A not-so-heavy read (book review of A Time to Speak)

A Time to Speak


In 2006 The Christadelphian published A Time to Hear, the first in a trilogy of novels set in Israel at the time of Jesus.  That work introduced readers to the two central characters in what is now a completed series of works, widower shepherd Ammiel and his son Dan, and their extended network of friends and acquaintances, as they sought to make sense of the message and ministry of John the Baptist.  That first book was rich with an array of more or less endearing Galilean peasants along with a smattering of more prosperous and outwardly sophisticated men and women.

The second book in the trilogy, A Time to See, was published in 2009.  This continued the story as the characters from the first book and others reacted to our Lord and his earthly ministry, culminating in the dramatic, heart-wrenching events of the crucifixion, followed so quickly by the remarkable fact of the resurrection of our Lord.

A Time to Speak, published last year, completes the trilogy.  As the title and the logic of the developing narrative in the trilogy implies, this novel carries the story into the days of the Apostles and the initial efforts of the early believers to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.  With 880 pages over 60 chapters, this final instalment dwarfs its predecessors (which were 570 and 568 pages respectively).  In part, the extra bulk is due to the author’s efforts to provide links with the earlier works so that this latest volume can be read meaningfully even by those who have not read the first two books.  This helpful feature means that the narrative moves a little slower at the start than it does later in the book (and slower than it did in the previous volumes).  In almost every other respect excluding size, however, the final book in the trilogy mirrors the earlier works.

Most of the characters we came to love or dislike in the earlier volumes appear in this latest work, some rather unexpectedly.  Naturally we are introduced to several new characters as we meet a few of the early converts and some of their opponents.  This final book also is set in the Holy Land, although as is appropriate given the subject matter, proportionally more of the action takes place in Jerusalem than was the case in the first two instalments.

Writing style

Mention needs to be made to the literary genre and the author’s prose style.  When the first book in the trilogy was published some brothers (in particular) and sisters were dismissive of both the genre and the style, regarding them as inappropriate for Christadelphian readers.  It is perhaps understandable that readers more comfortable with the analytical reasoning of, say, the writings of John Carter or AD Norris, would not often be exposed to works as colourful and in places as humorous as those of SJ Knight in this trilogy.  Some of these potential readers might never read fictional works of any kind.  Those (like this reviewer) whose English teachers drummed into them that adjectives are to be used sparingly may be confronted by the author’s liberal use of them.  Even some who are avid readers of fiction might not immediately be attracted to the author’s lavish style, especially if they are devotees of the very austere style of writers like George Orwell. 

The author’s varied vocabulary often intrigues and tantalises the reader.  Obscure words, such as the verbs ‘susurrate’ (page 356) and ‘whickered’ (page 367) are exactly right in their context.  On the other hand nouns like ‘relicts’ (page 311) probably are more archaic than rare and it is hard to know why this was chosen over the more straight-forward word ‘widows’.  A few words were completely new to this reviewer including one, ‘nikkolsteep’ (page 648), which could not be defined even with the help of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Google!

It is a mistake, however, to adopt an ascetic superiority in dismissing the expressive prose of the author or the use of fiction as a vehicle for instruction in the things of God.  The author uses highly descriptive, even extravagant, language to develop word pictures that allow the reader to visualise the scenes.  Indeed the colourful language does more than just help us to see the events – it excites all of our senses as we smell the aromas, hear the sounds and songs, taste the delicacies and feel the textures of everyday life in Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee.  The reader can dance and laugh with those who rejoice and weep with those who grieve.  Just as there is a place in Scripture for the sensual language of the Song of Solomon and many of the prophets, not to mention the extravagant terminology we encounter in Jude, so there is a place on Christadelphian bookshelves for well-written, colourful fiction which is soundly based in Scripture.


At the beginning the author writes, “This is a work of fiction, not exposition.  There was no Banayim – no Dan, no Etta.  But there were people like them, lowly, partakers of sublime events – ordinary people like us.”  Notwithstanding this statement, it would be unfair to dismiss the work as complete fantasy.  While much of the story is imagined, it is firmly rooted in sound research and closely tied to the Biblical record.

The author has made a close study of Israelite society at the time of Christ, including regional and class-based nuances relevant to particular locations or people.  It is not surprising, therefore, that readers gain remarkable insights into the Gospel records and, in the case of A Time to Speak, the early chapters of Acts.  What might be more surprising, however, is the fact that sprinkled through the book almost in passing are comments which shed light on passages from the law of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets and even the Epistle to the Hebrews.  On pages 684 and 685 (not, incidentally, pages 648 and 649 as stated in the acknowledgements at the start of the book) the author adapts the text of real letters written by humble Jewish peasants at the time; in addition to lending verisimilitude to the work, these extracts help us better appreciate the literary and cultural context of the New Testament epistles.

The author’s meticulous research means that this book (and its companions) may be relied upon to round out and provide colour to the research of all serious Bible scholars: those studying the times and characters with which it deals will find much of value here.  Mary, the mother of our Lord, Mary Magdalene, Stephen, Barnabas, Mark, Paul and many others come to life in the record.  Ananias and Sapphira are two of the characters that are imagined in some entertaining detail, while the author’s fictional reconstruction of the life of Barnabas has much to commend it.  Much of the material is fictional, but it is thought provoking fiction, and combined with the Biblical text it assists us to see in what otherwise might be just ancient names lessons that are relevant for today.

A Time to Speak includes observations about ecclesial life in the years immediately after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of our Lord.  There are many lessons in this for a community that places such emphasis on faithfulness to apostolic teaching and practice.  But those lessons are not confined to the formal ecclesial environment as described by the author.  New Testament ecclesial culture derives in large measure from the Bible-based culture of Israelite village life.  As much of the action in A Time to Speak (and in the earlier volumes) takes place in humble villages in Galilee the reader will find in the narrative lessons that may be applied with great benefit in modern ecclesial life.  The characters to which we are introduced in these first century towns and villages are real people with real strengths, weaknesses, foibles and relationships with each other, and all have their counterpart in ecclesial life in the twenty-first century.

Of course the story does not need to end on page 880 of A Time to Speak.  There is clear potential for the author to take the narrative further and follow the spread of the gospel beyond the confines of the Holy Land.  Many years ago the author wrote a brief novel about the ministry of Paul; it might be worth reworking and expanding that earlier work in a style which matches the A Time to trilogy.  There is likely to be a ready market for such a book.


A Time to Speak is an enjoyable read, although in some respects it is a physically challenging read.  The book weighs in excess of one kilogram and its sheer bulk is a drawback.  Some older brothers and sisters find the current hymnbook too bulky for comfort, and even the earlier volumes in this trilogy were too large for some older readers to manage.  The pages are laid out in an attractive and large font, but the size of the work means that in the middle it is hard to open the book wide for fear of damaging the spine.  There may have been value in publishing this final instalment in two separate volumes, in much the same way that volumes two and three of Eureka have been published for many years.

It is to be hoped that this final instalment in the A Time to trilogy is at least as well-received as its predecessors, and that those who have been negative about such books might re-assess their position.  As mentioned earlier, the book could be read and enjoyed by someone who has not read the first two books in the trilogy, but that is not recommended.  The links the author provides to the earlier volumes are especially valuable to those who have read those works because they trigger memories that go well beyond the brief allusions.  Those who enjoyed the first two volumes will be pleased to see how the story unfolds, and those who have not yet enjoyed any of these works are strongly encouraged to obtain the now complete set. 


Geoff Henstock


This review was first published in The Testimony February 2013