I had the pleasure of being part of Ted Dekker’s Launch Team for the second and final installment in his “Beyond the Circle” series, Rise of the Mystics, and as it finally hits bookshelves today – Tuesday, October 2, 2018 – I can finally post my review of it!
(For those of you who don’t want the book spoiled, I’ll begin with a spoiler-free review. There will be a warning before I jump into spoilers.)
Alrightee, so I’ll say this: Mr. Dekker knows how to write. I’ve been a huge fan of Ted’s ever since I read the Circle Series probably a decade ago, and it’s rare that I miss out on one of his new releases, especially whenever they are tied into the whole Books of History universe. I’ve had the opportunity to meet him a few times and even travelled to Tennessee to attend a writer’s conference of his when I was thirteen, so to call myself a Dekker fan would be an understatement. When it comes to fiction writers, he’s up there at the top if you ask me, Christian or secular.
That being said, when I heard that he was coming out with a new book that was continuing the story set on Other Earth, I was beyond ecstatic. When the 49th Mystic came out a few months back, I went and searched through bookstore after bookstore at the Phoenix airport until I could find myself a copy. And it was great! I’m sure that nostalgia played a big factor in helping me be so pleasantly entertained as we reentered the world first introduced by Thomas Hunter in 2004’s Black, but it was a thrilling ride and interesting concept.
After reading 49th’s sequel, however, I’ve got to say that this book was, in my own opinion, far superior to its predecessor. Dekker’s descriptions – my favorite aspect of his writings – are as splendid as always, and the way he paints the image of such a fantastical world and so easily navigates between two opposing worlds is truly remarkable. Rise of the Mystics is an amazing, amazing story.
Before I continue, however, I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between Mr. Dekker’s fiction and his theology, because while one is at the utmost heights for me, I am not a huge fan of the other. From a fictional perspective, I absolutely loved this book, but much of the theology presented in it – especially towards the end – begins to adopt something that I wish I could say was merely extra-biblical, but am left with no other justifiable title than un-biblical. I’ve enjoyed much of his recent theology-heavy writings/devotionals such as the Forgotten Way and the A.D. 30 series, but even in reading 49th I began to notice some red flags, and after having gotten through Rise, I am hesitant to really endorse any of his books without first providing the disclaimer to treat much of his theology as you would most of his books: as works of fiction. Much of his views are very anti-doctrine and anti-religion in their presentation, much more akin to the feelings-based politically correct view of Christianity that is sweeping the nation as of late, with a heavy dose of New Age philosophy mixed in. To be fair, Dekker is fully aware of this – he makes some jabs at himself throughout both books in the form of jokes about the beliefs sounding New Age-ish – but being self-aware does not justify the action. I will go into greater detail about the theology in the spoiler review below, but right here and now, I would just issue a fair warning: Don’t read it for sound doctrine.
That disclaimer having been put out there, when it comes to the story, I can’t encourage you enough. The main character, Rachelle, was interesting and dynamic and easy to connect with – even from a guy’s perspective, which is often difficult in fiction – and the story is truly one that could have only been concocted from the brilliant mind of Ted Dekker. He is a master of fantasy and extremely gifted in suspense, so definitely go check it out! Unless your theological views are easily swayed, I would 100% recommend you go check it out, and read some of his other books too!
RISE OF THE MYSTICS –
Narrative (rating) : 4.5 / 5 stars
Theology (rating): 2 / 5 stars
*** SPOILERS AHEAD. Only read ahead if you have either read Rise of the Mystics or else don’t care if it is spoiled. I have broken it down into two parts: Narrative and Theology ***
This book picks up a few months after the last one left off, and Dekker immediately sets you up for confusion, so that you, in a way, are just as dazed and confused as Rachelle is at the beginning of the story. You are rattled and uneven, trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what things are so radically different from how they were when they left off in 49th. At first, I wasn’t sure I would like this abrupt shift, but as the story progressed I began to understand its necessity and began to actually appreciate it’s intentionality.
One thing that admittedly took me by surprise so early on in the story was the death of Rachelle’s father. To be totally honest, I wasn’t totally sure what the point of his character was in the first book (other than a plot device to explain a bunch of scientific stuff and write Vlad back into Other Earth), as he wasn’t a particularly developed character who I cared about too much. (I was interested to see where his love story was heading in 49th, but then they killed off his love interest, and with her death I kind of lost interest in him.) Still, I wasn’t expecting Dekker to kill him off, primarily because that is literally cutting off the one person who was there for Rachelle after everything that had happened between the last page of 49th and the first page of Rise. But as the chapters progressed and I realized that, sure enough, he wasn’t coming back, one piece of Dekker’s writing advise from that conference in Tennessee came flooding to my mind: “When in doubt, kill a character.” Dekker knew where he needed to take Rachelle’s character, and in order to do so it only made sense to steal from her the one thing that held her tied to the world. I found it unfortunate, however, that this plot point was not given its full potential, given that Rachelle’s memory was wiped not long after and she essentially forgets her dad ever existed. To be honest, I can’t recall if he is ever even mentioned again, so it was a gutsy move, but with a bit of wasted potential.
