In England, in 1387, Geoffrey Chaucer set quill to parchment and began to write down his Canterbury Tales. In an abridged modern translation the great work begins:
When April showers
End March’s drought
And the birds all sing
And the flowers come out
The pious think of a distant land
Or a pilgrimage more close at hand.
Chaucer chose a place of pilgrimage some 95 km. from the city of London, a journey of up to four days on foot. He tells us that he was on his way to Canterbury to venerate the saint and martyr Archbishop Thomas Becket, slaughtered in the cathedral there in 1187 by courtiers who believed they were acting on the orders of King Henry II. Stopping in an inn on the way, Chaucer falls in with a group of 30 travelers on the same pilgrimage. They all agree to engage in a storytelling competition on the way and the inn-keeper, Harry Bailly, joins them to act as master of ceremonies for the contest.
Chaucer’s masterpiece is the inspiration for Ken Yoder Reed’s new book The Prize-Winning Story.
Reed was brought up in a very conservative Mennonite community. The worldwide Mennonite movement is a reform branch of the Protestant church dating back to the 16th century. Reed does not describe himself as a Christian evangelist, but the character he invents as the leader of this latter-day pilgrimage, Vladimir Krakow, otherwise known as Pastor Vladdy, certainly is – an uninhibited and undiscriminating lover of Israel, the Jewish people and all things Jewish.
Vladdy, a 63-year-old ex-hippie minister from San Francisco, divorced and remarried, hosts a radio talk show called For Zion’s Sake, sponsored by the League of Christians for Israel (LOXI). Vladdy and his listeners discuss how events in the news reflect and interact with the Bible and the prophets. Each year, Vladdy organizes a trip to Israel. The Prize-Winning Story recounts the events surrounding his 15th such tour.
On this occasion, Vladdy’s great friend Major Eli Bloom, described as Israel’s top counter-terrorist, joins the 14-person pilgrimage as tour guide (it becomes a 15-person group, since Reed himself is supposed to join it). Bloom dreams up the idea of turning the journey into a story-telling competition. The winner, Vladdy tells his tour members, will have their $5,000 Israel trip paid in full.
The people who choose to join Vladdy on his pilgrimage are drawn from a wide selection of American society – women seeking salvation, a couple of Silicon Valley scientists, an Ethiopian pastor and his wife, who describe themselves as “reverse missionaries” since they came to post-Christian American to spread the gospel, a farmer, a librarian and even a Jewish couple who have made it their mission to promote aliyah (immigration to Israel). Reed paints these characters with wit and empathy, and we get to know and love them.
They happen to arrive in Israel on the day that Donald Trump wins the United States presidential election. As the tour progresses, events and encounters experienced by Vladdy and his pilgrims inject a douche of reality into their earlier assumptions about Israel, while the stories they tell each other act as a sort of commentary on this growing awareness. Finally, any romantic assumptions are ripped away in a violent and shocking climax. Reed’s account of this episode and its aftermath is beautifully written, and reading it is a truly moving experience.
Despite their encounter with opinions at odds with their own and also with a harsh reality that none expected, what remains intact for the tour members is their faith and their belief in the historic mission of God’s chosen people. In this book, Reedprovides readers with a broad biblical, historical and geographic background to Israel’s story through the narrative device he has devised, as well as a picture of contemporary reality.
Intent on giving non-Jewish, and especially Christian, readers convincing reasons for supporting Judaism and Israel. Reed ventures into controversial territory. Elsewhere he has written: “When people talk about Christians replacing Jews as God’s Chosen People, we need to say ‘No, God doesn’t change His mind.’”
Into the mouths of several of his characters, he puts a rejection of that view of Christianity – known as Replacement Theology – and they condemn it as antisemitic. Yet, the issue is not cut-and-dried. Some Christian churches reconcile a belief in Replacement Theology with a profound rejection of antisemitism.
This dash of controversial opinion adds spice to Reed’s achievement in producing a wonderfully readable novel, which, as its title indicates, is filled with stories and yet provides the reader with so much more.
The Prize-Winning Story by Ken Yoder Reed | Root Source Press | 342 pages | $22