Neal Morse's Testimony - the book - as reviewed for The Phantom Tollbooth by Bert saracoLike Morse's music, the book contains intertwining themes and emotional passages. Certainly, the story has amazing balance and an almost circular path, involving the transformation of three hearts...

Author: Neal Morse (with Paul Braoudakis)
Length: 231 pages
Publisher: Radiant
ISBN: 978-1-61364-189-7

After no less than two epic musical retellings of his conversion experience, Neal Morse now takes pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to lay out the spiritual inventory of his life, from childhood to the current day.

Morse details childhood vignettes of growing up 'a semi-normal, middle-class kid in the San Fernando Valley in the suburbs of Los Angeles, which, in the sixties, also meant exposure to enormous cultural movements including The British Invasion, drugs, and liberal attitudes towards experimental lifestyles. It's not surprising, then, that Neal's years as a struggling musician became a not-untypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

For the most part, Morse spares us the grizzly details of 'all of the above' while being honest enough to let us know what was going on with him as a person: the confusion, excess, and disappointments of a somewhat obsessive artist trying to cope with a world that respects stability and predictability more than art and exploration. Facing a series of creative highs and lows, open doors and doors slamming closed, opportunities offered and frustrating realities realized, Morse eventually settles into a double life of creating his beloved progressive rock music for his own band while touring as a sideman (in the Eric Burdon Band) to earn a somewhat steady paycheck.

Along the way Morse meets Cherie (who would later become his wife), whose partying lifestyle masks the fact that she grew up in a Pentecostal church and was miraculously healed of a deadly blood disease as a child. This is where the tapestry gets interesting: the rock musician seeking truth and looking for God (or something like it/Him) connects with the believer who's run away from her faith.

Eventually, Neal and Cherie get married and become very occasional churchgoers, mostly for the sake of the children. While Cherie is used to the ways of the fundamentalist church, to Morse everything is new. The spiritual pull that he's been sensitive to for most of his life begins to spark inside of him in ways he can't quite understand – and he'd rather keep his distance, anyway.

It's only after the Morse's newborn child, Jayda, is found to have a potentially deadly heart defect that the musician and his wife start to look more seriously to God for help. On Mother's Day in 1998, at the urging of a young girl from the congregation, Cherie once again took Jayda to the church altar for prayer:

"...History was miraculously repeating itself. Decades earlier, it was Cherie's father, Wilfred, who had trusted God enough to take his daughter drown the same aisle of the same church to be healed by The Great Physician. The same dogged determination that only a parent could ever truly understand was now flowing through Cherie, who was boldly making her way up the aisle she had once traversed when she was nine years old... and dying."

His daughter's healing wasn't the magic bullet that turned Morse's doubts into faith – if anything, it brought even more questions to the surface: what if this isn't real? What if I believe all of this and find out it's just my own mind? Confronting his own leap of faith moment, Morse chooses the road less traveled and, in his own words, "I jumped off the ledge of the waterfall into the unknown where Jesus is..." Confronted with all-out commitment or the prospect of returning to a life of half-measures and disappointments, he chose commitment. From that point to the end of the book, Neal recounts his departure from Spock's Beard, the resolution of his issues with touring, the start of a new solo career, and right up to the writing of this book.

Morse's writing style is straightforward and fairly conversational – certainly less imposing than some of his richly textured musical compositions. Testimony is an engaging, quick read – a well written, personal tale of one man's journey to The Truth. Like Morse's music, the story contains intertwining themes and emotional passages. Certainly, the story has amazing balance and an almost circular path, involving the transformation of three hearts: Neal's and Cherie's, in a spiritual sense, and Jayda's, in the physical. The reader can visualize the settings almost as if watching it unfold on film (and this story certainly has potential for a film treatment). Like the blind man in scripture, Neal doesn't get theological, but simply describes the pivotal moment of his 'hard-core conversion' in a way that will seem very familiar to Charismatics and Pentecostals. For those who might take offense, I imagine Neal's response wouldn't be too different from the aforementioned, nameless blind man: "I know this – once I was blind but now I can see."

Bert Saraco