by Theodore Vrettos
Origen is a fictionalization of the life of an interesting figure in Christian history who lived at an interesting time. The book depicts a variety of struggles that Origen faced in his lifetime, both personally and on the larger stage of the development of the church and the Christian faith. The management of the various struggles is the source of drama and intrigue in the novel. History provides a wealth of source material, in this instance.
The novel mentions so many issues that were of concern to the historical Origen. These concerns can be broadly grouped into three categories: martyrdom, aesceticism, and doctrinal disputes within the church. This reflects three levels of conflicts Christians of that day faced – political, personal, and church.
For me, the problem with the treatment Vrettos gives the issues in the novel lies in the fact that he does an excellent job presenting the great breadth of conflict points that existed at the time, but he does so in such a compact manner that none seems to be addressed beyond the superficial level. While I can understand the reasons for the editorial decisions – the desire to depict how extensive the turbulence was for Christians at the time, and to do so in an allotted word count – I think the book would have been better served by either limiting the focus to one set of issues (personal, political, or church) or by making it twice as long, allowing each issue more space for exploration. As it stands, the novel raises many engaging issues, but then fails to engage with any depth. The result is that the novel feels flighty, not only in its jumps from one geographical location to another (usually following Origen's flights from persecution), but also in the subject matter (following the flights of the character's mind). Perhaps that is an accurate depiction of how it would have felt to live at such a time, but for the purposes of a fictionalized account of it, more focus would have helped, even if it meant giving limited attention to (or even cutting) significant portions of the historical Origen's life or thought.
In the later portions of the novel, Origen's own writing methods are described in a way that seems implausible to me. To imagine great volumes of work being achieved in the course of a single day of extemporaneous lecturing seems to me to do a disservice to the texts. I am not well-versed in the practices of writing in the early centuries of the church, but I have read many of the writings of the church fathers (including Origen) and feel that the command of rhetoric and logic reflects a more deliberate approach to the writing process than the one depicted in the novel would allow for. It might be more believable if it were Origen himself who became consumed in the whole writing endeavor (for which writer has not had stretches of time in which she writes like one possessed?), but it seems quite unlikely that Origen could have been as prolific and prduce such measured writings under the hand of a "taskmaster" who directed the process.
One of the more plausible – and gripping – concepts in the novel is the notion that "orthodoxy" in Origen's day was probably defined quite differently than it is today – perhaps not even yet defined, as such. The church, too, must have functioned quite differently when it was so widely persecuted. I would have liked to see more exploration of this idea, but I do think Vrettos draws some attention to the realities of what the early church might have looked like and how it might have functioned. It is interesting to consider how Origen would have been received in our churches today.
Overall, I would recomend Origen quite happily, especially to those readers who are not familiar with the time of the church fathers and the writings they produced. The only caveat is that the book might not be suitable for younger readers. Origen's struggles with chastity form a central part of the story, adn some of the scenes are quite harrowing – probably disturbing for young readers.
Reviewed by Shelly Bryant © 2015