by Richard Holloway

Lost In A Haunted Wood

October 28, 2009 | by Richard Holloway

WHATEVER YOU YOURSELF make of religion, you have to admit that religious anxiety has prompted some great fiction. But before moving on, I probably ought to bring the modifier on the last word in my previous sentence to your attention: I am referring to great fiction, and I am suggesting that religious anxiety can sometimes stimulate it. Sadly, though the kind of writing about religion I value is scarce, there is a sickening abundance of bad fiction about religion available at the moment – and it makes my point. Take, for example, the work of Tim La Haye, now reckoned to be more influential in Christianity than Billy Graham. La Haye is the author of the Left Behind series of novels about the coming end of the world and the period of rapture for the elect that will precede it. He has sold more than 30 million copies of his books through outlets such as Wal-Mart, making even the sales for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code look sluggish. La Haye is a propagandist for the kind of apocalyptic Christianity that is now such a dangerously rogue element in American foreign policy.

Well, La Haye may be a prophet of the end-time, but he is not writing great religious fiction, mainly because there is no angst in his writing, no existential anxiety, no doubt gnawing at the guts of the believers who feature in his pages. According to the author of Scotland’s latest entry onto the field of writing about the struggles of faith, even God seems to hate what’s happened to religion and, a fortiori, what’s happened to the role of religion in fiction. In The Testament of Gideon Mack James Robertson’s eponymous hero is an adulterous Church of Scotland minister, promisingly riven with doubt. He meets the devil in an underground cave and is surprised by his reply when he starts quizzing him about God. “I feel sorry for him, actually. What’s in this for him? If things are going well, people forget about him. They unchain the swings, turn the churches into casinos and mock anybody who still believes in him. He’s a very easy target. And who does he get left with? Fanatics and maniacs of every faith and every persuasion, who want to kill the heretics and blow themselves to pieces in his name. I feel sorry for God, I do. I mean, what a thankless fucking job. It must be like running the National Health Service when nobody believes in it anymore.”

I suspect that Robertson’s edgy, uneasy look at the state of religion in Scotland today mirrors his own anxiety about how to write about something so fundamental to human self-understanding as religion, when its noisiest proponents are so crass and offputting. The kind of religious figures available to novelists today do not lend themselves to the struggle and sorrow that marks great fiction. The gross certainties and ugly prejudices of the religious style of our era better lend themselves to caricature and parody than to the romance and tragedy of wonderful writing.

It was the absoluteness of the claim of faith, and the frailty of those who tried to respond to it, that used to give tension and adventure to the role of religion in literature.

John Updike, for one, thinks those days are over. This is how he put it in Memories of the Ford Administration:

Modern fiction…thrives on showing what is not there: God is not there, nor damnation and redemption, nor solemn vows and the sense of one’s life as a matter to be judged and refigured in a later accounting, a trial held on the brightest, farthest quasar. The sense of eternal scale is quite gone, and the empowerment possessed by Adam and Eve and their early descendants, to dispose of one’s life by a single defiant decision. Of course, these old fabulations are there, as ghosts that bedevil our thinking.

I know whereof Updike speaks, because disposing of my life “by a single defiant decision” is what I attempted to do when I was twelve years old, and it was a novel that prompted it, about a priest. I don’t know whether people read A.J.Cronin nowadays, but he was a bestseller when I was growing up in the Vale of Leven. And he was a local man made good. He was born in Cardross and went to Dumbarton Academy, just down the road from Alexandria, where I had just discovered St Mungo’s Episcopal Church and its extremely high church rector. The novel that grabbed me and changed my life for ever was Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, later made into a movie featuring a new actor called Gregory Peck. The book was the story of Francis Chisolm, a Catholic priest working in China as a missionary. Father Chisolm, like all the best priests in popular fiction, was broad and liberal in his sympathies. He admired Confucianism, lived a simple life, believed in ecumenical cooperation between Christians, and was strongly disapproved of by his religious superiors. Maybe I’d find The Keys of the Kingdom cloying today, but it was the precipitating factor behind the decision that impelled me towards ordination.

Of course, the thing you discover, once you have given yourself defiantly away to some great romantic purpose, is that very little changes, mainly because you have brought yourself along for the ride and you soon begin to get in your own way. When novelists write about the struggles of the clergy they usually close in on the three main sources of tension in the priestly life, doubt, drink and sex. This is Graham Greene territory, of course. Being a broken man himself, Greene knew how to probe the pain and romance of faith – and its failed practitioners – better than anyone else. Even those of us who never ended up in a prison cell in Mexico waiting for execution, like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, knew something of what his self-disgust felt like. We knew what he was on about when he described the sadness of missing happiness by seconds at an appointed place. A little more faith, a little more self-discipline, and maybe our tormented hearts would be less tormented. Yet we also knew somewhere deep inside that it was the torment that kept us human. Being a kind of priesthood themselves, writers understood this better than anyone else. Ten-nessee Williams knew that if you succeeded in exorcising your demons, you’d end up destroying your angels. And Iain Crichton Smith understood that “from our weakness only are we kind”. Greene would have agreed with them both. There was a human solidarity in weakness, a fellowship in failure. That’s why the spoiled priest in his greatest novel was overwhelmed with compassion for other losers. When you looked at other men and women, “you could always begin to feel pity. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.” And that had to include self-hatred. In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is understood, everyone is wearily forgiven.

