This is Christopher Hitchens, reporting dead from the godless soup of eternity. Approximately ten hours ago – ten hours relative to what remains unclear – the atomic ejaculate of a Tennessee man cracked the Christian firmaments and the myriad zealots of Christ are swarming. The nest has been stirred, comrades and friends, and they’ve taken to the clouds with Bible, fist, and tongue. The Bible, one supposes, is for bludgeoning; the fist is a reminder – a rather pedestrian one – of the glory of the ever-vacationing Jehovah; and the purpose of the Christian tongue remains scientifically mysterious. If it’s on your bucket list – as impossible as such a list may seem in this Cartesian infinity – but if you have one, and it includes proselytization or purification, catechism or communion, inculcation or inquisition, this is the place to be.
And I have the dubious honor of interviewing the man that frenzied these ridiculous sheep – these hairless and sadomasochistic and sexually inverted apes. Jim, thanks for dropping in.
Yeah. No problem.
You look pretty good for the epicenter of a holy war.
Do you have a god in the race, Jim?
No. I was never religious. My aunt was a Baptist though. I wouldn’t bet on the Baptists.
To bet on any particular sect of this deranged cult, of this outdated menagerie of demagogues and faith-mongers – it’s a bet on a lame horse. A dead horse. A dead lame and plaintive horse. Only the religious would make it.
I guess they might. Or they do.
I have it here that you were even present for the diplomacies.
Well? Perhaps you could give us the upshot.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, man.
Give us the old college try.
Alright, well uh . . . The devil – or, the woman that introduced herself as the devil – she’s transgender – she came to me in tears and said me and Cherry brought down the barrier. Evidently the angels put up this barrier so the different kinds of Christians couldn’t see each other. That’s part of their Paradise, I guess, is knowing they’re the ones that got it right. Cherry’s the girl I’m seeing, by the way. As far as you can see a girl around here, I guess. Anyway, we had this epic fifteen-rounder and blasted a hole in the, uh – what did you call it? The firmament. So the barrier came down. Lucy – that’s the devil’s name, short for Lucifer – she tells me I broke it so I’ve got to help fix it. Only out of nowhere she turns into Gabriella because these Christians won’t do any deals with the devil. So I’m like, Well what the hell, are you the devil or some kind of angel? She won’t say. It’s all part of the Truth, I guess. Well, we get up to the cloud and Gabriella gives these Christians the bad news. You know, that we’re all just kind of here and there’s a lot of relativism going around. What did she say? She said we’ve got a whole ocean to swim around in and everybody wants to fight over a drop. And that totally floored me – I never thought of it like that before. And it went right past these guys. I couldn’t believe it. Like she laid it right out. Then the Protestant dude found out Pope John Twenty was a counting error and it all went to hell.
What an utterly useless response. If it was of any importance I’d call it tragic. To those of you still with us, I salute your resilience and I’m humbled by your endurance. I’ll try to reward it with a retelling – with an editorial – worthy of the auditory canals. Though I doubt the irony can be missed by anybody, there are some important subtleties that I think might escape the first glance. It’s fairly well established – the one-two punch of sexual repression and deviancy that infests the institutions of religion – Hey! You can’t come in here! I’m a journalist! We’re protected under international –
The Anglican sheathed his sword, apologized to Jim for the intrusion, and departed. Christopher’s head lay on the desk next to a decanter of red wine and a half-empty glass. His body lay crumpled on the floor.
“I’m under the impression he hasn’t read the articles of the Geneva Convention,” the head said.
Outside the clangs and bangs of war were getting louder. It sounded like some cavalry charging into modern artillery. Jim watched the journalist’s head biting at the stem of the wine glass, and he realized that nobody was going to die up here.
“Are they going to fight forever?” he said.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll come to an agreement before eternity’s end,” said Christopher’s head. “Even the religious can’t escape the strangeness of infinity. If it can happen, it will.” He curled his tongue around the stem, yawed back and forth and then gave up. “Do me a favor?”
Jim picked up the glass and poured some of the wine into Christopher’s waiting mouth.
