Beyond Belief. A Book Review

The following essay originally appeared at the web-site, but I'm posting it here for purposes of inciting discussion. Jim Crace, an atheist, has written a novel dramatizing the New Testament Temptation of Jesus.

(When Jim Crace's Quarantine was published in England, it won the 1997 Whitbread Prize for fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Now its appearance in the United States has unleashed a torrent of praise from the likes of John Updike, Mary Karr, and Patrick McGrath. At first glance, Crace's novel may seem like an odd candidate for universal acclaim. It is, after all, a naturalistic retelling of Jesus' fast in the wilderness, upping the brutality quotient of this New Testament linchpin even as it questions the very possibility of Jesus lasting 40 days without a bite to eat. Yet the intensity of the author's prose and his dune-by-dune reconstruction of the Judean desert have captivated believers and nonbelievers alike. In this exclusive, Crace discusses his anti-Biblical ambitions--and the surprising responses he's received from Christian readers.)

Beyond Belief

I do not like to give offense to those with faith. I say that I'm agnostic. But the truth is I'm an atheist, impatient with the simple-mindedness of the Christian religion, its lack of imagination, its bafflegab. I never go to church. I've never prayed. I've not been christened, yet. So, when I began my novel Quarantine, which retells the story of Christ's 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, I expected--indeed, intended--to inflict some bruises on religious dogma. An easy target, I thought. Christendom has never been in such an undernourished and diminished state. Every week the godless mechanics of the universe, from Big Bang to the tiny chemical percussions of the brain, are revealed in finer detail. Meanwhile, with 2,000 years in which to collect its evidence, the Church--no longer able to claim that the earth and all its creatures have come ready-made from God's Creation Workshop, or that thunder is the Almighty stamping with displeasure at our sins--has been reduced to ritual and display. Plenty of incense smoke, but no divine cigar.

It would be a simple matter. Take a venerated Bible story (Christ's Judean fast), add a pinch of hard-nosed fact (nobody going without food and drink could survive for anything like 40 days), and watch the scripture take a beating. With science as its sword, Quarantine would kill Christ after only 30 days in the wilderness. There'd be no ministry or crucifixion. The novel would erase 2,000 years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the millennium.

Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. That's why they're fun to write. In the book, science does not triumph unambiguously. Faith is not destroyed by doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely. Rather than having to endure the wrath of Christians, as I expected, I found that many British readers received Quarantine as a spiritual and scriptural text--an enrichment rather than a challenge to their faith. What's going on? Correspondents, who have been bombarding me for months, claim that my book could not have been written by an atheist. "The Grace of God," they say, "was standing at your shoulder as you wrote." They're wrong, of course. They do not understand that books have agendas of their own, no matter what the author may believe. Novels and their writers are not mere mirror images. It's the imp of storytelling at our shoulders, not the Grace of God.

So, I'm just as godless as I ever was. But nobody could spend two years writing such a book and remain undisturbed by it. Quarantine has brought me out of hiding. I no longer use the term agnostic as a shield. I present my atheism as something richer than just the bleak and heartless absence of belief. For me it is a powerful persuasion in its own right. A universe that is an outside job, inflicted on us by a Creator in seven days, is a lesser marvel than a universe that is an inside job, the slow, painstaking product of natural forces. Evolution is a greater wonder than all the gods. The Blind Watchmaker is more inspiring than Blind Faith.

Here, I think, is the challenge for all of us who have not been issued with the gene of religion. In squaring up to the blessed and perplexing mysteries of life, we must show how human consciousness can be ecstatic and deeply spiritual without the vulgar, sentimental comforts of a god. Atheists, if they will seek transcendence in science and the natural world, could prove to be the new mystics for the new millennium.

1996-1998, Inc.

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