Sometimes I forget how much I love fiction. History is important because, if we don’t learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. Theology is critical because we never stop learning about God, even after we die. But fiction can expand our world into real-life versions of what happens in our dreams—or in our nightmares.
We find all three styles in the Bible: the historical tales of the Israelites desperately seeking their savior, the poetic descriptions of the first moments of creation in Genesis and the human heart’s response to God in the Psalms, and the parables of Jesus. Those parables may not have been factual, but they were true. Truth is more than just facts. Truth conveys meaning. Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Thus, even though fiction is by definition not factual, it is still true.
Conveniently, all three styles are also available in the writings of the great author G.K. Chesterton. I read Orthodoxy in grad school—for pleasure, because that’s who I am—and I loved it. I even reviewed it here at Austin CNM. I recommend it, but it might be a bit much if you’re not used to spiritual autobiographies. It was almost too much for me! I know of Chesterton’s hagiographies (lives of the saints), but when a friend loaned me The Man Who Was Thursday, I was quite confident. I know fiction; I love fiction; I can handle this.
I was only mostly right, for The Man Who Was Thursday carries a subtitle: “A Nightmare”. I did a double-take, but I charged ahead, and I am so glad I did. The Man Who Was Thursday was indeed a nightmare, but it was a nightmare of the most delightful kind.
If you’re anything like me, the title alone is enough to raise an eyebrow. The story begins in Chesterton’s own 19th-century England with a tense evening encounter between two puffed-up poets on a country street. The poets, visiting Gabriel Syme and local anarchist Lucian Gregory, see poetry from opposite poles. It’s a steampunk rap battle between the realist and the idealist, but that’s just the beginning of the story.
Gregory reveals himself to be an authentic anarchist, not just a poseur. He shares this under the restriction than Syme cannot tell anyone his (illegal and destructive) anarchy is legitimate. Subsequently and under the same secrecy, Syme reveals himself to be an undercover policeman. Syme isn’t just an ordinary bobby, however. He is part of a special blue-card-carrying branch of philosophical policemen recruited specifically to hunt down underground anarchists. Oops.
Syme convinces Gregory to introduce him to his local anarchist chapter. The minor introduction turns into a major catastrophe when, against all reason, the undercover policeman is elected as the chapter’s supreme council representative, code-named Thursday after the day of the week. He is shipped off in the night to meet the other days of the week and their fearsome leader, Sunday, and the real adventure begins.
I had so much fun reading this book! The writing is beautifully crafted and the quick pace kept me turning pages and smiling. “Nightmare” here isn’t about those scary dreams that keep you from falling asleep at 3 a.m. It’s about that perfectly-laid plan that goes wrong, and goes wrong again, and has a glimmer of hope before flatly falling apart.
I can’t share any more about the story without giving it away, but please, read it for yourselves! Being over 100 years old, it happens to be widely available in print and online (including free for Kindle). And if this tickles your fancy, you will find the same whimsy, wisdom, and wordsmithing in Chesterton’s other works.
Your Advent Challenge is to embrace the imaginative aspect of the faith. Select a passage from Scripture (a favorite or any reading from the season) and imagine yourself in the action, as though you are really there. What do you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste? Are the words being spoken to you or to someone else? How do you (or how does the other person or people) react? What has happened before this passage might affect the way you feel? Dive into the moment and let it become your reality. It is real!