“I cannot know what darkness is, because it’s just darkness, but love can know it, and love always goes on regardless. Love is searching for endless love and it searches all the way around the empty universe until it meets itself coming back.” — Pascale’s Wager
Some days I am tempted to despair.
As I write, massacres are taking place in various corners of the world, global warming is rapidly encroaching upon us threatening catastrophe, leaders are caught up in the throes of greed and pride, and it seems sometimes as if empathy is being drained from society. All of this weighing upon my heart and mind sometimes threatens to snuff out my hope, but for blessed glimpses of selfless compassion, rays of pure love that revive my spirit. For me, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven is one such light in the darkness.
Anthony Bartlett, Girardian theologian, friend of the Raven Foundation and hope-timist extraordinaire, is the author of this eloquent, riveting story of rebellion against conformity, compassion in the face of cruelty and hope in the midst of despair. In a future world that has been brought to the brink of destruction by global warming, life is sustained in a technologically-engineered frozen wasteland by a system of rigid order. Religion is a control mechanism, and dissent is forbidden and deadly. In this stifling atmosphere, Poll, an inquisitive troublemaker, and Cal, a perspicacious seeker, dare to pierce through the façade of the cultural myth that holds their tenuous society together. Pulling back the veil of lies incurs the wrath of the powers that be, but also tests the courage, resolve, and creativity of our two heroes in astonishing ways. Inspired by one-another, Poll and Cal are each thrust onto separate but parallel journeys of survival and self-discovery in which a kernel of faith is nourished and grows in accordance with their unique personalities. Amidst their perilous circumstances, each of our heroes push the limits of their potential, defying odds, encountering love in surprising places and people, and changing their worlds permanently and inexorably.
Readers will be caught up in the fascinating worlds that Tony has created, compelled by the fast-paced action of the plot and intrigued by the dynamic characters, all of which in themselves make for an extraordinary novel. But for seekers, doubters, and anyone looking for a reason to believe in the power of love, the layers of theological and anthropological depth and rich symbolism permeating the story combine to make the reading of Pascale’s Wager a poignant, joyful and inspiring experience.
Without mentioning Jesus or referencing Christian doctrine, Anthony Bartlett accomplishes in novel form what we at Raven strive to do with our articles: proclaim the good news through human stories. Although the story itself is saturated with Gospel and theological undertones, Tony acknowledged to me in an interview that “the identity of God (big-G!) is very vague in Pascale’s Wager.” It is so vague, in fact, that I believe this story could appeal as much to my atheist father as to my more conservative Christian friends. While some readers will see the hand of the divine at work in the survival and development of our heroes, others may attribute their growth to the indomitable human spirit. None, however, will be able to miss the profound love that catalyzes the changes that forever alter the worlds Pascale and Palmiro (Cal and Poll) touch.
As Tony explained to me,
I think because Christianity has always been so problematic in my life–I suppose I have a love/hate relationship with it almost–I needed almost to start over with the whole thing. I depicted the world in the way I feel it sometimes, as if Christianity never existed. As if it has had no impact. And yet of course it has. The book testifies to that. So there are two things going on, an absence and a profound presence.
This simultaneous absence and presence of Christian influence can be seen most clearly in the contrast depicted between religion and faith. From the beginning, religion is portrayed as a wall of deception meant to pacify the masses and prevent anarchy. Yet what makes religion stifling lies not merely in the surface trappings – laws, stories, promises of heaven and warnings of hell – but in the underlying attitude of certainty that leaves little room for questioning or searching… or empathy for those who would dare to do so. This unspoken contract among the citizens of the Homeland makes the people a silent mob against dissenters. Even when it appears that the protagonists have escaped the trappings of “religion,” they find that this attitude of intolerance against those who would dare question the status quo is pervasive, even in drastically different communities.
Faith, by contrast, is the courage to question and doubt, a courage sustained by love, a love that gives us the confidence to believe in our own potential and the potential of the world. A religion built on certainty, disparaging of questions, will insulate itself against the outside world and cast out anyone who dares to think freely, whereas faith will reach out to bless and be blessed by others.
The sense of religion as mob mentality comes through clearly in Pascale’s Wager, and yet even those whom we would never consider “religious” fall prey to this mentality. But faith, the audacity to think freely, the willingness to become a misfit and stand with the outcasts, the confidence to become vulnerable and share compassion with those in need, has the capacity to redeem even religion. When our unspoken codes shift from protecting our identity to the exclusion of others to embracing all in love, our religion will truly be good news. This is what I believe Jesus means when he says we must worship “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). Pascale’s embrace of truth sheds all her defenses and opens her up others in pain, to shoulder and share their suffering. Without even a certainty in the existence of God (at least not one that would pass muster in many churches today), Pascale’s embodiment of love is an act of worship of the God of Love.
This for me was one of the most important messages of Pascale’s Wager, that faith is not about blindly clinging to identity, whether in the form of religion or ideology, but rather about making space for questions and compassion. It is only in the willingness to seek beyond the comforts of certainty that one can experience and exude empathy that creates healing ripples as it touches one life after another.
How often do we lock ourselves into an artificial world, thinking we have all the answers, unconscious fear shutting out questions we dare not ask or ideas or viewpoints we dare not consider because they fly in the face of our comfortable understanding of the “way things are?” If we are honest, we might admit that we have found ourselves doing this – we may even be doing it now. If not in the realm of religion, then perhaps in the realm of politics. Or we may take great pride in our ideologies of marriage or parenting. Whatever the case may be, we seem to be afraid of the vast, mysterious universe in which we are so small, so we shrink our world down to size, to something we can handle, and whether consciously or unconsciously, exclude those who do not fit. And beyond our own little worlds, we also live within the mythology of our culture – the powers that be that write the unwritten rules of society and create outcasts.
Cal and Poll dare to reach beyond the confines of their world and challenge us to do the same. The artificial worlds that they begin to change through their quest for truth resemble our own in many ways, and the dangers that they face in the midst of hostile environmental elements and societies almost devoid of compassion are eerily similar to what we face today, with global warming encroaching upon us and the divide between the rich and the poor growing ever wider. In the abysmal bleakness of this world, the power of redemption lies in radical compassion. Pascale’s Wager teaches this lesson in a profoundly moving story that challenges the reader to pick up where Pascale leaves off. It is the Christian message stripped of dogma down to the core of good news. It is the gospel… in other words.