Pastor Theodosius Trask, the beloved religious leader of the town founded by his grandfather, is shaken when his agnostic son Bart, a New Testament historian, delivers a lecture in Traskville on Jesus. As Bart and Theodosius struggle with their emotions, disaster involving a young woman strikes, a stunning Trask family secret is revealed, and Theodosius begins to question the very thing he values most.
Revelation – A Novel is an intensely compelling story, shining a bright light on the simple, yet essential truth that what we think is powerfully influenced by how we think. This gripping saga serves as both a dire warning and a vital prescription for moving forward together in a challenging world.
A bright Friday morning sun, unusually warm for early spring in Chapel Hill, peeked above the oaks, shortleaf pines, and red cedars of the verdant North Carolina landscape and streamed through Bart Trask’s car windshield. He lowered the visor and headed for the Raleigh-Durham Airport. The prospect of having to face his twin brother, James, and especially his Baptist minister father, Pastor Theodosius Trask, tightened his insides. He had prepared a few remarks, a sort of explanation to soften the blows, but it did little to settle his queasy stomach.
As he started on the familiar flight south toward his childhood home of Traskville, Alabama, named after his remarkable great-grandfather John Trask, he tried not to imagine the look on their faces. He considered forgetting his crazy idea, but he knew that he couldn’t possibly do that. As if driven on by some force, the invisible puppet strings of his nature that he could neither resist nor fully understand, he moved forward.
He rolled down the windows, turned up the music, and stepped on the gas.
Bart pulled off the old country road into the Trask driveway, a wide semicircular path wrapping around an enormous laurel oak casting shade over his childhood home. The plantation house, fronted by a two-tiered veranda, white columns, black shutters, and a rooftop observatory, gleamed in the bright late afternoon sun.
His car came to a stop on crackling woodchips next to a wooden swing hanging from a limb of the massive oak, the same wooden swing on which his brother, their sister Junia, and he had spent many a carefree childhood afternoon. He shuffled his feet in the woodchips, ran his hand over the thick, weather-beaten rope holding the swing, and smiled wistfully. He glanced at the church to the right of the Trask home, a beautiful, red brick High Victorian Gothic structure built in 1905 by his great-grandfather. Over the years Bart had developed a fascination with the architecture, featuring a pair of three-story towers, a cone-shaped roof with gothic arched vents, and stained-glass windows. Through many a Sunday church service he’d marveled at the care and craftsmanship that went into its construction.
He turned toward the house and took a deep breath. After nearly twenty years of contentious “discussions” with his father, starting in his mid-teens, intensifying during his years at Yale Divinity School where he earned an M.A. in Religious studies followed by his PhD in New Testament studies, and continuing through his years as an Assistant Professor at UNC in Chapel Hill, a truce had finally been declared about a year ago. During all subsequent family gatherings both Bart, the “agnostic from birth,” and his father, the conservative evangelical Christian, had promised to avoid the subject. This did have the desired effect of making things generally more pleasant, but Bart could see in his father’s eyes an ongoing, quiet despair over his lost son.
His mother, Linda, greeted him on the veranda with open arms and a loving smile.
“How are you, my son? Long time no see.”
Bart returned a loving smile. For just an instant, the weight of his concerns lightened. “I’m fine, Mom. How are you? How is everybody?”
“Just fine. Wait until you see your little nephew. He’s grown so big since Christmas. What a joy he is.”
They entered the house. “Your brother is upstairs. Father is out back somewhere. Junia and little Thomas will be over shortly. Go on upstairs and settle in.”
Bart turned toward the familiar thud of boots on the creaking front steps. A moment later his father appeared. “Well look who we have here, our long-lost son,” he said, expressionless. “How are things up in Chapel Hill?”
Bart’s stomach tightened. “Just fine. Yourself?”
“Better than I deserve. Mother, have you seen my reading glasses?”
“No. You probably left them in the church, dear.”
Bart headed for the stairs. He found his brother lying on his bed, reading. He knocked on the open door.
James lowered his book. “Hey.”
Bart smiled and entered. “How’s it going?”
“It’s going,” James said, shrugging. “Anything new and exciting in your life?”
“We broke up a couple of months ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
James tossed his book on the bed. “I don’t know. I think she found somebody else. It’s just as well. Anything new with you?”
