Tessa Afshar. Bread of Angels. Tyndale House Publishers, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Bread of Angels concerns the events of Acts 16. In Acts 16, we meet Lydia, who sold purple. Lydia was a worshiper of God, probably a Gentile. Every Sabbath, she gathered by the river for prayer with other women. God opens her heart to receive the Gospel message that Paul preaches. Other events occur in Acts 16, as well. Paul casts a demon out of a woman, whose divination abilities had been exploited for the profit of certain men. These men become upset at Paul, and Paul and Silas are thrown into prison. There, Paul and Silas sing praises to God, and an earthquake opens the prison doors and the chains on the prisoners’ wrists are broken. Fearing that the prisoners have escaped, the jail-keeper is about to kill himself, but Paul reassures him that the prisoners are all there. The jail-keeper asks what he must do to be saved, and Paul tells him that salvation for him and his household comes through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The protagonist of Bread of Angels is Lydia. Lydia in the book suffers a profound incident of injustice and betrayal, which shames her and her family. Recovering from loss and her emotional scars, Lydia departs from her hometown and meets Rebekah, a Jewish woman who herself has suffered trials and economic deprivation. The two find a common purpose in life, to be there for one another, and Lydia becomes a worshiper of the Jewish God. In the course of time, Lydia becomes a prosperous seller of purple as well as a Roman citizen. She has an adversary, however: Antiochus, another seller of purple. Antiochus will be a thorn in Lydia’s side. Lydia eventually meets Paul, and the events of Acts 16 unfold. Lydia becomes a Christian, but she still has to deal with the perils of real life, particularly Antiochus’ sinister tricks.
Here are some of my thoughts about the book:
A. The first part of the book, which was about the injustice and betrayal, was especially compelling. It made me mad and sad! The second part of the book, which was about Lydia’s rise to prominence and riches and her endurance of Antiochus, was rather confusing in places, perhaps because there was a lot going on. Still, there were profound spiritual discussions in this part of the book. The third part of the book, which concerned Lydia’s conversion to Christianity in response to Paul’s preaching, conveyed spiritual wisdom, especially about the topic of interpersonal forgiveness.
B. Paul had a peaceful, Zen-like quality. The book seemed to ignore Acts 16:37, in which Paul is quite upset after being released from prison!
C. Lydia has a spiritual discussion with Agnodice, a physician who has become disillusioned with the god Asclepius, since Asclepius failed to heal people. Agnodice is through with gods and is trusting her herbs instead. Lydia asks Agnodice: “Will your herbs comfort you when you have no peace? Will they counsel you when you struggle through the quagmires of life? Will they be your companion when you are alone and afraid?”
This is a good discussion because it highlights why people choose to believe in a personal God. And yet, Agnodice’s disillusionment with Asclepius does not sit right with me. I know that Tessa Afshar is promoting a monotheistic worldview that regards the God of the Bible as effective, and other gods as ineffective. Still, there are ancient testimonies of people who claimed to be healed by Asclepius. What would the book have been like had it acknowledged this, while still arguing that Christianity is true? That would have made the book more interesting, as interesting as it is already.
D. Rebekah, who is quite pious, talks to Lydia about loneliness: “I have you, sister and friend, but I long for something else. It is as if there is a hole in my heart that nothing can ever fill. Not even the Lord. It is as if I miss some great piece of myself.” Lydia responds, “I think the whole world could say the same.”
This struck me as unusual, in an evangelical book. Many evangelical books say that we all have a hole in our heart that only God can fill. Here, Rebekah and Lydia talk about a hole that not even God can fill! This is a refreshingly honest observation.
E. Many Calvinists appeal to Acts 16:14 to argue that God needs to open a person’s heart for that person to believe, since that is what God did for Lydia. In light of that, it was interesting to see how Afshar addressed this verse. Rebekah is skeptical when she hears Paul preach, whereas Lydia believes immediately. Rebekah takes a leap of faith, though. There was something within Lydia that assured her that what Paul said was true, whereas Lydia became a believer after taking a leap of faith. Yet, both became Christians: it was not as if God elected Lydia to salvation but not Rebekah. Afshar’s interpretation of Acts 16:14 does not sound particularly Calvinist; perhaps her position is that people arrive at faith in a variety of ways.
F. Paul in the book discusses the inadequacy of animal sacrifices, in explaining why Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary to atone for people’s sins:
“…how long after offering each sacrifice do we remain pure? Clean of every moral offense? We would have to traipse over to the Temple by the hour with an unblemished sacrifice to keep up with our transgressions. The whole population of cattle, pigeons, and turtledoves would soon dwindle and disappear from the earth.”
This is a thought-provoking statement. Perhaps such a sentiment underlies the Epistle to the Hebrews’ contrast between animal sacrifices and the sacrifice of Christ. And yet, there is a part of me that is skeptical of its assumptions. Did Jews seriously believe that they lacked God’s forgiveness if they failed to offer animal sacrifices regularly? Many Jews did not even live near the Temple, so their visits to the Temple were rare! Did they think that God rejected them throughout the year because they could not go to the Temple regularly to atone for their sins?
I have heard various answers to such questions: that Jews believed repentance alone was necessary to atone for sins, or that animal sacrifices were for unintentional sins or ritual transgressions, not so much for intentional moral sins. I have mainly encountered such views in reading Jewish counter-missionary literature, which attempts to refute the Christian argument that a blood sacrifice is essential for atonement. And yet, I have also come across the view in Judaism that blood atones for moral sins. My understanding of this issue is rather limited, but I am just highlighting that what “Paul” said about sacrifices in Afshar’s book resonates with me partly, but not entirely.
G. Paul makes an intriguing statement in encouraging Lydia to forgive someone who wronged her:
“Have you ever studied a great oak? One branch will bend to the east while another bends to the west. They grow in opposite directions, never touching. Never uniting. And yet they are warmed by the same sun. Fed by the same roots. Sometimes God’s people are like those branches. They are separated from one another for reasons only the heart comprehends. And yet the light of the sun illuminates both; his presence feeds both.”
Paul goes on to say that Lydia should forgive the person who wronged her, but that the choice of whether to trust this person is hers. Is Paul saying that two Christians can be estranged from each other, and yet forgiving? Would Paul say that? On the one hand, Paul in his epistles emphasized unity and brotherly affection, so that may lean in the “no” direction. On the other hand, Paul was estranged from Mark in the Book of Acts.
H. Marcus is a Christian character in the book, and he likens his own emotional scars to tree rings: both leave a lasting effect! Marcus says that he learned to move on, that he could choose what kind of person he would be. This was a good discussion about dealing with a bitter past. And, by the way, Afshar in the Epilogue discusses the historical probability of a first century person like Marcus knowing about tree rings!
Whatever my reservations and questions, I found this to be an enjoyable book, with profound spiritual discussions.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss. My review is honest!