Eleventh-grade English with Mrs. Brown in 1963. That was where I first learned about the literary device called "deus ex machina." You remember, that's the one in Greek plays where Zeus or Athene or one of those peripatetic Hellenic gods is lowered onto the stage in the last act to make sense out of an unwieldy plot. I remember writing on my 11th-grade midterm that these days, of course, "deus ex machina" is used solely as a metaphor to refer to any contrived ending to a play or novel.

How little I knew back then. I never thought I would read a modern popular novel where the Son of God makes a cameo appearance in the last scene. But that's exactly what happens in "The Clowns of God," the new novel by Morris West, the author of "The Shoes of the Fisherman." For those who want an update, the Son of God hasn't changed very much in the last 2,000 years. West describes him as "a handsome fellow in his early 30s, trim as an athlete, with the olive skin of a Mediterranean man, and an incongruous head of golden hair that looked as though it had been inherited from some long-dead Nordic crusader."

In all fairness, "The Clowns of God" is not as bad as it sounds. It starts off promisingly enough with Jean Marie Barette, lately Pope Gregory XVII, who has been forced to abdicate by the College of Cardinals. Pope Gregory's problem is that he believes that he had a private revelation from God while on a retreat at the Monastery of Monte Cassino. It's pretty potent stuff: the approaching end of the world and the Second Coming o Christ. Clearly, more than the Vatican can handle. When Pope Gregory tries to explain his vision in a papal encyclical, he is given a choice: Either abdicate or be certified insane.

Morris West originally made his reputation as sort of the Allen Drury of the papacy. His best known books were largely political novels with the engaging twist of being set in the Vatican instead of the Senate cloakroom or the White House. But, as with Drury, there has been a steady deterioration. Drury's fiction became ludicrous when his hard-right political creed became more important than plot or convincing detail. With West, it is his desire to preach a religious message that undermines the realism of "The Clownns of God."

There is nothing offisive about West's theology. As the ex-pope tells an engaging cynic who is the power behind the throne of the French government, "I'm called to give witness, to offer the gifts of faith and hope and loving." Who can quarrel with faith, hope and loving? But it is hard to transform this saccharine gospel into a compelling novel. Especially when Jean Marie Barette calls upon an advertising whiz to help him transform his vision into a best-selling book entitled "Last Letters From a Small Planet."

For a spiritual novel, literary agents and book publishers play a surprisingly important role in the book. In fact, their portrayal is more realistic than West's description of the world of the late 1990s poised on the brink of nuclear war. For Robert Ludlum fans, there are two terrorist bombings and a CIA agent who is all but described as an agent of Satan. But the only real suspense in the novel comes form the reader's growing conviction the West actually may have the hubris to try to describe the Second Coming.

There are, however, a few engaging monents. Listen to Jean Marie Barette try to describe what it feels like to be pope: "I tell you . . . when you stand for the first time on that balcony and look across Saint Peter's Square and hear the applause of the crowd, you really believe you're someone!" Then there is the scene in Paris in which the ex-pope decides that his pastoral mission includes buying a fresh set of underwear and socks for the visiting Soviet agriculture minister. f

Kinder reviewers than I will undoubtedly call "The Clowns of God" and "ambitious novel." But there has to be some relationship between ambition and the likelihood of achieving it. John Milton could get away with giving major parts to Satan and the archangels. But when a middlebrow novelist like Morris West starts playing around with the Second Coming, the result is closer to George Burns in "Oh, God!" than it is to "Paradise Lost."