Odd Thomas and an Uninspiring Sermon

by Glenn on August 1, 2014

Discovering Dean Koontz

The “Mansion” section of The Wall Street Journal on Friday, 11 July 2014 featured a story by suspense novelist Dean Koontz about the magnificent (my adjective) home that he and his wife Gerda built in Newport Beach, California. (“The Write House” as told to Marc Myers, p. M7) Their home is a stunning, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired custom-built creation, completed in 2003. More interesting to me than the artistry evidenced in the house was Koontz’ description of his writing process:

“I write at my wraparound desk on the same computer I’ve used for years. I don’t create story lines in advance. I go where the story takes me from page to page. I write between 10 and 30 drafts of a page before moving on to the next one. You’d think this approach would inhibit flow, but it doesn’t. It gives me time to get in tune with the language’s cadences and lets me anticipate plot problems.”

I found the level of obsessiveness required to complete 10-30 drafts of one page at a time both remarkable and inspiring so I stopped by Fred Meyer later that day to pick up my first Koontz novel. I chose Odd Thomas (New York: Bantam Books, 2003), which I finished over the weekend.

Cover of the first Odd Thomas novel by Dean Koontz.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Odd Thomas is an enjoyable page-turner. I was looking for craft and wasn’t disappointed. Some evidence of craft in Odd Thomas:

1.  Good pacing. Koontz keeps you engaged because the story moves along. Short chapters lead to mini-climaxes that make you want to keep reading. (“Oh, I’ll read just one more chapter.”)

2.  The story was focused and went somewhere. There was a beginning, middle, and an end and nothing extraneous along the way. The conclusion included a twist that I didn’t see coming, but in retrospect should have seen coming, making the end satisfactory if not exactly satisfying.

3.  Interesting (in two cases, Biblical) allusions. Odd Thomas is the narrator and protagonist. He describes a moment early in the story this way: “The creature appeared to focus on the door to the kitchen. As eyeless as Samson in Gaza, it nevertheless detected me.” [p. 96] You wonder how many readers will catch that Biblical reference, or at least understand the whole arc of Samson’s story.

Just in case there are those who might not catch the allusion or are wondering why it was included, Odd Thomas explains in the next sentence: “I had studied the story of Samson in some detail for he was a classic example of the suffering and the dark fate that can befall those who are … gifted.” [p. 96]

There was another Biblical allusion late in the book: “When I stepped inside, I felt as if I had cast my lot with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar …” [p. 384]

A third allusion appealed to the English major in me: “I thought of Poe’s dire raven, perched above the parlor, maddeningly repeating one word—nevermore, nevermore.” [p. 108]

4.  Humor. In a book about the paranormal, I appreciate the fact and the way that Koontz kept the light touch. At one point, Odd Thomas describes a cat named Terrible Chester: “This cat is not fat, but he is big and fearless. I once saw him stand off an aggressive German shepherd sheerly with attitude.” [pp. 125-6] I can picture it and it made me laugh.

Then there was this description of a college English professor: “Considering that the modern and contemporary literature taught in most universities is largely bleak, cynical, morbid, pessimistic, misanthropic dogmatism, often written by suicidal types who sooner or later kill themselves with alcohol or drugs, or shotguns, Professor Takuda was a remarkably cheerful man.” [328-9] Great line, although one wonders how the 20-year-old narrator who hasn’t attended college pulls it off.

5.  Some delightful similes/metaphors:

“He was just something stuck to your shoe that you didn’t know was there.” [p. 141]

“He’s a hand grenade with the pin already pulled.” [p. 147]

“Descending the steps, I felt as intently watched as a Miss America contestant during the swimsuit competition.” [p. 262]

6. Excellent detail. I haven’t spent much time in the Mojave desert, but lived enough days in Arizona to feel like the heat-related descriptions were just right.

There is a short scene that includes a wonderful character named Shamus Cocobolo, who comes across as a credible, three-dimensional person. Another great simile: “He [Shamus Cocobolo] has a voice that makes Barry White and James Earl Jones sound like carnival barkers with strep throat.” [p. 315]

The thing about Dean Koontz is that I don’t think he pretends he is writing the great American novel. Rather, he is committed to telling a good story in an engaging way to the largest audience he can garner. I loved reading it and found it difficult to put down.

 Counterpoint: A Sunday Morning Sermon

A counterpoint to the craft in Odd Thomas was the sermon I heard Sunday morning at the church (unnamed) we visited that weekend. To be fair, the preacher announced he had just returned the previous day from an extended vacation and, I infer, perhaps was not quite as prepared as normal. I have no idea if this message was atypical or not. But the controlling principle for the message seemed to be length of time rather than the shape of content within time. In other words, “What was the sermon about?” “Oh, about 45 minutes or so.”

As an occasional preacher, I don’t know what it’s like to live with the pressure of sermon preparation every week. It’s unfair, or at least a little strange, to compare the craftsmanship of a sermon prepared within a few days or hours with a novel written over the course of a year (In the article, Koontz says he used to write a book a year, but has written two a year since his house was finished), but it was difficult not to.

For me, there were problems with the message that suggested some craftsmanship issues.

First, there was extraneous material. The preacher began with stories about his vacation and return. Stories are dangerous because they can either go nowhere, like the stories children tell (“And then … and then …”), or they can illustrate themes maybe you didn’t intend to communicate. The stories he told at the beginning of the sermon were of both varieties, so that once he got into his content, you were wondering where we were going and mildly concerned that we might not be going anywhere.

You do need those moments at the beginning of a message to connect with your congregation (audience), but you want to disarm and build empathy rather than confuse and raise questions.

