Wednesday, April 1, 2020
As We Know It - Chapters 33 and 34
God and the Devil would have been lounging about and eating grapes with huge beards had this been a 1950s epic film version of these events. Masculine and shouty, strong and booming, oiled and charismatic they would have lolled about the clouds enjoying the mountain view and teasing each other about the potential outcomes.
The 80s would have pitched them walking through New York; Billy Crystal’s God capitulating to Meg Ryan’s unassuming Devil. The fight to save the world from a disaster worse than spinsterhood would be well punctuated with bagel jokes and supreme coiffering.
If you were around for the 90s version of our deities they’d be gritty and British; from a small northern town, I expect, and packing a punch whilst depressing you to your very core without you being completely aware of it happening. You’ll need comfort food and an optimistic outlook to encounter this duo.
Of course a 00s God and Devil would be wizards. Robes to the floor, staffs to the sky and magic fizzing beneath their wrinkled skin. Hour after epic hour they would duel until every viewer still awake is convinced the ability to shoot sparks out of their fingertips would solve every issue in their lives.
This being a book, I have no idea when you are reading it and so I cannot guess how you’ll have them imagined for this chapter. I can only hope you’ve more imagination than to cast someone you’ve already heard of.
What with this neither being a film, nor existing in any of these past decades, God and the Devil were doing none of these things in none of these places or guises. They were, in a way, hanging out, though. God and the Devil got on very well together; they are the only things in existence not suffering from short sighted sentimentality when they refer to having met “the one”.
There was brittle tension in the atmosphere as the shards of repercussion from Frank’s admission reached their zenith and began to settle into a deflated constellation resembling an outcome. Reacting is interesting for the Devil, because it can never fully know which way it is going to feel for sure until it knows what God’s response is. Of course, the Devil can be fairly sure and, as time has bestowed upon it a greater sense of consciousness, it can slightly prepare for the new influx of opinions and feelings towards an event.
God was shocked by what Frank had said, and it took a fair bit to shock God. Once you've had multiple massacres, mutilations and genocides enacted in your name without you even having seen a memo, let alone OK'd a plan of action, you grow a thicker skin for people making idiot declarations. God had not seen it coming, that might have been the biggest problem with the shock. The race thing had really blinkered It, which was understandable given how fashionable race relations had been in the last millennia.
“Interesting…” The Devil let hang.
“I think this changes things somewhat.” The Devil continued.
“Does it?” Asked God.
“I think so… I think it gives us firmer boundaries for our little wager, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?” Attempting to play dumb when you are God is tough and if there was anyone it was not going to work with, it was The Devil. The Devil sighed and played along,
“I mean, when we made the bet we didn’t have all the specifics on the table. Now that we know what the problem is we have something to aim for as a resolution.”
God thought about this and didn’t like where it was heading. “I don’t see why it has to change things. Jesus will reconcile Sarah and Hamish and then the bet will be over.”
“Yes, I agree - those are the existing terms. What is perplexing me is this term “reconcile”... I think it’s a little blurry. I’d like it to be more defined.”
“They will be back together.” said God, “What more definition do you need than that? They will be a couple once more, the wedding will go ahead and everyone will give their blessing.”
The Devil chewed over this for a few seconds.
“Will it be a church wedding?” It asked. The Devil had a specific voice that it used for questions like this - a childlike one with a menacing edge. It was a voice that told the listener It knew the question It posed was nowhere near as simple as the tone may have suggested. As God had said nothing, the Devil decided to continue, “It seems as though that might be quite a contentious question, that one… Now that we know Hamish’s lack of faith is the problem here. Personally I like Frank, he seems to have his head screwed on right… how is a marriage ever going to work if they can’t even decide whether or not it will be a church wedding?”
“Of course it will be a church wedding it would mean too much to Sarah not to.” God snapped.
“So Hamish will spend his first moments entering into married life lying through his teeth?”
“He won’t take the vows? You know, you’re a pretty integral part of most aspects of a church wedding… I don’t see how he could skirt around it to have a You-free wedding in Your own house.”
“Alright, perhaps it won’t be a church wedding then - perhaps Sarah will realise that she has more respect for her faith and for her fiance than to put them both through that. She will consent to a simple registrar and she will understand that her faith is more than the big ceremonies - it is within every decision she takes.”
God was pleased with that argument. It sounded good.
“Yes, good thinking,” said The Devil, “And then should they have children they’ll agree to not have them baptised either in case it means Hamish having to say something he doesn’t mean?”
“That’s going to be an extremely interesting conversation with the parents down there that are already unsure about how a marriage is going to work; first the wedding is compromised and then the grandchildren. What on earth makes you think Sarah will go ahead with upsetting them like that?”
