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 ...

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