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    Book Tour: Leave Those Stones Unturned

    Reviewing That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison, and Apocalypse by Jacques Ellul

    By Phil Christman

    November 4, 2020
    • Rowland Stenrud

      I used to joke with my two young boys by bragging about having the largest Jacques Ellul library in the small city where we lived. I have 21 of his books including a hard copy of his "Apocalypse." I began my infatuation with Ellul when my youngest sister gave me his "The Technological Society." The book that greatly affected me was his "What I Believe." This was the first time I had come across the hope that all would be saved, that is, universal salvation. It was his understanding of who God is that gave him the hope that all would be saved. If my memory serves me, he didn't think that the Scriptures offered unquestioning proof for this hope. Over the years since reading this book I have discovered much evidence for an interpretation of the Bible that indeed strongly supports the belief in universal salvation. And it is "Revelation" that offers the strongest evidence for it. Revelation 7 and 14: 4 gives the reader a look into God's program designed to save every human being. All are saved by the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But not all are saved by believing in him during their earthly lives. The 144,000 is a symbolic number for those saved during their earthly lives. These are the Old and New Testament saints (12 X 12 = 144). These make up the New Creation. The Old Creation of Genesis is also symbolized by the number 144: 6 X 24 hours = 144. These 144,000 are God's firstfruits, that is, from his first harvest of human beings as they lived out their lives on the earth (see Rev. 14:4). They are "from every tribe of the sons of Israel." (Rev. 7:4). These 144,000 are not simply Jews. They are the Old Testament saints and they are especially Jewish and Gentile Christians predestined to be believers in Jesus during their earthly lives. Christian Gentile believers are Israel. They are not of the nations. The word "nations" is a biblical code word for non-believers. And now we come to the rest of of mankind who were not saved during their earthly lives. The first time that God applies his saving work through Jesus Christ to these human beings is when he resurrects them from the dead. They go through the very painful Judgment where they finally recognize the evil of their sins. They begin to experience the the Great Tribulation that Paul describes in Romans 2:8-9. They are then baptized in the Lake of Fire where the old self is crucified. Jesus and the angels are with them during their suffering per Revelation 14:10b. Their prayers during this death of the old self and the birth of the new man is symbolized by the smoke of their torment that rises upward toward the throne of God. These sinners are following the salvation process of the 144,000, but in reverse. While only a comparatively few are saved by having the faith of Christ during their earthly lives, those who are saved in the afterlife make up a multitude that is so great that it cannot be numbered. They are from every nation, meaning that they are among those unsaved during their earthly lives. They were not Israel. John emphasizes the fact that they are from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They are from those nations in Africa, Asia, the New World and Europe that had never received the gospel. And they are from the nations that had heard the gospel, a gospel rejected by many in the multitude that could not be numbered. These people who had been unrepentant sinners during their earthly lives had gone through the Great Tribulation of the Judgment and Lake of Fire. The Judgment and Lake of Fire together bring to the sinner the cleansing and healing power of the blood of the Lamb in which they have washed their robes and made them white (Rev. 7:14b). No believer goes through the tribulation of the Judgment per the words of Jesus in John 5:24. Believers on the earth had already gone through this judgment when they were born again and had died to their old self in the process of being a sanctified believer "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." Notice that the verbs of Revelation 7:15b-17 are all future tense verbs. These new believers WILL hunger no more, neither thirst anymore. "The Lamb in the midst of the throne WILL BE their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water." Jesus was NOT their shepherd during their earthly lives. And, who but the ones suffering in their earthly hells caused by their lack of love for others and for God are described by the Bible as weeping? See Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51d; 25:30; Luke 13:28. But this weeping comes to an end: "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 17c). See also the beautiful passage of Revelation 21:3-4. No one experiences God's wrath in the afterlife. God's wrath is directed at the sinners in their earthly lives. See Deuteronomy 28 for a description of this world's salvation and damnation. God is in charge of everything that happens in the afterlife and so the afterlife is all about cleansing the sinner and healing him, and granting happiness and joy to the whole human family. Revelation has this about God's wrath and when God brings it to an end: Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished (Rev. 15:1).

