Daniel Taylor’s Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Slant, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020

I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this. Taylor isn’t your typical Christian author writing these days. There’s nothing of the old Grahame era triumphalism about him. Neither does he write philosophically anemic, emotionally driven pot boilers. Rather, he manages a compelling story about the great questions of life with genuine wit and stabbing humor. As a fiction writer, Taylor tells the truth, but with a brilliant command of what Dickinson called “slant”.

My only regret is that this is the third in a series (why I started with the third book, I don’t know, other than I loved the title. But now I’m hoping it doesn’t ruin the first two, because I’m hooked). Anyhow I won’t spoil the book for those who may read it. I’ll summarize and then highlight a few things I enjoyed.

As the series tag suggests, the story follows one Jon Mote, a continual loser at life with a good bit of personal dystopia. Jon’s off and on again wife, Zee (Zillah), and his special-needs sister, Judy, accompany him through the series. In this book Jon lands a job as an editor and then finds himself on a Bible translation committee. The diverse group chosen for the project creates a perfect storm where personalities, beliefs, and ideologies clash, not just on translation, but on the whole spectrum of faith issues. The ensuing debates between the members prods Jon to continue his quest for answers to the big questions, answers perhaps, that won’t erase his past or secure his future, but that may give meaning to both, the way good stories do. Of course, dead bodies begin to pop up, jeopardizing the project, and mystery ensues.

This is my first mystery novel. Its resolution, though satisfying enough, isn’t really the point of the story. Taylor’s novel is much more about character than events, and I like that, especially sense he knows how to create a believable character. The fact that I’ve encountered most of them in the flesh, at some point or another, testifies to the quality of his art.

Out of all the characters, I resonate with Jon Mote and Martin Douglas. Often these characters articulate my very thought processes, or point of view – uncanny, really. Maybe a bit scary too, sense Jon Mote is not the most stable person.  But over all I think I’ve found a kindred spirit in Dan Taylor. I like how I spy various themes from his nonfiction writing throughout the novel. As a former Lit professor, Dan peppers Jon’s thought with the great writers, showing how literature can be an enriching conversation partner through life. He also effectively shows how arguments can’t prove or disprove the most important questions of life. But this doesn’t mean he’s averse to a questioning approach to faith. Not at all, Jon Mote, with an ever-present sense of his own mortality, engages constantly in such questioning throughout the book. But Taylor’s novel hints that such questions can only find answers within an overarching story. The Christian Story is set forth as something that makes sense of the big questions without closing the book on inquiry.

If you like a novel that probes existential, philosophical, and theological questions in witty first person narrative, one that is also grounded in the grit and beauty of life, this book is for you. It made me laugh, ponder, and say, “Yep!” several times. The book even stirred my deeper emotions, during the climactic snowstorm in chapter 39. I think this is a book for Christian and non Christian alike. It’s not a preachy book, though it is serious – as well as funny, sad, and beautiful.


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