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Alive after the Fall Review

Surviving World War III

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In 1946, Nikos Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek, a novel about a laborer named Zorba, who exuded a colossal zeal for life, and his boss, a well-educated, wealthy mine-owner who hired Zorba as a foreman at one of his mines. The two became friends. Late in their friendship, Zorba became ill and, knowing that he was dying, turned to his boss for some comforting words. "I want you to tell me," Zorba said, "where we have come from and where we are going to. During all these years you've been burning yourself up consuming all these books ... you must have chewed over about fifty tons of paper! What did you get out of them?" His boss, the teller of this story, offered him the consolation of what he called "sacred awe":

We are little grubs, Zorba, minute grubs on the small leaf of a tremendous tree. This small leaf is the earth. The other leaves are the stars you see moving at night. ... Some men - the more intrepid ones - reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us... Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: "God!" Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say [simply], "I like it."1

Kazantzakis wrote these riveting words a half century ago, and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. This image of the grubs stretching out to peer off the edge of their trembling leaf into immense mystery captured a view of God that became a dominant one for several decades after the great war. The essence of this view is that there is a great, terrifying reality that surrounds us, what Tillich would call the holy. The less courageous who catch sight of it call it "God," while the more courageous steel themselves and refuse to give it a name.

This soliloquy from Zorba is offered as our point of departure for this chapter because things look very different now. Zorba contains an eloquent statement of a courageous agnosticism, of the best, most humane, existentialism that came in the wake of World War II. This brand of agnosticism found its standing firm in the face of nothingness to be ennobling, and it had some legs on it, serving as the underlying faith in the works of writers like Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac, and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick. In these artists we find a drive to push the abiding mystery beyond the reach of all words and formulas, and to relish our inability to name it.

In 1994, fifty years later, Douglas Coupland, the author who coined the term "Generation X," and is a reliable interpreter of that cohort, published a novel called Life after God. The narrator in this story is trying to determine why his life is in such a shambles. His wife has left him, he is alienated from his daughter, and he is living in a rent-by-the-week downtown hotel room with an assortment of derelicts. We learn that he is a member of GenX, born after 1965, into an affluent family near Vancouver, Canada. He tells us that he has "been raised without religion by parents who had broken with their own pasts and moved to the West Coast - who had raised their children clean of any ideology, in a cantilevered modern house overlooking the Pacific Ocean - at the end of history, or so they had wanted to believe." He goes on to report,

Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless... Life was charmed but without politics or religion. It was the life of children of the children of the pioneers - life after God - a life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven. Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between dream life and real life - and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.

I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line. I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.

But then I must remind myself we are living creatures - we have religious impulses - we must - and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion?2

Here is the plea of an unshaped religious consciousness, aware of its own aimless desire, craving an ultimacy that is more satisfying than pure irony can be. Here, in this novel of wandering, are echoes of St Augustine, who prayed at the outset of his Confessions, "My heart is restless until it finds rest in thee, O God." Coupland offers us one of the most poignant descriptions of the concept of ultimate concern in contemporary fiction. Without a reality larger than oneself to care about, the capacity to love anything at all is crippled.

From Zorba the Greek to Life after God the tone has changed from the bold refusal of consolation that followed World War II to a melancholic regret over a life that is empty of God. The postwar moratorium on naming the mystery "God" seems to be releasing its grip; the vox populi is uttering sounds that seem to desire recovering a vocabulary for the sacred.

In this chapter the aim is to ascertain what American popular culture, through its skill at bricolage, is telling itself about the existence of God, the divine attributes, angels and lesser gods, providence and natural evil, all topics commonly treated under the doctrine of God in classic systematic theologies.

First, a survey of the signs of the times. There is much chatter about God that can be overheard on the wires of popular culture.

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