The Keys of the Kingdom

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Authors: A.J. Cronin
Publisher: Rosetta Books
Publication Date: 1941 (2015)

The Keys of the Kingdom book cover

A. J. Cronin wrote books well positioned in the Catholic tradition, but he does not present a sanitized view of the Christian faith and the challenges it presents to its followers. As a result, this excellent novel manages to delve into the depths of Christianity, show it sins, and still present the reader with hope. And this from a writer who does not fit into the traditional Christian framework.

The novel is set in the late in the 19th and early 20th century and tells the story of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest who discovers that his plans and God’s plans for him are not the same. He finds himself a curate who quietly does God’s work when others do not seem to like it. So, while his childhood playmate (friend would be too strong of a term) finds himself heading off to a glorious priestly career, Chisholm finds himself being sent off to rural China.

Even there he cannot follow the path set for him. While the Church prides itself of the number of converts, Chisholm loses his first converts when he finds out they are Christian because it provides them employment. He then turns down the conversion of a powerful village member who is converting because of medical help Chisholm offered to his family but Chisholm only accepts a conversion that is authentic.

Instead of seeking converts Chisholm decides to serve the village. With the help of some nuns sent to support him, Chisholm builds a mission that offers children an education, takes in the orphans, and feeds the village in times of need. But when a new warlord comes into the area and battles with village forces, Chisholm finds himself in a quandary. He rescues the wounded from the village and the new warlord demands compensation that will destroy the mission and the children and people within it. As a Christian, he is faced with the idea of entering the battle to save his people or to offer no harm, as his faith teaches him, and allow others to be hurt, raped, and/or killed. Either decision means death for others — not to decide is to decide.

It is these types of dilemmas that add such depth to this book. Chisholm is friends with the Presbyterian mission in town, refusing to see them as competition. He also peppers his conversations with quotes from Confucius. His openness to other faiths and denominations raises concerns among the institutional church. Even his greatly simple way of living, although very Christian, is viewed with suspicion.

In the midst of this Chisholm’s childhood “friend” is now his supervisor. While Cronin takes some easy shots at the priest who follows the company line to gain more power, he avoids a weak caricature that is easy to knock over. His characters have depth and he does a great job of creating a complex characters (in other words, realistic) such as Mother Maria-Veronica with whom he has a tempestuous relationship that develops into one of great friendship. No one is perfect in the book but Chisholm’s humility is born out of true faith.

The main story is held together between bookends of Chisholm’s time in Scotland which opens with him as an old priest who shares his story. At the end it returns to Chisholm as an old priest, but now we see him with new eyes.

A great book for Christians to read as it offers a realistic picture of the challenges and joys of faith, and a great book for non-Christians looking for an honest picture of the stumbling followers of Jesus.

A. J. Cronin

A.J. Cronin
Cronin was a Scottish physician who was sent to the countryside for six months to recover from an ulcer. During that time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was such a success he spent the rest of his life writing. He wrote over 30 novels, many of which were made into movies, including the influential The Citadel in 1937 which won the National Book Award in the U.S. Although many of his books deal with the Christian faith, he was for a time agnostic and later came to appreciate the mixed marriage of his Presbyterian father and Catholic mother. You can read more about him here.