Living and dying and being damned make a true theologian, said Martin Luther. While some theology can be learned formally from books, real knowledge of God can only be learned in the school of experience. This does not mean that our theology is experiential as most people would use the term, where through interaction, you learn God’s disposition toward you in a simple fashion or where after several rounds of interaction, you now know that when you do this, God does that. This school of experience is rather the opposite. When experience and the promises of God collide, we will either succumb to thinking we were deceived or hold more tightly to the promises, being more deeply convinced that what we experience does NOT tell us God’s disposition toward us. Good literature is often good because it wrestles with the dark side of life. It reminds us of how we can be undone by evil circumstances. Sometimes it manages to show human resilience. I walk away satisfied if it paints human experience in a way that is true to life.
Karl Marlantes’s novel Deep River presents us with characters whose circumstances force them to rethink existence. Deep River is a family saga about Finnish immigrants to the Pacific Northwest whose lives are centered in the logging industry and union organizing. The book opens with a family tragedy that formed the main characters in differing ways. When family members are lost to an epidemic, the young fevered Ilmari sees angels, and his sense of the divine deepens. God is to be feared, but he sends angels.
Karl Marlantes’s novel Deep River presents us with characters whose circumstances force them to rethink existence
In contrast, his sister Aino loses whatever faith she has, and her hope eventually finds a new object in the promises of Communism. This is not the only tragic death to overtake Ilmari’s family. Well into the book, Ilmari is driven by grief over the death of his wife to seek reconciliation with God through a type of Native American pantheism. The problem of evil proves too great for his childhood faith, and when harder times find him again, his anger at God becomes unbearable.
His Native American mentor, Vasutati, challenges his newfound godlessness, telling him he is sore because he cannot have the kind of God he wants. He asks her what that means.
“You want a God that is good.” Her merry laugh rang out clean and clear. “That is what they taught us at the mission school. All wrong.” She laughed again. “In this world”—she looked at her open left hand—“good is good.” Then she looked at her open right hand. “And bad is bad. In the other world, where God lives”—she clasped her hands together—“there is…” She searched for some words, then putting her hands clasped hands directly in Ilmari’s face, said, “There is one thing, goodbad-badgood, not two.” (483)
Vasutati even mocks his whining at the death of his wife. As a logger living in the unoffended world of a hundred years ago, Ilmari doesn’t find this callous but laughs.
I find this scene true to experiences of tragedy and friendship, and profound in what it addresses about how our views of good and evil in life might not align with God’s plans for us. This story resonates with Job, where a simplistic theology must give way to one where we receive good and evil from the hand of God. Vasutati even sees how Christians can fall beneath their own teaching, wanting “only Christmas and no Good Friday.” This is so often how we want to interpret Christianity in America today. Probably more so now than the times in which the novel is set.
Vasutati challenges Ilmari to grow up: reality is messy, accept the mess. But this growing up also entails the paradox of believing we are babies in God’s womb. She paints the picture of us developing through this life into the next through increased insight about our situations and experiences.
A similar image is found—though often forgotten—in Christianity, too. 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of the resurrection, and how what we see now may be a bare kernel of what arises in the future, an image Paul may have expanded from Jesus’ talk of the kernel falling into the ground and bearing fruit (John 12:24).
So, the question is, how do we know the truth about these things? As Americans, we tend to believe in learning from experience. But even what Vasutati preaches could not all be learned from experience. We do not know from experience that we will be reborn in another world. At best, this is an attempt to have a hopeful belief that will not be so vulnerable to overthrow by what we experience here and now.
Yet, if you learn God’s character from your this-worldly experience, and your this-worldly experience is not all good, but goodbad-badgood, then how is being reborn good news? When we go to where God lives, we may find ourselves suffering yet again. Ilmari’s circumstances remain as they were whichever God he clings to. He is changing gods in hopes of having one he can live with. But he has made the wrong choice if avoiding more suffering is the goal.
I don’t really expect that the novelist should have written a different book than the one he wrote. I am always happy when I find that a novelist creates, or even discovers a character, and is open to that character developing in a realistic way given his or her starting point. (Christian novelist Dorothy Sayers said she would have liked to see Lord Peter Wimsey convert to Christianity, but he just wouldn’t!) I am happier still if the author can write contrasting characters plausibly, and lovingly, and take us into the conflicting viewpoints of characters who don’t see eye-to-eye. Ilmari and Aino and Vasutati (and the many others) were all compelling. But it might be easy to conclude from Ilmari’s comfort in Vasutati’s counsel that her solution was less vulnerable to the same kind of trouble he was trying to leave behind.
We have seen a vision better than an angel. We have seen God on the cross. A God who is willing to suffer for us.
Ilmari imagined he could grow up by switching wholesale into Vasutati’s outlook on life. Yet it seems probable he didn’t really leave behind his childish ways except perhaps for one. He no longer thought he could predict what God might allow to happen on earth. He was ready to receive life as it comes from God. This seems to have been more important to him than knowing what God might be like in his own world. But we have seen a vision better than an angel. We have seen God on the cross. A God who is willing to suffer for us. We see the character of God there. What happened to Jesus may well happen to us in this life. But we know that he has overcome it.
Our Christian hope is in a God who is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Our hope is in a promise that finally, God wants to purge the reality of all that is bad (Rev 21). This promise is difficult to cling to when tragedy strikes or our once stable lives give way to chaos. But I have my doubts that another hope will prove more resilient. It is not the object of the hope that is weak, but the hand that grasps it.
While he knew some key gospel texts, Ilmari’s youthful faith was not grounded in promises like this, but in a fevered vision. The vision was eventually eclipsed by a mushroom trip he was guided through by Vasutati (497ff.). She provided him with a new religious experience, but no new promises. The mushroom trip was more vivid and full of content than the vision he saw in his youthful fever. It is understandable that Ilmari would prefer a visible God to a mere messenger from God. But what he needs most is to see that divine heart is for him and not against him.
Ilmari needs hopeful words and a concrete promise. Like all of us, he needs a preacher to preach faith back into his heart, faith in a God who became visible for us as the overcomer of darkness even when all appears lost.