Later in the sermon was a story about what a small town Portland, Oregon is. In my opinion, it isn’t that small, but the preacher talked about how he can’t seem to go anywhere in the city where he isn’t recognized. For example, he explained how at a concert someone from the high school group came up and said, “Hi, Pastor —-” and two couples from the church saw him and waived. It wasn’t clear what he was trying to say, which left us trying to fill in the blanks for him. Was it a complaint,“I can’t go anywhere in this town without being recognized,” or a warning, “Be careful about the places you go, because you might be seen,” or vanity, “I am so popular;” or …?

Second, it failed to engage over the long haul. The preacher stated this message would be an introduction to a series on the spiritual disciplines. Early on, he stated a good idea that I thought was going to be developed: how every spiritual discipline has an opposite one that shouldn’t be neglected. For example he thought the sermon the following week would be about feasting and fasting. (A little scary that he couldn’t be more sure about the content.)

Rather than introduce the messages to come, we turned to a New Testament passage that we followed for the rest of the time. It was poor expository preaching because we neither learned how the passage fueled the argument about the importance of opposing spiritual disciplines or allowed the passage to say what it says. You understood how time was passing as each verse from the passage was projected on the screen, but you had no idea how many verses were coming.

There have to be times in your message where the cadence picks up or you build to something or, at the very least, indicate an approaching conclusion the way pilots indicate to passengers that they are about to begin a descent to their destination. You can afford neither a monotone voice or message. I’ve always thought Jack Hayford was a master of this. In the messages I’ve heard him preach, there is always a moment where he declares a truth or drives a point home. Pace and passion quicken and something within you wells up with a “Yes” or “Hallelujah.” That is preaching that inspires.

Finally, the sermon wasn’t true to its purpose. There was more of the paranormal in Odd Thomas than the supernatural in this sermon. I don’t know how this preacher would define the purpose of a sermon—any or all of: inform, persuade, entertain, etc.—my problem with it was that the purpose wasn’t clear. My bias, based on some things I have heard Timothy Keller say, is that a sermon should lead us to worship Christ.

You may want to communicate some information, you may want to change our minds, you might even want to make us laugh—good preaching probably does all those things—but you should help me know and love Jesus. This sermon wasn’t exactly about Christ in spite of the fact that the message led up to a time of communion. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to say something like, “The spiritual disciplines are how we pursue the One who has sought  us. He invites us to meet him now at the table that has been prepared for you.”

All of this is to say, Odd Thomas was better at being a compelling novel than this introductory message was at being a sermon.

The Christian and Secular Culture

I wrestle with how I, as a Christian, should relate to our largely secular culture. On one end of the spectrum are Christians who avoid it either by rejecting the culture entirely or by only engaging with a Christian sub-culture. On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who embrace the culture in its entirety. Read the Chronicles of Narnia or Game of Thrones, it makes no difference because “to the pure all things are pure” and/or “I’m not under law, I’m free to do what I want.” (This was a theme that the preacher touched on, which I appreciated. He had a great line: “In our desire to be all things to all men, really that is just a simple cop-out for being like all men.” I was grateful that in calling us to holiness, he didn’t stress a legalistic approach to relating to our culture.)

I am looking for a middle path, somewhere between isolationism and surrender. I’ve never done well reading only the Bible or books about the Bible. I believe there are things worth knowing that aren’t found in the Bible. The saying goes, “All truth is God’s truth” and the Bible, while expressing truth, doesn’t contain all that is true. And the Christian sub-culture (to treat it most unfairly as a monolith), may be good morally, but not necessarily aesthetically. A song with “Christian” lyrics may be sacred and, perhaps, sanctified, but may not be a good song.

On the other extreme, it’s fair to say I’ve read books, heard songs, and seen movies that I should have said “no” to. Some times it has been the fear of being uncool, not relevant, and similar kinds of idolatry. Other times because the nature of our souls is that we are often drawn to death-bringing darkness.

Among the things I liked about Odd Thomas was that it’s narrator reflected a worldview that made sense to me: A world of good and evil, love and hate, a world that isn’t what it was intended to be. Odd Thomas describes the owner of the restaurant where he works this way: “Although her eyes are neither golden nor heavenly blue, Terri Stambaugh has the vision of an angel, for she sees through you and knows your truest heart, but loves you anyway, in spite of all the ways that you are fallen from a state of grace.” [p. 50]

Thomas returns to the theme of a fallen world again: “This single-story building [Tire World] supports a tower crowned by a giant globe. This model of Earth, rotating lazily, seems to represent a world of peace and innocence lost when the snake entered Eden.” [pp. 59-60]

It’s not that the narrator is an orthodox, Bible-believing Christian. There is no evidence that he is any of those things. At one point he says, “… I have faith that where I am ultimately going is not to mere oblivion.” [p. 83] But he seems to have some uncertainties about what comes next. After one of the weirder scenes, Odd Thomas muses, “Perhaps for a while this house had been a train station between our world and Hell, if Hell exists.” [p. 101]

For me, the choice is not sacred versus secular. It is light versus dark. The culture of our day is materialism leading to nihilism—“This is all there is. There’s no point to any of it. We might as well die.”—while the Bible affirms a world created good by a loving God who remains involved with his creation and promises a recreation.

I don’t know if I will read any of the subsequent Odd Thomas novels. I’m a little weirded out by the genre. But I loved reading the book and appreciate the fact that it describes a universe where there is more than what meets the eye. As Hamlet tells his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” May my life reflect the same recognition of mystery and may I be a disciplined craftsman when I have the opportunity to preach.