Parker Saint is a rising “star” in the religious world, a pastor
with a huge book deal on the line. But through a turn of events he finds
himself in legal trouble. When he strikes a deal with detectives to help track down a serial killer with religious motivation, things get very interesting
for Parker. Zachary Bartels, author of Playing Saint (Thomas Nelson), sat down
with us to talk about this exciting new suspense novel.
It’s a fascinating premise for a novel. How did you get the original
inspiration? Can you tell is a bit about your main character, Parker Saint?
The book is, in many ways, about what defines us and
what we value most. It seems to me that whatever we’re willing to defend at the
expense of all else–that’s what we really love and who we really are, even if
we don’t want to admit it. Like every pastor I know, I am constantly feeling
the tension between wanting to faithfully preach the word and administer the
sacraments on one hand, and wanting to do whatever it takes to increase the
numbers by the world’s metrics (in order to affirm my own value), on the other
Parker’s character is kind of a manifestation of that
tension. He’s really starting to get some traction in building his own little
empire of loyal followers and he’s successfully managing his brand, but then
something rattles him deeply enough to cause him to step back and question
whether this is really who God wants him to be. I think we’ve all had those
little (or big) moments that cause us to question everything; Parker’s just
happens to involve demon possession, occult killings, Vatican operatives, and
ancient relics, which I find (for me, personally) constitutes a very small
minority of those moments.
As a pastor, what is your opinion of Christian celebrity culture?
I don’t think celebrity, in and of itself, is
inherently helpful or destructive. Jesus and John the Baptist were, in a
sense, celebrities, which actually kept their enemies from killing them on a
few occasions (i.e., fear of the crowds). However, if Jesus had been
taken by the love of the crowds, he would not have gone to the cross and we’d
still be in our sins. St. Paul’s celebrity got him an audience at the
Areopagus, but it also vexed him that some in Corinth wanted to follow him
instead of following Christ. At its best, Christian celebrity culture looks
like Spurgeon packing out the Metropolitan Tabernacle or college kids filling
their iPods with John Piper Sermons and Lecrae songs, while their classmates
fill their heads with trash.
At its worst, though, it can create a vicious cycle of
idolatry in one direction and scratching itchy ears in the other. That sort of
satanic symbiotic relationship always seems to result in a limp, crossless
“Christianity,” amounting to little more than entertainment and
self-help. I see this all over the place these days. When pop culture becomes
our mechanism, the market, not the Scriptures, becomes the driving force behind
the message. There’s also the temptation, with any level of success, to stand
on the palace roof like Nebuchadnezzar and bask in our own awesomeness
(“Look what I have built by my mighty power!”). I don’t envy people
with giant platforms, but I do pray for many for them regularly, that they will
maintain the same attitude toward the approval of men that the Apostle Paul
What is your secret to keeping the suspense high as readers turn the
I don’t have a secret per se. I just write the kind of
stuff I love to read and hope that will keep the pages turning. I like reading
books that don’t just turn the suspense screws tighter and tighter, but give
the protagonist a moment to process here and there so that we can get to know
him in some different contexts, then throw a wrench into the works (or right at
the protagonist’s head or whatever). I also try to mix in pop culture
references and sarcastic humor and a healthy dollop of theology. As a reader,
I’ll seldom keep turning the pages of a book that’s just persistently dark and
frantic, so that informs how I write. To create suspense, I like to make sure I
know precisely what dangers are lurking out there waiting to pounce on
the protagonist, hint at them frequently, and unleash them in bursts–just when
the reader has started to catch her breath.
How was this project different from your previous books?
Well, it’s my first book with a major publisher. It’s
been quite an experience to have the incredible team at HarperCollins Christian
Publishing working with me to make this book the best it can be and get it out
there into the hands of potential readers. A couple months ago, I was flipping
through this book I wrote called 42 Months Dry (a kind of violent,
gritty, urban adaptation of the story of Elijah), and, while I’m still proud of
it, I could see all the rough, unfinished edges that could have really
benefited from a team of professionals. My wife works for a different
publishing company, so I’ve had great appreciation for that end of things for
years and years, but it’s a whole different deal when you’re the beneficiary of
such a team.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
First and foremost, I hope it’s an exhilarating ride.
If I can make people gasp, laugh, bite their nails, and stay up way too late to
find out what happens next, I’ll be a happy man.
As far as a spiritual take-away, I want to impress on
readers that “positivity” in and of itself is powerless to save them.
Only Jesus’s substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection can raise a
broken sinner from death to life. Without the cross, all our efforts at
self-reform and self-improvement will just give us a false sense of religious
security. Jesus told the Pharisees that they were whitewashing the outside of
the tomb, without addressing the death that lay within and that self-made
spirituality and morality, without regeneration, just sweeps the place clean
for sin and death to return sevenfold. I’m afraid I’ve gone
“full-preacher” here, but what I love about writing is that I can
explore these deep, heavy spiritual concepts in a fun, exciting setting.
What does your writing process look like?
It starts with espresso, of course. Then I like to
take this old-school battery-powered word processor to a particular bench
downtown with a view of the state capitol and the city skyline and bang out
large chunks of text at a time. I also like to find a song or two that kind of
evokes the vibe of a particular book and listen to it to get my head in the right
space (not unlike my process for writing sermons, just different songs).
What’s next for you?
I have another suspense novel coming out with Thomas
Nelson next June, called The Last Con, about a con man who gets saved in
prison, but finds himself dragged back into a life of crime, with some ancient
intrigue, alchemy, and secret societies to boot. It’s similar to Playing
Saint in tone–i.e., suspense, action, and snarky humor–but a very
different story. It’s going through the editorial process right now and I’m
incredibly stoked about it.