“Why can’t they all just be special together?” Jim said.
“The war of the ages is being fought all around me, and I’m trapped in a windowless room with an autistic pacifist,” Christopher said. “Let me try it this way. We’re pattern-seekers, Jim. Nothing thrills us more than the seventh note of a scale followed by the eighth. It’s coded into our genetics through a hundred thousand years of evolution and survival. To understand is to bring order to chaos, and there is no order here. And in the absence of order the reptilian brain will invent one, and it will smash a million square pegs through the proverbial round hole to maintain it. You’re simple so I’ll put even more plainly: These men invented God that they might shovel all their doubts up his ass, and your coital nuke stabbed Him in the guts and now it’s raining shit.”
“Well, help me out then. Because what you just laid out sounds like a pattern.”
“Some patterns exist. One example of false pattern recognition doesn’t convict the thought processes of the entire species.”
“You’re an atheist.”
“So where do the angels fit? This place? An atheist in Paradise is a contradiction.”
“I have certain suspicions in that regard. The ever-expanding thought-reality of this place is reminiscent of Lewis – Hell is a state of mind – I’m sure even you’ve heard that before. This freedom-loving devil sounds an awful lot like she walked out of the pages of Paradise Lost, and all this gallivanting around with dead celebrities is straight out of the pages of Dante. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. I scarcely need to mention the central conflict, this Paradise-sans-Truth tension, a trope as old and quaint as Eden. Throw in the haphazard philosophizing, the hipster pseudo-irony and the cheap jokes – It’s almost as if some publicly educated and unemployed ass is having literary spasms.”
Christopher looked directly at me and I blushed. I looked down at my keyboard and traced the lines of the letters with my eyes and considered all the words I’d ever typed and wondered why I bothered. I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette while I watched the squirrels climbing through the trees. I poured myself another coffee. I thought about quitting. I decided not to, and when I returned I fully expected to martyr myself on the edges of Christopher’s rhetoric. Thankfully, by the time I sat down he had already moved on.
“As for the angels,” he said, “If apes can graduate, so too can men. It would be a cosmic travesty if we were evolution’s end.”
“So everybody’s got a pattern for everything,” Jim said. He stole a drink from the glass and nearly spit it back out. “Ugh, that’s bitter.”
“It’s bitter.” He set the glass down. “So what do we do? Nothing?”
“Carry me,” Christopher said.
“I don’t need a body to give these demagogues what-for. Even the invicted heart draws blood from the brain. Reason, Jim! We’ll divest them of these superstitions with reason, with the dynamics of logic and argument. From the mud to the clouds and beyond the stars, we scour the fields of battle with the ink of a thousand years of secular thought. Carry me, Jim! I’ll eat in Paradise what I merely disdained on Earth.”
Jim squatted and looked into Christopher’s eyes. “I don’t think it’ll work,” Jim said.
“I’d rather not.” He stood and made for the door.
“Jim! What humanity lost through submission it will win back with irony! Mark those words, Jim. One day!”
Jim wandered. Feats of violence and insanity surrounded him. He saw the pointy hat of a bishop wobbling in the hatch of a Sherman tank, rolling at the head of a legion armed with shovels and pitchforks. Why, from the unbounded armories of Paradise, would a man choose a shovel? Jim didn’t even bother himself with it. Great volleys of arrows were exchanged between the clouds and artillery shells whistled and cut open the hills. Angels kept a loose perimeter on the ground and in the sky. Some of them appeared confused and sincerely concerned, but most were pointing and laughing and having a pretty good time.
The crack in the firmament hung over the war and glowed inversely.
He came to a place between three hills, sheltered by trees and a river. It was open and flat and filled with thousands of peaceful people. They sat in groups and talked and nibbled. A few walked about and handed out pamphlets. A middle-aged woman in a conservative summer dress met him as he entered.
“Welcome,” she said.
“What is this place?” Jim said. “There’s a war going on, you know.”
“Well, we are the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and we’d much rather have a picnic,” she said. “Would you like some juice or some coffee? There will be some cake and cookies afterwards. I could introduce you to some boys – oh excuse me. Men. You aren’t boys anymore, are you? My son is about your age.”
