I just finished perhaps the most controversial Christian novel I’ve ever read. Fighting Back, the debut novel from John F. Harrison, is a modern-day retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or rather, as one of Harrison’s characters points out, the Parable of the Lost Son). Eddie Caruthers is a young Christian with a secret. Unbeknownst to his pacifist church and family he has honed his self-defense skills to the point that when a mobster insults a church friend and then attacks our protagonist, Eddie lays him out flat. The fallout from their eight-second altercation tears apart Eddie’s comfortable life and sends him spiraling downward.
Here, Harrison doesn’t pull his punches. Eddie is lured into the world of strip clubs and massage parlors. While the novel avoids graphic descriptions of these places and the acts performed there enough is sketched in that some Christians will likely be scandalized. If you are the kind of reader who prefers all your characters to be paragons of virtue from page 1 through to The End this likely is not the book for you. Fair warning. No doubt Jesus’ crowd was also scandalized by the younger son’s disdain for his father and his riotous living among harlots. Like Jesus, Harrison takes us there not for lurid entertainment value, but to illustrate just how low sin can pull us. Without a glimpse into the pig pen, Eddie’s eventual redemption and reunion with both his father and his Heavenly Father would be robbed of its impact. When Eddie discovers a human trafficking ring, his once-aimless existence gains new purpose. His mission to free the women being exploited sets the scene for several action-packed, suspenseful episodes that will keep you turning pages. Again, if you insist that a book fade to black the moment a punch is thrown or a gun is drawn this might not be the book for you. Fighting Back is not a sterilized, happy-go-lucky read. It shows the Christian faith against the backdrop of a gritty, realistic world. At the same time, there are plenty of light-hearted moments and some laugh-out-loud lines. I won’t ruin them for you by giving the punchlines here, but suffice to say, the novel certainly isn’t grim from cover to cover.
Harrison has crafted believable, well-developed main characters, especially Eddie and his love interest. The book has a large cast of characters, some of whom are only on-stage for a chapter or two, so we don’t have time to get to know each of them intimately. Yet, you get a definite sense that each of them has a history and a backstory well familiar to Harrison. That they are real people.
No review would be complete without pointing out a few issues, and there are some here. A couple of times the novel veers into long, rather preachy conversations, while some deep, important conversations – such as when Eddie tells his dad he’s leaving – were mostly scripted over instead of shown in detail. And there is a fair amount of repetitiveness in the novel. There are repeated references to “asphalt therapy”, a waitress’s build is described three different ways, the parable on which the book is based is retold several times, and almost the entire second-to-last page of the novel is a repetition (with minor modifications) of previous lines in the book. One line in particular – “She shook her head like one trying and failing to teach a simple concept to a slow child.” – while evocative, was used word-for-word earlier in the novel. This repetition may well be deliberate, but it gave me a strange sense of deja vu. These were only skin-deep blemishes, however, on a debut novel with good bones and considerable muscle.
Through it all, Harrison weaves in several important messages. He addresses the very real issue of church hurt and challenges pastors and saints alike to reform the enterprise model of church into a more relationship-based church model. The novel serves as a pointed commentary aimed at highlighting some of the grave problems facing the 21st century church. More than that, it suggests solutions for those brave enough. And perhaps more importantly, it raises questions and then challenges the reader to search the Scriptures, their own heart, and the heart of God for answers.
At the same time, Fighting Back provides a glimpse into the world of human trafficking happening quite literally under our noses. One of the most telling lines is “Innocent women might be held in bondage a stone’s throw from where two hundred people met weekly to sing and shout about deliverance and freedom. He had to do something and do it fast.” My hope is that this novel will encourage others to make the same decision Eddie did.
I received an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review, and was privileged to have my endorsment included in the book.
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