The climactic moment of the children's classic, The Bronze Bow, is a simple smile.
As I was preparing to teach this work to a room full of eager Junior High students, I was refreshed by Elizabeth George Speare's elegant style and careful attention to detail. Master that she was, she brought her novel to a perfect crescendo, using all her considerable literary tools to highlight one shining moment of turning: the climax! Following suit to the best of my ability, I too called my students' attention to the little hints along the way, did my best to frame our discussion so that there was no way they could miss the beauty and simplicity of her theme. Between the two of us Speare and I made, if I do say so myself, one heck of a gorgeous point. The moment in question shouldn’t have been remotely controversial. But just you try telling that to my students! In fact, even after I had gently challenged a couple of them, they still pretty nearly unanimously disagreed with me.
I can hear you teachers now: “…shouldn’t that give you pause? I mean, we teachers don’t know everything. And our goal should still be to learn from our students.” And I hear you! I agree. But in this instance, it’s a good thing I was the teacher and they were the students, because this is a beautiful book about all of the most important things, and placing the climax just a few sentences farther along quietly softens the punch and lessens the impact of one of my very favorite children’s novels.
Allow me to explain.
Speare writes a sensitive and moving coming-of-age story in which Daniel Bar-Jamin, a Jewish adolescent living under the Roman occupation of Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus, mounts what he is sure will be a life-long crusade to rid Israel of the foreign invaders. His hatred for Rome is particularly furious because his father was captured and crucified while trying to rescue Daniel's uncle from a Roman prison camp. His mother died shortly afterwards of grief, leaving Daniel and his sister Leah with only their aging grandmother to care for them. Daniel hasn't forgiven the collective “oppressors” and vows early in the narrative to spend his life if need be to free his country. So far, so heroic.
An astute reader, however, will notice in Daniel's noble patriotism a sliver of youthful resistance to the responsibilities of family and relationships. His sister, Leah, has responded to her parents' deaths by withdrawing into herself, nearly comatose in the grip of fear and loss. Unable to bear the weight of caring for Leah, Daniel has run away to join a band of Zealots infesting the hills near his town. As we watch him grow, we realize that he too is in bondage just like Leah. He is in bondage to his hatred.
Meanwhile, in the background, Jesus himself begins his ministry, and members of Daniel's orbit begin to be drawn inexorably into the rabbi's enclave. Daniel himself is perplexed by the message he hears from them: the Kingdom of God isn't Israel itself, but some land of the heart?! How could anyone who claims to love Israel not be itching to kick the Roman pigs out on their ears? Now, this is an area where Speare's deft touch with the history stick comes into full play: she uses Jesus himself as a character, and it doesn't come off campy in the slightest! I am as surprised as you are, I assure you. But trust me, it's just plain great storytelling.
Anyhow, back to the narrative.
Daniel spends the entire novel torn in two, one part of his heart desperate for an antidote to his loneliness and the other addicted to the idea of vengeance at all costs. Slowly, this addiction begins to assert itself as a destructive force. During a mission gone wrong, Daniel loses a loyal friend, who lays down his own life to protect Daniel's. Bewildered by the unintended consequences of his righteous mission against Rome, Daniel visits Jesus himself, confessing that his friend's death only makes the burden of enacting revenge even heavier than it was before. Christ's answer, which we'll take up in some detail shortly, does little to satisfy Daniel's need for affirmation, instead telling him that in order to be at peace, he'll need to relinquish his hatred for Rome. Only more decided on his vow, Daniel stumbles home.
Shortly afterwards, he learns that his sister Leah, who had been steadily growing in health and confidence, has been talking with a young Roman mercenary across their garden wall. Immediately overtaken with a black rage, Daniel violently forbids her to see him again, sending her spiraling back into a deeper depression than ever. Leah stops eating, and sickens unto death.
Alone, unable to control himself, and faced with his helplessness in the form of his failing sister, Daniel gives up hope altogether. Then, somewhat predictably, but in an altogether moving passage, Jesus comes to his house.
Okay, so let's rewind briefly. Jesus's interactions with Daniel in the story thus far have all been moments where the confusion in Daniel's life is swept away, and the issues of his heart are laid bare. In the scene I alluded to a moment ago, the teacher asks the boy, “[your friend] gave you all that he had. In what kind can you repay him?” Daniel responds as we would expect, “By vengeance!” Undeterred, Jesus states, “He did not give you vengeance. He gave you love. There is no greater love than that, that a man should lay down his life for his friend. Think, Daniel, can you repay such love with hate?”
Now the rubber meets the road! Daniel, in the presence of perhaps the greatest master of the rhetorical question who ever lived, sneers, “Should I love the Romans who killed him?” As I told my students, this is the first moment of foreshadowing. Speare writes, “Jesus smiled. 'You think that is impossible, don't you? ... The only thing stronger than hate is love.'”
