November 25, 2012 by mattwilcoxen
Upon realizing some weeks back that David Bentley Hart had published a set of short stories, I at once ordered the little volume, The Devil and Pierre Gernet (Eerdmans, 2012). It is not every day that a systematic theologian writes fiction–publishable fiction, anyways. My copy finally arrived yesterday, and it gave me something to do this weekend.
Hart goes so far as to say that he has never written a more serious book than this, and that “this is the only book I have written with which I am truly satisfied” (p. X). According to Hart, this is as theological as any of his other texts, and he thinks it might be a mode of discourse that is even more conducive to encountering God.
There are five short stories here, each of them distinctly Hart-ian. In the first place, the language is rich, picturesque, but sometimes inaccessible–even for someone who is fairly well educated. (I still have no idea how Hart has developed his vocabulary.) The genre allows Hart to display his literary abilities to their fullest extent. Whatever one thinks about the book, it seems clear to me that he is no amateur here.
Another aspect of the work that betrays its authorship is the collection of ideas that come into play here. Hart is able to raise the themes most central to his work in Christian theology, and he does so without being moralistic. This surprised me because Hart tends to be quite the polemicist in his theology, and even were he not, the preservation of a necessary ambiguity is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in fiction writing. In any case, Hart has done it.
In the first and title story (“The Devil and Pierre Gernet”), Hart tells of a conversation between a man and the devil, in which the devil is offering up his interpretation of the meaning of a certain deceased person’s life. This story is a narrative form of “Dionysius against the Crucified”, but Hart does his best to give the devil winsome arguments. In the second story (“The House of Apollo”), Hart tells the story of old Roman religion in decline. He imaginatively wonders what the twilight of the ancient gods would have been like for those few who kept the faith until the end. In the third story (“A Voice from the Emerald World”), Hart conveys the angry, prayerful reflection of a couple that has lost a disabled child. Hart does an incredible job of conveying the personal agony of the situation, as well as the way in which one’s personal agony can intersect with one’s thoughts about God. The fourth story (“The Ivory Gate”) is an oneiric tale about a lonely man who never got married. The fifth and final story (“The Other”) is about someone quite obviously experiencing only the absence of God.
The overall tone of the book is quite melancholy, but that is in keeping with the theological content that is being raised here. The theme could be described as time’s longing for eternity. The ambiguity in the stories is whether this longing can itself be the ultimate and final torment, or whether there might not be some possibility of fulfillment beyond this world, this life. Hart is wise in that he does not try to answer this question within the stories themselves. The answer to this question, of course, must come from without.