A Review of
The Secrets of Leaven: A Novel
Reviewed by Jeremiah Robinson.
The story in The Secrets of Leaven follows Thomas Whidman, seminary student, lover-of-ancient languages, recovering fundamentalist, and boyfriend of an energetic and witty social worker, just before he undergoes a series of traumatic events which upset his faith and worldview.
When he follows some Guatemalan villagers into the jungle, they tell him the story of the paramilitaries exterminating their village, how they cried out to God and received no answer.
Thrown into a theological tail-spin, he recounts a conversation with one woman:
‘Go with God,’ I’d told Juanita that first day. She’d responded, ‘I hope it’s so.’ She held my hand the whole time we walked, saying my name. I kept watching her eyes, and knew she’d seen her daughters raped, her son burned alive. I couldn’t talk to her directly, but we both were asking the same question: What kind of God could let this happen?”
Transferring into the comparative religions department, he begins research for his thesis and begins to follow the threads left by his deceased great-uncle, Josiah Adam Widman. Digging through labrynthine archives and chasing a seemingly schizophrenic former graduate student, Thomas learns that Josiah Adam was the charismatic leader of an apocalyptic community waiting for the end of days determined by Biblical numerology. When the end didn’t come, he cried out to God to raise a man from the dead and, like the Guatemalans, received no answer.
All the while his mysterious and elusive meditation teacher manages always to whisper words of wisdom at just the right moment to keep Thomas searching for God and away from Nihilism. He drops surreptitious hints and brings Thomas along to some striking and unusual events, all of which suggest that the teacher follows some kind of radical and unconventional religious teaching.
Over time, Thomas begins to uncover a secret society called the Society of Leaven, which protects a deep truth hidden throughout the ages but inserted into civilization at key moments in history through members who offer an alternative truth.
That truth? Well, it hinges on the interpretation of an Aramaic phrase uttered in the New Testament many times, but only by Jesus: Bar Enasha. When Constantine and the Romans co-opted Christianity, they reinterpreted this phrase in order to suppress Jesus’ radical re-imagining of social power structures, and the new humanity that he came to unleash. According to The Commentaries:
By reframing him as a remote, imperial figure and emphasizing his divinity much more than his humanity, the chruch of Empire could worship and honor Jesus without needing to take his teachings seriously… This kind of Jesus should be worshipped as a romanticized personal saviour, but by no means is he to be followed… The Society of Leaven embodies a very different kind of Christianity. We try, anyway. It is the whole life of our Lord, rather than just his death, that remains at the center of our tradition.
Theologically, the teachings of the Society of Leaven add up to something like radical Anabaptism. They would find sympathy in the Catholic Worker movement, New Monastic communities, and those who read René Girard, J Denny Weaver, or Walter Wink. Those readers with a high view of providence or a strict adherence to Augustine’s teachings on the atonement may find the views promoted here disconcerting.
Thomas stumbles across this Society at a turning point while they consider going public in order to promote a crucial archaeological finding which they uncovered in the desert of Palestine. Again, from The Commentaries:
We in Leaven have discerned that after nearly two thousand years, the Empire of Christendom… is beginning to crack. Soon there may be enough space for something new to emerge… or re-emerge.
The villain of the story is articulated as Empire – the principalities and powers which water down Christianity in order to better manage it. This villain is personified by a fundamentalist preacher close to Thomas who attempts to stamp down and thwart the Society through a revival moment, though the movement is not entirely what it seems.
With all these elements at his disposal, Wynward gives us a great story filled with small climaxes that crescendo to a large one which leads to a wonderful surprise ending. To say much more would reveal some of the juicy twists and turns which make this novel’s pages turn by themselves.
At the end of the day, the novel uses the moral thriller genre to good effect. The use of the conventions are creative, the dialog witty. Not relying on character development or poetic turns of phrase – though the characters are intriguing and the writing clear – Wynward allows the suspense and thrill of uncovering hidden truth to fuel the engine of plot which drives the book. Measured in the quantity of chills I received while reading, it scores a five.
While you read, eager to find out what happens to Thomas and the Society of Leaven, Todd Wynward slips the message in under the radar. Before you know it, you’re searching on the internet, run across leavenrising.com, and are on your way to finding the authors Ched Myers, Richard Rohr and others, and a new way of seeing Jesus.