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    I sometimes wonder how, as we continue to live with the internet (or, it sometimes seems, die with it), the novel of conspiracy will change. On the one hand, our time certainly seems ripe for such a treatment – one needs only to pronounce the names Exxon, or CIA, or ask oneself, for perhaps the thousandth time, who gave Jeffrey Epstein that fake passport. On the other hand, the speed with which both information and misinformation germinate and spread means that the typical structures of such novels cannot work. Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s classic epistemological thriller The Crying of Lot 49, must actually go places and do things to assemble the pieces of the puzzle that has troubled and beguiled readers of that book since 1965, and this going and doing gives the novel a shape. Everything a contemporary Oedipa needs to know she could glean from a few hours on the web, along with much that she merely needs to suspect, and a great deal that she doesn’t need to know, and an absolute deluge of what isn’t true. The facts hide in plain sight, like E.T. among the dolls in the closet. New disclosures and fresh declassifications only confirm theories we long ago abandoned as overly naïve; there is nothing perfectly obvious that is not proclaimed from the rooftops, a few years after it might have made a difference. Or might not have. It is hard to give dramatic shape to the way we mostly gather information now, and even Pynchon’s magnificently inconclusive conclusion gives his story a structure and a sense of crisis, of things coming to a head, that does not resemble how we exist in relation to the news.

    That Time of Year (1994) – an early novel by the increasingly canonical French writer Marie NDiaye, just translated into English by Jordan Stump – is old enough, by a hair, to evade this problem. In any case, the book’s setting, not to mention its fable-like atmosphere, place it aslant contemporary life anyway. It’s about a man on holiday with his wife and child in a quaint European small town. They accidentally stay one day past the end of August, at which point it begins to rain torrentially, all the time. On the morning of September 1, the wife and son go visit the farm next door to borrow an egg, as one does. Hours later they have not returned, and Herman, the husband, sets off in search of them. All the villagers are extremely polite and utterly opaque. The local police tell him to come back during business hours. (You can tell you’re in a Kafkaesque fantasy world from the first page or so – ironically, it’s Herman’s behavior that tips you off – but you still read these pages with mounting panic.) Finally, a creepy local bureaucrat explains to him the unwritten rule he’s been breaking: to find his family, who are just two among many who have gone missing in the town after a too-long vacation, Herman must blend in, act like a villager, stop looking so hard. Things get weirder from there. The book unfolds like a many-textured nightmare, throwing out several allegorical possibilities that refuse to settle into a single message. If we focus on Herman, it could be a horror story about a prideful cosmopolitan punished for his presumptuous treatment of the provincials; if we look at the town, it could be a statement on the shadow side of terms like “close-knit” or “deeply-rooted.” You finish the novel with some idea of Herman’s family’s fate, but what you learn doesn’t really explain much. At the end, it sort of trails off, as do major news stories nowadays.

    The career of the novelist Susanna Clarke seemed also to have trailed off, until very recently. In 2004, she published Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a novel that added something new and permanent to the fantasy genre, and to the list of books that were simultaneously genuine, across-the-board, multi-year bestsellers and lasting works of art. Then nothing, for almost sixteen years – a book of short stories, many of them predating Strange, and that was it. There were rumors, since confirmed, of chronic fatigue syndrome. From the scraps of will and energy that that terrible disease has left to her, she has fashioned Piranesi, a novel that would be a triumph even if we didn’t know how hard it must have been to write.

    It’s a very different novel than Strange, which constantly invited us, through its footnotes and through the Victorian self-confidence of its narrative voice, to ponder and enjoy the intricacies of Clarke’s worldbuilding. Piranesi just drops us into a world, which consists of the titular narrator, his notebooks, his single companion (whom he calls the Other), and some bones and statues, all contained in a frequently-flooded castle that seems to extend for miles. Due to the floods, I assumed I was reading a climate-change apocalypse of some sort. As a big part of the pleasure of Strange comes from the exuberance with which it explains itself, a big part of this novel is the opposite pleasure of trying to figure out what sort of plot the author has enmeshed the reader in – and this, you soon realize, means figuring out what sort of trick the Other is playing on Piranesi. He obviously knows more than he’s saying. Little clues start to emerge; outside presences seep in. I won’t spoil things any further, except to say that Clarke has constructed both a powerful metaphor for the way that discarded ideas still shape the present landscape, and a powerful vision of the damage to a person’s character that can result from a too-narrow obsession with uncovering every secret.

    If seven is the biblical number for completeness, then the three sixes represent the way we try to make a triune totality, to make security and completeness, out of incomplete and insecure things.

    The characters in M. John Harrison’s latest novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again don’t have that problem. They drift through a recognizably Brexit-era England, full of questions about all the things around them that don’t add up – the vanishing and reappearing neighbors, the pop-up businesses that can’t possibly yield any profit, the weird rumors about a secret race of fish-people, the funny noises that come from the plumbing – but they lack the kind of faith that drives a person to try to make a coherent whole from such mismatched pieces. The hero seems to suffer from a kind of mild amnesia, and his sometime girlfriend is too distracted by the question of what happened to her mother. But they’re essentially gentle souls, and our affection for them, plus Harrison’s warm, intelligent authorial voice, propel us through the book. He has captured what it feels like to try to make sense of a world that keeps its secrets not by hiding them but by never shutting up.

