If you ask one man why he climbed a mountain, he may simply answer, “Because it was there.” Ask another man why he climbed the same mountain, however, and he may tell you that it was a spiritual journey, a personal challenge, an ascension toward heaven that, as he reached the summit of that mountain, made him feel as though he might reach out and touch the face of his God.
Laura Lee’s Angel is a bit like a journey up a mountain, at once daunting yet supremely beautiful. It is the story of a man whose faith in his God is challenged but is never truly broken, and in the end, it isn’t he who gives up on his faith but his faith that gives up on him.
Paul Tolbit is a Christian minister at Hope Church, a church like many others seeking ways to increase its bottom line by increasing the number of souls it attracts on any given Sunday morning. There is a business side to salvation, after all, and it’s Paul’s job as the shepherd of the church to increase his flock in order to increase the church’s income. There’s only one problem with that task: since his wife Sara passed away from cancer six years earlier, Paul has been having trouble finding the inspiration he needs to deliver God’s message in a way that will draw new members to the pews, let alone keep his current membership coming back. It’s not a crisis of faith but a crisis of apathy that has Paul in its grip.
In the eyes of God and the church, Paul and Sara had formed the perfect union. They were the ideal marriage of man and woman, the holy symbol of what the Bible meant when it said, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Theirs was a partnership that strengthened the church because its members were strengthened and inspired by them. When Sara died, she took with her a part of Paul himself. He lost the love of his life and the love for life that he’d once embraced so thoroughly through his faith.
They say God answers every prayer—His answer simply may not always be the one you were seeking. It was at a particularly low point that Paul wished for a spark of inspiration, not anything so miraculous as an angel to whisper in his ear, but something that would make him feel as though God were at least somewhere nearby and could give Paul the strength he needed. But the answer to this particular prayer came in the form of someone Paul could never have possibly imagined.
Ian Finnerty is definitely no angel, though he appears as one when Paul first lays eyes on him. Ian is both the point and counterpoint to what is considered to be virtuous; an alcoholic with a history of nameless and random sexual encounters; he is both beautiful and stained, kind and generous but broken in body and in spirit, and he becomes Paul’s inspiration—the young man to whom Paul can offer salvation, the young man who will become the lightening strike in the building storm of Paul’s relationship between himself and his religion.
The bond between Paul and Ian is an evolution, a personal and private benediction and a communion of souls. How can Paul, a lifelong heterosexual, suddenly find himself sexually attracted to a man, any man, let alone a man eighteen years his junior whose life has been nothing short of a sin in the eyes of the church? We’re all supposedly created in God’s image and have been offered the gift of free will, which means we have been gifted with choices, so Paul chooses to love the sinner, not the sin. Love is merely one of God’s mysteries that precludes labels and defies explanation, so with maybe a little bit more than a savior complex propelling Paul toward Ian, he invites the young man into his life, completely, fully unrepentant of the deep love that grows between them, though Ian’s past and Paul’s struggle to acclimate to the jealousy it inspires causes more than its share of friction in their relationship.
Reading Angel is, in a way, like reading two separate books that have been woven together into a single story. It’s both a beautiful and tragic romance as well as a treatise on the church’s position on homosexuality and the hypocrisy that lies within that position, which clearly straddles both sides of the fence: the church will not discriminate against a man or woman on the basis of sexuality, but neither will it acknowledge or sanctify a union between a same sex couple. The church will welcome everyone through its doors, with open arms, but the minister of that church is excluded from the right to welcome whomever he chooses into his life, is forbidden the right to love whomever he chooses.
The love Paul and Ian shared was indeed akin to climbing a mountain—a test of strength and endurance and faith, and a challenge which they ultimately failed because Paul failed to protect their love from the clutches of those who believed it was their business to protect the church from the love the two men felt for each other. Paul and Ian reached the summit of their mountain together but after all the missteps and fights, after the hiding and denial, the only place for them to go from there was downhill, and it was Ian who tumbled first because he was the one who’d been placed upon an impossibly high pedestal. Simply put, the Ian that Paul had objectified was not always the Ian who actually existed in the reality of human frailties and faults, and that was a terrible burden to bear at times.
It’s impossible to read this book and not bring personal beliefs and biases into it. Your own personal mythology might weigh either favorably or unfavorably into what Laura Lee has to say. Angel is a book that’s contemplative and provocative, a work of true literary fiction in its purest form that explores the thoughts and feelings of a man who understood the pattern of his life had been cut and sewn by the single thread of his faith, but then came to discover that that pattern would change forever when his thread became entangled with the strands of someone who didn’t conform to a specific design.
Make no mistake that this is a bittersweet story and it does not end in a happily-ever-after. I wish I’d known and had a few tissues handy when I fell back down the mountain with Paul and Ian, but both the climb and the descent were very well worth it.
Buy Angel HERE.