Wednesday, July 13, 2011

WHEN THEOLOGY AND MYSTERY MEET…

A year ago this month, friends and I were celebrating the publication of CHANT OF DEATH by Pinyon-Publishing. At the time of our celebration, CHANT, a religious mystery on which Isabel Anders and I had collaborated, was slated to come out in August, 2010. One of our celebrations about the book took place in a Mexican restaurant in Cowan, Tennessee where old friends toasted the success of publication and passed around the news article advertising the book. Naturally, this anniversary month, CHANT has been on my mind while I await word on the possible publication of another novel I wrote last year, and, of course, I’d love to receive cause for celebration from a publisher telling me that REDEEMED BY BLOOD has been accepted for publication!

A few months ago, an Episcopal Church group asked me to talk about the “making of CHANT,” and co-author Isabel Anders and I entitled the talk “When Theology and Mystery Meet.” I thought that readers might enjoy excerpts from that longer talk which explained some of the background of our so-called “theological thriller” this anniversary month of its acceptance by Pinyon-Publishing.

“When Isabel and I decided to collaborate on this religious mystery, we were on common ground in that I had a religious background as the former archdeacon of the Diocese of Western Louisiana and a track record as a fiction writer and poet. Isabel has a Master’s degree in Religion and is an editor of “Synthesis,” a publication of biblical resources in the Anglican tradition, and has written many non-fiction books on religious subjects. Isabel and I both love mysteries, particularly the mystical writings of authors belonging to the Inklings group in England during the 20th century that included Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and other literary luminaries of that period. To say that we sat down, each in our separate studies, and tried to emulate these masters when we began creating CHANT OF DEATH would be a stretch of the truth, but to say that certain theological aspects of their work and certain characters influenced the creation of some of our characters, even if subconsciously, isn’t a stretch.

“Briefly, CHANT is the story of monks who make this successful CD, “Godspeak,” and trouble arises when some of the attendant characters get busy committing just about all the seven deadly sins—jealousy, greed, pride, sloth, etc. Then, the murders of two monks occur, and the mystery within the walls of St. Andrews, the fictional monastery, deepens. The Rule of Benedict is woven into the story, a Rule that has been described as a masterly summary of the Gospel’s teaching and a way to deepen the spiritual life. The novel is both sacred and profane, like the Church often is, with all of its warts and all of its sanctity. Benedict, in Esther de Waal’s words, shows that he has a deep grasp of the psyche—like the Abbot, Fr. Malachi, who is the protagonist in CHANT OF DEATH.

“Fr. Malachi recognizes the need for order, inner and outer and the need to be loved. One of the endorsers of CHANT OF DEATH, a professor at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana, said that CHANT was an exploration of what it means to live a holy life in the face of spiritual and physical assaults and describes Fr. Malachi as not merely an amateur detective in pursuit of a killer, but a consummate investigator of the human heart, probing the failings and frailties of all who surround him.

“It is this character, Fr. Malachi, who emerged from the mists of my subconscious which had stored the feeling I experienced when I first read Charles Williams’ DESCENT INTO HELL, a theological mystery/thriller that still mystifies readers. It is a piece of fantasy fiction/mystery combined with Christian symbolism and is not a detective story where the major character is exactly like Fr. Malachi, but the central action of Williams’ novel is based on his theology about one person taking on the burdens of another person’s fears in something called “The Doctrine of Substituted Love,” which Fr. Malachi does in CHANT. The major character in Williams’ book is asked to stand in for someone who is under attack by a spiritual force and by self-offering, this character “saves” a victim from an evil assault.

“Essentially, Williams’ character, Stanhope, carries a burden for a young woman who sees her doppelganger, or image of herself, walking toward her in the street and is terrified. By taking on the woman’s fear, Stanhope contributes to the healing of this woman, and the doppelganger disappears. Fr. Malachi, in CHANT OF DEATH, is willing to carry out this doctrine of substituted love, and it is his intention to share burden, so he strongly resembles the character Stanhope in DESCENT INTO HELL. A brief excerpt from CHANT OD DEATH introduces the resemblance of Fr. Malachi to Stanhope:

“In his previous work as a psychiatrist dealing with disordered minds, Fr. Malachi had revered Jung; but he found that St. Benedict knew more about the human psyche than Jung. The legendary saint had a grasp of this thing called unity that had been perverted by dualistic religions. After his wife died, Fr. Malachi found a way of returning to his heart through reading about the Rule of St. Benedict that had been written in vernacular Latin during the sixth century. Nine thousand words had changed his life…Malachi relied on the supreme importance of love in the biblical book of 1st John to guide him, and he knew he could achieve that love through humility… (e.g., carrying others’ burdens).”

“This is a scant quotation that illustrates Fr. Malachi’s understanding of bearing others’ burdens, but in CHANT OF DEATH, he further carries the burden of his bishop’s complicity in a scheme to save a pedophile, the burden of two converted monks who have an affinity for one another, the burden of a corrupt publicist seeking transformation, even the burden of solving the murders that occur in the face of a feckless detective who misses all the clues, and the burdens of the sufferings of his assistant who has been a victim of one of the seven deadly sins – jealousy. Fr. Malachi becomes the consummate burden bearer, carrying so many spiritual burdens that he needs a grocery cart to hold them all. I see him bearing out T.S. Eliot’s words about Charles Williams—that Williams “was concerned not with the evil of conventional morality and manifestations by which we recognize it, but with the essence of evil; it is an evil that has no power to attract (a person; e.g., like Fr.Malachi) for he sees it as the repulsive thing it is and as the despair of the damned from which he recoils…” as Fr. Malachi recoiled from the despair and suicide of his own wife before he became a monk.

“All this explication about the conjoining of the mystical and detective fiction should easily be understood by Anglicans. As Dean Urban T. Holmes of Sewanee fame, wrote about us in WHAT IS ANGLICANISM?: “Anglican thinking or left-hand thinking is intuitive, analogical, metaphorical, symbolic…The English are rather good at this kind of writing—as the Inklings which included Dorothy Sayers who wrote mystery novels, C.S. Lewis who wrote the Narnia chronicles…and Charles Williams, who wrote novels with the occult.” Those very writers lurked in the background our story board and informed the writing of a theological mystery entitled CHANT OF DEATH.

“And that is what happens when there’s a confluence of religion and mystery. The Inklings did their writing, each with his/her left hand, and CHANT OF DEATH was written with—not one but two—left hands!”

And perhaps this is just enough to titillate you to read both CHANT OF DEATH and DESCENT INTO HELL, both books providing a glimpse of how the subjects of mystery and theology can intertwine in “:story.” As I commented, this is only an excerpt from a larger paper I wrote for CHANT OF DEATH, but it’s a peek into the creation of characters in theological thrillers.

You can order CHANT OF DEATH from Pinyon-Publishing at http://pinyon-publishing.com/chant%20of%20death.html
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