    In the Christian fundamentalism of my childhood, the book of Revelation was read as though it were a coded message from some arch-conspirator, a series of Q-style drops from our guy on the inside. You gather the verses, hoarding every detail, hoping to reveal the secret plan that will end with the smiting of our enemies. I later found in a far different circle, that of academia, that this practice of reducing the book to a series of decodings continued, though the content of the messages had changed.

    Jacques Ellul lays out a much more helpful approach in Apocalypse, a study first translated into English in 1977 and out of print for decades, until Wipf and Stock, bless them, brought it back earlier this year. I once considered paying over a hundred dollars for a hardcover of this book. Then I asked myself what Ellul would think of me for doing so. This is a guy – a French sociologist, techno-skeptic, counselor of homeless youth, former mayor of Bourdeaux, and one of the most broadly helpful and fascinating Christian thinkers of the post-World War II era – whose love of Jesus is so serious that he once argued, in Money and Power (1984), that we shouldn’t save money. Whatever God gives you, dribble it out to the less fortunate immediately, and rely on God to help you next month, when the car inevitably needs a new transmission. Needless to say, I have not lived by this creed consistently, and I have often spent such amounts of money on books as left me feeling like a vampire tick on the social body, let alone the body of Christ. But this one time, I couldn’t do it.

    Mind you, any Ellul book is worth that price. For all his midcentury-French-intellectual traits – the obscurity that can feel obscurantist, the way he turns every distinction into a dichotomy – he has still helped me make sense of the Bible more than almost any other writer. (Robert Alter comes close. So does George MacDonald. So does Debbie Blue, on whom Ellul was a formative influence.) In Apocalypse, he focuses on the book’s literary structure, which he insists is dynamic because revelation in general is an act, “not a once-for-all established fact.”

    If the Apocalypse is revelation, that means an act of God who intervenes in the course of history, and the book is not the description of this intervention, contrary to what it has too often been considered, nor is it a potential revelation that the Holy Spirit could come to animate (as all the rest of Scripture). As revelation, the book is propelled by an internal movement and the attempt must be made to recover this movement.

    Don’t try to figure out who the Beast is, in other words; instead ask yourself why the Beast appears at this point. And don’t reduce the book to a general message about hope under persecution, as the scholars and scribes do: “If we are before such a masterful construction, it is not in order to make the account entertaining for the readers, nor to fashion some crossword puzzles around a banality.” It is the whole experience of the text that matters, the revelation that comes from the cumulative effect of reading.

    I can’t do justice, in this brief space, to the reading Ellul goes on to perform. The novelist David Rhodes once said to me that a novel is a particular feeling, a single subjective state, that simply takes several hundred thousand words to name. The name of the feeling that Moby-Dick is about is the entire text of Moby-Dick. I would say, in turn, that the name of Ellul’s reading of Revelation is the entire text of Apocalypse. But one fragment that I have carried in my mind for several days is his explanation of 666, that Number of the Beast so beloved of heavy-metallists and edgelord teens. He argues that if seven is (as most authorities agree) the biblical number for completeness, then the three sixes represent the way we try to make a triune totality, to make security and completeness, out of incomplete and insecure things. It makes this reader think of an image of indestructible strength made out of bluster and weakness and shock and awe, all stuck together with tacky photo ops and the phantom reality of a powerful currency. For instance.

    “Not all that this man has done in his life, not all the evil that he has been, but himself, this ultimate breath that God has loved.”

    The bad kind of conspiracy theory also does this: it makes fragments into a picture so large and full that only if we study its details do we start to doubt. But so do all the real-life conspiracies – the governments, corporations, institutions that make some degree of conspiracy theorizing inevitable. Ellul’s reading of Apocalypse moves me, then, because behind everything – in a book that oppressed my fundamentalist childhood, that made me imagine God too as an evil mastermind secretly plotting both the temporal and then eternal torture of every nice non-Christian I knew – he finds love. The justice of God is “neither retributive nor distributive. It is the justice of love itself, who cannot see the one he judges except through his love,” he writes. “Not all that this man has done in his life, not all the evil that he has been, but himself, this ultimate breath that God has loved.”

    We make our little plots in history, I suppose, because we want to be something more than such a bare breath. But we can’t escape being that. And we never needed to.

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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