Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy and the Bible in Popular Culture

(2009) Ronald Cutler, The Secret Scroll (Beaufort)


The Secret Scroll is the first, and so far only, novel by Ronald Cutler, a former radio host, disco owner, and entrepreneur. Cutler's full professional biography is available in this press release published on Business Wire on the occasion of the self-publication of Cutler's How I Turned $15,000 into $10,000,000 and You Can Too in 2012.

Like HITThe Secret Scroll seems to be in part a work of self-publication; Beaufort Books, the press, began in 2004 as a "partner publishing" outfit which arranged for publication services for authors willing to contribute to their book's production. The year before The Secret Scroll came out Beaufort Books leapt into the publishing spotlight by publishing the O.J. Simpson book If I Did It when no other major publishing house would touch it (no link). Presumably, The Secret Scroll was already in production at that point.

Cutler's venture into the Gospel Thriller is a, by now, familiar Dead Sea Scrolls narrative, featuring, like  others, a hero of some indeterminate Jewishness, the rather on-the-nose named Josh Cohan. Like other Dead Sea Scroll novels with indeterminately Jewish heroes, the allure of Jewishness is further projected onto an Israeli woman love interest. The novel is set entirely in Israel which is portrayed as familiar and comforting to the hero but also perilous and (sometimes literally) explosive. Jerusalem is, at times, the sophisticated site of archeological research and learning; at other times a danger zone filled with assassins, spies, and secret nderground caverns.

The Secret Scroll combines a Dead Sea Discovery (made almost miraculously at the outset of the novel) wth a centuries-old heretical conspiracy (like The Book of Q and The Judas Conspiracy). Here the conspirators are Marcionites, intellectual heirs to a second-century Christian movement that separated out the judgmental Creator God of the Old Testament from the loving Father of Christ who came into this world to save humans. Marcionites rejected Judaism and the Old Testament, and redacted any positive references to the Jewish Law out of the New Testament; the modern-day version in The Secret Scroll translates this rejection of Judaism into the most virulent and toxic kind of anti-Semitism.

Finally, The Secret Scroll drifts like others of the genre into the paranormal: Josh has healing powers and enters at will into visionary meditative states that reveal secret truths. It is even suggested, in the last pages of the book, that he might be the Messiah returned. 

Hero: Josh Cohan, a U.S. archeologist on leave in Israel who finds a jar with the gospel inside it while driving around the desert; his love interest, Israeli Danielle Ben Daniel, spends most of the novel as someone's kidnap victim (but does manage to kill one of the villains)
Villains: Alexander Paul, a billionaire donor to archeological causes who is also secret "the Master of the Guardians," a bloodthirsty Marcionite sect (he is also secretly Danielle's father); his son, Alon; his deformed henchman, Alu; and various masked Guardians and double-agents along the way
Gospel: An authentic first-person account by Jesus about universal love, peace, and the end of the world coming in July 2018; there is also reference to a—possibly real?—letter of Paul to Barnabas revealing Paul's deceptions, foundational for the Marcionites

Reviews. One review in a print newspaper raves about the novel: "a story that will catch your attention from the beginning, and refuse to let go" (Kansas City Examiner, May 21, 2009). Publishers Weekly laments that "predictable plotting and routine prose will likely disappoint."

Reviews from Goodreads and Amazon readers are very mixed: some are drawn into the "secrets" promised by the title, but a not insignificant number of readers lament the poor writing style (the more generous ascribe it to Cutler's status as a first-time author).

The novel has received a lot of attention from book review blogs, possibly because publicists sent Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) to interested online reviewers. Many of them share other readers' frustrations with the amateurishness of the writing and plotting: "fails to deliver"; "great imagination" but "don't bother"; "a religious-suspense thriller which lacks the suspense." Others are more sympathetic and even encouraging: "a great read that's both captivating and fun"; "enthralling and entertaining"; "might make a better movie than a book"; "an interesting first novel"; "one of the most well-researched books I have ever read"; "not good, not bad."



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