Sexy or not, Earthly Powers reiterates: What does it mean to be a man of God?

Could Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers in any way be meat for Christians? Its central character, Kenneth Marchal Toomey, is a homosexual, and explicit sex and gutter jokes pop out of hundreds of the 1980 novel’s 607 pages.

But Christian theology permeates Earthly Powers. Is God good? Toomey boggles at concentrations camps. Is God just to allow the church to condemn homosexuality, while Toomey burns? Are man’s Christian efforts helpful? Who are the real saints?

Famous authors of history manifest hilarious mannerisms in Paris sidewalk cafe chats with Toomey, who is himself a successful novelist tangentially modeled on Somerset Maugham. During the Prohibition period in the U.S., Toomey’s Italian brother-in-law is hacked to death in a Chicago meat locker. During the Nazi regime, Toomey’s adopted mother shoots at Himmler. Toomey shoves the Nazi to safety; Madame Campanati is mowed down. Toomey’s niece commits suicide in a Jonestown-type massacre. History sizzles again.

What does it mean to be a man of God? The novel is charged with this question. Huge Carlo Campanati, who becomes Pope Gregory XVII, is Toomey’s alter ego. For Carlo, life is war. Evil is not secular, as is sometimes implied in phrases like “the evils of capitalism.” Rather, “evil properly means an absolute force that has run riot in the world almost since the day of creation, and will only be quelled at the day of judgment” (p. 148). Sometimes a battle is lost. Even then, good may come out of evil (“God will take care of the ratio between the world’s population and the food supplies of the world. Today we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of a war which reduced the population of Europe by some millions. Out of evil good” [p. 203].).

In any case, there is no question who will win the war. Meanwhile, “we must do what we can where we can,” Carlo says, when, powerless to aid his mutilated brother, he heals a child dying in the same hospital.

Formidable in every way, Carlo storms around the globe, picking up the lingo everywhere. He lifts his cassock and boots a Nazi in the crotch. He throws ammonia, disguised as holy water, into the eyes of a burly Indian sorcerer from whom he is exorcising demons. He lobbies for trade unions, and listens sympathetically to Marxists. He engineers the Lateran treaty with Mussolini that makes the Vatican inviolate, then attacks the Nazis ferociously. Nevertheless, he tells an Indian blackshirt, “I love Benito Mussolini probably more than you do … and I regret that his pure humanity, which issued from the hand of a God in whom he does not believe, has been so foully sullied.”

No gnostic, Carlo also eats formidably: “The waiter brought fish in one hand and tried to take the tureen away with the other. Don Carlo put out burly arms and grasped it by its rim: there was still half a plateful there.… There was a big boiled oiled cauliflower which Don Carlo at once, as though performing a sacrifice, chopped into three unequal portions.… I wondered whether to raise the theological issue of gluttony, but I knew what the answer would be. Eating your fill was not gluttony, it was a good, nay a necessity. As for eating beyond your fill, that was the devil’s work and it contrived a kind of purgation along with the temporary agony, both salutary things.”

Unfortunately, Carlo’s best acts backfire. Because he encourages the vernacular mass, his nephew, an anthropologist, is sacrificed by Africans who have indigenized the mass absolutely. The child Carlo heals grows up to become the Jim Jones figure who drugs Carlo’s niece to death.

Do these paradoxes show Carlo’s humanness? Or are he and Toomey manipulators of different kinds of earthly powers, who succeed outwardly but fail ultimately? Is the real saint Toomey’s easygoing brother Tom? Or is Tom scarcely more a saint than is an animal, who doesn’t harm because he doesn’t aim to achieve anything great?

Throughout, Burgess spins a kaleidoscope of linguistic, literary, pun, and musical lines. German, Italian, Latin, Swahili, French, Malay, and Arabic color the narrative. Earthly Powers is dazzling. But is it also pornography? Certainly it is not Grace Irwin or Taylor Caldwell. Perhaps it is for the professional student of literature who, as A. N. Triton suggests in Whose World?, may breeze over sex passages that would explode for an amateur reader.

Meanwhile, however, to avoid realism that might include sex and violence, too many Christians bury their minds in fantasy. Christian bookstores market works by the “Inklings” and later derivative writers ad nauseum, out of all proportion to their significance in the total stream of Christian literature, and without any comparative emphasis on writers like Mauriac, Greene, O’Connor, and Wiebe. We want to escape: this world is not our home. How we would blush at Chaucer’s bawdy tales or the Bible’s steamy sex scenes.

Sexy or not, Earthly Powers reiterates: What does it mean to be a man of God? Toomey’s last words come as he watches a thunderstorm: “ ‘He plants his footsteps in the sea,’ I quoted from Sunday’s services while I looked out from the lashed french windows, ‘and rides upon the storm.’ The old bastard. Will he let us sleep?”

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Christ does not guarantee sleep, however. Though we see through a glass darkly, Christ guarantees victory.

Yet both Toomey and Carlo hunger and thirst for God. Both die in the faith. For an artist, reality includes multiple levels of meaning, including paradoxes. Perhaps Burgess senses that God does move in mysterious ways, and sometimes through earth’s power-charged storms.

Dr. Adeney is lecturer in missions and cross-cultural communication at Seattle Pacific University, Washington.

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