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Odin, Tenure and Christ
Lars Walker, Wolf Time (Baen Books, 1999)
“Urban fantasy”, where traditional legends stalk contemporary landscapes, has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades, culminating in last year’s Hugo Award to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The genre’s ancestral stock is the Christian fantasy of G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, but most of the present generation, such as Charles DeLint’s blends of Celtic and Amerindian lore, tend to have a New Age-ish cast, and there is little explicit Christianity even in the brilliant work of Tim Powers, an unapologetic Roman Catholic.
It isn’t hard to think of solid commercial reasons why urban fantasists shy away from what has proven to be, if nothing more, the most powerful of mankind’s diverse mythologies. Whether the Christian myth is treated as true or as false, a large portion of the potential audience is likely to be offended. A C. S. Lewis on the one side or a Philip Pullman on the other is the rare exception who writes compellingly enough to impel readers who disagree with his theology to suspend their disbelief. (I confess that I read Mr. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with enjoyment and have recommended it to others, notwithstanding the fact that its author is quite evidently an evil man who espouses an abominable philosophy.)
Wolf Time takes on a tougher challenge than merely presenting Christianity as true and admirable, for it confronts the Faith with imagined-true Norse legend and does not overlook the sins and weaknesses that have historically afflicted too many professed Christians. Among its Christian characters are bigots, terrorists, hypocrites and persecutors. Left Behind enthusiasts will probably consider it Satanic.
The setting is small town Minnesota, where author Lars Walker grew up, a milieu imbued with Norwegian ethnicity and inherited Lutheranism, where religion is outwardly solid but often hollow. The time is a few years in the future, when current trends of Political Correctness and Approved Victimhood have reached their fruition as the government restricts the protection of the First Amendment to “real” religions, that is, those that acknowledge the principle that the concepts of truth, falsity, right and wrong are human constructs and universal tolerance, except of those who deny the truth of relativism, the only acceptable creed.
Historian Carl Martell teaches at a nominally Lutheran college that has thoroughly assimilated the contemporary ethos. He himself feels little intellectual discomfort with it, having long ago rejected his childhood Christianity. He does, however, retain a vestigial appreciation of Christian civilization, a weakness that ruined his chances of academic success at more prestigious institutions, and he harbors a personal contradiction to relativism: He is physically incapable of telling a lie and can detect any intentional falsehood that is uttered in his presence. These idiosyncrasies have grown stronger over the years, contributing to his lonely, celibate life. Almost his only friend is a Lutheran pastor, a traditionalist forced into semi-retirement after a crippling accident. As the story opens, Professor Martell faces the likely end of his career in a false, but unfalsifiable, sexual harassment charge.
His life hurtles in a new and unexpected direction with the advent of Sigfod Oski, a Nobel Prize winning poet who has inexplicably decided to take up a residency at obscure Christiana College. Oski is an exponent of his own version of pre-Christian Nordic values. He has a particular eagerness, it appears, to befriend Martell, who finds him repulsive if not insane. The reader will quickly figure out - long before the characters do - that the tall, one-eyed Oski believes himself to be an avatar of the All-Father Odin and that sinister motives have brought him to Epsom, Minnesota. But is he truly dangerous or a harmless eccentric? And is Martell’s dislike the authentic product of his truth detection instinct or simple resentment at the discovery that the woman who walked out on him a decade ago is now the poet’s mistress?
The struggle between Martell and Oski is complicated by faculty and church politics, the activities of a neo-pagan commune, the personal crisis of an ex-hippie religious broadcaster, and the ominous intrusion of the “Hands of God”, a group that claims to be called to do evil that good may come of it. All of these elements - hardly anything turns out to be superfluous - fall into place deftly at the book’s climax, where the hero must puzzle out how to fight an enemy who will be made stronger by dying.
The novel’s one serious weakness is the way in which it presents its mildly dystopian background. Victimization Quotients, the Definition of Religion Act, the omni-ecumenical North American Protestant Church, Extinctionism and the like are parodies of real-world tendencies, not the literal form that they will take should they prevail in the future. Their introduction into a serious narrative will spoil the mood for many readers, though the flaw is lessened by the fact that much the parody is amusingly on-target. There is, for instance, this earnest reply by the author of the Definition of Religion Act to the charge that it “permits Washington to strip basic civil rights from anyone it disagrees with”: “Narrow left-brain thinkers see the Constitution in a static, literalist way, ascribing the force of law to its actual contents. Fortunately most Americans have rejected constitutional fundamentalism to embrace the dynamic Constitutional Penumbra we’ve come to hold so dear.” Justice Brennan couldn’t have put it more eloquently.
Parody strikes the other side, too, in the person of the semi-literate proprietor of the local Christian/C&W radio station WEEP, whose memoranda to his staff include such sentiments as, “It has come to our attension that some of our personnels have been rumored to have televesions in their homes. This will ceace immediately. Not only is telivision an incidious menice on our moral fiber of our nation, but is the COMPETTION, and a conflict of interests.”
Non-Christian readers my pass Wolf Time by out of a mistaken belief that any story that takes Christianity seriously must be simplistic propaganda. If so, they will be missing an honest, first-rate fantasy that raises important questions but does not try to bludgeon readers into agreement with the author’s answers.
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