“Afterwards of what?” Jim said. He made his suspicions known with a squint.
“Oh, we have a very special speaker.” She leaned in and spoke confidentially, “It’s top secret, but I’ll give you a hint. His name is John Calvin.”
The name didn’t mean anything to Jim, but he thought he better act impressed. “Holy buckets,” he said. He retained the squint.
“The holiest,” she said. “Can I bring you to my son? The two of you will get on just great.”
She led him to a small group that stood at the edge of the gathering. She introduced them and Jim introduced himself and she left. Her son had a thick shoulders and a good handshake and he wasn’t wearing a vest. Jim liked him, and the liking intensified his suspicions.
“So Jim,” Michael said, “Are you looking to buy something or just hiding from the weather?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you have any interest in becoming a Presbyterian?”
“Oh, well, not really. I’m not very religious.”
“That’s quite alright, Jim. No worries, really. You know, I’ve got this theory about Jesus. Don’t shove Him down anybody’s throat, and He won’t fly out of anybody’s ass.” He slapped Jim on the shoulder. “Are you alright? Looks like you’ve got something in your eye.”
Jim had squinted his face into a walnut. He relaxed it a little. “You seem alright,” he said.
When John Calvin arrived he elevated himself on a tree stump and the talking and nibbling came to a polite pause. He spoke for twenty minutes. He condemned the war but not those who fought in it. He asked everyone to pray for their misguided brothers and sisters. He spoke simply and eloquently about the difficulties of moral absolutes and the strangeness of infinity. As he neared the end of his speech, and he said there remained but one theological problem to resolve, Jim was hanging on his words.
Maybe I’m a Presbyterian, Jim thought. He was squintless.
“As we know,” John Calvin said, “God in His wisdom and His mercy has granted Grace Everlasting to some of us, and Damnation to others. We are all mortally bound to the Original Sin and we share equally the depravity of the Human Condition, and His choice has nothing to do with our little world, and everything to do with His mercy. The difficulty we face, following the crack in the Firmament – ”
“ – is that everyone is now in Paradise. It has been established theologically that this is not the will of the Creator, and something must be done.
“Lacking the authority to deliver Damnation, and being naturally opposed to it for the frailty of our Condition, there is but one path to Reconciliation with God. Half of our number must sit uncomfortably in chilled buckets of water until the Firmament is mended. We shall make this sacrifice in shifts not less than twelve and not exceeding forty days. And if there any anemics here, or any other persons ill-disposed to chilled buckets of water, please give your name to Mrs. Roy at the front desk. We thank God for His Patience and for giving us this Wisdom. Amen.”
Michael stopped Jim at the exit.
“Jim! At least stay and finish the cake. There’s a whole half left!”
“It’s too sweet,” Jim said.
She sat in a mortar hole, her back against the charred and blasted ground. Light played across her through the branches of a broken tree. She was Gabriella where the light touched her, and Lucy in the shade.
“They love this war,” she said.
Jim sat down next to her. The ground was still warm from the explosion.
“They love it more than the lie. They will never stop fighting.”
“I think the ones that aren’t fighting scare me the most,” Jim said. “You know, I swear there’s a guy that could set everybody straight.”
“I made a promise,” she said.
The ground shook beneath sound of faraway devastation. There were shouts, and someone blew a battle horn that belonged in a fantasy novel.
“How long can the angels contain it?”
“Not forever,” she said. She turned to him, and the light made a diagonal cut through her face. A sad eye for the angel and fury in the devil’s. “What do I do, Jim? Break a promise made to a friend, or let this war of fools consume Paradise?”
Jim sighed like a blowfish and shrugged.
With the painted fingers of the devil she pulled from the angel’s pocket a folded and tattered paper, yellowed with age. She handed it to Jim and he unfolded it. It was a map of Paradise, marked neatly with triangle mountains, curving rivers, loops for clouds, dotted cities. Left of center was scrawled an X, with the caption, Christ be here.
“Well, that settles it then,” Jim said, standing. “It’s time to find Jesus.”