Father Elijah: An Apocalypse
by Michael D. O’Brien
Ignatius Press, 1997
576 pages, paperback, $17.95
It was the best end-times, it was the worst end-times. Forgive me that line. Please read on.
“It’s true that Catholics produce and safeguard true art,” I said one evening to my non-Catholic-but-Catholic-admiring friend, “but they also produce a vast amount of kitschy, tacky, pietistic nonsense. And that’s a shame.” To defend my case, I made reference to “the Catholic Tim LaHaye,” whose name I did not know, but by whom I meant Michael O’Brien and the book Father Elijah. (For those of you who don’t know, Tim LaHaye is the coauthor of the gawdawfull Left Behind series, which can only be described to those unfamiliar with Evangelicalism as an unholy mixture of Gnostic numerology and Jerry Falwell-style Zionism.)
Well, my non-Catholic-but-Catholic-admiring friend had, in fact, read that book, and informed that I had misjudged it. Sort of. My friend is a smart girl, and knew the book has deep flaws, but she encouraged me to read it anyway.
“Reminiscent of Tolstoy and Charles Williams,” wrote Thomas Howard. Being an admirer of Tolstoy and a huge enthusiast of Williams, I thought: Hot damn! Maybe I’ve misjudged this O’Brien fellow. After all, Thomas Howard wrote a book on C.S. Lewis (according to the blurb), and he was pretty great. (Side note: what is with books on C.S. Lewis? It seems people would rather read books about him than by him.) Other blurbers included the author of A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken, which every smart Christian couple seems to like for some reason (it has something to do with not loving your wife too much), and Peter Kreeft (who also likes to write books on C.S. Lewis). Let’s give it a shot.
First, some lesser problems. I could not believe the book. The majority of the plot was set in places and cultures foreign to the largely North American audience. But whether in Italy, Israel, Poland, or even (briefly) in England, I could not help but feel like the narrator was a tourist. Monuments, town squares, catacombs, dialects, and conversations pop up gaudily, as if in a snap-shot. The reader is constantly reminded of the expected differences, rather than the unexpected differences, between his native land and the book’s setting. This leads me to suspect that the author has not actually been to most, or any, of the book’s locales. Setting a story in a place you’ve never been is always a bad idea.
This gaudiness is applicable to the characters as well. One particularly egregious example should suffice: Billy, the witty savant English priest. The character is obviously (and even explicitly) modeled on G.K. Chesterton. He is an affluent, intellectual Anglican convert to Catholicism. He is boisterous. He is fat. But that is where the resemblance ends. The reader is repeatedly told that Billy is witty, yet he never offers a well-crafted joke, irony, or retort. He is wise, but is constantly being corrected like a child. He is a literary savant, but he offers nothing more than a few hackneyed Tolkien references to validate this description (i.e., Billy brandishes an imaginary sword and says “onward to Mordor!” This happens about a dozen times throughout the book). Furthermore, these painful Tolkien references are about the extent of Billy’s Englishness as well. Frankly, the character Billy was nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of Chesterton. The only resemblance was on the surface.
But this heavy-handedness was not only present in the setting or characters. This brings me to the second worst thing about Father Elijah: it was too Catholic. Splinters from the True Cross, appearances from Mary, hackneyed defenses of Natural Law, and exorcisms plague the book. (I write this a believer in the True Cross, visions of Mary, Natural Law, and exorcisms). In short, the book is campy, but desperately wanting to take itself seriously.
It was as if the author started to write a book with an easy-gospel-everything-turns-out-all-right-in-the-end ending, but just knew that in order to write a serious book, some bad crap had to go down in its pages. Some of O’Brien’s theological points are legitimate. But that is exactly the problem: they are points. They are pietistic, not artistic. They remind one not of the holy icon of the cathedral, but of the devotional painting from the church library. To give O’Brien credit, he actually includes a bit of self-reference to this when the main character reads a Catholic novel which “had everything” even an unrealistic conversion scene at the end. This, I admit, made me smile, as it occurs just prior to an unbelievable conversion scene.
The worst thing about it: it wasn’t Catholic. The book felt dated. Books like this are always very rough on the corners, and their images are always faded, no matter what condition the book arrives in. They are always old after they are written.
That is because the book is imitating a tiresome genre: the apocalypse novel. There is some kind of event (whether natural or man-made . . . or God-made, for that matter), and there is always an eccentric but insightful protagonist who can save the world, if we will listen to him. There are established professional professionals (at professional conferences) who treat him with skepticism and derision, but there is also an attractive female character who is more respected than he is, and who ends up trusting him (and falling in love, naturally). Yes, despite the fact that the protagonist of Father Elijah is a priest, all of this happens.
This is what I mean when I say that the worst part of this overly-Catholic book is that it isn’t Catholic. The Catholicity is tacked on. It hasn’t touched the book’s core, so every expression of that Catholicism cannot help but feel forced. It is a book without tradition.
Yes, traditions are elastic. There is room for innovation. But if tradition only means tacking on some Catholic subthemes to some Tim LaHaye or Michael Crichton book, then count me out.
This brings me to my final point, the reason this book is important: It is important because it is Catholicism. It embodies the problems in so much of American Catholicism, namely, its lack of Catholicism. Whether in dumbed-down homilies, vestigial 1950s moral sensibilities, 1970s-style guitar accompaniment to “He is the vine, we are the branches,” or banal would-be modern “sacred” architecture, pietism substitutes for devotion. In such cases, “engagement” and “relevance” crowd out a true encounter with time and the timeless, with tradition. So, I offer this advice to American Catholics: stop adopting the forms of the world. This is not a fundamentalist withdrawal. It is simply a recognition that most of the modern world is not worth a damn in hell, the apocalypse thriller being no exception.