So, back to the end of the novel. With the memory of that smile lingering in his mind, Daniel peers up at Jesus, framed in the doorway of his hovel, and knows in his heart that he has reached the end of the line. No more vain posturing, no more passionate appeals to his “noble” vow. All he wants in his heart is to confess. But Jesus's silent presence forbids speech entirely.
Stick with me, the good stuff is coming! Check this out:
“Jesus did not speak. He moved quietly to Leah's mat, and stood looking down at her. ... Jesus had come! [Daniel] struggled to believe. Jesus had come to his house! He wanted to cry out to him, to go down on his knees, but he was afraid. Something about the quietness of Jesus held him silent. ... If I could speak to him! Daniel thought with longing. If I could tell him it is my fault, that I have done this to Leah! Although He held his breath and made no sound, Jesus raised his head, and his eyes met Daniel's. There was no need to speak. Jesus knew. He understood about Leah. He knew that Daniel had rejected him. His eyes, searching and full of pity, looked deep into the boy's and saw the bitterness and the hatred and the betrayed hopes and the loneliness. And then he smiled.”
There it is! With a simple smile, Jesus answers all questions, forgives all wrongs, and heals all wounds.
Foreshadowing clearly points to this moment as the most powerful moment in the novel, and the moment after which all things trend downward to a conclusion, the standard definition of the climax of the story. My students know this. And yet, even after I’ve laid it out for them, and left the final piece of the puzzle laying on the table, they refuse to agree that the smile is indeed the final piece, opting instead to point to Daniel's response a few sentences later: “To know Jesus would be enough. Almost with the thought, the terrible burden was gone.”
On the surface, this choice of climax might seem to differ so little from my own that it couldn't possibly matter. The smile initiates, makes way for, and prompts Daniel's surrender, right? So, isn't the surrender itself the real climax of the story?
Well, clearly I think not. As I said to start this article, I think even a shift as subtle as that can steal the power from Speare's story. But in order to understand that, we need to weigh carefully the real extent of the burden that Daniel carries.
The bondage we see in the story is primarily to hate and vengeance. Daniel refuses to forgive the Romans for his father's death, and later refuses to forgive himself for his neglect of Leah, and for the death of Samson, and so on and so forth. But if we think about this just a little more carefully, we see a darker underbelly to this hatred: Daniel's anger has a “righteous” root. Perhaps because the first wrong he endured was so absolute as to be incomprehensible, Daniel begins the slow descent into rage without the slightest inkling that he isn't right to judge his enemies. This trend continues, as he freely passes judgement on everyone he encounters, ruthlessly comparing them to his own “commitment to the cause” and finding them wanting. No one can match his dedication. No one can compare to him when it comes to selfless devotion.
Is it any wonder then that Daniel’s first impulse, when confronted with Jesus entering his home, is to explain everything? He sees himself, and he is ashamed. He judges himself and he is horrified. He knows the Teacher to be gentle and good, and yet, cowed by the magnitude of his own sin, he is afraid, unable to see how anyone could respond to him but with the revulsion he feels for himself.
Now, if Speare meant for us to see this story as my students see it - as the return of a prodigal to the fold - I imagine Daniel would immediately have “cried out to him,” and “gone down on his knees.” Faced with Jesus, he would have crumbled into repentance, and begged for mercy that no doubt would have been as swift to come as you might imagine.
But Speare has other plans. Daniel is incapable of speaking. In fact, not only is he incapable, but it is the very silent presence of Jesus that forbids speech. Instead, Daniel watches helplessly as Jesus looks at him, seeing all and saying nothing.
Then Jesus smiles.
Read this way, we find in The Bronze Bow a record of pursuit and acceptance, in which Daniel's freedom isn't claimed by his repentance, but instead given by a knowing savior. Why isn't this good news!? Why do we fight this tooth and nail and claw!? I know I do. Obviously the cosmic deliverance deal isn't done until Daniel accepts it, right? We can't accept a world in which our actions mean literally nothing in the scheme of things, can we? Jesus only offers salvation, Daniel must claim it, surely. The problem is, that isn't true in this story. The details of Speare's novel do not back us up in this assumption. You see, Jesus already called, forgave, and loved Daniel. He handed him the answer chapters earlier: “The only thing stronger than hate is love.” And Daniel, spitting in love's actual incarnate eye, cannot grasp it for the life of him. He's crippled, permanently for all he knows. He cannot repent until he meets Jesus unearned smile.
My students get a bad rap in this article, and I don't mean them to. They are only echoing the complaint of all helpless sinners across the years, and are no more guilty than any of us in our well-meaning impulse to replace God in his judgement seat. Luckily, however, Speare is telling us the truth, and if we read carefully, we can see it. Deliverance comes like a conquering army, and it is, happily, unrelated to our actions.
A theme like that fairly shouts at a world full of prodigals, struggling to come home, with the happiest truth of them all: love cannot be earned. He is. And He does. And all manner of things will be well.