John felt the number of Catholic apocalyptic novels in English was fewer than 10, if you counted Lord of the Rings. This is likely due to the dim view of St. Augustine towards millennial expectations, an idea repeated in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. John felt this one was a little uncanny, perhaps because the characters and settings are so proasic.
Eclipse of the Sun: A Novel
by Michael O'Brien
Ignatius Press, San Francisco
856 Pages, $27.95 (US)
"Ed, have you ever toyed with the idea that the lunatic fringe just might have got a few things right?"
So asks an alcoholic foreign correspondent in this third of the five projected books of the "Children of the Last Days" series by Michael O'Brien. In many ways, this is a very disturbing book. For one thing, the author is a Canadian and the book is set in British Columbia; it was unwelcome news to me that apocalyptic novels in which sinister federal agencies play a large role are not confined to excitable southern countries. Even more disturbing is the fact the author writes as a Catholic, and the series is published by no less a citadel of orthodoxy than Ignatius Press of San Francisco. Though evangelical apocalyptic fiction has become a major publishing category, the treatment of this subject by Catholic popular writers has heretofore tended to wither under the antimillennial eye of St. Augustine. The most important issue raised by the book, however, is why so many otherwise extremely ordinary people (to either side of the border) are asking the question asked by the alcoholic reporter.
Catholic novels with pronounced apocalyptic themes are rare enough that I can think of just five: Hugh Benson's "The Lord of the World" (1907), Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (1960), R. A. Lafferty's "Past Master" (1968), Morris West's "The Clowns of God" (1981) and Walker Percy's "The Thanatos Syndrome" (1987). (This dearth of titles may be mitigated by the perennial popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" (1954) which in my opinion is also a Catholic apocalyptic novel.) The difficulty with writing Catholic apocalyptic fiction, as we have noted, is that the traditional Augustinian eschatology of the Church has long discountenanced identifying particular historical events as the unique fulfillment of scriptural prophecy. For that matter, millenarianism has even been defined as a heresy (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 676). This will put a kink in anyone's creativity.
In the Afterword to "Eclipse of the Sun," the author suggests a formula which may be the only orthodox approach possible: "It is important to remember that . . .a truly Catholic `end-times' novel does not so much predict the future as it strives to raise the essential questions that must be asked by every generation. Thus, it is not my intention to leave the reader with a neat package; it is rather my hope that the reader will take away from this book a heightened sense of awareness and a number of urgent questions. . . " The author follows his own advice, and the book is largely a set of tableaux depicting the cultural crisis of late modernity as it affects the family, the Church and the state. The result is not overwhelmingly didactic, and even the number of pages is in part attributable to Ignatius Press's dedication to readable layout. Still, the book does suffer from a degree of bloat reminiscent of some Stephen King novels, particularly in the numerous private revelations the characters experience.
The vignettes that make up the bulk of the book are held together by a story about the attempts of an agency of the Canadian federal government to capture a little boy. Yes, there are black helicopters, and in O'Brien's Canada they are the creatures of an extraordinarily secret organization known as the Office of Internal Security (OIS). At the beginning of the story, they destroy the commune in rural British Columbia to which Arrow Delaney's mother had fled after her publisher-husband was killed. (His newspaper had been suppressed on the grounds that its opposition to abortion was a hate-crime.) Little Arrow is rescued from the assault by Fr. Andrei, an old immigrant priest with some experience of totalitarianism. When he flees with Arrow to the nearby convent where he serves as chaplain, however, he finds that the black helicopters are just leaving after having killed all the nuns.
The point of all these atrocities was to provide incidents that could be blamed on criminals and religious fanatics, thus justifying yet more stringent restrictions on civil liberties. Since the priest and the boy saw who was really responsible, they cannot be permitted to live. They are chased about the province as the priest tries to get Arrow to a refuge in the far north. In the course of their travels, they are sheltered by various ordinary people, some of whom get in trouble as the OIS closes in. (One of the most interesting parts of the book, at least to an American, is the description of how a question is asked in the federal parliament, in this case about an evangelical woman who disappeared after letting Arrow use the national health card of one of her children.) The upshot is that Arrow does eventually reach "The Camp of the Saints," as the final chapter is entitled. Fr. Andrei, however, dies a martyr's death at the hands of a globalist bureaucrat, who beats him to death with a video-camera when he refuses to apostasize.
We learn what the OIS is up to primarily from the journalist with whose question this review began. It seems that there is a long-running conspiracy to accomplish three things in sequence: to create a global economy, then to create a global government, then to create a world church. The number of primary conspirators is not enormous. The whole effort rests on the coordinated efforts of about 300 financiers and public officials. The conspiracy has an inner and an outer dimension.
The inner members view the conspiracy as a religious enterprise. In the first novel in the series, "Father Elijah," we meet the Antichrist, or at least a candidate for the job. (We also meet the eschatological Elijah in the person of an Israeli general turned Carmelite monk.) The conspiracy's leaders are in contact with demons, whom they take to be "ascended masters." Indeed, they salve their consciences with the thought that the people they are killing will be happier on another plane of existence. The particular targets of their ire are Christians, and especially conservative Catholics. The conspiracy actually fosters liberal Catholic bishops and theologians hostile to Rome.
