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Why I Loved and Hated "Riven" by Jerry Jenkins

I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.


A Review of "Riven" by Jerry Jenkins

Published in 2008, Riven is one of the hundreds of novels by Christian author Jerry Jenkins. I'm obviously a little late to the party on this one, but I just finished reading it through my Kindle Unlimited subscription, and I've never been so torn about how I felt about a novel.

Jenkins introduced the book by telling readers it was a story he'd been developing mentally for 20 years and that he'd thought up the main characters in the novel when he was in high school 40 years prior. He said it was the fourth book he had written that was "the type of tale that will draw me back to the keyboard every day." I'm already a fan of Jenkins, but the author's note alone further piqued my interest in what I was about to read.

Riven focuses on the lives of Brady Darby and Reverend Thomas Carey. Darby is the product of a troubled home in the Touhy Avenue trailer park, while Rev. Carey is an oft-traveled small-town pastor who has never made the spiritual impact he had hoped to. It's obvious these two characters will eventually meet, but the way Jenkins holds off on making that meeting happen keeps the reader invested.

Jenkins also weaves through several subplots surrounding Rev. Carey's wife and daughter, Brady's brother and other family members, and a death row inmate known as "The Deacon." The struggles to find, understand or hang onto faith are a common theme for several characters throughout the novel, with a handful of supporting characters holding steadfast in their beliefs to help bring everyone else along.

But with a surprise twist at the end, I was left conflicted. I sailed through this novel briskly—a rarity for me—but I found the last several chapters a struggle to finish because I didn't feel what was happening was a believable situation. Nevertheless, I think Riven is a worthy read that could change your life, and I strongly urge you to get a copy.

Note: Plot spoilers will follow.

Why I Loved "Riven"

Jenkins established two characters who couldn't be more opposite, and the intrigue of how they would eventually meet left Riven as a page-turner. In fact, I had forgotten the novel opened with a brief scene of a death row prisoner being led to his cell. I figured that could be a likely destination for Brady. Still, because Jenkins drew out Rev. Carey's life for hundreds of pages before he took his job as a prison chaplain, I never connected the opening passage to a potential landing spot for him.

Rev. Carey was a character for whom you could feel sympathy. He'd been shuffled in and out as pastor of several small church congregations and was quickly driven out of his new congregation when it was discovered his college-aged daughter was living with her boyfriend. That left Rev. Carey at a crossroads in his life—he wanted to continue ministering to people but seemed to start understanding these small churches were taking advantage of him and that his style was too old-fashioned.

He learns about an opening for a chaplain at the supermax state prison in Adamsville, Ohio, and takes on that job—a welcome change from leading a congregation and all that comes with that but one that would force him to change his way as a timid pushover.

All the while, his wife is falling ill, and she battles leukemia throughout the novel. His daughter walks away from the faith, gets married and suffers marital problems after having a child, but she comes full circle by the novel's end. She and Rev. Carey have a revival of sorts after she becomes a lawyer and represents many of the prisoners locked up in Adamsville, allowing the father and daughter to reconnect on a personal level.

Among the most interesting inmates ever to come to the prison was Brady Darby, who was incarcerated after committing an impulsive murder. Brady is a bright individual who falls into less-than-ideal circumstances when he is raised by a chain-smoking, alcoholic single mother.

He finds success when he lands the lead role in a high school musical production, but after the first slate of shows, he becomes academically ineligible and drops out of school. Brady was already a budding criminal by skimming quarters at the laundromat he was hired to clean, but once out of school, he made crime a full-time job.

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After several stays behind bars, he agrees to act as an informant for a prison and then enrolls in a rehabilitation program upon release. This wasn't the first time Brady had been gifted a chance to better himself. The school's musical director and dean both laid out a clear plan for Brady to improve his grades, the laundromat owner gave Brady a chance to repay the money without being charged, and now he is given a free shot at rehabilitation.

At the rehab house, he falls for a girl from his past who comes in for a weekly group session. It turned out she was simply using him for her own motives, which led him to kill her in a split second, blinded by rage. He pleaded guilty to the murder and wished to expedite his death sentence by waiving his automatic appeals, but the fastest he could be executed was three years.

Jenkins maintained my interest by dangling hope that Brady might eventually get his life straightened out. All along, Brady had told himself he needed to lead a better life, but laziness and addictions always got the best of him, even after extended periods of improved behavior. He's all too relatable as a character, even in a world 12 years after publication. The same can be said for Rev. Carey, who seemed to be once again falling into complacency before Brady's incarceration. It was clear the two needed each other, and Jenkins did well to delay their meeting until deep into the novel.

Once Brady is imprisoned in Adamsville, he befriends Rev. Carey and begins a spiritual journey. That, however, is where the novel begins to turn into territory that I feel is too far of a stretch for a story that stayed true to realistic scenarios throughout its first 400-plus pages.

Why I Hated "Riven"

One trend in books authored by Jenkins is that there is usually a big and unexpected finish, and Riven was no exception—only this time, it was a little too big for me. It was predictable from the time that Rev. Carey took his position at the prison that Brady would likely come to find faith after committing a horrific crime.

For a fleeting section, it seemed there might have been a twist when Brady tried to rehabilitate himself, and Rev. Carey struggled to make an impact at the prison where the inmates typically used his services to gain personal favors. I thought perhaps their two lives were going to intersect in a different way, which could have been an interesting turn.

After the murder, it didn't take long for Brady to begin to ruminate about his spiritual end. Brady had seeds of religion planted as a child by his aunt and uncle, but he never took it seriously. Once he requested a meeting with Rev. Carey and was serious about learning, it was clear his transformation would be a focal point of the novel's ending. However, Jenkins went far beyond that.

Brady not only became a follower of Christ—he elected to have his execution performed via a worldwide live-streamed crucifixion to show the people of the world the brutal, unedited version of the sacrifice Jesus made for them. He came to this decision after thoroughly studying the gospels and realizing how brutal a crucifixion was. Brady complained that the crucifixions presented in pictures and movies didn't accurately depict the true suffering Jesus endured for the people of the world.

This is a great point raised by Jenkins and one I had never thought about. I'd even give him bonus points for his thought-provoking narrative here, but the means used to convey this point in the fictional world of the Adamsville prison is where I am torn. Obviously, Brady underwent a heavier spiritual revival than most people do, which is fine, but I'd be interested to see how the Supreme Court would rule on death by crucifixion in the real world.

As if the crucifixion wasn't enough, in the days leading up to his execution, Brady was able to get through to every prisoner in the death row cell block by reciting Bible verses from memory. For days, the prisoners silently listened to Brady's recitations, and it's implied the rest of the prison followed suit shortly after that. These prisoners, who regularly badgered Brady for his spiritual studies, suddenly joined as one to listen to what Brady had to say.

I'm left struggling with how quickly this occurred. It wasn't as if one man tried to start talking to Brady, and another talked to that man, and so on. Out of nowhere, the entire group dropped everything and listened, and then all requested reading materials to further their studies. This mindset quickly poured into other sections of the prison, leaving Rev. Carey busier than ever but happy he was finally impacting lives.

While this ending proved thought-provoking on a personal level, I simply found most of it hard to believe—which has put a damper on its intended message. I love that Jenkins worked to help people understand the impact one person can have in the world, but I feel he went a few steps too far in getting his message across by making too big of an ending.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Andrew Harner

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