Love Story for a Secular World:
A Review of William Baer's The Heretic

Jeff J. Koloze
A Review
William Baer
The Heretic
Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2004.
Reproduced with Permission

"What the world needs now is love, sweet love" is a line from a popular song from the sixties, that most turbulent decade that corrupted "love" so that it became equated with "sex". Not only has our society suffered since then because of that reduction, but so has our literature. William Baer's novel is a love story, yes. However, his love story is not only love as in "romance" between a man and a woman (what a -- no pun intended -- novel idea for a world where romance is being reduced to sexual attraction between persons of the same sex!). His novel is an exploration of spiritual love at work in a secular world.

Baer is aware that, like any good novel, the cast of characters must be intriguing and realistic for today's jaundiced reader. Perhaps the skill with which characters are depicted can be attributed to Baer's poetic efforts, which explains why his characters are eminently credible. The main character, Bryce Sinclair, is a typical fallen-away Catholic. His life should appeal to males who think that living the good life means having a voluptuous woman as one's girlfriend and a rather carefree job in that most romantic of cities, Rome. Bryce's girlfriend Angelina should appeal to females who think, similarly, that living the good life means having a handsome boyfriend and easy money from her parents' business.

If the above sounds disparaging, it is meant to be -- as no doubt the author himself wanted his readers to think and feel. There is something missing in both of these young, seemingly happy lives. Romance, living in Rome, and having money -- all of the preceding terms being the equivalent of the standard American phrase "having it all" -- sometimes aren't enough. Bryce knows this, which is why the rising action of the novel introduces the reader to another world, the spiritual.

Some religious fiction is much too didactic; the author seems to beat his or her readers over the head with the correctness of faith. Baer's novel proceeds slowly into the religious sensibilities that complicate the plot. Bryce's uncle, a priest whom he revered in his boyhood, is dying, and it takes no less than the pope himself to encourage Bryce to fly to Fatima to see him. In his deathbed confession, Bryce's uncle says...well, I want you to read the novel, so you'll have to determine for yourselves who is involved in promoting heresy in the Church. Suffice it to say that Bryce's uncle knows which cardinal, which Jesuit, which future pope is promoting the heresy which first appeared in patristic Christianity but which is resurrected in the writings of a prominent contemporary theologian that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in Christ's place.

How such holy men could have lived a lie becomes Bryce's quest in the remaining two-thirds of the novel, and this quest for the truth has serious consequences. He loses Angelina, who perceives a change in him after his exposure to religion in Fatima. After the breakup of his love, the stress of tracking those involved in promoting heresy in the Church consumes him. A new pope may be involved in promoting heresy in the Church, as well as other significant theologians. How can one man find the truth when the greatest religious power on earth seems to be affected by heresy? Baer knows how to create suspense.

The novel has three other stylistic features which elevate it as quality contemporary religious fiction, the first being the narrators. We are presented not only with the views of an omniscient narrator, but also with the words of the heretic (appropriately italicized and scattered throughout the first third of the book until the heretic's identity is disclosed).

Secondly, the novel is scholarly. References to authors (James, Stendhal, and Voltaire), religious leaders (Pope Alexander VII and St. Gerard), writers and other persons from antiquity (Basilides, Praxiteles, Ptolemy, Tertullian, and the Visigoths) would make this novel ideal for classroom use. Although not scholarly (this is fiction meant for the general public, after all), the novel's language is similarly high in register. (There are exceptions. The masked sex scenes and occasional low register vocabulary describe the appropriately hostile or wicked characters, unlike modern novels, where the obligatory sex scene does nothing except to alleviate the boredom of the MTV mindset.)

The third feature is that the novel is almost encyclopedic in its presentation of important religious facts. This last feature is consistent, I believe, with the novel's purpose: to begin the reeducation of an entire generation of young people who, being nominal Catholics, have no idea what "the miracle of the sun at Fatima" is or what the various distinctions between "apostate", "believer", "heretic", infidel", and "schismatic" are.

While I leave the denouement of the intricacies of the plot to the reader, it is good to read a work of fiction which is so complex. Prophecies from a heretic, the possibility of a significant number of Christians losing their faith because of a heresy packaged in contemporary language that can fool the masses (like The DaVinci Code), and a romance that seems utterly dead compete with a gradual transformation of a young man who recovers his faith.

Most of all, after finishing this novel, I think of the name given to those young men who have grown up in our desacralized, radical feminist world. Called "lost boys" by English scholars, these are young men who struggle to find the truth in life. Wouldn't it be great if the millions of young men who are lost in today's society could rediscover the faith of their spiritual fathers (their biological fathers having abandoned them)? Baer's fictional account of a loss and rediscovery of faith would appeal to the "lost boys" in today's culture as much as the strength of the female characters would appeal to today's young women who have rejected the inordinate claims of a desacralized feminist movement. Baer's novel can help both genders to say with Bryce that they have "quite a bit to re-learn".