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The Face of God

The Face Of God: Nathan Childers, Varinoma Press, Oxnard, 1997

Fans of the work of that remarkable writer, Nathan Childers, were elated when he resigned his position as chief editor at Biodegradable Press in order that he might devote full time to writing novels. It has been ten long years since The Beekeeper’s Daughter appeared and that was, it must be admitted, a rather enigmatic book. The critics almost uniformly agreed that it was an epochal, seminal work but that they personally couldn’t make head nor tail of it.

The Face Of God is an accessible book or, if not exactly accessible, at least it is vaguely comprehensible. It may be, as some say, the most important work of fiction in this century. Then again, since the only people who say this are blurb writers for Varinoma Press, it may not be. It goes without saying that it will not be considered by the various literary prizes, those being reserved for works of stultifying superficiality masked by jejeune complexity. Childers has, however, made a major concession to popular sensibility – it can be enjoyed without understanding it all. In this regard the general reader will have an advantage over the literary critc. The general reader will enjoy it without not understanding it. The literary critic will do neither.

The Face of God purports to be a collage prepared from a hitherto unpublished account by John Mandeville, the translation of a cycle of stories by an unidentified Prussian scholar (“unidentified” because the nominal translator is fictitious; however the style makes it clear that the translator was a Prussian scholar), a narrative poem, The Lay of Chantelay by Marvell, commentary by sundry theologians, and the diary of a small child. There are also inexplicable fragments that are not readily explained.

These materials are carefully indexed and referenced. Much of this scholarship is clearly a fabrication but not all. Some material is drawn from unimpeachable sources. No reliance can be placed on this; there are curious divergences between the originals and the material presented in the book. Quite deviously, some of the sources which appear to be fabrications are genuine. Even more deviously, sundry materials which are legitimate and well known are interpolated without being marked or distinguished, e.g. lines from Shakespeare, paragraphs from Gibbon. It must be admitted that these interpolations are usually placed in contexts where they bear an interpretation widely at variance with that in the original.

This little tricks would not be obvious to the casual reader (And with Childers we are all casual readers.) were it not for a stylistic device. Running throughout the work is a dialog between three voices, The Voice of The Author, The Voice of The Critic, and The Voice of The Reader, in which the work is discussed. These voices share the fate of the Fates.

The Face of God is ” mythical realm called Chantelay. In the great world monotheisms God is a bodiless spirit; in the pagan religions the Gods had definite personae. The people of Chantelay took an intermediate position. They were monotheists; there was but one God; however that God had a body and a person. Their theology dealt with questions such as origins and the existence of other religions by declaring them to be unimportant and of no interest. However explanations were given: Thus the world had been created by God in a previous incarnation. Likewise the gods of other peoples were clay automata given life by God so that he wouldn’t have to bother with servicing them.

The people of Chantelay did not consider themselves to be a chosen people. They had no special relationship with God, per se. They were merely fortunate that God had chosen to live in Chantelay. (Or not fortunate as the case may be – the text includes The Prayer of Deliverance which is a desperate plea to be relieved of the burden of having God as a neighbour.) As neighbours, though, their relationship to God was different and more intimate that of other peoples.

The focal point of Chantelay religious concern was the Face of God. God was an anonymous, embodied being, quite human in appearance, who chose to live among them. He chose not to reveal that person to them. Thus the question: What did God look like? In the great temple there is a statute of God; he is shown holding a mask in front of his face.

The coinage of the realm bears the faces of the kings
The coinage of the temple bears no face at all

The cycle of stories relates the many fantastic adventures of God as he wanders about Chantelay in disguise. In some of the stories people walk about holding a mask in front of their face and are exposed by small boys or other natural disasters. In some God walks about with a mask and those who attempt to expose him as a fraud suffer curious fates. In some he solves peoples problems in ludicrous ways. In others he makes their lives amusingly more complicated.

In one of the stories God switches places with one of the pretenders who is then stuck with the job of being God. Strictly speaking, this story might not be part of the cycle since it was one of the standard theological explanations in answer to the question: Why God? The story implies that God got the job by accident and caprice and doesn’t quite know what he is doing.

The populace was obsessed with the Face of God. Many of the priesthood were obsessed with what God wanted and why he wanted what he wanted. Why did he want temples and public adoration? Why did he answer prayers? Did he have to do these things or did he simply want to? There was a formal prayer, The Prayer of Inquiry, that demanded of God the answers to these questions. This prayer was always answered. The answers, however, were thoroughly enigmatic; theologians devoted large amounts of effort towards interpreting these replies. There is a suggestion that God encouraged these activities as a way to keep theologians out of mischief.

The story cycle occupies the majority of the book; they are very much in the style of The Arabian Nights and can be read and enjoyed by the casual reader without much thought. (The casual reader should, perhaps, skip the footnotes. Some of them are quite disturbing.) The connoiseur of literary puzzles will enjoy the scattered essays. These are all multi-layered with widely divergent interpretations. Thus an essay which appears to be a discussion of Chantelay theology can be perceived as a scathing denunciation of Christianity (or, perhaps, Islam – it is not quite clear), as a reflection on the foibles of humanity, or as a dissertation on the ethics of whaling. (There is a deep and deeply disguised thread of whale imagery running throughout the book. It is most unclear what this is about although one critic has suggested that the entire work is an allegorical criticism of Moby Dick.)

One can also read this work as a probing inquiry into the relationship of Man and His Divinity. For God to be meaningful he must have a human element, i.e., he must have a face. No human can be God, i.e., no human’s face can be the face of God. Ergo, the face of God must be human but unknown; to know the Face of God is to strip him of divinity and reduce him to mere humanity. The people of Chantelay personify this dual urge to humanize divinity and to assert its distance.

Note: The coffee table version of this book should not be purchased by people with small children. The illustrations are quite unsuitable.

Note: This review follows the convention of the book. “God” is capitalized; “he” is not. One assumes that this convention reflects the Chantelay intermediate monotheism.

Note: A difficulty with a patently human deity is that it has a gender which raises the question of why it should be male rather than female (or vice versa). Childers discusses this point in an excessively offensive footnote.

This page was last updated December 19, 1997.