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FICTION : DEN OF THIEVES by Katharine Stall (Simon & Schuster: $6.95, paper; 275 pp.).

December 20, 1987|Frank Levering

"Divinity schools are weird places," writes Katharine Stall in "Den of Thieves," her tartly satiric, provocative, first novel. "They attract all kinds of people--idealists, street poets, burned-out stockbrokers, jailbirds' daughters, publicans, sinners, women taken in adultery. Radicals, too. . . ."

The author knows whereof she speaks. A former student at New York's Union Theological Seminary, Stall draws from her own experience to create a pungent cast of current and ex-seminarians. There is the irreverent narrator, P. K. ("Preacher's Kid") Mather, a descendant of Cotton Mather and the daughter of a minister imprisoned for blowing up a train loaded with bombs. There is Rosie Flood, who "cursed like a mule-driver, and her warmest curses were reserved for Christians, whom she hated as passionately as she loved the Bible." And there are the Soldiers of Jeremiah, a radical, underground of ordained ministers out of Harvard Divinity School who turn out the lights and drench a right-wing congressional "prayer breakfast" with pig's blood.

In the era of Falwell, Swaggert, the Bakkers and Robertson, Stall's plot is a liberal Christian's daydream: Her characters stumble on a television evangelist's scheme to "win America for Christ" by "conversion management"--i.e., brainwashing, using "subliminal messaging" techniques on millions of unsuspecting heathen. The lines drawn in the holy war, Stall's merry band of good guys race to save America from mind control, fundamentalist Protestant style.

Despite a predictable plot and some cardboard villains, "Den of Thieves" teems with topical insights and is a cathartic read for those who share Stall's loathing for the cynical manipulation of television ministers. It is also safe to say that this latently angry novel will not be required reading at Falwell's Liberty University.

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