instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Flood of questions

I recently scored a review copy of The Preservationist, a novel by David Maine. It's what you might call an imaginative retelling of the story of Noe and the Flood. Surprisingly, for a book not published via iUniverse's FastTrack option, it actually takes the Biblical account seriously.

Well, "seriously" may not be the mot juste; there's a lot of humor in the book. You might say "faithfully," but there's also a lot of irreverence. But it's irreverence from some of the characters, not the author. Maybe the way to put it is that the novel treats the story of as though it were actually true.

So there really is a Noe, who really is six hundred years old; he really does speak with God; he really does build an ark (his son Cham designs and maintains it); he (or rather, his daughters-in-law) really do get all the animals of the world on-board; there really is a world-wide flood, and a dove with an olive twig, and a rainbow, and a shameful incidence of drunkenness, and a plan to repopulate the world. And all along the way, coincidences and miracles occur that prove God is with Noe and his family in their work.

It's refreshing, really.

Of course, it's also a novel written in the early 21st Century, so what gets added to the Douay Rheims version (hence "Noe" rather than "Noah") is a certain male feminist sensibility. The daughters-in-law are all smarter and wiser than the men in the book; they philosophize and theologize in more or less modern ways, and so come off as more sympathetic characters than the what-you-see-is-what-you-get men. Even Noe, God's ever-faithful servant, is content to know and do God's will without going too far down the path of why.

Unless we bleach the story of the Flood of all meaning beyond the kindergarten Sunday School level, it raises a lot of questions I suspect most of us have never bothered to ask. Principally: why would God destroy His creation in this way? There's one passage in which Bera, Sem's wife, reports the answers of all those on the ark:
Father:-Because He wishes to cleanse the world of sin and punish the unbelievers.
Mother:-Because He can.
Sem:-Because He wants to encourage us to do better.
Cham:-Because He's got no respect for His own creation.
Ilya [Cham's wife]:- Because, like most males, He loves destruction for its own sake.
Japheth...:-Because He's the boss and don't you forget it.
Mirn [Japheth's wife]:-Because He wants to see what we'll do.
None of these answers is satisfactory, but my own (because there is no limit to the suffering He makes available to us, for reasons only He understands) is no more so.
I don't know why David Maine chose the story of the Flood, of all the mysteries of God proposed to man through the Douay Rheims Bible, as the basis for a novel. (I also don't know why he chose that translation, unless it was simply to use the archaic "Noe.") But I'm all for raising theological questions in entertaining ways, and I suppose the Flood Story is universal enough that it can ask the questions without being rejected up front. And if you read the answers the character give to, "Why did He do it?", you see that they are pretty much as relevant when the "it" is what happens on any given day as when it's the end of all flesh.

As it happens, the publisher has put together a reading group guide to the novel, which is basically a set of nine discussion questions. Most of them look at the literary aspects of the novel -- e.g., "How does the book's structure contribute to its pacing and emotional resonance?" -- which I'd bring up if this were a full-blown book review. But it does include this question, the answers to which in reading groups around the country (pardon my parochialism, but other countries would have other publishers) might be very interesting:
According to Father James Martin, a Catholic priest quoted in USA Today, the current trend of Bible-oriented books is "theology lite... some is nourishing, most of it isn't. But it's easily digested and makes few demands." Is that a fair criticism?