Based on Coehlo’s past works, I expected to lose myself in a narrative that would spirit me away to Jerusalem on July 14, 1099—the setting for the book. But after the preface, I had to completely adjust my expectations. Imagine Khalil Gibran's The Prophet meets Gnosticism meets a Q/A format laced with religious phrases, and you will have a pretty good idea what to expect with this book. As several Amazon reviewers noted, the work fits better in the category of “wisdom literature” than that of fiction/ narrative.
Coelho displays in one hardback volume pearls of philosophy and theology strung together by questions his main character entertains from a crowd in one gathering. The only thing remotely novel-like about it is the set-up: Inside Jerusalem’s walls, people of all ages who belong to the three monotheistic faiths cower as Crusaders camp outside ready to attack. So far so good, right?
But what follows is the introduction of a wise man, “the Copt”—not to be confused with a Coptic Christian—who holds a Q/A time with the crowd. And this character “believes only in the present moment and what he calls Moira—the unknown god, the Divine Energy, responsible for a single law, which, if ever broken, will bring about the end of the world” (7).
Each topic he addresses gets its own chapter. For example, here’s the introduction to one of them: “And the same man who had asked about work asked another question: ‘Why are some people luckier than others?’” What follows is a chapter that “answers” this question.
The people also “ask” about beauty, love, defeat, opportunity, sex, success and other mostly-abstract issues—each of which receives a chapter-length answer from the Copt.
Coelho's character is at his best when he sticks to observations (such as noticing that when we are young, the old tend not to listen, and when we are old, the young tend to think we're obsolete). But when the Copt philosophizes or discusses theology, he leaves me shaking my head. Unlike Gibran, who wrote, “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” (a phrase that brought comfort recently when I lost my cat), Coelho's character says stuff like, “The truly wise do not grieve over the living or the dead” (175). What?
I thought of how Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before demonstrating power over life and death. Why weep over someone whom he would raise to life? Because he had compassion. Because he loved. Because he cared.
And what about the Hebrew psalms of lament? What are they if not beautiful expressions of grief over the living and dead?
Here’s another sample of one of the Copt’s statements: “Both (winners and losers) will pass. One will succeed the other. And the cycle will continue until we liberate ourselves from the flesh and find the Divine Energy” (16). Find the what? This Energy, to which the Copt refers as “It,” seems not to be personal, like the Triune God. Yet elsewhere he does seem to ascribe personality to “God.” But then he also assigns feelings to rivers and trees. So it’s tough to discern what the author intends as metaphor and what he views as the actual divine power. Is it a force? A personality with feelings and opinions? And what is the speaker’s basis for authority—how does he know about his "Energy"? Has it revealed itself? And if so, how?
As I considered how we liberate ourselves from the flesh, I was reminded of the apostle Paul's assertion that humans cannot liberate ourselves: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?" The answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus in a human body did just fine connecting with the Almighty. He did not have to “liberate” himself from his flesh to do so. When he was resurrected, he had a body rather than an ethereal form. The problem was and is not with physicality. The placement of the physical below the spiritual in a hierarchy struck me as a Gnostic way of looking at flesh and spirit.
I really wanted to love this book. And I wanted to be generous with a writer whose views I might not endorse. I imagine him as a peaceful soul with a good heart. But after reading his work, here’s my advice: Either buy a poetry book or buy a novel. But don’t bother with a thinly veiled work of dogma posing as a story. At least Pilgrim’s Progress has a plot.