In the National Post this week, Matthew Fisher wrote of the "open season" on Christians in places like Syria, Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt, just to name a few. The news is somewhat jarring, but it immediately made me think of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, a project intended to capture the stories of the men, women, and children who founded their lives upon a story that would ultimately mean their death. And I wondered how such a work might fall upon a contemporary audience.
"What's the better story?"
If you've read Yann Martel's Life of Pi, you'll know that this is the question haunting Pi, the Hindu-Christian-Muslim protagonist of Martel's tale. Such a seemingly incompatible trio works, because all religions, at least for Martel, are essentially similar. As the story proceeds, Martel suggests that the religious have access to the "better" story because they can imagine a world beyond sense and even beyond utilitarian reason. The "dry, yeastless factuality" undergirding the atheists' story inevitably leads to tragedy: life ends in death. Theirs is a story of despair.
The better story, then, is obviously the one with hope. Whether that is hope in everlasting life, or in seventy virgins, or in reincarnation, or in the soul's dissolution into the world-spirit, or in Santa Clause, or in unicorns, Martel is not clear. At the least, each of these stories takes a leap of imagination beyond the sensible (in some cases, in every sense of that word). Anything, excepting Hell perhaps, is better than the cold nothingness that faces the strict materialist. Therefore Martel applauds the religious for their audacity to trust such better "stories" even when the facts are stacked against them.
Yet what Martel praises about religion can be, and has been, used to ridicule it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins is just one such mocking voice. He rails against the childish desires of the religious, whose stories are mere defense mechanisms; he writes:
Isaac Asimov's remark about the infantilism of pseudoscience is just as applicable to religion: 'Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold.' It is astonishing, moreover, how many people are unable to understand that 'X is comforting' does not imply 'X is true.'
But questions of truth aside, even if we were to grant Dawkins his premise that religion is something to help childish people sleep at night, he would still be wrong, at least when it comes to Christianity.
"What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross," once wrote Flannery O'Connor to a friend. And she is right. Bonhoeffer, in a work written in the face of imminent death, learned a heavy truth for many Christians: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." That is the cost of following this story, which is indeed a comedy, in the proper sense of that term. But if Christ's life and those of the martyrs show us anything, it's that there may be some terrifying scenes before the final curtain.
For Christians in Canada and the U.S.A. today it might be hard to have this particular aspect of our story made real to us. For the most part, we are free to go about our day. And while the threats that are starting to rumble on the horizon are real, they are quite minimal to what the Church faces in other places and has faced in other times. Yet as we hear these stories of Syria and Kenya, and the murmurs from Quebec, we are reminded that a "life together" is a gift that should not be taken for granted. It's a gift that needs to be cherished and protected, it needs to be worked at and valued.