Pilgermann by Russell Hoban
This book uses a story line of a Jew who has sinned greatly moving on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to seek Jesus before it is too late. In the process, he is captured, “enslaved” and detained in Antioch when the Christian warriors of the Crusades successfully attack and slaughter all in the name of Christ as ordered by Pope Urban II. While his head is being separated from his body by the invincible warrior, Behemond, he realizes that his destination, Jerusalem, is, like Jesus’, where he was martyred. His experiences as described both in his earthly life and also as a ghostly existence of waves with a nod to quantum mechanics, observing earthly happenings as an owl flying thru that “distance called time” are sufficiently interesting to provide a matrix for Hoban to develop and even explain his views on many subjects of great import to man’s understanding of himself and his relation and interaction with God, Christ, Nature, Time, Creation, free will, randomness, causation, Original Sin, and even more.
In short, do not think you can properly absorb the impact of this book in one reading, and don’t even bother if you do not have some working knowledge of both Christian, Muslim, and secular 11-12th century history. Review again the basic points of what happened after Mohammed and his Muslim converts overran most of the civilized world including much of Europe leading to the Christian response of the Crusades.
I also strongly recommend you read a good summary of the Crusades – “The Crusades” by Robert Payne will do for starters, and access “The Gospel of Thomas” from the Gnostic Society on-line. As with other Hoban novels, it is handy to have a smart phone search engine at your fingertips plus your favorite version of the Bible.
Begin by checking out the incredible extant letter (Payne, P. 28) written in 1093 by Emperor Alexius Comenus of Byzantium to Robert, Count of Flanders begging for help to turn back the Turkish Muslim converts who were slaughtering , desecrating and mutilating both Christians and Jews in their holiest sites after winning a decisive victory at Menzikert in 1071 – the same year that Jerusalem was captured. Antioch, the site of most of the action of this novel, was captured by these same Turks in 1085.
One of the beauties of a work like this is that it forces you to face the fact that our modern history – today - is unfortunately a repeat version of “ancient” history. Isis, for example, is nothing more than a movement of devout Islamic warriors and partisans devoted to reestablishing the Caliphate lost to the Crusaders and never reestablished because of foreign interventions, more recently by Israel and the West.
So what are the main ideas developed during “thou Jew, my Jew’s” pilgrimage? Much of the book might be explained with a saying by Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas, # 50 C: “If they ask you “What is the sign within you of your Father?” Reply to them “It is movement, it is rest.”
When "Thou Jew" reaches Antioch and is employed and befriended by his Turkish master, his task is to design and direct the construction of a pattern of tiles covering a very large outside flat surface. The reason for this construction is purely philosophic and abstract – As one gazes at the pattern of triangles and colors, images and motion become apparent. The Turk hopes to understand the incomprehensible – Where is the point that exists defining the line between the stillness that is always becoming motion, where potentiality becomes activity, and where pattern becomes consciousness. This exercise is a metaphor for trying to comprehend the very act by God of creation.
In addition, once movement is possible, Hoban proposes that all possible actions will eventually happen and God who loves all his creation equally, good and evil alike, while being all-knowing, chooses not to intervene with evil doers, thus giving man free will to choose good or evil ever since The Fall. The resultant chaos and unevenness of the totality of forces caused by actions of good and evil, light and dark, up and down, right and left, loss and gain, love and hate, etc. cause an asymmetry of energy that propels all movement forever and is the opposite of the evenness and uniformity present in the Beginning that man rejected in favor of obtaining the ability to discern good and evil. Thus, when "Thou Jew" asks Jesus why He repeatedly lets His people be slaughtered by Christians, or on a personal level, why was it necessary for his genitals to be cut off and fed to a “Jew – sniffing pig”, Jesus replied “you wished it”, “you chose it”. Jesus also says “loss is the price of gain”, and the price of being “tuned to me is what is most dear to you”. Finally for life to have any meaning, for any motion to exist in this world, the free will to sin, disobeying God, starting with the original sin was as necessary as is the choice to do God’s will. Thus Caiphius, Judas, and Pilate plus the many Temple Jews threatened by Jesus’ authority had to play their role in the crucifixion before a new religion, Christianity, could even develop.
1. After Christ, what is God’s role/interaction to man?
Hoban views God as all powerful, all knowing, outside of time (at least our concept of time), and the terms of His covenant with "Thou Jew" is simple: “everything is required of me, forever.” Since man has fallen, and all actions are possible, the possibility of doing evil is now a built- in feature and is thus the source of the asymmetry caused by God’s impossible demands and man’s repeated failures. This tension creates constant motion towards and away from God. In a rare moment of optimism, Hoban speculates that since God is in the “Now”, each action is a new event and mercy and forgiveness is available always, instantly. Likewise, so is judgement,; in fact, every day, every moment is judgement time – in fact, Judgement Day is the only day there is.
Hoban also speculates that since the advent of Christ, He is now It – no longer intervening and personally interacting with His people who continue to do both good and evil as the occasion arises. These chores are now delegated to Christ.
2. What is Christ’s role “in the now”since man is doomed to continue making sinful choices as he is presented with a random menu of all possible permutations of actions?
Hoban’s Christ explains: “God is gone, you talk to me”.
Christ is likened to the very stones of Antioch which serve both as the protector against harm in the tall walls and towers, but also as the engines of war while being assaulted with giant war machines by the Crusaders. (Note Gospel of Thomas logia 77b.) He notes that “stones as such, have no enemy”. This thought trend is further developed as Christ the “sorter” of man’s motions – good/evil, light/dark/, loss/gain, altruism/self indulgence, greed, avarice, etc., and most significantly, movement, asymmetry/uniformity, rest/ death.
With regard to judgment day, Hoban’s Christ says “Remember after me it’s straight action with no dressing up”.
Optimistically this suggests that our period of Grace continues, but pessimistically, before reaching Jerusalem where he knows “time is short since Christ is leaving us”, “Thou Jew” is killed by Christians – The very same Christians that are doing evil mayhem in Christ’s name at the order of the leader of the Holy Roman Catholic Church – God’s representative on earth – Pope Urban II.
After you read this book for the third, fourth, and fifth times, it will occur that many other issues of primal importance are raised. Examples are: 1. What is the role of religions, especially Christian, Judaism, and Islam, in the creation and promulgation of sin? 2. Does “free will” exist or are all actions possible and will eventually occur – potentiality becoming actuality? 3. Is Christ the “son of man” because man’s errant behavior (especially that of the “Chosen Ones” – now since 30 AD viewed by the Christians as “the children of Darkness”) required His appearance? Does this concept explain His saying that “from Me came the seed of life”.