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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

The Incendiaries (2018) by R. O. Kwon portrays the ramifications of one working-class college student's loss of faith and the simultaneous cult-like religious conversion of his girlfriend, the wealthy, half-Korean Phoebe. The cult figure who is the linchpin of Phoebe's cult initiation, which ultimately leads to the bombing of an abortion clinic, is John Leal.

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The novel is narrated among these three major narrators (and Will narrates his own section). John Leal's dialogue is sparse, but Will recalls a conversation several months into Phoebe's acquaintance with John Leal (and about halfway through the novel, as follows:

"In the Seoul before you and I lived, John Leal told us a unified land, everyone learned the same songs. It wasn't unusual, he said, in the city of Phoebe's birth, to have one person begin singing a ballad in public. Others would join in. He loved to picture it, the heads lifting to sing in the chorus. If this Seoul hadn't existed, he still wanted to think it had. Korea dispatched more Christian apostles abroad than any nation but the U.S." (121-2).

This quote demonstrates how John Leal appeals to Phoebe's ancestry. Also, as many religious and cult leaders do, Leal hearkens back to a time when things were somehow better or simpler. Leal appeals to people's unique sources of guilty or insecurity (for being privileged, for example) to induct them into his cult. Leal calls his cult "Jejah" (Korean for "disciple").

Earlier in the novel, Will Kendall (who works at a local restaurant, "Michelangelo's" in order to make money that he sends to his mother back in California), encounters a particularly difficult customer. Will is stalwart and forgiving, but he is a former Christian who lost his faith after a mission trip to Beijing in the previous year (and it is for this reason that he transfers from Jubilee Bible college to the elite Edwards). Will explains:

"No loss occurs in isolation, and a side profit of the faith that I missed at times like this was how easily, while Christ shone in each face, I loved. If hatred cuts both ways, to forgive can be a balm, and I often missed, as I could a friend, the more tranquil person I now had no reason to be" (57-8)

Here, Will explains that his loss of faith is also a loss of peace of mind. Will periodically confesses missing aspects of religion, though he is glad to be disabused of his belief. He watches Phoebe descend into this cult and himself tries to join in order to keep a closer eye on Phoebe. Will explains:

"Once, [John Leal] had Jejah dig a large hole in the backyard. They'd labored for hours with the hard-packed dirt, after which he had them fill it in again. But a little pain cleared the mind, he said. It made space for the waiting Spirit" (107).

Phoebe transforms from a lazy student who drinks too much alcohol to one who gets up early to swim every morning. Discipline and physical sacrifice are one of the means by which Leal convinces others to work in service of the cult-promoted higher power. Initiates (like Phoebe) become attracted to improved versions of themselves and attribute the improvement to the power itself.

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