On a more prosaic level, which is sometimes permitted to appear in public, the agenda of the conspiracy is largely ecological. Such is the strain that the human race places on the living system of the planet, say the shadowy elite, that world population must be reduced by at least 25%, and apparently not simply through attrition. The sinister term "culling" occurs on several occasions. In contrast, the good people in the book tend to be pro-natalist. In "Eclipse of the Sun," a family of six or seven kids is infallible evidence of sanctity, particularly if the kids are being home-schooled.
The explanation of the non-occult element of the conspiracy slides out of the fictional world of the novel entirely. We get a list of people, mostly American legislators, who have sounded the alarm since the 1920s with regard to the power of the Federal Reserve or of the Foundations, only to be ignored or to die mysteriously. There is a brief introduction to the new science of Clintonology. There are also numerous examples of the media's ability to distort or bury stories that might give the general population a clue about what is really going on.
One of the odd features of the book is the unexamined conviction that mass communication is becoming more and more monolithic with the passage of time. The Internet is mentioned only twice, though one of the sympathetic characters is actually a software entrepreneur who retired young. The pious remnant in "Eclipse of the Sun" seem to be the last conspiracy enthusiasts in the English-speaking world to depend on hardcopy publications for the real news.
Even odder than how the cast of characters keep track of the conspiracy is the fact they would want to. They aren't gun-buffs or people looking for adventures; they are for the most part obscure parish priests and middle-aged folk with (large) families. (The least obscure character is the archbishop of Vancouver, who reads the modernists in his archdiocese the Riot Act in a fashion reminiscent of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Omaha, who did something similar in 1996.) They are busy people who really don't need extra worries. Though we should take everything we read in a novel with a grain of salt, and two grains with apocalyptic fiction, nevertheless we cannot doubt that the "remnant" in this book have real-world analogues. They may well be misconstruing what they read in the papers, but if they say there is something wrong with the way they are governed, they are most unlikely to be imagining it.
The key to what has these good people agitated, as well as why the current fin de siecle has a nastier edge to it than the last time around, may perhaps be found be in Stephen L. Carter's Massey lectures of 1995, recently published in book form as "The Dissent of the Governed" (1998). The lectures were given in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It is the best attempt I have seen to understand the cultural disorders that occasioned that terrible act, without in any way condoning what happened. Canadian patriots may go ballistic when they see how American is the model I am about to apply to a book set in British Columbia. They may have a point, but I would suggest that US and Canadian legal culture are increasingly convergent, particularly under the new constitution, and that the elite attitudes Carter discusses are no less common in Toronto than they are in the neighborhood of Boston.
The starting point for Carter's analysis is a novel reading of the Declaration of Independence. What drove the colonists over the line from dissent to revolt was not the new imperial taxes or the high-handedness of unelected officials. Rather, in the words of the Declaration, it was that "Our repeated Petitions have been met only with repeated injuries." The King (and his ministers) not only gave his subjects no hearing, but responded to their complaints with outrages. This behavior, according to Carter, drove a critical mass of American colonials from protest about perceived injustices to "disallegiance" from a political structure that systematically excluded them and their concerns.
Carter suggests that American constitutional law has been acting more and more like King George's government since at least the 1950s. Part of the problem was that the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education was not only right, it also made the Court wildly popular among the nation's elites, a somewhat novel situation. The judiciary began to believe that, quite literally, it could do no wrong. Having set itself to altering the nation's ingrained cultural patterns as they pertained to race, the Court became open to reforming other aspects of American culture. What later came to be called the "culture wars" may have been inevitable, but the mischief was greatly exacerbated by the fact that, from quite early on, the courts were pretty clearly on one side.
Stephen Carter has discussed the hostility to religious arguments in the public square in his book, "The Culture of Disbelief." The question of the level of piety among the nation's elites, or indeed what an elite might be, is too large a subject to take on here. Still, he does have a point when he says that modern constitutional practice has succeeded in making a "forbidden ontology" of what is the most important thing in the world to a very large fraction of the people. The problem is no so much that religiously motivated persons do not get their way on issues like abortion, or prayer in public schools, or on the control of pornography. The problem is that, as religious people, their arguments cannot even be heard.
Somewhat alarmingly, Carter goes so far as to suggest that the linkage of reformist liberalism with the extraordinary level of deference demanded by the modern judiciary is quite literally totalitarian. It criminalizes forms of dissent that in other contexts would enjoy a large degree of toleration. Indeed, it speaks to the people in a rhetoric of tolerance that in practice usually means legally mandated homogenization. Of course, even the most uppity federal judge does not have a fleet of black helicopters at his command. Still, if Carter is right, then in the fictional apocalypse of "Eclipse of the Sun," we see a popular intuition that is not without foundation.
This review first appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of "Millennial Stew," the newsletter of the Center for Millennial Studies. For more information, please click here:
Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly