A Holistic Missionary and Her Holographic Will: Introducing John Grisham's The Testament (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1999)

By Forrest W. Schultz
March 01, 2003

I have been an avid fan of John Grisham's legal thrillers for a long time. One of my favorites is The Testament. Perhaps its most outstanding feature is its refreshingly realistic and edifying portrayal of a lively, devout missionary — a portrayal that avoids both the "plaster saint" hagiography often found in Christian writing and the derogatory depictions frequently penned by mainstream authors.

A Godly Missionary
Missionary Rachel Lane is the illegitimate daughter of eccentric super-rich businessman Troy Phelan — a fact kept secret by him and her until it is dramatically revealed when he leaves the bulk of his eleven billion dollar estate to her in his will. This astonishes everyone and enrages his eight legitimate (but super-degenerate) children, who hire crooked attorneys to contest the will. Phelan's legal firm then dispatches a lawyer the avid outdoorsman Nate O'Reilly to find Miss Lane, which he does after a series of adventures in a Brazilian jungle.

Lane is clearly the heroine throughout the story. O'Reilly does not fully become the hero until he responds favorably to the gospel Lane presents to him while seated on a log outside her missionary hut near the Indian tribe to which she is ministering. After returning to America, O'Reilly begins the process of trying to remedy the ravages wrought by his sins in his own life and in the lives of his children and his two divorced wives, following the guidance and upheld by the prayers of an elderly godly Episcopalian pastor. O'Reilly's response to Lane stands in sharp contrast to that of Phelan, who only sees her as a worthy recipient of his estate — he does not try to discover what made her such an admirable person, and how he could become one himself.

After wrestling for a while with the question of what to do with the money, Lane finally decides to deal with the estate by putting it into a trust fund to be disbursed for missionary, evangelistic, and charitable causes, and also to protect the rights of the indigenous tribes of South America. She names O'Reilly as Executor. Lane is very concerned about the horrendous mistreatment suffered by the South American Indians and their consequent mistrust of "civilized" people, which makes missionary work among them so difficult. From Grisham's portrait of Lane as a person and as a missionary, she could perhaps be most succinctly described as a "holistic" missionary and person.

As in all his novels, Grisham draws upon his experiences as a lawyer, and he presents us with interesting, vividly depicted characters and actions, and powerful (often witty) indictments of the deplorable features of modern life. In The Testament he also draws upon the missiological knowledge he acquired from his friend Carl King, a Baptist missionary, and from the ecological knowledge gained from the tour King gave him of the Pantanel region of Brazil, where Grisham locates Lane's mission field.

Grisham's novels provide a legal education of sorts. In The Testament Grisham uses a legal term I had never heard before, and may be confusing. Both Phelan's will and Lane's will are said by Grisham to be "holographic." Grisham does not define the term for the reader, Tormont Webster's dictionary, says that it is "a document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears." So, a holographic will is one written not by the testator's lawyer but by the testator himself. Because a will is such a highly personal matter and because both Phelan and Lane were such strong personalities, it is perhaps fitting that their testaments were written by themselves in their own handwriting.

Since Lane and Phelan are such strong personalities, Grisham is able to use them dramatically to portray the contrast between godliness and wickedness. Lane exemplified godliness through her dedicated humble service to a remote people far from the comforts of civilization, subsisting on a salary far below what she could earn as a medical doctor in America. Phelan exemplified wickedness through his nastiness, his greed, and his neglect of his wives and children. Phelan provides an apt depiction of the worship of Mammon because he uses almost all the money he earns to make more money and to build an ever-larger business empire. Money is an end in itself (and thus an idol) rather than a means toward other ends. In contrast, Lane puts the money she inherits into a fund to be used to help others in a God-honoring way.

Wealth Into Righteous Hands
Further indications of Lane's godliness are seen in her humble willingness to accede to O'Reilly's counsel to accept the inheritance, so it could be used for godly purposes. At first Lane told O'Reilly that she did not want the money. O'Reilly responds by arguing that if she does not accept the money (and use it wisely), that it will probably end up in the hands of the degenerate children, who will use it foolishly. After O'Reilly leaves, Lane devotes time to thought and prayer about it and finally concludes that O'Reilly is right. Lane's thinking moves her away from a pietistic aversion to money and power toward seeing money as a God-given resource for glorifying Him. Her concluding position is, of course, also in line with her maturing, ever more consistent holistic outlook, in which she becomes concerned about all the aspects of life because God Himself is concerned about all aspects of life. In short, the first indication that Lane's final decision is godly is that she chooses the godly path. The second indication of Lane's godliness here is the humility involved in her willingness to accept the counsel of O'Reilly, who is a mere babe in Christ (and her convert, no less!), while she has been a Christian for many years and a recipient of much Christian education and training.

It appears that Grisham may also be providing a contemporary example of the Biblical principle that (either in the long or short run, and in this case the short run) the wealth of the wicked ends up passing into the hands of the righteous. Here again Grisham is dramatic in his portrayal: suddenly eleven billion dollars goes from a wicked person to a righteous person. Not only is the wicked person exceedingly wicked and the righteous person exceedingly righteous, but the amount of money passing from the wicked to the righteous one is exceedingly large. Almost all churches and other Christian organizations today complain about insufficient funds. But suppose we were suddenly to have at our disposal a windfall like Phelan's eleven billion dollars. How many are there among us who would have enough wisdom to know what to do with it? Perhaps this is why Grisham ends his story shortly after the creation of the fund with only hints of how it would specifically be used. The specifics of the fund's disbursement and the reasons behind them would be so complex as to warrant an entirely separate book or series of books.

Topics: Culture

Forrest W. Schultz

Forrest W. Schultz has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University.

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