Orwell thought that the novel was a Protestant art form. This may seem silly, especially when you consider the number of Catholic novelists, and indeed the number of Catholic, or predominantly Catholic, countries where good novels have been written.
Many of Orwell’s views were indeed silly. Nevertheless, they were usually worth considering, if only to ask why he thought as he did. In this case, dislike of what he took to be Catholic proselytising was one reason. Another more persuasive one was his belief that the novelist was a man sceptical of whatever was the current dogma.
If you accept this, and then free the word “Protestant” from association with any particular church or creed, then you may indeed find yourself agreeing with Orwell. A Catholic novelist today who finds himself in opposition to much of contemporary moral culture may indeed be described as a “Protestant”. In this respect one may fairly call the Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read a Protestant, one who is also a Catholic traditionalist and warm admirer of Benedict XVI.
The other day, scanning a bookcase for something I could bear to read again – most of the books on its shelves were novels sent to me for review quite long ago – I picked out Read’s On the Third Day, first published in 1990. I read it then, probably reviewed it, but had no clear memory of it. The title, of course, suggested the subject and on the flyleaf the publishers described the book as “At once an immensely exciting intellectual thriller and a thought-provoking study of the nature of faith.”
A body is discovered in an archaeological dig under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Preserved in a large jar, it seems to be that of a crucified man in his early 30s, and there are marks on his head which might have been made by a crown of thorns. The implication is obvious. The reader may be suspicious because the dig has been organised by a branch of the Israeli secret service, one member of which is present at the discovery and is the distinguished archaeologist’s fiercely patriotic son. The archaeologist says: “Leave everything exactly as it is. We must have a witness to this, another archaeologist; someone, above all, who is not a Jew.”
So he calls on his friend, Father Lambert, a member of the fictional Simonite order and a professor of archaeology. After viewing the discovery, the monk returns home from Jerusalem, where he is later found hanged. The evidence points to suicide. The body is discovered by Andrew Nash, a probationary monk and Lambert’s disciple and assistant. He is desolate, not only on account of the death, but also because it seems that as a result of what he has learned in Jerusalem, Lambert had lost faith.
It’s not my intention to recount more of the plot which is intricate, well-managed, engrossing and sufficiently credible. My immediate interest is in the two questions Read invites one to ponder.
First, what would remain of the faith if Christ did not rise from the dead on the third day? The physical resurrection is at the heart of the Christian message. It is also something that differentiates Christianity from Judaism and Islam, and which many today find hard to believe. There is a key chapter in which the leader of the Simonites (an American cardinal), their prior in Jerusalem and a distinguished Dutch Dominican discuss the significance of this discovery, which is apparently supported by a recently discovered version of Josephus’s History of the Jews in Old Slavonic. Impressed by what they have seen, they don’t seemed perturbed by this timely coincidence.
The cardinal sums up blandly: “Far from representing a threat to our faith, it may be a vitally important sign of the times – the culmination of the new spirit in the Church which came with Vatican II, and a portent of a new maturity in our relationship with our Creator.” Here, Read catches precisely the tone of a complacent, trimming establishment; it will be easier to sell the idea of a non-physical resurrected Jesus. At first this indeed appeals to young Andrew, the novel’s decent, somewhat naïve hero, even though it seems to have caused Father Lambert to despair and brought him to the grievous sin of suicide. Read, characteristically, doesn’t give his protagonist an easy ride.
The nature of the Resurrection – any resurrection? – also raises the question of hell. For most of the history of Christianity, the terrible reality of hell was accepted with fearful certainty – hence the importance in the Catholic Church of receiving the last sacraments and not dying unshriven. In the past 200 years many have come to doubt the existence of hell and of punishment after death for sins committed in life. There are still hellfire sects whose members view the prospect of hell (for others) with the same relish as the Presbyterian minister who imagined the damned looking up and crying, “Lord, Lord, we didna ken,” only to receive the stern response, “Well, ye ken the noo.”
Many now think of hell as a metaphor: it means separation from God – though what this might entail in an afterlife is not, perhaps cannot be, spelled out. Piers Paul Read himself, in a newspaper interview some years ago, said he experienced anxiety at the thought that in the life to come he might be separated from his wife and children because he was a Catholic and they weren’t.
More recently, after nights troubled by bad dreams, even if these stopped short of being nightmares, I have wondered if these might be a foretaste of life after death – a running movie narrating one’s failures, fears, dishonesties and so on.
Who knows? What is clear is that this novel of Read’s is not only, as the publishers claim, “a brilliant entertainment”, but also a book which makes you think and feel, one which challenges complacency and disturbs certainties. Protestant indeed.
Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer