A novel form of healing in a medical age

Spiritual healing in modern movies and novels is typically vulgar. The healer is a fraud or a mystic, and the healing, when we're meant to believe it, is a frosted-lens miracle accompanied by a choir of angels.

But this month, a couple of mainstream novels are pressing against those cliches. The healer in Nick Hornby's "How To Be Good" (reviewed July 5) is a comic weirdo, but the spontaneous recoveries he effects aren't fake or miraculous. DJ GoodNews, as he calls himself, acquired his healing touch after an unusual narcotic experience, but his continued success rests on his radical ethical stance.

Brenda Jernigan pushes even harder against the prejudices surrounding spiritual healing in her debut novel, "Every Good and Perfect Gift." The story opens with this line: "As I sat in Sunday school with my crinoline pricking my skin like a holly bush, God revealed Herself to me as a woman." The vision says, "Feed my sheep," and from that time on, young Maggie finds her prayers can sometimes heal sick friends and neighbors.

The world that considers spiritual healing the stuff of con artists or weeping paintings is still present in this novel. Indeed, as news of Maggie's ability spreads, reporters and invalids flood her small North Carolina town, hoping for exposes or recoveries.

The desperate start taking flowers from her yard, then branches, finally roots, and even bags of soil. "When Granny caught someone," Maggie says, "she'd flip on the porch light and yell, 'If you've come to get you a healing souvenir, you better pray to the dear Lord that you find one that will take care of the hole I'm gonna shoot into you.' "

But the larger world remains only a distant, annoying background to Maggie's faithful Christian home, where her ability is accepted as proof of God's power, a blessing for sure, but neither strange nor extraordinary.

Some of the people she prays for recover; others do not. Sometimes her prayers are assisted by medical surgery; other times people are cured without any other assistance. "These local families considered putting a little intercessory prayer on an illness the same as one would consider putting a Band-Aid on a cut," she says with her gentle mixture of sympathy and sarcasm.

When called to help, Maggie's prayer is a plain petition to God and Jesus for healing, but inside she describes herself filling only with pure love and a "faith that with God all things are possible."

Meanwhile, she must wrestle with the responsibilities and effects of this phenomenon. She constantly struggles to reconcile others' expectations of a miracle worker with her clear sense that God is the only healer.

Among the curious, comes Alex Barrons, an earnest if somewhat colorless seminary student from Princeton, who's studying modern mystics. Maggie finds her heart pulled away from the Lord in a way that makes her anxious. When her flamboyant mother suffers a stroke and won't respond to prayer, Maggie feels guilty for her inconstancy.

Much of the second half of the novel involves this sweet romance between a young woman so devoted to God that she won't believe in herself and a young man so devoted to Maggie that he won't give up.

Their affection for one another is charmingly portrayed, but the cultural differences they must work through come across as stale at times. (Think the country mouse and the city mouse.) There are plenty of fresh moments, though, as when Maggie confides her vision of God to Alex because, as she says, "You're a Presbyterian and probably believe a lot stranger things than that."

Eventually, the story wobbles around several subplots involving abandoned babies and small-town racism, distractions that obscure the novel's initial, more daring themes and allow the mechanics of storytelling to take over.

But still, Jernigan has a wonderfully light sense of humor that never tries too hard. She's willing to be sweet, and talented enough to avoid the saccharin. Within the confines of this small Christian town, she moves beyond the cliche portrayal of narrow-minded fundamentalists to develop a colorful spectrum of devotion.

As a romance laced with radical spiritual issues, "Every Good and Perfect Gift" risks falling into the cracks between genres. It's probably too unorthodox for the bastion of Christian bookstores, but too orthodox for the gatekeepers of literary fiction. Still, for readers who would enjoy a warm story about matters of the spirit and the heart, this is a good, though not perfect, gift.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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