Now this is a book I wouldn’t mind sitting around and discussing with a few people. It’s definitely worth thinking about – well, particularly for those of us who are working in the Judeo-Christian framework. This is clearly written by a bloke who’s spent a bit of time immersed in the Old Testament, particularly with folks like Abraham and his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, but with dashes of Moses and various prophets, judges and kings here and there. Moreover he’s hung out in churches (all be them Mormon ones – yet another dilemma for protestant readers like myself), and appears to be well aware of the somewhat problematic conventions Christians have about trying to listen to God’s will.
I like the way that this is a professional writer kicking around some of these biblical ideas as a novel – as opposed to the unfortunately common practise of biblical ideas being kicked around in a novel by some sincere but unskilled amateur. The latter often make it into print via some Christian publishing house selling to people who are less interested in quality than in orthodoxy: a church wouldn’t hire someone to build a retirement home based on their good doctrine, yet they’ll give a writers jersey to many who’d never be published on the basis of their merits. This is in some degree an understandable attempt to counter the wider culture: some skilled and popular writers continue to misrepresent the church and/or biblical characters, sometimes through malice (Fry, Pratchett’s ‘Maurice’ and ‘Small Gods’), which may incorporate a lazy straw-man attack (Lively), or just sloppy oversimplification (Lodge, Martel, Zindell) (I didn’t include Dan Brown because I was sticking to skilled writers).
However misrepresentation can ironically come from those who are keen to be reverent. Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’, while going to the extreme of subtitling Aramaic gospel quotes, makes the same mistake as traditional Easter films in having every character centralise Jesus (as if, for example, crucifixion wasn’t just another day’s work for the Roman executioners: this was partly Jesus’ point – they had no idea of the significance of what they were doing). Moreover it distorts the gospels by portraying the brutality of Jesus’ torture and execution as so extreme as to make his sacrifice unique, an immature (and absurd) understanding of what he gave up: Gibson spends most of the movie on action that the gospels dismiss in a phrase, such as, : “he was flogged”. It’s sad that as close as I’ve felt to the spirit of some parts of the gospel presented on film was in Scorcese’s ‘Last Temptation’. Of course it departed hugely from the bible at times, and slandered Paul without cause, but some scenes really managed to portray Jesus as a living, breathing person, not a two-dimensional icon. It took a non-Christian to do it because, a) he was an accomplished director who knew how to use the medium; and b) he was not having to justify his every choice to a church committee.
But to get back to Card, here’s the pleasure of someone who can pick up Hugos and Nebulas – but also has a strong religious grounding. When he reads the Old Testament he’s far more open to let the revelations of the startlingly candid Pentateuch direct the mood, the flavour of his writing – as opposed to many of the pre-suppositions of mainstream faith. Card is hard on himself, he doesn’t like characters to act for no good reason. So he set himself a formidable task of making sense of some of these Old Testament actions. Most ambitiously, he’s even trying to make sense of the oversoul – something dancing very close to heresy. But also something that surely should be at the heart of a bible believer: if these words are so vital, if the LORD is real and this is His revelation, we should seriously consider it.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not an adaptation of Genesis. This is an SF book with all sorts of alternate ideas (such as the role of women – here given far more space and power than in the world of the Patriarchs). But that being said, at times I felt he really had caught something of the spirit of, say, Joseph and his brothers. Anything that means that the people described in the bible are not just names to be memorised, but people you can empathise with or react to, surely is a useful tool to understanding.
For anyone who does have a belief in the personal God of the bible, at least in the church cultures I’ve experienced, has struggled with the whole deal of what is supernatural prompting of a divine, in-dwelling Spirit, and what is your own will and projection (and what is even temptation). People like Abraham. Is this sacrilege – to audaciously try to relate ourselves to such a hero as Abraham? I suspect not – indeed, quite the opposite. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s words (in his journals) about Plato:
“Why did Socrates compare himself to a gadfly?”
Because he only wished to have ethical significance. He did not wish to be admired as a genius standing apart from others, and fundamentally, therefore, make the lives others easy, because they could then say, “it is all very fine for him, he is a genius.” No, he only did what every man can do, he only understood what every man can understand. Therein lies the epigram. He bit hard into the individual man, continually forcing him and irritating him with this ‘universal.’ He was a gadfly who provoked people by means of the individual’s passion, not allowing him to admire indolently and effeminately, but demanding his self of him. If a man has ethical power people like to make him into a genius, simply to be rid of him: because his life expresses a demand.
Tell me this isn’t how many deal with Christ – despite constant biblical commands to strive to be like him. This was a vital aspect of the incarnation – to say, “This is what you can do.”
I can’t say I’m always convinced by where Card goes, but I admire the honesty of the attempt to really engage with these biblical people. My own protestant tradition proudly stands on the primacy of the bible’s authority, yet many a sermon brings a lot more to the text than it takes from it.
What do we do with Card’s novel explanation for the oversoul’s contradictory attributes: at one point omnipotent and overwhelming, at another inactive and silent. A restatement of the eternal challenge that, given the ugly things that go on in the world, God can either be omnipotent or good, but not both. Well, for this SF novel, the answer is that the oversoul is NOT omnipotent – rather it’s having some satellite and maintenance problems – go reconcile that with your creed. An interesting foil here is C.S. Lewis’ own SF series, where this dilemma is explained by presenting Lucifer as the fallen angelic guardian of earth.
I don’t quite know how Card’s own church feels about him throwing about such speculations – I suppose it’s a big enough body to have mixed feelings.
I was disappointed, I suppose, that his fine mind didn’t come up with some palatable reconciliation of a loving God with one who judges whole cities: men, women and children. I mean, Card gave it a real go, and tried to demonstrate to us that the people of Basilica are both realistic and, when you get down to it, making choices that justify their destruction. Milton acknowledged his aim in Paradise Lost – “To justify the ways of God to Man” (there, I think in this review I’ve pretty much now exhausted all my literary pretensions), and there’s something similar going on here. Although I wonder, given Card’s obsessions with his characters, whether this is more an attempt to make his oversoul make sense according to his own standards of consistency. (By the way, the reason I’m not convinced is not so much because the book isn’t internally consistent, it’s more the reality test. I’ve lived in Christian and non-Christian communities, and not found some definitive behavioural difference that would begin to justify condemnation of one or the other. Have to fall back on the trusty old, “Who are you, mortal, to think you can judge God?”
But, again, good on Card for even understanding the issues, and presenting an alternate world which has a crack at considering some of the sorts of things that are central to Christian faith: the place of scripture; the nature of God’s interaction with people; the extraordinary stories of key biblical figures.
PS: Having glanced at a few amazon reviews I’m bemused to find that what I assumed was Card’s close consideration of books like Genesis and Exodus was actually, it appears, really a response to – at times even an imaginative retelling of – 1st Nephi in Joseph Smith’s ‘Book of Mormon’. Maybe Joseph was the author more influenced by the Torah.