But it should be no surprise that books teach this kind of wisdom better than anything else. After all, we only know of Jesus because of a book. And at the heart of that book, in spite of the heavy centuries of doctrinal bullying it has prompted, the Iain Crichton Smith note sounds clearly. It was only the sinners who understood Jesus. The failures. The ones who knew they’d never learn to hold it together, and were made kind by the knowledge of their weaknesses. That’s the experience you still find at the heart of all the best writing about the impossible yet unquenchable longing for the given-away life. You find it in Tennessee Williams’ losers, reaching out to each other over all those broken gates.

And you find it less tragically, more defiantly asserted in John Updike’s novels, whose religious protagonists are constantly being wrenched apart on the wheel of sexuality, though never quite breaking, never quite capitulating to the disgust religion seems to have for sex, always seeing it somehow as a felix culpa, a fault that mediates more grace than sorrow. Maybe that’s because Updike, in spite of his recent switch to the Episcopal Church, is at heart a Barthian, a Lutheran, who does not believe humanity can ever redeem itself. He does not think we can clean up our act on our own without God’s aid. Or, come to think of it, even with God’s aid. We’re hopelessly lost in a haunted wood, and we’re never going to find our way out. God either has to forgive us or damn us; and how can He damn what he Himself has made, and made the way He made it? “Created sicke, commanded to be whole.” Forgiveness has to be His business. That’s all God’s good for. And Updike’s defiantly wayward priests sense that. In A Month of Sundays Tom Marshfield, who is Bill Clinton in a cassock, makes lust an instrument of grace. He might be hearing Martin Luther banging his beer stein down on the table in the pillaged monastery and bellowing, pecca fortiter, sin boldly, and really give that old bastard in the sky something to forgive.

If they don’t write them like that anymore, it may be because there aren’t characters like the despairing failures of Graham Greene or the defiant sinners of John Updike around anymore. Certainly, James Robertson’s Gideon Mack is not cut from either of those bolts of literary cloth. Interestingly, Robertson has written an attractive book about an unattractive man, and I can’t quite figure out how it is done. His new novel is about a son of the manse – a freezing one at that – who stumbles faithlessly into the ministry of the Church of Scotland. It is not exactly a cynical decision on his part, but there is certainly no romance in it, no disposing of his life by a single defiant decision. It’s his wife Jenny who persuades him: “A job for life. Not many of them around these days. A roof over your head. The chance to help people, make their lives better. You wouldn’t have to convert them, all you’d have to do is be a decent human being. All right, not a great income, but not poverty either. It could be an interesting life. You could make it interesting.”

So into the ministry he goes, but it’s not even as honestly calculated as that, because what excites Gideon Mack – maybe the only thing that excites him – is that to be on the surface what his father was yet to be so unlike him underneath was an exciting act of secret revenge. There’s a frozen spot in his soul, which is why it is not easy to like him. Fiery sinners are always easier to love than refrigerated ones. And Gideon Mack’s a chilly bugger. He freezes out his wife, and it is her death in a road accident that precipitates the crisis that is at the heart of the book.

One day, walking in a Dantean wood, he sees a standing stone that may not be there. Is his account of what follows the record of a nervous breakdown precipitated by a life of bad faith, or was his encounter with the devil in that underground river canyon an epiphany of darkness made visible? I found Robertson’s weary, self-pitying devil more compelling than the charmless minister he lures to a destructive act of public confession. That may be what he is intending; or maybe the book knows better than its author. Certainly, it provides us with an uncomfortable immersion into the confused state of religion in Scotland today. You probably won’t fall in love with Gideon Mack, but long after he’s limped away to his mountain death he’ll blunder bewilderingly round your own consciousness, stirring up old obsessions, rousing buried anxieties. It’s not Greeneland, and it’s certainly not Updike territory, but it’s clearly a place many Scots will recognise with an apprehensive shiver, as they pull out the walking stick and reach up for the woollen scarf. Religion in literature is back, coming soon to a wood near you.


THE TESTAMENT BY GIDEON MACK
by James Robertson
Hamish Hamilton, £17.99
pp.400, ISBN 024114325X

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