Dina L. Sleiman. Courageous. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Courageous is the third book of Dina L. Sleiman’s Valiant Hearts series. The Valiant Hearts series is Christian historical fiction that is set in the thirteenth century. Courageous includes two characters who were in the second book, Chivalrous. One character is Rosalind, a servant, who is dealing with guilt because she had an abortion. Another character is Randel. In Courageous, Randel wants to become a knight, whereas his parents want him to become a clergyperson. They threaten to disown him if he goes against their wishes.
Courageous focuses on the Crusades. A group of people from England are going to Tripoli to free some prisoners. Among them is a young prophetess, Sapphira, who sees visions and wrestles with her commitment to God, and her desire to live a normal life. They are also guided by Sufi Muslims, who are alienated from the broader Muslim community. Occasionally in the book, the narration shifts from third person to first person, and the first person narration is from the perspective of someone who is a spy for the other side. This person is seeking revenge.
In terms of positives, the book thoughtfully engages political and religious questions. There are characters who defend the morality of the Crusades, as a way to take back land that Muslims had conquered from Christians, and to take the holy city of Jerusalem for the Christians. Dina Sleiman is not unsympathetic, and yet the book acknowledges that there were many Crusaders who committed gross atrocities, and it does not demonize Muslims. In the book, there are descriptions of Muslim beliefs and practices.
A salient religious discussion in the book occurs after the death of a Sufi Muslim, Wassim, who was guiding the Crusaders. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam. Sapphira and the man’s sister, Rabia, are discussing the man’s eternal destiny, since Christians believe that one needs to be a Christian to go to heaven. Rabia is asking Sapphira if she believes that Wassim is in hell, and Sapphira is unsure if that is a good time to preach the Gospel. Sapphira responds: “Is it fair to say that I hope there is something I am not accounting for? That your brother perhaps found Christ somehow during those divine experiences, or even at the moment of his death? I do believe that Jesus is the only way, but I hope from the bottom of my heart that your brother is happy in heaven right now” (page 227). It is interesting to see how evangelical fiction wrestles with questions of exclusivism and inclusivism, on the issue of salvation.
There were times in reading the book when I wondered if it was being a bit anachronistic. Some characters in the book believe in justification by grace through faith alone, whereas Catholicism and Islam are said in the book to add penance or works as a requirement for salvation. Was a belief in justification by grace through faith alone truly on the table for people three centuries before the time of Martin Luther? Perhaps some could read the Bible and arrive at that conclusion. One may inquire, however, about the extent to which people would question their cultural assumptions, and whether Sleiman depicts evangelical beliefs as an option back then because she wishes to convey an evangelical message. That said, the experiences of various characters in finding peace with God were moving parts of the book.
In the book, Rosalind is called a murderer because she had an abortion. Yet, in the appendix, Sleiman acknowledges that “while at this time in history abortion was considered a sin, it did not carry the punishment of excommunication as it did in later times” (pages 357). Would Rosalind being considered a murderer for having an abortion be realistic, in light of that? There has long been discussion within Judaism and Christianity about whether abortion is murder and when exactly an unborn baby becomes a person. Sleiman did well to note the historical nuance that abortion was not a sin that carried the punishment of excommunication in the time that she depicts, but perhaps she should have also included a brief paragraph in her appendix about whether abortion was considered murder at this time.
The plot could be plodding, in areas, and there were a lot of characters of whom to keep track. Still, the book deserves four stars because it wrestled well with historical, theological, and political issues.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.