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Christmas Rereading – Fictional Messiahs and Jihads

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1) Stranger In a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
2) Dune, Frank Herbert
3) Round the Bend, Nevil Shute

Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land tops my Christmas rereading list because it considers the making of a messiah. For those who have not encountered this novel in either the original release or the 1991 uncut version (all three of you), Stranger is the story of a young man raised by the puissant Old Ones of Mars, who then returns to Earth to spread the Gospel (and related powers) they taught him. Heinlein uses the story to jab at the tabloid and main-stream press, fringe and established churches, courts and lawyers, and (of course) the government.

But along the way, the story&#8212maybe inadvertantly, although I doubt anything ever appeared in Heinlein’s work that he didn’t plan with glee&#8212underscores the original message of the Christ: love each other; and tells us in a less-brutal (because fictional) way than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the consequences of preaching love to those focused on money, power&#8212or scripture.

The original novel Dune reveals Herbert’s empathy with the nomadic Arab of pre-mandate Palestine. (Remember, Herbert was British.) But to reread this book today is to experience the spooky realization that the Fremen are eco-terrorists.

More to the point, the conversion of Paul Atreidies to the messianic Mu’adib&#8212conservative ruling-class heir to fundamentalist jihad leader&#8212maps the slippery path of proselytic education, leading to the vision of all who believe differently as evil and deserving of death. Whether you see mujahideen or red state/blue state bomb-throwers may depend on today’s headlines more than Frank Herbert’s words.

Nevil Shute himself thought Round the Bend was his best novel. The messiah-figure of this story is Connie Shaklin, a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, whose message is the moral imperative of good maintenance of machines upon which others’ lives depend;

…Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need…
(Rudyard Kipling, The Sons of Martha)

The religious movement that grows up around this inoffensive and admirable dictum eventually leads to Shaklin’s martyrdom&#8212and the quiet growth of a new religion. The story shows the way a religious meme grows; in seemingly-barren soil, fertilized by the religions that precede it&#8212and watered by the blood of martyrs.

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  • Eric Olsen

    very nice, pithy roundup Dr. Pat – thanks and welcome!