A fascinating new novel is out in paperback today which ought to be of great interest to Catholic Lane readers with a taste for fantasy or science fiction. It’s called The Christus Experiment and it’s the first major work of fiction by Rod Bennett, author of the popular Catholic apologetic Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words from Ignatius Press. A head-spinning blend of theology, suspense, and personal drama, Christus tells the story of haunted Georgia billionaire Anson MacDonald who recruits a pricy team of time-traveling physicists and historians in an effort to reach back through time and literally kidnap Christ — to bring him to our own time, make him sit for modern questions and video record his answers. And what if MacDonald were to succeed? Would his captured Messiah do miracles? Start a revolution? Would he disappoint his followers — or disappoint the skeptics?
It all makes for very provocative reading — “C.S. Lewis by way of Michael Crichton” as one reviewer has called it — a real page-turner that stands Dan Brown on his ear in highly entertaining fashion. I caught up with author Bennett at his log cabin home in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Kochan: I think many of our readers, Rod, will be familiar with your first book, Four Witnesses. It’s one of the most often recommended books on the early Church Fathers and has been a turning point for many in the journey back to Catholic Christianity. This one’s quite a change of pace, however!
Bennett: Well, so many reviewers compared Four Witnesses to a novel that I was finally inspired to take a crack at the real thing! Honestly, though, I’ve always been interested in fiction and when I finally found the right story I decided to pitch in. There are some things you just can’t say properly — and some people you can’t reach — with a non-fiction voice. Jesus Himself didn’t usually make straight propositional statements such as you’d find in a systematic theology. He talked in parables. He made up fiction, in other words.
Kochan: Christus isn’t just fiction, though! We’ve seen quite a lot of Christian fiction on the shelves lately, but this one is science-fiction—and a pretty way-out piece of science fiction at that. Did you consciously set out to write a piece of pop entertainment? An “airport book” so to speak?
Bennett: Definitely. Like a lot of people, I’ve found it interesting to watch as the great debate between faith and doubt in our culture has gone so mainstream in recent years. Mel Gibson (who was Hollywood’s number one male star at the time) seems, with his Passion of the Christ, to have broken some kind of unwritten rule against “bringing up religion” in polite company and so it seemed only fair to somebody, I suppose, that the anti-Christian crowd be allowed to answer him tit-for-tat. And thus we got the huge mainstream phenomenon of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code, along with the big Hollywood adaptation of it by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. That’s a film which, I think, would never have been greenlighted had not Mel Gibson broken the “gentlemen’s agreement” first. After that, a big-budget series of Narnia films was finally approved, and then an anti-God answer to Narnia called The Golden Compass.
I actually thought that this was a pretty cool development. These are the biggest questions any people can ask themselves and the most important. A lot of much smarter folk than I — such as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus — have been asking Christians for a long time to take their Faith out onto “the public square” and I reckon no square is more public than a society’s popular entertainment. So that’s the sense, I think, in which it’s fair to call The Christus Experiment “Da Vinci Code in reverse”. I was trying to see whether what’s good for the goose is still good for the gander. And though the two stories are really nothing at all alike (and though Dan Brown was obviously preaching a whole ‘nother Gospel from mine!) both books are addressed to the same readership. They’re written for people who might never actually read a serious work of theology, but who still retain enough curiosity about the historical figure of Christ to enjoy a theological thriller about him, so long as it doesn’t come off as preachy or ‘orthodox’. (I would hasten to add, though, that it’s the tone or the “voice” used in my book which is unorthodox, not the content; Catholic historian Mike Aquilina loves Christus and has pronounced it “a little edgy but wholly orthodox”).
Kochan: I think many of us may associate the whole genre of science-fiction with atheism or skepticism. So many of its most famous practitioners — such as Isaac Asimov or Gene Roddenberry — have been conscious apologists for that point of view. Isn’t science-fiction inherently antipathetic to religious belief?
