I am in the midst of writing a novel (as always) and I wanted to share this draft of a chapter excerpt. Dialogue is not one of my strong points, so if you have an helpful suggestions on how to make the dialogue more realistic, I welcome any comments.
From “The Vanishing God”
John Mason, the music director of Kingston University Chapel was a short, deep-chested man with a face so strong and well-defined that it resembled the many chiselled marble statues of saints that were scattered about the chapel. He had brown, deep-set eyes and large brows that obscured them; brows that (some choir members used to say) were as instrumental in conducting the choir as were his hands.
John Mason had a habit of making brief quips about the theological art and architecture of the chapel during choir rehearsals. The front west door of the chapel, for example, showed traditional tympanum imagery from the Book of Revelation: a figure of Christ surrounded by four beasts, the twenty-four elders also encircling Christ’s mandorla, the words of Revelation 5:2 written in Greek on a scroll held by Christ: “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” Below this triumphant picture of Christ was the Kingston University seal which bore beneath it the Kingston motto in Latin: Dei sub numine viget (“Under God’s power she flourishes”). “Kingston may flourish under God if she wishes,” John Mason used to say, “But this choir rises or falls under my watch, so it’s me you have the fear if you fail to learn your parts.”
And learn them they did, whether from fear of God or John Mason. The university choir had a reputation for excellence and they generally upheld it, whether they sang for a liturgical service or a commencement ceremony. A place in the Kingston University choir was a coveted position for many reasons, but the most alluring was the opportunity to study under John Mason. John was not merely a director or player of music, but also a composer. He often wrote original music for the choir, setting liturgical texts to new and haunting melodies. He had been raised in the church and trained as a church composer and had never deviated from that calling.
“The whole thing fascinates me,” he said one morning to his colleague, the Rev. Jenny Divers, as they breakfasted on hot buttered toast and coffee before a conference.
“What does?” asked the Reverend.
“The Church. Christianity. God. How people can believe in it.”
“It’s not so outlandish as you make it sound,” laughed Rev. Jenny, the Dean of Religious Life at the university. “Most of the world is religious in some way, shape or form. Lots of people believe in the spiritual or transcendent and practice their faith daily.”
“I don’t doubt that people experience some kind of transcendent feeling or that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I know when I write a piece of music that it’s nothing great until it’s given life by its performers. But then to take that feeling and attribute it to some obscure carpenter from Nazareth whose follower thought he was God, who may have risen from the dead and is now gobbled up by worshippers at the communion table – that is what I find difficult.”
The Reverend sighed and stirred her coffee. “You know belief is more nuanced than that, John. And historical, physical realities are not the only realities that exist. When we say that Jesus rose from the dead, we don’t mean that he literally came to life again in the flesh. It was a symbolic rising; a theological resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign that humans can have reconciliation and peace with God. This ‘new life’ enabled by Jesus is the ability to love one another – for the community to really come together, in spite of their differences, and build a better world.”
John took a bite of his chocolate croissant and shook his head. “That won’t do, Jenny,” he said, swallowing. “It doesn’t make sense to spin the resurrection as having ahistorical significance. The whole theory collapses when you do that. Jesus lived and died, but people still suffer and die and can’t stop warring with each other. Without the physical resurrection, there’s no promise of a life beyond the grave. There’s nothing Jesus has to offer that hasn’t been offered before. We all believe in peace and trying our best to end suffering and war.”
“But Jesus promised to actually make that dream of peace a reality,” countered the Reverend.
“And how does he propose to do that if he’s dead?”
“By living in our hearts. When we take the Eucharist, we honor his memory and are inspired to do good as he did.”
“That isn’t Jesus’ doing any more than Marxism is perpetuated by Karl Marx. People keep the memory alive. All you’ve got is still a dead carpenter whose life has been perpetually re-mythologized to inspire false hope in Christian worshippers.”
“I’d hardly call it ‘false hope’,” said Jenny. “The promise of the scriptures is that God will enable us to (eventually) love one another and have ‘peace on earth, good will to humankind.’ It’s an eschatological hope. We don’t expect it to come in all its fullness all at once.”
“But that hope is to be realized when Jesus returns. How can he return if he’s dead?”
“I keep telling you: he’s ‘alive’ in a spiritual sense.”
“Ah, yes – swimming around in the communion cup.”
“Well, if you want to put it crassly, yes. His spirit is in heaven and also in the Eucharist. If you believe in a heaven (which I know you don’t) is it so outlandish to think that Jesus’ spirit is there even if his body is dead?”
“Forgive me if I sound blunt, but remind me: if a physical resurrection is so wildly fantastic and impossible to you, why is the idea of heaven and spirits so easy for you to embrace?”
“Because we know from experience that people don’t literally rise from the dead. No one believes that they do (except misguided, over-literalists). A physical resurrection would mean that God interfered with human corporeality in a way that contradicts the laws of nature. Heaven, on the other hand, is a spiritual reality – it’s God’s domain. And of course we can’t prove that it exists either, but that’s where faith comes in. I would like to believe that God is love and wishes to give people a hope of new, spiritual redemption and life – a chance to make a clean slate of it in the world beyond. When I look at the world, its beauty and suffering, I can’t believe that this world is all there is. There must be something higher, something Other.”
“But the New Testament claims more than that for Jesus – that he was both wholly Other (divine) and one of us (human). It claims he was God stepping into human skin and becoming one with it.”
“Those passages about divinity don’t have to be interpreted as Jesus being ‘God’ per se, necessarily. If the ‘fullness of deity’ dwells in Christ, that may just mean that he was exceptionally filled with the spirit of God (which he was).”
“But the incarnation (God made flesh) is central to the Christian concept of God’s love – God stepping into our world and walking around in our shoes.”
The Reverend laughed. “Look at the atheist trying to be a theologian! Are you trying to evangelize me?”
“Of course not. I’m merely trying to point out that your religion is rubbish without a physical resurrection and since the resurrection is rubbish, you haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
“Well, we will have to (as always) agree to disagree. I still stand by my theology and you can stand by – well, whatever it is you stand by.”
“I stand by what I can see with my eyes (or hear with my ears). What is it that you Christians say? ‘Faith comes by hearing’? I believe in music and its power to persuade people that there is a God, even if there isn’t. It’s a drug – a fantastic, miraculous opiate – and I will use it as long as I live (and then no longer). I will be the music while the music lasts and then when I’m rotting in the ground, someone else will live to be the music.”
The Reverend shook her head with the hint of a wry smile. “I like working with you John, but I do wonder how a complete pagan got the position of music director at a religious institution. If your music weren’t so fantastic, you would be considered very draining on the soul.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it? My music draws people to God even if he isn’t there. It’s magic.
“I suppose it is,” said the Reverend, dryly. “Nothing short of a miracle.”