The time had come, at least with his brother. Despite his preparation, he hesitated.
Just start talking.
“As a matter of fact there is. A couple of things.” James sat up. “You and Sarah are getting married.”
Bart smiled. “Not exactly. At least not yet. I’ve still got you locked up for Best Man, right?”
James smirked. “We’ll see. So, what’s your news?”
Bart sat on his own bed across the room. “I’ve begun work on a new book, my first for a general audience.”
“New book? On what?”
“The working title is Jesus, The Man They Called God. The exaltation of a Jewish preacher from Galilee.”
“The man they called God?” James took a deep breath. “I think I’ll pass.”
“I know, and that’s okay. It’s really just about the life and times of Jesus. It’s amazing how little the average Christian really knows about him. There are some books out there for a general audience, but nothing like what I have in mind.”
“Have you told Father?”
“Good luck. Are you planning to publish it under your own name?”
Bart straightened. “What?”
“I know it sounds strange, but... it’s not just your name. It’s our name. It’s Father’s name. It’s the name of this town.”
A flush of heat came into Bart’s face. “I know, but this is my work.”
“I’m just saying, it’s not just about you.”
“James, it’s not about any of us. I’m just trying to—”
“We know what you’re trying to do.”
Bart grabbed his old wooden desk chair, placed it at the side of his brother’s bed, and sat. “Listen, I know how you feel. It hasn’t been easy growing up and having to deal with a brother who popped out of the womb with different views. I know that all those years of discussions and debates and arguments between me and the two of you, especially Father, made life uncomfortable, even miserable at times, but that’s in the past.”
“So you write a book instead, by Bart Trask, agnostic-slash-atheist.”
“Hey, come on, that’s not fair.”
“You’re going to break his heart.”
“James, I’m simply writing about Jesus. What you make of it—”
“You said there was something else new?”
Bart shifted in his chair. “Yes. I’m afraid this one’s going to be tougher to tell you than the book.”
James glanced at the open bedroom door, closed it, and returned to his bed. “What is it?”
Bart walked toward the window. He looked at the church and took a deep breath. “There’s something I’d like to do. It means a great deal to me.” He turned to James. “The reason I want to tell you is because... well, I need your help.”
“You need my help? That’s a new one. You’ve never asked for my help once, ever, your entire life.”
“I need you to help me with Father.”
“With Father?” James frowned. “Are you feeling well?”
“I need his permission for something.”
“Permission? For what?”
Bart returned to his chair. “I’ve begun to think about a series of lectures focusing on Jesus I’d like to take on the road and record for social media. I think if it’s informative and entertaining, a general audience would be interested. I have a rough idea about what I’d like to say in both the book and on social media, but I feel in order to get it right, to present something of real value to the average person on the street, I need to be sure that I can address every imaginable question that may come my way. For that, my scholarship isn’t enough.”
Bart pushed himself forward in his chair. He locked onto his brother’s eyes. “To help me with the book and lecture series, I feel I need to cut my teeth on a fully engaged audience of evangelicals who would be eager to challenge me, from their perspective, with tough questions, no holds barred, you know, give me a really hard time. The question is, where can I get that kind of audience? Then it hit me. Why not here, in Traskville?”
James sat bolt upright. His eyes widened. “What? Please don’t tell me you want to use the church.”
“No, of course not. Remember the old Stafford church, down the street?”
“That falling-down wreck?”
“Stafford says it’s actually in pretty decent shape. He plans to renovate it and re-open the church in the fall. He’s agreed to let me use it as a lecture hall for the next couple of months. I was thinking the lectures could run on Saturday afternoons through the spring and into the summer. I could come in on Friday evenings and go back on Sundays. The flight is only about an hour and a half.”
“You want to give lectures undermining the divinity of Christ less than a mile down the street from Father’s church? Have you lost your mind?”
“James, I have no intention of undermining—”
“Why here, right under our noses, in Traskville? It’s a big country.”