God was afraid. It didn’t have much experience of being afraid and so It didn’t know how to behave particularly well; if you don’t have a body to experience emotions then they tend to emerge in some other guise. Had God had a stomach it would have churned, God did not and so somewhere down on earth the concept of teen vampire fiction was created. It didn’t know why, but God knew It had faith in Sarah and Hamish; something about them made It sure and God felt that after years of asking people to trust this transaction the other way round, It ought to follow suit and trust back.
“What are you saying then? Just that you think it is less likely now that Sarah and Hamish will stay together? Well, surely that’s just playing in your favour isn’t it? You should be pleased.”
“I am delighted. I just want to clarify the terms of the bet so we’re sure on when exactly I have one.”
“40 days was our bet.”
“Yes, but what has to have happened in the 40 days?”
“They must be reconciled.”
“But what is reconciled? I mean, they’re living toegther working on their relationship now… who is to say that’s not reconciled?”
“We can say that it is if you want. I have no problem winning early.” God poked The Devil.
“No.” Snapped The Devil.
“What then?” Said a God who was losing Its patience (miraculous, when you think about all it has put up with from humankind over the years. Never mind the perpetual wars about nothing; consider the number of times It has had to really listen to Morning Has Broken). “You would like them to marry within the 40 days? Would that satisfy you?”
“It’s a good proposal,” The Devil couldn’t resist, “but it won’t satisfy me. I want them to agree on religion.”
“No.” Said God.
“Why?” Said The Devil.
“Because.” Said God.
“Great argument.” Said The Devil. “Care to elaborate?”
“Because it undermines the concept of a collaborative earth... it would teach megalomania on my part: make me look like a tyrant.'Believe in me or die!' Acceptance of myriad beliefs is very much a part of Our long term strategy for moving forward - it would be folly to mess with it now."
The Devil paused. "Interesting... but it seems pointless to me to be master of a Universe that has gradually ceased to believe in you. What a collossal waste of energy."
God gave a wry smile, "That is what makes us different."
"Yes, yes - we're different. This is hardly groundbreaking stuff." Grumbled The Devil, "But the matter still exists of our bet. The facts are that you sent Jesus down to reconcile Sarah and Hamish's differences. Those differences were thought to be racial and have since transpired to be religious. Jesus needs to reconcile those differences. Can you honestly tell me that a true reconciliation is not going to involve them agreeing on a religious path to follow together?"
God opened It's mouth to respond and then hastily closed it upon remembering the last time It had tried to pass of an unstable truth. The Devil sensed weakness and wriggled in closer to wait for God's reply. God took It's time, considering the options; desperately searching for an escape from The Devil's grasp. Each avenue God explored left It horribly close to agreement with the Devil.
"I suppose I have to agree." God said finally. "The bet must hinge on religious agreement." God's heart sank as It watched the odds of It's side winning shoot away into the distance; lengthening beyond imagination. The Devil looked like the cat who has evolved opposable thumbs in order to begin manufacturing it's own cream.
"So it is," The Devil confirmed in a manner incredibly helpful to a narrative, "That our bet now rests upon Hamish and Sarah being in agreement upon the matter of religion before the end of the 40 days. How exciting."
Hamish was stuck somewhere between relief and absolute turmoil. He tried to think calmly and organise his thoughts into useful columns. In his positive column, he found a growing pile of respect for Frank. While Hamish had no religious affiliations himself, he did find it easier to sympathise with those who did it wholeheartedly and avoided hypocrisy. In the negatives column, he found an image of himself sitting with Frank and adding to Frank’s list of reasons why a relationship between an atheist and a Christian should and could never work properly. Sat, firmly straddling the line in between these lists was the overwhelming desire to be with Sarah and to love her and make her happy until the day he died. He was surprised he wasn’t cross eyed.
“Frank, I can only apologise…” Hamish began, but Frank interrupted him. Frank was an eternally practical man and once a knot was put in front of him he intended to unravel the knot, not try and find out who tied it.
“Let’s put that irrelevancy to one side for the time being.” said Frank, “It’s an unpleasant revelation and one I have no desire to dwell on if it’s not immediately useful to the current situation. Perhaps we should stick to the actual problem from now on?”
Hamish nodded thoughtfully, feeling a little ashamed of how he’d wronged Frank.
“Why did you never say anything?” asked Sarah.
“It wasn’t our place.” Said Frank, “Hamish is a good man and he makes you happy. If you want to marry him then that’s your choice, and not the worst choice you could make, but we can’t help the way we feel.”