Then I guess there’s the characters of Jacob and Samuel. I’m not totally sure whether or not Ted was shooting for a love triangle or if Rachelle’s affection for Samuel was always strictly platonic – I was never quite sure in which way she was using the word love when she said she loved someone – but Jacob is the real MVP. He was a bit more one-note than in the last book, but his arc overall brought a lot of satisfaction and I thought it was good seeing the dynamic when he was made Albino and Rachelle turned Horde. If there is one thing that Dekker is good at it is subverting expectations or flip-flopping scenarios, and I thought that the way it was executed in this book was really, really amazing.
Realm of the Mystics being an already-existing location that required a transformation of thought was an interesting concept, and I thought executed extremely well. In particular, I loved all the callbacks to the colored forest of Black; while I admittedly haven’t read that book in about ten years, the descriptions stuck with me so well that the moment certain details were added in describing the Realm, my mind flashed back to sitting in my living room reading of Other Earth for the very first time some ten years ago.
Speaking of Black and the whole Circle Series, we finally get to see Thomas Hunter again! I really enjoyed his arc in this book, especially given the fact that his character was just one huge tease in the entire last novel. But in this book, I liked seeing how different he is from the person we last saw in Green, how he is a faithful servant of Elyon, yet even in his service, his theology has begun to stray (not much unlike Mr. Dekker’s) and he has become slightly more prone to emotional responses that aren’t a fitting to testimony to the providence of Justin through the red lakes. It was really cool to see his brokenness and despair at the beginning of the story – as yet another of his children is killed (am I just dreaming, or didn’t a child of his dies in the Circle Series?) – but then to see his transformation after having visited the Colored Forest in the Realm with his wife, and then return to earth to be the sage-like character who helps Rachelle complete her journey. I didn’t exactly understand why he was needed to go back to Earth to help her, but it was still really cool to see them interact that way. I liked how even though he was older than her, they were almost as equals because, according to the story, she was almost more in line with Christ than he was. So they could encourage one another, despite their age difference. That was neat to see.
And then we reach the end of the story, where I have some major gripes (discussed in the theology section) but also some heavy praises. First and foremost – need I even say it? – Ted Dekker has done it again! Just whenever I think he has tied as many different book series into the same universe as possible, he goes and ties “Beyond the Circle” to the distant past of A.D. 30 through the mystical character of Talya. A.D. 30 and A.D. 33 are probably my favorite two Dekker books, but I’ll admit that I had totally forgotten that Talya was even a character in those stories, and so what a shock it was to realize that he, too, was a dreamer, but living during the time of Christ and Paul! Through both 49th and Rise, the character of Talya had constantly perplexed me – he seemed awfully random and underdeveloped, mysterious but not in the good way – but this revelation tied up all loose ends and made it truly click to me. Wow. It truly does take strokes of genius to tie all these books together, and I didn’t think Dekker would dare interlace his A.D. series with the Books of History. But he did. And boy oh boy, am I impressed.
All in all, the story was great and I’m so excited to have read it. A bit sad that its over. I didn’t address every plot point – I didn’t even talk about Vlad, the main baddie! – but if I addressed everything, we’d be here forever. Let’s get to the theology, where our review takes a turn for the worst.
Alright, so as much as I hate to do this, I’m going to have to dig into Mr. Dekker’s theology here. As I said, from a fictional standpoint alone this story is absolutely remarkable, but the heavy amounts of theology interwoven throughout the narrative make it something not-so-easily-overlooked and thus merit for themselves a much-needed address.
When it comes to metaphor and parallelism, Dekker is king. Elyon and Justin as representing the Father and Son…perfect. The drowning in the red waters as a physical manifestation of dying to oneself and being covered by the blood of Christ…perfect. The kingdom of heaven as being not only a realm of eternal bliss, but also a state of mind accessible here and now…nearly perfect. The passion by which all of the main protagonists yearn for their Creator and the authority with which He is revered…perfect. All of this is great, great, great, and I don’t want to start discussing these theological points without first giving credit where credit is due. However, I will note that much of these theological points were already present in the original Circle series, which was less overt in its over-the-top theological themes, and I think a much more fitting balance of narrative and teaching. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff in here.
