Again Lodge does a great job, weaving (this time) a holiday he must have had to Hawaii (and justifiably a working one!), and his interest in theology into his standard redemption through fornication plot. I was struck by the total opposite theme to that of ‘Seville Communion’: for Pérez-Reverte the priest’s seduction is his downfall, his loss of identity and strength; for Lodge it is the (ex) priest’s enlightenment and liberation.
There’s also that tradition (back to Wodehouse? Even John Cleese) of the inhibited Englishman looking to the fresh and open American to free him. Indeed, the US lover is almost like a Greek chorus, blithely stepping in with all the answers.
As in Therapy the persona is self-consciously narrating himself, but not to be undermined: he’s meant to appear pretty self-aware. There’s also Lodge’s signature toying with other genres and perspectives: diary, postcards, letters.
He is deliberately writing a comedy, so he can’t leave Bernard in his lonely disenchanted state, but in How Far Can You Go he managed to present pros and cons of several different perspectives (although even there the priest’s hope is in loss of faith and leaving the church), while here he makes it out to be simple: the one essential to happiness is having a good sex life. I get the impression that Lodge partly unconsciously resents the ‘wait until lifelong monogamy/marriage’ value he was brought up with, perhaps feeling he missed out on lashings of great sex, and had much of his earlier contacts marred by guilt and ignorance due to it having to be hidden. I dare say in some ways he has a point, but it’s naïve of him to presume that promiscuity is necessarily better.
This line that Bernard (once he’s lost his faith and is getting some) ‘has come a long way from being a thurible bearer at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’ is an unfair dismissal of anyone who has ever stayed with the church, as if they are automatically immature and ignorant. Sure, some are – but are we to say that, for example, Jesus was without insight because he was celibate? Moreover it misses the observation of Ecclesiastes: that sex, among other things, will not ultimately satisfy. Not to mention that there are some immature and ignorant people that are getting laid.
There is a hint of some awareness of this when Bernard muses earlier in the novel that if leaving the church was meant to be such a wonderful emancipation, then why has it left him directionless and despairing. But later we find it’s just because he hasn’t been having good sex. I like the way that in High Fidelity Hornby turns this around, pointing out some of the weaknesses and immaturity in the contemporary opposition to monogamy.
Has Lodge never met a wise believer? He even discounts the myriad Christians he has read so much more of than me in the Western literary tradition. In his concluding lecture on contemporary theology, a helpful and concise summary (albeit something deeply flawed, particularly his wildly erroneous rendering of Jesus’ sheep and goats analogy), he seems to assume that spiritual insight works in exactly the same way as technological research or popularity: anyone from any age who believed in a literal heaven or hell (simpletons like Jesus, St. Paul, John Donne, Keirkegaard – Lodge could name so many more than I could if he wanted to) is blithely dismissed, just as one might dismiss some ancient’s ill-informed speculations on astronomy. The argument is simply: ‘most popular theologians today believe…’. Much as this is a significant fact, spiritual and moral matters don’t work to the same empirical testing: you might as well say the Spice Girls have more insight into character than Ben Jonson, because they were born later and shift more units annually.
Lodge, through Bernard, doesn’t justify disbelief in hell, merely assumes it as a sophisticated, informed stance. He’s particularly arrogant in quoting something from, I think, T.S. Elliot, saying its ironic that the ‘best’ people tend to be inactive, but the ‘worst’ (extremists, fundamentalists) are all too active. This one isn’t too hard to challenge: it’s an intellectual saying to other intellectuals that people like himself are the best because they sit around discussing things interminably but never seem to actually do anything. It might show a little more honesty to say that part of being one of the ‘best’ people would include your record of passionate action. It only seems to be these weirdo extremists that are blowing up buildings (or, ahem, tending lepers) – and c’mon, it doesn’t take too much insight to realise that weirdo extremists don’t just happen – even the terrorist ones – but there but for the grace of God go I: if someone starts bombing your home town and you do anything about it, you’ll be defined as a weirdo extremist by armchair intellectuals in other parts of the world.
Is it that Lodge knows all this but was fitting to the conventions of comedy – he has to have a simple happy resolution, I shouldn’t carp at him for it? (I’m about to give a glowing review to a Wodehouse book, but am hardly faulting him for a ridiculous barrage of marriages) No, he’s the one who raised a lot of these issues and he is pushing a point – that’s part of his attraction: he gives you a lot more to think about than Wodehouse, and he’s generally a honest and insightful writer (here I am panning him, when he has more perceptive thoughts over breakfast than I do in a year). However I do think he’s denying the existence of any evangelical with half a brain, and I don’t think, given the information available to him, that’s justified.
Oh, and that bit about being wildly erroneous about Matthew 25. He has gone for that smug line of liberals of on the one hand blithely dismissing the core of Jesus’ life and teaching as mere myth, and then on the other grossly misquoting one sentence as if to say they’re the only ones who really understand and value what he was getting at – these fundamentalists have missed the boat altogether – Jesus was a liberal too. They subtly demand legitimacy from something they’ve utterly rejected. What utter crap. Really, Lodge suggesting the sheep and the goats was Jesus preparing the way to allow us to dispense altogether with notions of heaven and hell. Sure the reason people enter heaven or are disbarred does have disturbing implications for much reformed theology, but it hardly challenges the notion of hell. Jesus talks about hell more than anybody (get a concordance and count ‘em). And, um, excuse me, but aren’t we just forgetting the crucifixion altogether ‘the son of man came to give his life as a ransom for many’ – salvation does figure hugely in Jesus’ theology: indeed, the sermon on the mount is in many ways a massive rejection of humanism – sacrifice anything earthly for the hope of eternal rewards. No, this interpretation of Matt. 25 is at best foolish, at worst dishonest.