Bennett: You’d have a hard time convincing people like Murray Leinster or the late Ray Bradbury of that — a couple of the founding fathers of the field. Leinster, in fact (whose 1945 novella First Contact is one of the foundational stories of the genre) actually started out as a skeptic but converted himself to the Catholic Faith through a careful reading of St. Thomas Aquinas. And there are lots of other religiously-minded SF giants, too; such as Cordwainer Smith, Madeline L’Engle, Orson Scott Card, and, perhaps most well known, C.S. Lewis, who wrote an outer space trilogy in addition to the Narnia stories.
If anything, I think there’s a real link between the kind of mind that can speculate about life in a distant galaxy and the mind that can accept the idea of life on a different dimensional plane called ‘Heaven.’ It’s a very similar use of the imagination. You know, it’s funny but my family and I have noticed this link and we constantly find confirmations of it. Every time we pick up the diocesan newspaper, for instance, and see a list of newly ordained priests or new seminarians we lay odds on how many of them will list science-fiction books or Star Wars or Star Trek amongst their interests. There’s almost always at least one or two. So no, I don’t think SF is inherently anti-Christian. I was thrilled to death when one of my reviewers said he’d enjoyed The Christus Experiment as much or more than A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter R. Miller, Jr. — one of the most famous of all Christian SF books.
Kochan: The historian Barbara Tuchman called her epic account of the 14th century A Distant Mirror. In your novel, it was fascinating to see Jesus encounter all the same reactions in the modern American west that he encountered in the ancient near East. I was reminded of John 11:47, where the chief priests and Pharisees counsel together, acknowledge that Jesus was performing miracles in their midst, and conclude with plotting to take his life. Would you say it is a theme of this novel that people have not changed? Is science fiction another kind of distant mirror?
Bennett: That’s one of the uses of SF, certainly, and it definitely is part of what I was after here. You might say that I created a way for my modern characters to have close encounters with Jesus in an unfamiliar setting so that my readers might learn how to see Him again for the first time. I was trying to address a certain problem in our post-Christian society which G.K. Chesterton first pointed out to me in his introduction to The Everlasting Man:
While the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism…[His] anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which [he] cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet…[And to help him do this] we must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.
So in my opinion, that’s Chesterton’s call for a Christian science-fiction right there. Pretty high Catholic authority for my crazy little endeavor, don’t you think?
Kochan: Indeed! I’m going to be careful not to give away too much of the plot in this interview but one of the things I found so delightful in the book is its playfulness. There are a number of elements that can be read on more than one level, either straightforward, or almost as “inside jokes.” And I’m sure the ones I caught are not all the ones that are there! Are you consciously writing for multiple audiences?
Bennett: Well, I’m consciously trying to be entertaining, is what it is. If an airport novel isn’t entertaining, it’s nothing, right? But yes, one of the ways I’ve done that is to put in a lot of things that long-time SF readers will notice and enjoy, and then a lot of things that theological people will pick up on better than others, and then some things that won’t be readily apparent to anybody but people with one foot in both camps! But I do think there will be plenty of humor and excitement for the more casual reader as well. One of the most entertaining things I know of is to see interesting and even deep ideas explained and explored as part of an exciting suspense or adventure story. And there’s plenty of both in The Christus Experiment — by design.
Kochan: What is wrong with theologians? Seriously. You have some of them in the novel and they make you want to strangle them. Isn’t that so strange for a job description that literally means ‘getting to know God’?
Bennett: I know what you mean! I had to read quite a bit of cutting-edge modernist theology to write the book convincingly — stuff from the “Jesus Seminar” and so forth — and it really does make you wonder. The answer is probably related to Chesterton’s point above: that familiarity often breeds contempt. And, of course, there’s that chilling old proverb which says, “There are none so unholy as those whose hands have been cauterized through constant handling of holy things.” Carter Nichols, whom you may remember from the book as the security analyst whose religion is libertarianism, sees through this kind of stuff precisely because he has no particular dog in the Christian fight. At one point he gives his own opinion about one of the skeptical clergymen in the story: “I can’t understand why a person who doesn’t believe in God wants to go around dressed up like a bishop. With this guy it’s Halloween 24/7/365… I mean, if you don’t believe in the stuff anymore why not just go ahead and say so? Get on with your life, for God sakes.”
Kochan: Occult Gnosticism shows up mysteriously in your novel and gets cleverly connected – I am not going to say how — to research on human cloning. Someday, in some college, papers are going to written about the way you have linked human biotechnical hubris with demonic hatred of God and humanity. Message?