“Mum?” Sarah questioned.
“Well, sorry Sarah, but yes I agree with your father. I just don’t understand why it isn’t a bigger deal for you.”
“Because it doesn’t make him a bad person…” said Sarah.
“But it doesn’t make him a good Christian either!” said Katherine.
It was unenjoyable to be spoken about in the third person. Hamish sat still, growing increasingly concerned about his lack of ideas with which to interrupt.
“I don’t know if I think a good Christian is any better than a very good atheist.” Sarah said thoughtfully.
“It’s not about whether or not he’s a good man.” Frank interrupted where Hamish seemed unable. “I don’t understand how you can claim to share a life with someone who doesn’t share your single most important belief. What unity can you have when you are divided on something that theoretically should be the basis for everything in the world?”
“I…” Sarah started but didn’t know how to continue. Hamish wished she could form the words he was trying to mold in his own mind, if she could just start he was sure he could get there with the end of the sentence. What he wanted to do was ask out loud whether his and Sarah’s opinions on things were so very different… they both wanted to be good, they both believed in truth and sustainability and the planet and not kicking things smaller than themselves, what did it matter if Sarah was doing it because of God and he was just doing it? He wondered if this was a valid point or whether he’d missed something fundamental about religious fervency that you couldn’t understand unless you were a believer.
“Marriage isn’t easy.” Said Katherine, surprising everyone. They turned to look at her to see where she was directing the conversation. “There’s so much compromise deciding how you’re going to do the small things, let alone if you disagree on the major things.”
“But we hardly ever argue…” Sarah began.
“I’m not talking about rows.” Katherine said gently, “I mean just small every day things that need to be decided between the two of you - it isn’t easy. And what about having children? If you two can’t decide as one on a religious path how are you going to direct a child down it?”
“Well, maybe we wouldn’t raise our child religious.” Said Sarah, sounding increasingly confused and small.
“Would you be happy with that? Why should you not be able to share that with your child because Hamish doesn’t believe it?” Frank said. Hamish bristled.
“Maybe we’d let our child decide what they believed with both options readily available to them.” Said Sarah, “That seems much fairer. They should know they have options.”
“And what child is going to choose church on a Sunday morning over playing at home?” Asked Katherine.
Jesus, who was trying to remain as invisible as possible in the conversation, made a mental note to try and remember this for later - perhaps inflatable churches would help?
“I don’t think a child has to go to church to grow up to be a good Christian. It can come later.”
“And how is a child supposed to give themselves to Christ when doubt has been constantly sown into their mind by their own father?” Asked Frank.
“I’m not being petulant with my atheism.” Hamish finally spoke and when it came it was sharp, heavy and directed swiftly at Frank. “I’ve often felt passionately, since meeting Sarah, that I would love to have a faith. I would give anything to know I had eternity with Sarah… that it wasn’t just the maximum 60 year offer that mortality bestows. Oh! To be a believer and know I had heaven with her? That would create heaven on earth too. It’s not a choice I have doggedly made and stuck to despite huge evidence to the contrary.” Several eyes glanced across to the motionless Jesus sitting to the left of Katherine. “Up until now. I can’t help not believing in God any more than you can help believing.”
“A belief in God is something that has needed constant maintenance in my life.” Said Frank, “It doesn’t always come easily and it has seemed, on several occasions, as though it would be easier to walk away. But when you work hard for something it pays off.”
“But I cannot work hard for something that isn’t there within me.” Hamish insisted, desperate to make them see. “It isn’t laziness or a dislike of the regulations. The belief isn’t there. I didn’t believe in a God before this happened and I can’t promise I’ll believe in worshipping him… it… whatever when, if, the world goes back to normal.”
“How could you not?” asked Katherine, genuinely incredulous. “The Son of God is sitting before you and you might still not worship Him?”
“Well… I don’t know how…” said Hamish, trying to unravel his feelings as he went along, “Maybe I would… I’m just saying I couldn’t promise it.”
“Have you not got along well with Jesus?” asked Katherine. Jesus thought this was an extremely over personal question to ask while he was sitting right there. He thought he’d bonded quite well with Hamish so far and he didn’t want to suddenly have the rug pulled out from under him if it turned out Hamish had felt differently.
“I’ve got along brilliantly with Jesus.” Said Hamish, and nodded in a brotherly fashion towards a relieved looking Jesus. “I’ll certainly keep in touch.” Hamish managed a wry smile. “But that’s got nothing to do with whether or not I’d even choose Christianity. Maybe I’d be a Jehovah?”
Katherine flinched. Frank scoffed and leant back in his chair.
