Book World: Three comic works of fiction about God, reviewed by Ron Charles
By Ron Charles,
Behold! Three comic works of fiction about God have revealed themselves to the publishing world. Can the four horsemen be far behind?
None of these super-liberal God-books is likely to shake your faith — or restore it — but together this unholy trilogy is a relief from the “does He or doesn’t He?” debate that generated so many titles a few years ago. We’ve moved, at least a little, from the crucifying condescension of the New Atheists to the zany ribbing of a comic roast.
God knows David Javerbaum is blessed with a good sense of humor. He was a head writer and executive producer for “The Daily Show,” and in The Last Testament (Simon & Schuster, $23.99), he tries to do for monotheism what Jon Stewart does for politics. Presented as “A Memoir by God,” the book comes divided into chapters and numbered verses like the Bible, if the Bible were narrated by Mel Brooks on crack-laced manna. It’s a bawdy circus of theological vaudeville — Shadrach, Meshach and To-bed-we-go! — determined to sacrifice every sacred cow on the altar of farce. This Lord is a Lord hungry for laughs but wracked by insecurities, troubled by “wrath-management issues.” “Like Garbo,” He says, “I had begun in silence, made the transition to talking, and now, increasingly, just wanted to be left alone.”
But with a little encouragement from His agent, He has no trouble “creating a telleth-all.” “I never give myself anything I cannot handle,” He says in one of many clever turns of phrase. As Javerbaum runs through a manic revision of the Old and New Testaments, a great multitude of revelations pours forth, many sharpened to skewer fundamentalist Christians for their supposed anti-intellectualism and homophobia. The first residents of the Garden of Eden, for instance, were Adam and Steve. “In the morning,” God says, “they grew embarrassed, and cloaked themselves in fig leaves; these constituting the entirety of their fall collection.” Kicked out of the Garden, they supported themselves “through foraging and occasional freelance work.” The alpha and the omega of Javerbaum’s comedy are deadpan silliness and startlingly graphic sexual gags, which no fig leaf could dress up for a family newspaper.
God uses “The Last Testament” as an opportunity to correct a number of misinterpretations in the Bible. Noah, for instance, wasn’t instructed to take two of “every” animal, but to take two of “any” animal. “I recommended dogs,” He says, “but I left the choice to Noah; for I have never been a cat God.” And Jesus — “a classic middle child” — was born in a “manger” because somebody misunderstood His instructions to contact the “manager.” Thou shalt laugh no matter how strained these jokes are.
A chapter on modern-day celebrities, “Glossy Ones,” is full of insider Hollywood “godsip”: “I have seen Paris Hilton lost in thought; it takes but one.” A brief selection of “Godlibs” makes a divine party game. And it’s fun to catch up on all God’s faves: “Second favorite painting: Campbell’s Soup Cans, by Andy Warhol. So much soup!”
“I could go on and on,” God says. And you get the feeling He really could, being the Infinite One and all, but that’s no reason He should. Sensitive types might feel uncomfortable when Javerbaum mocks Jesus on the cross, portrays Moses as a pothead or refers to Muhammad as a pedophile, but the real offense here isn’t blasphemy so much as dullness. Chapter after chapter, there’s a lot of wandering in the comic desert, waiting for a good joke to descend from on-high. Creating 12 funny minutes every night for Jon Stewart is an answer to prayer, and Javerbaum’s wit is particularly well-suited for 140 characters on Twitter (@thetweetofgod), but writing almost 400 pages of consistently hilarious one-liners would be a miracle even beyond the powers of you know Who.
For the younger heretic-in-training, consider Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog (Putnam, $17.99), forthcoming next month from England, where the American-born author has lived for most of her life. This sex comedy for teens imagines God as a horny guy named Bob who sends the world into meteorological catastrophes every time he gets the hots for another co-ed. Marie Phillips’s “Gods Behaving Badly” handled this plot with more wit in 2007, but Rosoff has a good time with her hunky ne’r-do-well deity who is not “altogether devoid of talent, but he is devoid of discipline, compassion and emotional depth.” Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, young Bob-God has a prim, exasperated minder: Mr. B, who fusses and fumes and tries to get the King of the Universe to pick up his dirty laundry and concentrate on saving the world. But once Bob spots a gorgeous young virgin who works at the zoo, nothing can stop Him from winning her heart. (This time around He doesn’t want to disguise himself as a swan or a bull — He wants the romance.)
The comedy here is pratfall-subtle, but it’s spiked with some surprisingly tough theological questions about the reason for suffering, the problem of free will, and the existence of God (Bob’s dyslexic, thus the title). The novel has already been banned by a few schools in England, which, let’s face it, is a publicity godsend. The rest of us can relax: Students interested in “There Is No Dog” are probably old enough to handle its goofy sexual content and its funny exploration of religious issues.
A far more subtle divine comedy awaits readers next month in Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (Pantheon, $24), by Alan Lightman. A theoretical physicist at MIT, Lightman is an atheist who’s fascinated by the heavens and the profound philosophical questions that attract both theologians and scientists. If we’re to have any meaningful dialogue between people of faith and people without it, that dialogue will surely have to be based on the sort of mutual respect and appreciation that scientists like E.O. Wilson and Lightman demonstrate.
In this quirky little novel, he attempts to dramatize how Creation may have unfolded. It’s a scientific vision laced with the mirthful aura of divinity. In the beginning, Lightman’s God is an earnest being floating in the Void with His doddering Uncle and crabby Aunt. Waking up from a nap, He decides to “take a chance” and create something. It’s essentially a deist’s version of how everything came to be: God sets down a few fundamental laws — time, space, quantum physics — and then watches, delighted, as an infinite number of universes bloom with matter and light. He follows a godly version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive: Don’t interfere. Again and again, Lightman emphasizes that thesis by having God maintain, “I was a mere spectator.” Once the laws are established, everything else happens over an infinite number of random experiments, “quite by accident”: galaxies, stars, planets, oceans, trees, conscious beings. “Animate matter was an inevitable consequence of a universe with matter and energy and a few initial parameters of the proper sort.”
What elevates the novel beyond these lovely descriptions of how matter evolved, though, is the entrance of a mesmerizing stranger named Belhor, who’s accompanied by two acrobatic creatures. Polite and insidiously clever, Belhor is a philosophical sparring partner — something like Satan in the Book of Job. Going to and fro, he engages God in a series of unnerving debates about the purpose of creation, His responsibility for evil, and the limits of omniscience. As if to avoid any of the messy theological questions on our own little blue orb, Lightman visits civilizations in other galaxies. If he’s dogmatic about the nature of the physical universe, he’s evocative and playful about these philosophical questions, moving freely from Miltonic seriousness to harlequin absurdity. An atmosphere of melancholy eventually settles over this strange novel, as it must, I suppose, when God learns about sadness from his creation. But it remains aglow with wonder.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
The last testament A Memoir by God (David Javerbaum) THERE IS NO DOG (Meg Rosoff) MR G A Novel About the Creation (Alan Lightman)