Sunday 29 June 2014

When Faith Becomes Dangerous: Philip Kerr’s Prayer

When I submit reviews of thrillers for Critics at Large, I do not usually include them in this site because they are not relevant to the two volumes of That Line of Darkness. I make an exception here because what starts out as a police procedural turns into a Gothic mystery.

Over two years ago, Lawrence Krauss posted an article in The Guardian about the vehement animosity expressed toward individuals who were not believers. A 16-year-old atheist from Rhode Island had to take time off from school after being threatened and targeted by an online hate campaign for requesting that a Christian banner be removed from her school. She is even described on the radio by a state representative as an "evil little thing." Krauss also alludes to a study that suggested that atheists were among the most distrusted groups in society on par with rapists. The article goes on to suggest that science itself has become suspect among believers. The most chilling implication of this piece is the length that believers will go to disparage and demonize unbelievers, including scientists. It convinced me that Philip Kerr’s Prayer (Putnam, 2014), his latest standalone novel, has an unnerving basis in reality. Kerr, who is probably most well-known for his historical crime novels featuring the sardonic German detective, Bernie Gunther, has now turned his attention to the role of faith in modern society and to its dark underbelly. Faith in Godor notinitially appears to be the underlying theme throughout Prayer. 

The UK author has fittingly set his thriller in contemporary Houston with its gleaming skyscrapers and in the ghost town of post-Hurricane Ike, Galevston, (both of which he visited as part of his research). The Texan milieus allow the dry wit of the narrator to cast barbs on the state’s gun culture, its mega-churches and its urban settings. But local colour is merely the backdrop for a novel that begins as a police procedural and gradually morphs into a Stephen King-like modern Gothic horror story. Kerr introduces us to the narrator, Gil Martins, a lapsed Scottish-born Catholic F.B.I. agent, who during the week is a member of the domestic-terrorism unit in Houston and on Sunday, attends with his devout wife an evangelical Church. But given the violence and sometimes injustice he experiences in his job – he discovers that a murderer he helped convict, and who was executed, was actually innocenthis faith is wavering: "What was the point of praying to a God who—I was almost convinced—wasn't there at all?" He is an avid consumer of what he calls “atheist porn” by writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It is another reason, along with his marital infidelity, for his wife asking him to leave.

His crisis of faith happens at a time when his friend, the worldly Bishop Eamon Coogan, asks him to look into the inexplicable deaths of some outspoken atheists, “enemies of the conservative right” that include an evolutionary biologist, who apparently have been frightened to death. Those deaths might be linked to the execution-style murders committed by a serial killer known as Saint Peter who is dispatching distinguished good humanitarians to their heavenly reward. Given his increasingly atheistic outlook, Martins is drawn primarily into the deaths of well-known secularists, a case that defies logic. When he hears a startling confession from a frightened woman who says they were killed by prayerapparently some believers pray for the death of unbelievers and dissenters in the churchhe is initially skeptical but after she commits suicide, he takes the investigation seriously, much to the chagrin to his dubious colleagues and superiors. As Martins stumbles his way towards solving the crimes, assisted by the discovery of the dead woman’s secret journals and video diaries, he ends up at an evangelical mega-church with a huge congregation presided over by a charismatic evangelist. In their first meeting, Martins encounters a carefully-cultivated professional veneer from this church leader but in their second exchange, when confronted about the revelations contained in this cache of documents, the minister’s suave polish is stripped away to reveal his threatening, malevolent demeanour. Martin realizes that the power of prayer has somehow taken on the distinctly sinister connotation and has become a “lethal weapon.”

Author Philip Kerr (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)
Martins is eventually threatened himself, feels stalked by something monstrous and ancient, and he wonders if he is veering into insanity. We have moved beyond the police procedural into the realm of the supernatural. Kerr has publicly acknowledged that he was influenced by The Exorcist, both the novel and the movie. But that was a safer issue because those sources dealt with the malign power of the Devil. In Prayer, we are exposed to something far more audacious, not a kindly, forgiving God but his malevolent presence. Near the end of the novel, Kerr conjures up a truly frightening atmosphere that plausibly would explain how people could be scared to death. After surviving an angel of death, he becomes one himself. As if to justify his narrator’s actions, Kerr in a concluding note to the reader, cites several passages from both the Old and the New Testaments that reveal an angry vengeful God. I will quote two of them: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7 and “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.” Luke 19: 27.

These scriptural passages are significant because they suggest what is at the core of the novel. Several of the novel’s hostile reviews, however, focus on what is peripheral to the author’s underlying intention: Prayeris unbelievable, it is “an agenda-driven tract” and, with some justification, it features an unlikeable protagonist who has what might be described as puerile or adolescent attitude toward women. The conflict between believers and skeptics is the hook that Kerr deploys to entice readers into Prayer but the author’s primary interest is how the fear of God, rather than his love, is the most important motivator for embracing religion, in this case Christianity. Religious columnists do contend that the fear of and love of God is indistinguishable. 

Religious faith is of course only one dimension of faith. Kerr explored its political side in his Bernie Gunther novels whereby the anti-Nazi German detective dodged, finessed and sometimes directly confronted the true believers of Nationalist Socialism. In our time, political faith, that is reliance on gut feeling, instinct and what feels right, in short, common sense has become a contemporary ideology. It is widely prevalent in political discourse, particularly on the right in America and to a lesser extent in Canada. The current brand of cohorts who call themselves conservatives in true populist style dismiss science and evidence-based criteria for determining public policy as a product of experts and elitists. In his new monograph, Enlightenment II Joseph Heath argues that there is an “epidemic of demagoguery” given that politicians have learned that they can be more successful when they pander to the emotions rather than the mind. They recognize that anti-rationalism has political valence because it carries a visceral appeal. Thinking and careful planning for the future requires hard work; they are time consuming and our brains are not naturally hard-wired for these daunting tasks. Our brains need help from the outside, what Heath calls social “scaffolding.” What he means is that individuals need help from their environment, institutions and other individuals, who encourage critical thinking and debate, who will challenge their apotheoses rather than provide a conformational bias. Lest anyone think that Heath, a University of Toronto philosopher, is indulging in unabashed partisanship, he argues that the political and the cultural left shared this distrust of science, technology and reason from World War II to the 1960s, particularly during the counter-culture of that era. It seems that anti-rationalism and an abiding faith are either percolating or predominant in the culture. From this perspective, Prayer, in which religious faith carries a much higher currency than rationalismindeed the latter is severely punishedmight be viewed as part of the Zeitgeist of our times.

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