“What I’m saying,” Hamish continued, “Is that I think an organised religion has a lot tied up in it that’s gone off track a little in my opinion. Some of the things you think of as the building blocks of your faith are just nonsense to my way of life.”
“Like what?” asked Frank defensively.
“Frank, look at the way you just scoffed when I mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses…”
“Well, they’re loonies…” said Frank.
“Why? Because of the blood transfusion thing and the lack of birthdays?” asked Hamish.
“Well, yes…” said Frank.
“That’s how I feel about the Christian church’s general opinion of women. And gay people. And sex. There are so many things that I think have become linked up in a personal belief in God that I just don’t think are right. Knowing and meeting Jesus doesn’t help me reconcile my thoughts to those.”
“But,” Said Sarah, her first word in a while. “But could you change that? Now that you know Jesus is real… and you don’t dislike Jesus? Couldn’t you worship him… if something important rested on it. Like, us, for example.”
Hamish stopped. Trust Sarah to turn a different light on. Trust Sarah to be the only one to say anything remotely persuasive. Trust Sarah. He opened his mouth to tell her he’d do anything if it meant keeping her and loving her, but he didn’t quite get the first syllable out before Jesus raised his hand and piped up.
“Er,” he began, shuffling forward in his canvas chair and trying to clench the life back into his increasingly numbing buttocks. “I don’t know if that’s a particularly helpful route to go down.”
“What do you mean?” asked Hamish, perplexed. “I think she could be right… I know you exist now. Why wouldn’t that change things if I wanted to? Or do I have to follow every single belief of the church down to the letter…?” Hamish glanced at the Gilmores and his heart sunk. That was asking too much.
“That’s not for me to say. It’s just that, I need to explain how things will be when I am gone. When I leave, you won’t necessarily be so certain that I exist.” Jesus sighed and wondered how best to explain this part of the conundrum. “Lots of people ‘meet’ me. Day in, day out. I am met. But after the meeting, not everyone converts to Christianity. After I am gone you won’t be able to place the memories of having met me in a physical sense. You may well feel like you have met me… but you might not.”
Hamish shook his head like a stunned, post whallop boxer, “Are there criteria for this? I’m not sure I completely follow.”
“Have you ever heard of someone saying that they ‘found God?’” asked Jesus.
“Well, that’s the best case scenario. Over the last 2000 years I have periodically appeared on earth and briefly presented myself to individuals. Usually just for a few hours or minutes, and given them the chance to speak with me. I pick people I feel passionately about for some reason. When someone says they have “found God” it literally means they have found me. The physical me; we met and had some kind of interaction and after I had gone that person was left believing in me and my teachings. And by ‘believing in me’ I mean, believing in what I ask for, not just believing I could be real. They wanted to believe, they had that desire, and so after I left them they were able to hold on to that feeling. Of course, you’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Oh yes, I bumped into Jesus in a field and we had a good chat.’ They are more likely to say they felt they had a spiritual awakening, they might remember a beautiful sunset that put a new feeling into their heart or an event that suddenly gave them faith. In some people it starts small and then builds over time as their passion for it grows… but finding God in adult life will have started with some meeting with me that they now cannot quite remember. I don’t allow for them to remember the hard evidence. It needs to be built on faith. It’s all about faith. If you know, then it’s knowledge. It has to be faith.”
“You don’t like to make things easy for yourself, do you?” Hamish grumbled.
“Maybe that will happen to Hamish?” asked Sarah hopefully.
“It is a possibility,” Jesus worded carefully, “But, Frank is right when he says a religious belief is hard work and something that needs careful nurturing. You have to want to keep that belief to be able to. Otherwise, for a lot of people, they won’t remember meeting me.”
“At all?” Said Hamish.
“You might feel like you’ve been changed a little, you might feel like you’ve had a bit of a spiritual awakening, but unless when I left, you were full of belief in me you won’t hold on to that faith as a part of you.”
“What will I think has happened? Will my memory have been wiped?”
“Not exactly. You’ll remember all the interaction with Sarah and everyone else, but you won’t remember me. A lot of people come out of the other side of a meeting with me feeling much more spiritual but not having a defined sense of it being Christian.”
“And, you think that’s what I will feel like?”
“I just think, based on the way you’ve been talking about feeling, and the doubts that you have despite being sat opposite me, we shouldn’t count on you coming out the other side of this being able to hold on to the concrete, certain belief that I am your saviour and the centrepiece for your life. It has to be faith. Fair?”
“I suppose so.” said Hamish reluctantly under the watching eyes of the entire Gilmore family.
