Books

'Children of God' Offers a Dark, Norwegian Treatment of the Jesus Story

Bleak and just barely inspirational, Lars Petter Sveen's Children of God is a story well attuned to these dark times.

Children of God
Lars Petter Sveens

Graywolf Press

Oct 2018

Other

It's been called 'the greatest story ever told.' Whichever way you look at it, the life of Jesus is certainly a story that's been told, and re-told, in countless ways. There's something therefore quite daring about a Norwegian writer with high literary aspirations attempting to re-tell the story in a brand new way.

A difficult challenge, to be sure. If one is not simply writing for the religious reader, but trying to reach a broad and thinking audience, how does one frame a story so deeply endowed with multiple meanings already? How, moreover, does one do this without on the one hand risking the elevation of religiosity into high literature, or on the other hand replicating the tame allegories of C.S. Lewis?

Norwegian author Lars Petter Sveen tackles the subject by approaching the life of Jesus indirectly. Children of God, a prize-winning bestseller when originally published in 2014 in Norwegian (and now offered in English translation via Graywolf Press by Guy Puzey), opens with a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes of period life, related in first-person by soldiers, thieves, and other characters who find themselves imbricated in the events surrounding Jesus' life. Gradually we realize these characters' stories are interwoven. Even more gradually, we draw closer to the key character: a desperate father makes the rounds of prophets in the hopes of curing his stuttering son; a woman who is the victim of terrible male violence meets and falls in love with one of the disciples; and then voila! Suddenly the reader finds themselves seated around a fire with Jesus himself, trying halfheartedly to convince Jewish terrorists that violence against the Romans is not the answer.

The defining quality of the book is its dark, sparse prose. This makes it hard to like the book in any intimate way. The characters, with a few exceptions, are mostly unlikeable, unsavoury characters, even while they struggle with their ambivalence about the sorry circumstances fate has dealt them. There's a fair amount of violence – not gore, just dark violence – and many of the characters don't have happy endings. (But then, the Bible isn't exactly well known for its 'happily ever after' narratives, is it?) It's a bleak story. Jesus doesn't really appear long enough to get fleshed out as a character, but that's probably for the best: how would you depict such a protagonist, anyway?

The vague message being delivered here is about hope in bleak and desperate times. Sveen deliberately veers away from the characters we're most familiar with in the Biblical narratives; after all, shouldn't the fundamental meaning of a message of hope lie in its implications for the average, everyday characters? The ones, like most of us, who don't make it into the historical record?

It's these characters Sveen concerns himself with. Not the epic battles between faith and doubt that play out in the spotlight of Calvary, or the showdown with Satan in the wilderness; but the quiet struggles between faith and doubt that take place on the margins of the biblical tale, between those whose faith is all the more remarkable for not even having really known Jesus, even though their lives are touched by his story. Indeed, Jesus is largely incidental to the story; the real focus here is on the struggle between light and darkness in darkening times.

The true miracle, Sveen seems to suggest, is that hope lingers in such dark times. It's a message delivered in bleak vignettes, amid occasional bouts of brutal violence and even more obscure bouts of magical realism. In a time which, in many ways appears as grim as our own, filled with random violence, directed by powers that appear beyond their control, the characters struggle to get through their lives and look after themselves and their own interests as best they can, whether through violence, thievery, or bribery. What they all hope and yearn for is some dramatic transformation to their lives and world, which they hope will come through dramatic political change (liberating their homeland from the Romans), or dramatic spiritual change (discovering a prophet with wondrous powers), or some other transformative crescendo. What they fail to realize is that it's the subtle change in their own perspective – choosing mercy in a life otherwise filled with violence; opting for hope and love in an erstwhile hopeless world – which reflects the truly dramatic miracle.

It's a subtly delivered message; almost too subtle. Sveen doesn't show us exactly how their encounters with Jesus effect this shift in his protagonists' outlook, other than vague allusions to the power of light in the darkness. Perhaps it's simply the sense of companionship provided by the movement which has gathered around Jesus; the gentleness with which an obviously tired and harried Jesus pays attention to each follower he encounters (at least the ones who succeed in forcing a personal encounter: he's surrounded by hordes that wait, disgruntled, and never get a chance to see him at all). Above all, there's the sense of solidarity and being part of something; the give and take of kindness in an otherwise unkind world. In a world gripped by violence and suffering, it's perhaps not surprising that the idea of losing one's life for a movement which offers a brief sense of belonging is a more comforting thought than the otherwise meaningless death and suffering one is likely headed toward anyway.

There's a personified darkness which follows Jesus around too, trying to tempt his followers just at the moment when it appears hope is about to break through in their lives. This element is also a bit crudely fashioned; it's hard to understand exactly what pull the doubt-inducing antagonist exerts on Jesus' vulnerable followers. At times Sveen renders this battle between darkness and light just a little bit too vague and allegorical, and it simply winds up bewildering the reader.

Children of God is an imperfectly crafted novel, but an impressively ambitious one, and it comes to exert a strange pull on the reader. If the novel reads in a disjointed fashion, it's perhaps cleverly intentioned that way. The story leaps around chronologically, offering bits and pieces of stories (rarely whole stories) which the reader gradually links together. Yet toward the conclusion, as the final narrator reflects back on Jesus' life, he reflects on the episodic nature of the stories people have passed on about Jesus, and the increasingly dogmatic and militant fashion in which some disciples are trying to force those stories into a coherent, chronological narrative (future wars might be fought over competing storylines, the narrator speculates in a bemused if prescient fashion). The existence of a plurality and diversity of inconclusive stories that offer hope is more important than a coherent narrative with beginning and end, reflects the old man narrating the novel's conclusion. It's a point worth pondering.

The story's timeliness is more than hinted at by the author: "These have been painful years for our people, painful years for this country," reflects the concluding story's narrator. "It's as if a sickness had come over us, and we'd started eating each other…None of those who've been in power have done anything to change any of this, and now it's too late. Everything's coming to an end now. I'm telling you all this to try and understand why all this brutality's emerged and why the young are so angry… When nobody can see what to do, when everything you do is attacked, when all other means are used up, that's when desperation thrives."

The narrator is speaking of biblical times, yet the diagnosis applies to our own as well. Children of God struggles to offer more hope than despair in its telling, and only barely succeeds. But perhaps its bestseller status in Norway can attest to the appeal of a tale which offers even a tiny bit of hope in these dark times.

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