Bennett: I think I’ll have to credit C.S. Lewis again on this one. In That Hideous Strength, the third of his space books, Lewis had his sinister cabal of would-be technocrats use weird experiments with human brains as a way to get in touch with unseen forces. And though I put a new spin on the idea with today’s cloning and so forth, I definitely needed to tip my hat to the master once again for inspiration here — which I did in the intro to Christus. Micah Harris, who wrote the brilliant little graphic novel Heaven’s War from Image Comics, knows a thing or two about Lewis; CSL is actually a character in that story, along with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Micah has the group forced to match wits against their contemporary Aleister Crowley, who actually was a black magician and Satanist in real life! This, at any rate, is why I was so deeply gratified to hear Micah’s take on The Christus Experiment: “This is what C.S. Lewis would be doing in the age of Iron Man. Bravo!”
Kochan: You mention Iron Man — and I can’t help saying how cinematic I found your book to be. I can’t imagine anyone reading it and not thinking, “Wow, would this ever make a great movie.” So who is your dream producer? Director? Any actors in mind for the principals?
Bennett: Well, it’s true that I’m a huge movie buff. And if there are any movie buffs among my readers they may very well notice a few “in jokes” along those lines, too. But as for directors or producers — I think the most important point would be to find someone who understood the material from the inside. And who wouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to dumb down the theme from fear of offending somebody, as seems to have happened with the Narnia films. Is there anyone like that right now? I don’t know.
The whole darn point of this story is that it’s provocative. Underneath the action/adventure framework, The Christus Experiment is about whether Christ really is who the Christians say he is or not — which shouldn’t be such an unreasonable thing to put into a mainstream movie because that’s also what Da Vinci Code was about! So if a movie were to be made at all, it’d have to be a bare, courageous, take-it-as-it-is-or-leave-it thing like Passion of the Christ—which may not even be possible. Certainly, none of the production companies that were formed in the wake of The Passion have succeeded in following it up properly. The whole thing that made The Passion so exciting (and even Da Vinci, for that matter) was, “Hey, we’re breaking the old taboos now! Mel Gibson, whom everyone knows and loves, now says Jesus is real and died for your sins! And Opie Taylor, and Woody the Cowboy? They’re now saying that the Christian Jesus is a nothing but a sexist fable enforced by the Vatican with cover-ups and assassination! How cool is that! The debate is happening right out in the open now!” And I’m sorry, but you don’t really continue that discussion with a pious little pageant like The Nativity Story — pleasant as that one may have been on its own terms. Anyhow, I don’t think I can add much beyond this, Mary. Except to say that Peter Fonda would make a good Caleb Donophan. *smiles*
Kochan: Who on our Christmas list would like to get this book and why?
Bennett: Any Christian with a weak spot for sci-fi or Michael Crichton-type thrillers is likely to eat this up — and any open-minded non-Christian for that matter. And though the geek population does tend to be predominantly male, this one’s not just for guys: the book also has a strong female lead character who, I’ve been told, is pretty appealing to women readers. The book is also tailor-made for your fallen away loved ones who may not see the relevance of the Faith anymore and who probably wouldn’t read a straight-up book of Christian apologetics. I do think, however, it might be best to share one or two caveats going in. The Christus Experiment really is edgy stuff, as Mike Aquilina mentioned above. Practically everyone in the story, for instance, is a bitter former Christian of one stripe or another (at the beginning of the yarn, anyway); the language, therefore, had to be realistically salty from time to time — PG-13, so to speak. After all, you can’t have your drug-addicted Goth heroine talk like Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver! But I suppose this might very well confuse someone who insists on trying to see it as a Christian book in the conventional sense. Anyhow, Mike Aquilina, once again, sums it up pretty well: “If you’re put off by minor profanity and realistic portrayal of scoffers and atheists, you probably won’t like it. But if you need a good read, give it a try!”
Kochan: Thanks for chatting with us, Rod! After enjoying this one so much, I’m definitely curious to see what else you may have up your sleeve in the future!
Rod’s book on the Church Fathers, Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words is still available, as well.