his character?
I think they will. I’ve got a little orbit of people that I send my books to while they are being written. It includes people in ministry, and they could really identify. I’ve become a supporter of my pastor. If you are on the circuit like I am, sometimes you get picked up to speak at a church and if it’s the pastor or the pastor and his wife that pick you up, within ten minutes you are hearing stories. I don’t know why they feel the need to tell the outsider, but it’s just brutal. It’s very difficult, and people outside of the ministry don’t understand that. They’ll say, “Oh, it must be wonderful to be in full-time Christian service; that’s like being in Heaven, with everybody on the same page, everybody agreeing.” But it’s just really hard. It’s a hard life, so I didn’t want to whitewash that part of it.
You use hymns a lot in the story, why did you decide to feature them so prominently?
I am a lover of hymns. I think the lyrics are so beautiful; there’s so much doctrine in them. I think I was just allowed to do it because those characters were the right age and would have been from that tradition. I hope it doesn’t alienate young people who like choruses. What I find is that people who really love music when they read those lyrics they are going to like them even if they aren’t familiar with the old songs.
Your book also addresses capital punishment, I’m curious do the views in the book reflect your own views?
Well almost all the views about capital punishment are in the book, so some of them reflect mine. I won’t say what they are, but I’d have to say that coming from a law enforcement family, I’ve always seen what I’d say is the necessity for capital punishment. Although, I have to say I’ve mellowed a lot on the issue. For one thing with DNA, it’s proven so many have been put to death that shouldn’t have been. We can’t afford to do that. That should never happen.
Two, I’m sympathetic to people who believe if you’ve caught somebody and you’ve got them incarcerated, they are not a threat to anybody anymore because they are in prison. It doesn’t make sense to just end their life. Some would say the Bible calls for justice, “He who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood also be shed.” But I can empathize with the side that says put them away forever and let them think about it. Then there is always hope that they will come to Christ too. So I’d have to say that I’ve become much less kneejerk about capital punishment after doing this book.
One of your main characters, Grady, appears hopeless to everyone, but we see a transformation in him. Is it important to you in all of your books to have an element of redemption?
Yes, especially this one. The theme really is redemption. And one of the things I wanted, and that I think is very specific in this story, is that there is no question about his guilt. As you follow him, I’ve had readers say they’d like to reach in there and slap him once in a while and shake him and say, “Do you realize what you are doing? You are making wrong choices every time you turn around.” That’s what criminals do. They aren’t necessarily any more evil than anybody else. We are all sinners, and we all make stupid decisions. They just seem to make an art of it.
Once I get (Grady) behind bars, and even he is saying he did it and he doesn’t want to be exonerated, to me that’s the epitome of somebody that can now be saved. This is a guy guilty of murder. Can he be saved? Can he be redeemed? Can he be forgiven? That’s his question too. And if he can, what does that say to any reader who has regrets, feels bad about their sin, feels bad about their past?
And there does need to be a character arc. To me, that’s the essence of fiction. You see it in every movie and every novel, somebody is one way at the beginning and they are the opposite way at the end, if it works out. That should be true of the writer as well. If I don’t grow in the writing of the novel, then I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded.
How did you grow in the writing of this one? I know you mentioned your views on capital punishment. Were there other areas?
I feel like I followed the character arc of Thomas. I could really identify with Thomas. I’ve never been a pastor, but I see him as more my age and my leanings and that type of thing. You can get discouraged; you can get tired in the work. The Scripture says be not weary in well-doing. That’s a tough thing to follow. But I feel like I grew. I hope I’m more sensitive to people as Thomas is.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I think the main thing is reconciliation. The point is that if a person who is guilty of the worst crime you can imagine is redeemable and forgivable and reconcilable, then that’s the message for anybody. I dare say 99 percent of my readers are not going to be murderers, but they are going to wonder if they can be forgiven for their past and their mistakes. And clearly my message is that they can.
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