As with all teachings that begin to stray from Scripture, it seems that the reason for the poor theology here is found in Mr. Dekker picking and choosing which Bible verses he wants to focus on. Allow me to explain:
Love. One of the predominant issues discussed throughout both 49th and Rise is the concept of love, in which the characters frequently quote from the “Love is patient, love is kind” passage in 1 Corinthians 13. However, immediately red flags began popping up for me whenever I began to take notice that Mr. Dekker began to heavily emphasize some qualities while rarely or never mentioning the others. Long-suffering, not boasting, bearing all things…these don’t receive much mention. But “keeping no record of wrongs”? It is mentioned over and over and over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, emphasizing this factor of Christian love is extremely important, but the over-abundance of this term in correspondence with the negation of others made me realize that the author was simply going to emphasize the features that he thought applied more than the rest, and this is the result we see. Love, as it is taught to Rachelle by Talya and Elyon, is much more akin to cultural love than it is to biblical love, the only difference being that this kind of love doesn’t “keep record of wrongs.” In the end, the love Rachelle is encouraged to adopt is not the biblical act of love that is rooted in action and is unafraid to rebuke and correct, but is merely the affection love that culture has already adopted, unwilling to offend people even if it means pointing them to truth.
No record of wrongs. What does it mean to keep no record of wrongs, after all? According to Dekker, it means to essentially look past wrong things as if they were nonexistent. The Bible, however, seems to argue that it is not to act as if the wrong had not been committed or did not exist, but rather that we would not allow that wrong to affect how we responded. In this way, we respond in love despite the wrong done us, not keeping a “record” of it. We must still recognize that a wrong was done and we should be willing to confront the person about that wrong if it prevents them from future sin, but we do not plant the remembrance of that wrong in our hearts and so allow it to hinder us in our ministry going forward.
Judgment. Dekker, however, would probably classify my previous words as judgment. Frequently throughout the story, Rachelle is told not to make judgments, but Dekker’s definition of judgment, once again, is much more akin to the world’s definition than it is to the Bible’s. To call out a person in their sin is no more judgment than a police officer is in arresting someone for committing a crime. The judge will be the ultimate juror, but the officer is placed there to try and correct the person so that they can hopefully escape the wrath of the judge. Once again, it is the error of relying to heavily on feelings and not enough on truth. Mr. Dekker thinks that the best way to love a person is to never offend them, but the Gospel in and of itself is offensive.
The Law. I won’t spend much time on this, but the way in which the author relates to the Law of the Old Testament is much more akin to the “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” people of today. He views it as if it has been abolished, whereas Christ made known that He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).
Now for some direct quotes:
“Surrendering your faith in those shadows, to see who you already are in divine light, is called being Inchristi. That is your true identity. Your name. You’re already glorified, meaning not of this world but of divinity. You just don’t see yourself or the world the way Justin does until your mind is made new. When it is, you will tremble of the goodness of Elyon. As will all.” (p. 192)
I have emphasized the troubling words here. I think I tried to deny it for some time, but it was at this point in the story that I began to realize that Dekker was heading in the direction of some sort of mixed pantheism/universalism, in which all people are one with God (in a manner more similar to shared divinity, different than what the Bible says) and all people are ultimately saved. It might sound good on paper, but it is not true.
“I worship the air you breathe. I worship the ground you walk on.” (p. 196)
I realize that these were meant as affection words from Thomas to Elyon, but we need to be careful here. Once again, it might sound good, but if we examine these words, what are they actually saying? We should worship God and God alone, not the air or the ground. Let those be holy, but not worshipped. Many times, people were left so starstruck by angels that they tried to worship them, but the angels were quick to correct them. No, worship God alone.
“Knowing, belief, faith – they’re all the same.” (p. 205)
This is extremely, extremely wrong. The demons know who Christ is and they believe who Christ is, but it does them no good because their faith is not in Him. There are many people, likewise, who might have the intelligence of all the Scripture and might believe in their validity, but that does not mean they have faith in God. All because I know what a wife is and believe I have a wife doesn’t necessarily mean that I am faithful to her.
“But if you let go of your judgment of your flesh – if you forgive yourself – you will be free to see that you’re neither Horde nor Albino. You’re the daughter of Elyon and you love who you are, made in his likeness.” (p. 232)
The moment Rachelle was made to look like Horde, I recognized that something was awry and that Ted was up to something kind of fishy. The way it has been presented, Horde are unsaved and Albino are saved…but now both are saved? Of course, in this passage it is Rachelle who is being spoken to, but later we will see this universalism come to pass. Still, what is Mr. Dekker trying to suggest in having an Albino revert to Horde and then back to Albino – a Christian apostatizing and then returning to the faith? This just confused me a bit.
