Loyal readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for a short, well-packaged book on an interesting topic. So it is no surprise that I was snared into picking up The Afterword by Mike Bryan. It is bright orange (or green depending on your copy) and comes in under 200 pages in a 4 X 6.5 inch package. On top of that it is a fascinating experiment, especially as a first novel. It is written as if it were the afterword to a best selling novel about a man who discovers that he is divine. As such the book is an odd yet intriguing discussion touching on culture, religion, literature, and a number of other areas of life. Its two main themes, however, seem to be the art of constructing a novel and the role of faith and meaning in modern life.
The sections that touch on the process of constructing a novel are interesting, especially if you are a writer. Bryan artfully discusses and describes the process he used to construct and manage his novel, despite the fact that this novel is fictional. "The Deity Next Door" involves a young American who comes to realize that he is in fact divine - God on earth. The author uses this fictional work to discuss issues like character development, plotting, and setting. The hook of writing a "fictional work about a fictional work" forces you to think about the issues involved in writing a novel from a fresh perspective but it is also distracting. Bryan raises issues you might never have thought of (like how certain character names might be distracting) but because there is no "real" novel the topics can become too abstract. At some point you begin to wish there was an actual book to refer to.
To be honest the more interesting parts are those that touch on belief and faith in an increasingly scientistic and materialistic world. The central conceit of The Deity Next Door is that modern readers would not accept a second coming of Christ the way described in scripture. Bryan uses the difficulties of creating a “second coming” in the 21st century to explore religion, faith, and meaning. Along the way he hits upon some interesting topics and reveals some insight into these issues. He tackles a host of critical issues of faith from the nature of Christ (fully human or fully divine or both?) to the inerrancy of scripture and the role of miracles to the exclusivity of Christianity and the historicity and centrality of the resurrection. Let me give you a taste of some of the quotable sections on these topics.
During a discussion of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics Bryan boils down Christianity to its basic, and revolutionary, idea:
[A] large part of the problem between the two main wings of Christianity is simply the audacity of the basic claim that an itinerant Jew born in a crude manger two thousand years ago and subsequently crucified on a Roman cross for his heretical message and truculent behavior is God Incarnate, the key to the truth of the cosmos. This revolutionary is the only redemption recognized by God for our original sin in the Garden of Eden? Swear allegiance to this incredible story or suffer the consequences for all eternity? Even by the standards of Jesus's time - pagan and Jewish - these were bold propositions, rejected by all but a handful of the residents of Palestine. Viewed dispassionately in our culture today - well, can you name a more radical set of ideas in the history of Western Civilization?
In discussing the issue of the exclusivity of Christianity, he insightfully discusses the interaction of faith and tolerance:
As for all those easily ecumenical Christians who have no problem at all with the idea that their faith is just their faith, no more, the aphorist E.M. Cioran has the final word. Such fair-minded faith, he declared with deadly accuracy, no longer has the energy to be intolerant. This is where most of us are in the West today, and when confronted with a faith that does still generate the energies of intolerance we're justifiably dumbstruck and outraged.
So what does it all mean? This is where the book tapers off. I won't spoil the ending but lets just say it goes out not with a bang but a whimper. The cause of this lack of punch in my mind is that the author has more questions than answers. He can discuss the literary, theological, and personal aspects of the Gospels and he can ask insightful and thought provoking questions about the role of faith but he doesn’t come to any definite conclusions. In the end he winds up with a sort of wishy-washy view of divinity strongly influenced by process theology of the sort discussed in Gregg Easterbrook's
Beside Still Waters. If you are a person of faith this will leave you a little unfulfilled. Or if you are looking for some answers, or some denouement it will leave you unsatisfied.