Bart stood. “I just told you, for the audience. I could probably fill a hall at UNC with a mix of liberal Christians, conservative evangelicals, and everybody else in between, but what could I hope to get out of them in that setting other than the usual polite academic pushback? I don’t need polite academic pushback. I need uninhibited, heart and soul, fire and brimstone pushback.” He pointed toward the window. “The people of Traskville, they know me. I’m the infamous lost son who finally came out as an agnostic, stopped going to church, and to the bewilderment of all, went off to the big city to get himself an education on the Bible and Jesus. The whole town of evangelicals is going to want to know what I have to say. As a Trask, I’m someone whose opinion matters to them. What better place to get the feedback I need than here?”
James glared at his brother. “Why the heck should the folks of Traskville be interested in what you have to say? They know you’ve abandoned the faith.”
“Oh, they’ll be interested. I’ve come back to talk about Jesus. If nothing else, morbid curiosity will fill the place to the creaky rafters.”
“The second you open your mouth they’ll be out for blood, or run you out of the place.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I’ll be challenged hard, that’s for sure, but that’s exactly what I need.”
James walked over to the window. “If doing this down the street isn’t bad enough, you have the gall to deliver this anti-Christian message in a church, of all places. Talk about false advertising...”
“James, it’s not anti-Christian.”
“You’re just doing this to shake people’s faith, to pull them away from God.”
“I’m doing no such thing. I’m just a New Testament scholar talking about Jesus. That’s all; nothing more.”
“It’s like Father and I have said to you before. You have no faith in Jesus because you’re incapable of faith. For you, everything has to be proven.” He shook his head. “I guess that’s what your university teaches you.”
“Hey, come on, that’s not fair.” Bart joined his brother at the window. “Look, I’ll admit there are lots of people like that, but believe me, I’m not one of them. I happen to think faith plays an important role in life, but so does evidence.”
James looked out at the church. “Yeah, right.”
Bart gently placed his hand on James’s shoulder. “If I were to ask people to have faith in Alpha-Beta, the God of the universe, would they, just like that, without any additional information? Of course not. Faith is important, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s always based on something—information, evidence, call it what you like. There’s no getting around it. This evidence, it’s almost never proof, not even close, but it is the necessary springboard which makes the leap of faith possible. Since Christian faith is based on scripture, it only makes good sense to learn all we can about the text, in all the ways available to us. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
James pulled away. “You don’t think we do that? You don’t think devout Christians study the Bible? Father went to seminary. We’ve spent countless hours studying the Bible. You seem to think that university is the only place to learn anything, that you somehow have a monopoly on wisdom. Well, you’re wrong.”
“I’m not saying that at all.” Bart sat on the wooden ledge just below the window. “Come on, James, you know me better than that. We’ve talked about this for years. I’m very well aware that lots of great scholarship has come from devout Christians studying the Bible from a religious point of view, as a holy book. All I’m saying is that there’s another well-established way to study the Bible. I’m not saying it’s a better way, I’m just saying it’s a different way, a way that can teach us things about the life and times of Jesus that we may not get from a purely devotional perspective.”
“Hey, listen, I’m not going to say that my approach doesn’t challenge the beliefs of the evangelical Christian. I think it does, but I have no interest in telling anyone, especially Christians, what to believe. What people make of it all is their business.”
“So what do you want from Father?”
“His permission to give the lecture series. I know I don’t need it but, well, it’s a matter of respect. A year ago I may have bulldozed ahead with this, but not now.” Bart rose to face his brother. “Look, I know how you feel about this, James, but I’m hoping you’ll look past that and help me convince Father to at least give me his okay.”
James returned to his bed and picked up his book. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
Bart’s shoulders sank. He returned to his chair. “Can I ask you why?”
James snapped his book shut. “You know why. For the very same reason you feel the need to ask for his permission in the first place. Because a Trask talking about Christ this way, especially right under Father’s nose, would upset him deeply. He doesn’t deserve that, especially from you, his son. If you care about him, you’ll take your little dog and pony show elsewhere.”
Bart straightened. His face flushed. “Dog and pony show?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
For a moment, Bart looked directly into his brother’s eyes, then lowered his head and nodded. “I understand,” he said softly. “Thanks for hearing me out.”
“Are you still going to ask him?”
“You’re going to anger him. You’re going to break his heart.”
Bart looked away. “I hope not.”
“Can you at least wait until after the party tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course.”
With a loud exhale and a shake of his head, James got up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
END OF CHAPTER TWO.