November 2, 1996 in Features

Slow Going Novel Attempting To Meld Christianity With Other Faiths Stretches Mind Much Too Tediously

Paul Graves Correspondent
 

“The Living Avatara: A New Theology” By Simonides (Eden Communications, 482 pages, $29)

I consider myself to have at least average intelligence and above-average theological sophistication.

“The Living Avatara” strained both my intellect and theological awareness.

Ordinarily, I consider such strain very stimulating, but sometimes there was more strain than stimulation.

The plot follows a Catholic priest/scholar as he enters into a convoluted mystery that challenges not only his theological grounding but his very life as well. From a retreat house on Vancouver Island to the Dead Sea in Israel, then back to a Canadian Native American community before going on to Northern California, the adventures of Father Greg Benedict could weave a wonderful, tight story that would stretch the spiritual muscles of any curious faith pilgrim.

The adventures are driven by intriguing and inviting attempts to blend orthodox Christian doctrine and imagery with, what I assume, are fairly orthodox theology and imagery from the Hindu and Native American (Eskimo) traditions.

For those unafraid to see if such divergent pieces fit into the same puzzle, Simonides’ effort is a lot of fun.

Father Benedict searches intensely for a worthwhile faith in God. He even leaves the church in pursuit of that faith. Benedict discovers such a faith must be based on an honest appraisal of life as it is lived out day by day and then regularly offered to God for tempering. However, he finds that rhythm difficult to live with, even as we do.

The “new theology” referred to in the subtitle might be a significant stretch for many people if Simonides actually intends it to be the foundation of a new religious tradition. But I don’t think that is his intent.

He appears to simply offer his exploratory theology in narrative form for the sake of stimulating people to think bigger, broader, deeper than they’ve thought before.

I was intellectually and theologically stimulated by his efforts to blend old theologies into a new understanding of God and the world. I do, however, wish he had expanded on a provocative theory of a “spirituality gene” that a young doctoral student proposes all too briefly in the story.

At first reading, I found myself attracted to his vision that Jesus, Krishna and (more by implication) the great prophets of our world’s religions all spring from the same God. My personal spiritual wonderings were partially affirmed in this.

People not comfortable with this expansive understanding of God will have an honest and provocative struggle with this book.

Another example in my first read-through: Simonides’ poetic description of the New Garden of Eden is not only much longer than our Genesis introduction to the Garden. Its delightful, utopian tone will likely expand your spiritual imagination.

Yet his new theology is far from merely utopian. He uses critical societal and ecclesiastical commentary to remind us that good theology needs to be ethically based on the current social reality of our world.

But there were some literary frustrations that made it hard to keep on track until the novel’s conclusion. Those frustrations had mostly to do with the author’s somewhat esoteric writing style.

For example, I wish Simonides had delved into the story more quickly. It took me nearly 50 pages to get into the rhythm of the story, because the first four chapters seemed totally unconnected.

I met a young couple in love whom I never heard about again. Then in successive chapters, I tried to connect with an Eskimo chief, a Catholic archaeologist who died in search of a Dead Sea scroll, and two young men who at first confused me but later became important in Father Benedict’s life.

Some authors can leave you dangling, eagerly waiting to see how soon the loose ends will be connected. Simonides (a pseudonym for a Nelson, British Columbia, author who wishes to remain anonymous), left me dangling, but I wondered if, not when, those loose ends would connect.

He often took too long to get to the point. He moved quickly into, but not out of, episodes of verbosity. The way he expanded on theological and mythical esoteria often made it difficult to get into the otherwise intriguing story.

Simonides’ imagination is quite exciting but also expansive. That’s when I would skim the next few pages until the story’s primary characters returned to center stage and the story line tightened up and moved on.

Another example is with the novel’s title.

I was only vaguely familiar with the word “avatara.” Yet it took 237 pages before I found the word mentioned and I had been consciously looking for it.

I wanted the story to tell what an avatar is, but it never did. Only after finishing the book did I consult my dictionary.

For the purposes of this novel, “avatar” comes from a Hindu word that means the incarnation, the embodiment of God in a certain person. After doing my word study, the story line made much better sense to me.

I wish the author had more fully developed Father Benedict’s encounter with the man he came to know as the current incarnation of God. Curiously, the priest never seems to call him “avatar” but often calls him Jack.

The story also concludes with unanswered questions about Greg Benedict’s friends, left in a bit of mortal danger.

The meeting of Jack the Avatar and the searching priest is Simonides’ chance to blend theological traditions into one person’s view of life. Whether he succeeds is the reader’s decision.

I found “The Living Avatara” to be tedious reading. I wonder what would have been gained, and lost, by tightening the story line and trimming the 482 pages nearly in half.

Some of the story’s loose ends and subplots might never appear in a shortened version.

But I was stimulated by how Simonides broke down the old theological boundaries and set up new ones farther apart. He put into novel form a more inclusive welcoming of people into God’s earthly kingdom.

Simonides speaks eloquently, even if too longwindedly, of how the Living Avatara would remind us how to live.


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