Book Review: The Holy Secret

I’ll cut to the chase: The Holy Secret is a disappointing follow-up to James Ferrell’s superior book, The Peacegiver.  They share much in common: both books are short and simple; both are parables about improving our relationship with God by being reconciled with each other; and both take the form of a wise old man mentoring an earnest but flawed protagonist.

It’s easiest to approach this one with a list of pros and cons.  First, the bad news:

  • The title is misleading.  There is no single thing that the author wants us to know: in fact, his narrative is structured around three “insights,” though even these are nebulous.  Nor are the spiritual truths that Ferrell relates in any way “secret.”  To the contrary, they’re obvious to any one who has ever payed attention in Sunday School.  They could only be considered hidden in the sense that our worldly, distracted lives often forget them.
  • The narrative conceit is annoying.  I can only imagine that Ferrell scripts his sermon as a parable about an impetuous, frustrated disciple (us) so that he can more humbly present the teachings of the story’s elderly sage (Ferrell).  However, after a few uses, the ongoing device of the protagonist thinking, “Wow!  That’s so profound!  A merely normal person like me could never have realized such a massively spiritual mystery like that on my own!” gets to seem pretty cocky. 
  • It’s poorly written.  I don’t expect a mainstream, didactic religious novel to be Wuthering Heights, but Ferrell’s prose is a day laborer who grunts and just gets the job done.  The literary care taken in writing by a Neal A. Maxwell or even the engagingly casual stylings of a Thomas S. Monson would be welcome here.  As it is, the cliche “his mind was racing to keep up” appears at least twice in the book, to endless irritation.
  • Even the three major facets of spirituality that Ferrell dwells on–scripture study, Sabbath observance, and temple worship–ultimately all boil down to scripture study.  At one point in the text, Ferrell almost admits that his methods–and the book’s whole foundation–are ripped off of a great old story by Jeffrey R. Holland: http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=14f3fd758096b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1 (reading this fine little tale will do you just as much good as most of The Holy Secret, frankly).
  • Ferrell briefly tries to show a unified, natural flow of his ideas from beginning to end in a single paragraph near the end, and it doesn’t even come close to working.  The truth is, Ferrell’s ideas are random, and even the sections on Sabbath keeping and temple worship have very little to do with those subjects.

OK, enough griping.  Here’s what’s good:

  • Ferrell presents enough genuinely useful gospel information that anyone reading it will either learn something, or be reminded of something that they hadn’t thought for a while.  If you’re looking for a good model of scripture study (or an expanded version of Holland’s story from above), then The Holy Secret really is worth your time.
  • A few sections do stand out as especially worthwhile: a few pages where the lives of many major and minor Old Testament figures are described so as to highlight their symbolic figuring of Christ; an arrangement and then analysis of the two sacrament prayers done so we can see how they aid fallen humanity; and a unique, compelling analysis of the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood that relates it to the Abrahamic Covenant and the promised blessings of the temple.  These three things are, undoubtedly, meaningful and powerful.  Despite the book’s many flaws, these things alone make it worth reading, albeit quickly. 
  • I admit my review is subjective; someone else could be entirely capable of reading it and deriving great personal value from Ferrell’s extended meditations on reconciliation (his references to how Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son wake us up to reality and convince us to come to Him with a broken heart and contrite spirit are genuinely eye-opening). 

Ferrell’s book has some positive points, but someone looking for a rejuvenation of faith or a refreshing analysis of scripture (or, preferably, both) would do well to look elsewhere.  Holland’s Christ and the New Covenant would fit the bill quite nicely. 

Final grade: C

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