“Then we’re back to square one.” Said Sarah.
And they were. They settled down comfortably on that first square and sat there as 10,000 words passed between them. The conversation piqued and troughed in ever more repetitive circles. They continued talking long after it had become cold enough to necessitate them moving back into the living room.
They discussed heaven, children, souls, eternal salvation and the fundamental difference between wanting to believe and knowing that you did, until all eyelids drooped. Hamish felt more and more angry and despondent as the night wore on… it just shouldn’t matter, he thought. None of this should matter. He felt out batted, out numbered and woefully ineloquent about the things he really wanted to say. He didn’t know what they were hoping to achieve and he didn’t know how to aim them there but he also knew that if the conversation ended then so did his chance to be with Sarah. Now that everyone had been made so painstakingly aware that he couldn’t rely on the existence of a heaven suite, he wanted to wring out every last minute of life on this planet. These were moments he did know existed.
Sarah was completely lost. She didn’t want to change Hamish, but she didn’t know how they were going to bring about any kind of conclusion to this nightmare conversation. She couldn’t make her parents see that religion wasn’t a factor in their relationship and the more the non-existent minutes didn’t tick by the less she believed herself that these issues would not be increasingly real once time resumed plodding on. Perhaps her parents had been right all along. When had they been wrong before? Perhaps she’d been a fool to think she knew better concerning God and marriage. But when the alternative was losing Hamish… she was all at sea again.
Eventually, they decided to sleep. Sarah and Hamish lay stiffly in the bed next to each other. The contents of their dissected relationship lay like a post mortem at their feet, rendering physical contact unthinkable. Two specimens of a particularly interesting study who had to endure consciousness as the experiment took place and the men in white coats pushed at the tenderest nerve endings to look for signs of flinching. Sarah prayed for sleep to come while Hamish wished for it fervently. Eventually their separate pleas worked and they were granted sweet relief. But morning came all too soon.
Frank and Katherine had risen long before Sarah and Hamish dressed awkwardly with their backs to one another and descended to meet them in the kitchen. They were barely 5 mouthfuls into a breakfast of porridge oats and water before conversation resumed and Hamish felt his stool buckle beneath him as he was plunged back into this pool of confusion and dead ends. He didn’t know if he wanted to be able to come up for air.
The previous evening’s rambling arguments surfaced and resurfaced across the conversation, and as morning marched on into early afternoon Jesus noticed Hamish had stopped joining in. Jesus thought he looked dejected, like he was deflating slowly into the arm chair. Frank and Sarah were in deep discussion of why marriage was important anyway if people loved each other enough just between them, Katherine was nodding along at everything Frank said and Hamish… Hamish was staring out of the window into the lovely weather and the garden full of flowers.
“Perhaps we should have some lunch and move out into the garden?” Jesus said. Sarah and Frank didn’t look up from their discussion, too busy dissecting what religion must mean to listen to what Jesus was actually saying. Jesus cleared his throat and repeated what he had said.
“Sounds like a good idea.” said Hamish and abruptly stood up and headed up the stairs to the bathroom.
“What?” Sarah looked up, confused.
“Lunch!” said Jesus brightly, “and then I thought we could move out to the garden.”
“Lovely.” Sarah pasted a smile over her face. She had that startled air of someone just woken from deep sleep. Jesus was impressed with how earnestly she had been involved in the conversation.
Katherine and Sarah made lunch while Frank and Jesus discussed fishing. Jesus was largely winging the conversation but it was really very pleasant to be discussing a different topic. They slurped their soups and enjoyed the respite. When they had finished Hamish cleared away the bowls and headed to the door of the living room.
“Back in a minute,” he said, smiling warmly at Sarah, “Popping upstairs.”
“Ok,” she replied, smiling back. She felt good. Inexplicably positive.
They sat, enjoying a silence between themselves for a little while, each gazing in a nondescript direction and allowing their thoughts to float lightly. After a bit, Sarah got up and made them each a cup of tea. She dug some questionable biscuits out of a forgotten tin in a cupboard and put a plate of them on the table.
She sat with her tea in her hand, enjoying the warmness of it and the satisfaction that each cup brought now it wasn’t a simple matter of flicking on a kettle for the water. Her eyes landed on Hamish’s undrunk from mug on the coffee table.
“Oh!” she leant forward and put her mug down next to it, “Hamish! He must be having a nap. I’ll pop up and get him before this goes cold or he’ll be cross he’s missed it. No microwave rescues nowadays!”
Katherine wrinkled her nose at the thought of microwaved tea.
“I’ll go and fetch him.” said Sarah, and padded out of the room towards the stairs.