"Playing Saint"

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Zachery Bartels 225Zachery Bartels wrote a string of screenplays while a student at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary as a welcome diversion from reading a stack of theological treatise. Years later, one of those scripts was converted into a suspense novel with Grand Rapids as its geographical backdrop.

That rewrite resulted in the recent publication of his debut novel titled, “Playing Saint.” Published by Thomas Nelson, the narrative centers on Peter Saint, pastor of a mega church Bartels describes as a prima donna whose life takes an abrupt turn that lands him on the wrong side of the law.

To avoid a public scandal, Saint agrees to consult with the police on a series of brutal murders linked by strange religious symbols scrawled on each victim. He is clearly out of his element.

“He got himself in hot water that includes a shouting match with a flight attendance and there’s a lawsuit filed against him,” said Bartels.

“The police tell him has to consult with them, become a police consultant because the bodies have occult elements painted on them and there’s religious symbols in the crime scene. He wants to keep his ‘empire’ (mega church) but he’s not an expert and has to fake everything. He doesn't know anything about Satanism and the occult.”

That proves to be problematic for the troubled Peter Saint because his life intersects with a man who goes to churches and pretends to need an exorcism to manipulate people to get what he wants.

“Gradually, this man realizes he isn’t faking it (exorcism) anymore and he starts killing people to appease the evil spirits that are allowed to come back into him and the search to find the killer starts,” said Bartels, a Bay City native who earned his masters in divinity degree in 2005.

Bartels, pastor of the 125-member Judson Baptist Church in East Lansing for 10 years, said he decided on the majority of his novel’s plot to unfold in Grand Rapids for practical reasons and because the forces of evil is often subtle in how it works, and Michigan second largest second supported that theme interlaced in his novel.

“I know the city so it didn’t require any research or buying maps,” said Bartels. “Second, there are two faces of evil. The obvious, satanic heavy metal kind of thing and then there’s the very subtle, seductive thing. I wanted in an idyllic, clean bright, nice place where there are churches on every corner in downtown where people smile and say ‘hi.’”

‘You have to be more careful about espousing your counter moral views in Grand Rapids,” added Bartels. “So I if you walk down the streets of a nice, clean, bright city. the darkness in people’s hearts is not as obvious. That’s a primary theme of the book.”

Except for specifically mentioning the Cathedral of St. Andrews in downtown Grand Rapids in his novel, the rest of the buildings mentioned in Bartels’ novel are fictional.

Bartels is quick to add he leavened “Playing Saint” with humor to temper what may sound like a heavy-handed topic. Even so, weaved throughout the novel is a warning against a version of American Christianity that touts Jesus as a “bless me” God. There is much more to being a Christian than projecting an outward, happy appearance, said Bartels.

“The overarching theme is that positivity is utterly powerless to save us,” said Bartels. “My novel has a kind of soft Phariseeism that is really popular in the American church. It’s the idea of outward being really clean and bright and white washed which is exactly what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. It makes you feel good but there’s no calling you to repent, to lift up your cross.”

On another level, “Playing Saint” is somewhat biographical, said Bartels.

“I can’t help but write about my own struggles,” he said. “Church attendance is down mainline, traditional churches and there’s a constant temptation to focus on the external, to kind of whitewash everything because it will make people feel better. I’m writing this cautionary tale as a good reminder of the truth. I’m not called to build an empire of people to follow me but make disciples of people to follow Jesus.”

Bartels’ second novel, “The Last Con” comes out next June.

If You Go:

When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30

Where: Baker Book House, 2768 East Paris Ave. SE

Who: Zachary Bartels, author of the debut novel "Playing Saint," a suspense novel set in Grand Rapids.

Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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