December 19, 2004

Christmas Rereading: Fictional Messiahs and Jihads

American Digest Book Editor
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Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land tops my Christmas rereading list because it considers the making of a messiah. For those who have not encountered this novel in either the original release or the 1991 uncut version (all three of you), Stranger is the story of a young man raised by the puissant Old Ones of Mars, who then returns to Earth to spread the Gospel (and related powers) they taught him. Heinlein uses the story to jab at the tabloid and main-stream press, fringe and established churches, courts and lawyers, and (of course) the government.

But along the way, the story—maybe inadvertantly, although I doubt anything ever appeared in Heinlein's work that he didn't plan with glee—underscores the original message of the Christ: love each other; and tells us in a less-brutal (because fictional) way than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the consequences of preaching love to those focused on money, power—or scripture.

The original novel Dune reveals Herbert's empathy with the nomadic Arab of pre-mandate Palestine. (Remember, Herbert was British.) But to reread this book today is to experience the spooky realization that the Fremen are eco-terrorists.

More to the point, the conversion of Paul Atreides to the messianic Mu'adib—conservative ruling-class heir to fundamentalist jihad leader—maps the slippery path of proselytic education, leading to the vision of all who believe differently as evil and deserving of death. Whether you see mujahideen or red state/blue state bomb-throwers may depend on today's headlines more than Frank Herbert's words.

Nevil Shute himself thought Round the Bend was his best novel. The messiah-figure of this story is Connie Shaklin, a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, whose message is the moral imperative of good maintenance of machines upon which others' lives depend;

"...Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need..."
(Rudyard Kipling, The Sons of Martha)
The religious movement that grows up around this inoffensive and admirable dictum eventually leads to Shaklin's martyrdom—and the quiet growth of a new religion. The story shows the way a religious meme grows; in seemingly-barren soil, fertilized by the religions that precede it—and watered by the blood of martyrs.

Posted by Vanderleun at December 19, 2004 2:17 PM
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Dune is a truly fascinating book to read now and again, as it always seems to have something to tell us about our current situation. Herbert's book about syncretism and human nature in many ways paints a dark picture of the human soul, and points out the rather scary truth that we are all barbarians at skin level, with only the thin veneer of civilization covering us.

Posted by: Final Historian at December 18, 2004 6:35 PM

Btw, Frank Herbert was not British. He was American.

Posted by: David Sucher at December 19, 2004 7:21 AM

Interesting take on Dune. I was always surprised by the Arabic slant on the Fremen. That was only the language. Their culture and history ( cast from paradise, salvation coming sometime, woe be us ) stuck me as perhaps the Jews after Moses led them into the desert. They finally tire of suffering for their faith and decide to open up on someone else for a change.

Stranger in a Strange Land left me cold. I read that not too long after Glory Road and was left with the feeling that Heinlein was a dirty old man, who if married, was unhappy in his marriage and really wanted a lot of younger women to sleep with. I didn't see any insightful criticisms in the book, but it did give us a good word for the dictionary.

Posted by: Aodhan at December 21, 2004 5:52 PM