Ted Dekker – Book Review
Ted Dekker's When Heaven Weeps is a stroke of fictional brilliance that had me, an over entertained and often easily bored consumer, gripped from start to finish. The story follows Jan Jovic, a young Serbian soldier. At the end of World War II, his company falls upon a small Bosnian community where Jan is instructed to play a cruel game of life and death on the people by the demands of his bullish commander.
The tirade of abuse is no match however for an ageing priest, who stands up with tenacity and inexplicable courage. His faith-fuelled example inspires heroism amongst the women of his parish. Taken to hell and back, they discover that in living they die and in dying they live.
The display of uncompromising love by these faithful few is a ray of glory in a scene smattered with grotesque and abhorrent garbage. Searing with white-hot revelation, Jan is awakened with a renewed vision for his life. In just a few hours, he is transformed from a boyish coward enslaved by fear to a free man marked by repentance, purpose and courage. He is changed by love.
Jan’s new hope inspires a move to Atlanta, USA, and a lucrative book writing career that enables him to share his story with millions. Thanks to the marketing efforts of his endearing fiancée Karen, (along with a cohort of conservative and, at times, controlling religious leaders) Jan enjoys an increased platform to impact lives and enjoy the fruits of fame and fortune. The one time soldier from Bosnia becomes the unconventional poster boy for western Christianity.
However, at the height of 'Christian stardom', Jan discovers that his story is not yet over as a rough diamond named Helen arrives into his world. A complex meshing of beauty and brokenness, she is for Jan an inconvenient and unexpected attraction in his otherwise pre-planned and organised world. Her attraction is as addictive as the drugs she uses, a mesmerising cocktail that drags his clean cut career into the sewers of an underground world stained by abuse, crime and heart wrenching betrayal. It is into this deep, dark world that Jan must face, with renewed force, the cost of true love in all of its colour and complexity.
Dekker’s novel is a visual starburst with elaborate description and his attention to detail initially felt self-indulgent and sluggish. In time, it proved a stroke of mastery that had my applause. The slow movements heighten the thrill of the many fast-paced and violent sequences; these are interspersed throughout the book creating a balanced work which canvasses the varying tempos of life.
Throughout the narrative, I was personally confronted with moments of reflection and prayerfulness. The book presents a serious look at the often oversimplified and commercialised theme of love. Here, it is neither shallow nor sugar-coated. It is raw and thought provoking. In Bosnia, Jan had stood within arms stretch of a powerful and personified love. And yet, he soon discovers an unconfessed divide between the vision of love and the experience of love. He had seen and spoken of God's love but was failing to enter into it.
The 18-inch gap between the head and the heart is a bridge that Dekker wants us to explore and cross. Like those who walked with Jesus and watched his love in motion, we are called to not merely see and acknowledge Jesus but enter in. Jesus is not interested in a kind of knowledge, service or worship that is absent from the heart (Matthew 23:27–28). He cares far less for our duty than our delight. We are therefore called to be reborn of heaven (John 3) if we are to be saved from the attachment of Earth. This is a costly walk.
The theme of martyrdom is a constant thread that has the reader reflecting with restlessness on their own experience of love and commitment. Dekker, rightfully, sees the love of Christ as being both supremely beautiful and life ending. A confronting message that is inescapable in the words of Jesus who calls us to pick up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). In Christ, discipleship is self-denial. This sacrifice is not however ultimate. For in Jesus, we see that those who truly die will truly live (John 12:25).
The themes of betrayal and faithfulness throughout the novel are unmistakably inspired by the Hosea prophecy. Helen, holding similarities with Gomer, serves as an example of God's bride today. Beautiful and cherished by the Lord, she is an unfaithful lover continually drawn away to another man. He is an ugly and abusive substitute for true love. Jan is her answer which she is tragically not yet able to see.
In her lust for the other man we see two very important biblical themes. Firstly, our rebellion. Helen's running away is a picture of the church’s continued pursuit of counterfeit gods. We (along with all humanity) seek our pleasure and satisfaction in lovers that cannot truly satisfy. The dishonour of this is amplified by the church’s relationship with the Lord, which is not merely an acquaintance or friend but bride. We are those who wear the ring, and yet, like Helen, we often find ourselves privately and publicly in bed with another. Dekker's book exposes our nakedness, which is marked by shame and deceit.
And yet, there is hope.
In the darkness of rebellion, Dekker gives us a glimpse of the second biblical theme - God's redeeming love. Jan is a man gripped by an unbounded and ever-present attraction and affection. He is a man in love. A love so strong, he is not only wounded by Helen's constant betrayal, but he remains forever committed to forgiveness and faithfulness at all costs. At the loss of Jan’s fame, reputation, career and comforts, he pursues his love. It is a selfless sacrifice that reveals the enormity and quality of true love. While Helen serves as a metaphor for our rebellion, Jan serves as a window into the heart of God. A passionate and jealous lover whose heart never stops yearning for His people to come home. Complex and multifaceted, we cannot escape the profound truth that the God who is by nature and essence love (John 4) has chosen to elect and lavish that love upon his bride. This he does for our good and His joy.
The great demonstration of his love is personified and magnified in Jesus (John 3:16). Like Jan, Jesus not only lovingly weeps over his lost bride but also pursues her with tender words and forgiveness. The extent of this is revealed on the cross of Calvary (Ephesians 5:25). Nailed to a cross, Jesus not only showed us how much he loved his bride (Romans 5:8) but paid the price for her to come home (1 Peter 3:18). In His dying, we who were once lost now live. This is a love God invites us to know now, in anticipation of its fullness to come (Revelation. 21:1–3).
Guy is the founding and Senior Pastor of City on a Hill, a church that began in 2007 with a small team and a big vision. Today City on a Hill is a movement of many churches that gathers across multiple locations, in different cities and is united around the central mission of knowing Jesus and making Jesus known. Guy is a passionate communicator of the gospel who is committed to engaging culture with the beauty, truth, and relevance of Jesus. Guy graduated with a BA in Public Relations from RMIT University and has a Masters of Divinity from Ridley College. He is the husband to Vanessa and the father to four children. He is an ordained Anglican Minister and member of Acts 29.