“You can only love your neighbor as yourself if you love yourself as you are.” (p. 248)
Yeah, this is nowhere in the Bible. In fact, the Bible testifies to the exact opposite. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23)…should we love ourselves in such a state? No, we should be repulsed by anything that separates us from our God! We should love God, and then our love for God should cause us to look upon our neighbor with compassion and love as we see them as we once were, dead in our sins and in need of a Savior. We love them because we see their blindness and we long to bring them sight. You can only love your neighbor as yourself if you are loving yourself as Christ loved you – which is to say, offering yourself up so that they might have life.
“Scab. Woman. Victim. Wounded. Stupid. Ugly. Failure. Even 49th Mystic. Surrender all of them on that altar where judgment was put to death.” (p. 249)
To be fair, I understand what Mr. Dekker is going for here – put to death all things that cause division between you and the Lord. And I agree. However, the way in which it is worded seems like it is a very thin line away from defending some political stuff that the Bible wouldn’t look upon so favorably…We should embrace our differences – man, woman, white, black – but should not use them in a manner that causes division or breeds hatred.
“I stopped midsentence, hearing my words. In saying those words I was condemning myself. I was saying that another way would be better, and that right now I didn’t measure up to that better version. I was blinding myself through judgment. I was such a failure. But that thought stopped me too. I was now condemning myself by calling myself a failure. Did it ever stop? It was no wonder there were so few water walkers in the world.” (p. 253)
There’s a biblical word for what Rachelle is feeling here, and it’s not condemnation…it’s conviction. Whenever we sin, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our wrongdoing and encourages us to repent, to get back on track. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact, there is a sure sign of wrongness when we are not feeling that conviction! This is precisely what I mean when I say that Ted’s view of judgment is incorrect. We are not condemning ourselves when we strive to serve the Lord more, unless we are striving to serve Him in some manner so as to earn His favor. When this happens, we are to repent – to change our minds – and instead serve Him simply because He is worthy of being served.
“You can always trust your heart. It’s your mind that gives you trouble.” (p. 333)
Yeah, so… “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). The world is all about “following your heart,” but that is the last thing the Bible wants you to do. Trust God, not your heart. If you trust in God, you will pursue truth. If you trust your heart, you will pursue your feelings, and with those feelings you entitle yourself to all the lusts of the flesh and lust of the eyes and pride of life. That’s a big no-no. Bad advice, Talya. You should go back to dreaming and talk with Paulus some more.
“Stop with the New Age nonsense!” (p. 343)
Okay, so I just thought this was funny. This is an example of what I mean when I say Dekker is self-aware. He knows that the words he is using – Inchristi, polarity, etc. – sound New Age, so rather than ignoring the problem, he has somebody call a character out on it so that the person can bat it away like they’re silly for thinking so. But they’re not; in fact, it’s actually quite justified.
“It was as if they had all drowned in the lake in one fell swoop. All Albino, Horde, Eramite, Elyonite, and undoubtedly the Circle, wherever they now camped. The whole world, brought to true sight once more in the lake’s power.” (p. 385)
I hadn’t been so close to finished, I might have put the book down right then and there. This is blatant heresy. I know that it is set in a fantasy world and the argument could be made that “God works differently there,” but the way this series has been set up, we have been given no reason to think so. As much as I would love to say that every last person on earth will be saved one day, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that this will not be the case – some will come, but some will perish. Universalism is not a biblical teaching, and so the ending to this book, as majestic as it might appear, truly saddened me because it discredits the work that Christ did on the cross.
“I was my Father’s daughter. I didn’t have the slightest interest in defending what needed no defense, either ideologically or physically. At least that’s how I felt.” (p. 391)
This, I felt, was not so much Rachelle speaking to herself as it was Dekker speaking to his audience. Keep in mind, I have been a Dekker fanatic since I was a young boy, but I can’t help but disagree with his thought process here: “I am going to believe what I want to believe and don’t care to defend it, thank you very much.” I disagree with this so much, in fact, that this is the exact reason why I have spent such a great amount of time putting such detail into this review: I want to defend the Gospel! “…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet 3:15-17). It is true that we need not defend the God who can defend Himself, but we are called to be able to defend Him should false teachings arise. Defense is necessary, less false doctrine sweep through the church. So I’m sorry, Mr. Dekker, but I have to disagree with you here.
In my writing of this review, I do not in any way want to make you think that I mean any ill will. In fact, it breaks my heart to do it, simply because I have grown up a majority of my life with such deep respect for Mr. Dekker and his work. And like I said, the story itself is absolutely great and I think the book is definitely worth a read; but if you are easily swayed, stay away. I truly pray that Mr. Dekker will either straighten up his theology or else keep with the more simple themes of the faith, because as much as I like a theology-heavy book, teachings such as this simply scare me as to the future of where our church is head.
So, like I said, do not think I mean ill will. Rather, I strive to proclaim the truth of the Gospel and remind us to ground ourselves in Christ Jesus. Do not be so easily swayed into the ways of the world; “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15-16). Grace and peace be to you all.