Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2006) Eric Van Lustbader, The Testament (Tor Forge)

Eric Van Lustbader (Van is his middle name) is the very successful author of dozens of thriller and fantasy series, most notably the Bourne spy series which he has continued since Robert Ludlum's death on behalf of Ludlum's estate. He began writing novels in the 1970s, after a brief career as a teacher and a journalist, and has appeared on the New York Times best seller list consistently since the 1980s.

In 2006 Lustbader inaugurated a new thriller series with apocalyptic and religious overtones with The Testament (sometimes titled The Bravo Testament). Inevitably, The Testament drew comparisons with The Da Vinci Code which had come out in 2003; the film version also appeared in 2006. There are similarities, of course, most clearly with the endless series of codes and cryptograms the hero must follow to arrive at the truth. There are other similarities: a Vatican-related conspiracy; a race around the world; a deep secret about Jesus. But, as we have seen, these plotlines go back to the 1940s and long predate Dan Brown.

At the center of The Testament lies a centuries-old battle between two quasi-religious orders (both of which have gone "secular" by the 21st century): the Order of the Gnostic Observantines, a Franciscan off-shoot who keep a "cache" of secrets with which they manipulate world events; and the Knights of St Clement, commissioned by the Pope to rein in and eventually eliminate the Order. By the time of the novel, the two groups are fighting an underground war of assassinations and political manipulations in the shadow-world Lustbader called "the Voire Dei." As the hero learns early on, the Order and the Knights have been behind most of the major (Euro-American, at least) world historical events. "There's history," one character intones portentously, "and then there is the secret history of the world."

The hero, Bravo Shaw, returns us once more to the academic genius who also possesses the training of a master spy, trained secretly by his father (the Keeper of the Cache) from childhood to enter into the shadow world of codes, assassins, and secrets.

At the heart of the Order's "cache" of secrets are two items both sides are now struggling to find: the "Quintessence," a magic elixir which gives life; and a Testament of Jesus, in which he confesses that he used "the Quintessence" to perform the miracles that made him divine. The Testament is, apparently, a full version of the Secret Gospel of Mark; Lustbader is the only Gospel Thriller writer to make use of this still hotly debated "lost gospel" supposedly discovered in 1958. Despite the name of the "Order" in the novel, there does not seem to be anything especially "gnostic" about the Gnostic Observantives; their "heresy" seems to be their Franciscan insistence on religious poverty.

Heroes: Braverman "Bravo" Shaw, a former academic drawn into the fight between Order and the Knights after his father Dexter's murder; Jenny Logan, a Guardian of the Order sent to protect him; various members of the Order and their helpers (including Bravo's sister Emma, a blind opera singer)
Villains: Jordan Muhlmann, Grand Master of Knights of St Clement, Bravo's secret half-brother and employer and (treacherous) best friend; his mother Camille, a cartoonish femme fatale; various Knights and assassins including associates in the Vatican
Gospel: The authentic Testament of Jesus, a full version of the Secret Gospel of Mark revealing Jesus' use of the Quintessence, a magic elixir that could raise the dead; we never see the text of full Testament

A new series by a major author received more press than a typical genre novel, even as it drew immediate and often negative comparison with The Da Vinci CodePublishers Weekly gives light praise while noting: "Lustbader... jumps on the Da Vinci Code bandwagon." Kirkus Reviews also draws Da Vinci Code comparisons (while noting Lustbader is at least a good writer) and concedes it's a "good actioner."

A review in the Philadelphia Inquirer declared that this "Da Vinci Code copycat falls flat on plot" (the same review appeared with a slightly less incendiary headline in the Bergen County [NJ] Record) while the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury praised The Testament as "a good tale pretty well told." 

Very mixed reviews from Amazon and Goodreads readers: true Lustbader fans loved it, while one-star reviews found the twists and turns ludicrous.

Sequels. Lustbader has written one sequel, The Fallen (2017), which continues to follow Bravo and his Gnostic Observantine Order as they seek to stop Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer) from setting in motion his apocalyptic plan to take over the world; the mildly paranormal aspects of The Testament take a deep dive into the supernatural. A third book, Four Dominions, appeared in summer 2018 and promises to bring the apocalyptic struggle to a conclusion.

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