I don't mean to start with a disclaimer and then continue with an excuse, but damn, it's hard to write an intelligent review of a dumb book. And The Tattooed Rats by Jerry B. Jenkins is dumb. I know, I know, it's by Jerry B. Jenkins. Obviously, it's not rocket science. Jenkins probably doesn't believe in rocket science -- or evolution or contraception or affirmative action. But surely there's more to the book than the author's political agenda, right?
The Tattooed Rats imagines a near future in which Christianity is outlawed because it causes dissension, prejudice, and violence. Christians hideout in old shopping centers and underground bunkers--or they disperse themselves in terrorist-like cells and meet in secret to worship. The tattooed rats in the title are a clique/faction/cell that get "tats" and infiltrate the mental health facilities of the World Peace Alliance, the big-brother organization in charge. (The Tattooed Rats is actually the first in the "Renegade Spirit" series, and I picked it up because the second book came out last month.)
Jenkins has some clever ideas but he never develops them into interesting scenes. In fact, the narrative reads like a hack screen play: all dialogue, no setting, no exposition. On top of that, Jenkins plays cheap tricks like dropping you in the middle of a conversation that sounds like two teens talking about dating, but really, they're chatting about their relationship with Jesus. The characters are as interchangeable as the chicks in bad slasher flicks. And the more you read, the more paranoid he sounds.
This novel is part of a tradition of Christian writing that focuses on spiritual warfare, personifying the forces of evil and often pitting them against everyday characters the readers are supposed to identify with. This tradition includes brilliant allegories like The Book of the Dun Cow and Madeliene L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time Trilogy, not to mention The Lord of the Rings. But all of those books had something that Jenkins' work lacks: a compelling, vital, and chilling villain.
Jenkins' villains are Stepford wives who cook soy casseroles; neurotic teachers who forbid their students to ask questions; popular teens who can be bribed with headbands and lip gloss; frigid government agents like that sadistic woman in The Crying Game; and (my personal favorite) dinosaur-like demons who zip into human costumes to do the devil's work. That's right, Jenkins is ripping off Frank E. Peretti, the Stephen King of Christian fiction. The worst part is, the demons don't even appear until about half-way through the book.
That's why Jenkins sounds paranoid rather than prescient: his concept of evil is ridiculously didactic and reductive. He's from a clan of Christians who attack biology textbooks and contraception rather than poverty and racism. One can see why Christians and people in general feel duty bound to battle the culture around them--if by "culture" you mean violence, imperialism, the objectification of women's bodies, etc. But Jenkins wants to influence culture rather than just resist it, and that's what makes him scary.
Except I'm not scared of Jerry B. Jenkins, and I resist the urge to be, because I don't want to end up as paranoid as he is--or as confused about what's really a threat to free speech and a just society.
Just today I was on the phone with another librarian, asking her to hold Till We Have Faces for a patron at my branch. And her response is, "Oh, it always makes me nervous when people want C.S. Lewis books." Which I thought was pretty paranoid on her part. So I guess there are would-be censors on both sides of every issue. To those people, I would like to say: Books are not the enemy. Not biology text books. Not Harry Potter books. Not C.S. Lewis books. Not even these damn Jenkins books.