“Second Journey of the Magus” by Ian R MacLeod

September 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

Most speculative fiction dismisses, vilifies, or satirizes established religion, but a few stories explore its implications using the genre’s formidable set of tools. I’m not sure what this subgenre is called. Religious speculative fiction? Although as subgenres go it’s not very popular, there are some very famous stories in it, like Arthur C Clarke’s “The Star”, Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow (which I reviewed here in January), and Ted Chiang’s stories “Tower of Babylon”, “Hell is the Absence of God”, and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. Ted Chiang’s stories (like almost all of his stories whether religion is involved or not) are about free will, but most are about the problem of evil.

I’m sure I could be forgetting something, but I think that this week’s short story club story, “Second Journey of the Magus” from Subterranean Magazine, is the first story of this kind I’ve read that is principally about the role of faith. The magus of the title is one of the three magi (sometimes translated as kings or wise men, words the story awkwardly drops in to make sure the reader has caught the reference), returned to the Roman province of Judea thirty-four years after Jesus’ birth. This is a sort of religious alternate history, and it seems that Jesus has used his power to make himself king of the Jews and is now leading a rebellion against Rome. The point of divergence is when the Devil tempts Jesus on the roof of the temple. While the other temptations asked Jesus to use his power to escape suffering and to reign on earth, this one was about dispelling doubt. If Jesus flings himself off the temple and is caught up by angels, everyone who sees this will know beyond a shadow of a doubt he is sent by God.

In the story Jesus throws himself off the temple, and the result is a world without doubt. Angels train armies who fight with flaming swords, the righteous dead are visibly preserved for their later resurrection, and the streets of Jerusalem are paved with gold. Still, the magus is not satisfied. All his life he has struggled with doubt, and seeing all these signs plain before him does not end it. In fact, it seems to intensify it. The supernatural powers of this alternate Christ are not in doubt, but to follow him still requires faith: faith that he is good. There is, in fact, plenty of reason to doubt this. The magus makes the usual appeal to the problem of evil, citing Herod’s infanticide as an example, but there is the small matter of Jesus’ original mission. The devil is described as being present and Jesus himself references sacrificing his own life as what he “could have” done. The magus wonders why this new Jerusalem needs walls given the power of its leader, but the implication is pretty clear: having thrown in his lot with the devil, Jesus and his new earthly kingdom are eventually going to be fighting God, not Rome.

“Hell is the Absence of God” also posits a world without doubt, but where Chiang was exploring the implications of modern Christian doctrine, here MacLeod seems to be trying to present counterfactual justification (note “seems”…I don’t actually know the author’s beliefs). “Second Journey of the Magus” is one answer to those who would question why an all-powerful God would keep in the shadows. MacLeod’s answer is that if God’s presence is undoubtable then there’s no more room for us. The kingdom he depicts offers wealth and happiness but there is no more room for human agency. Jesus makes this explicit when he disparagingly describes what humans will do if left to their own devices and implies he has made a better world. Better for him, but in the face of such power humans can only be slaves.

This is obviously an idea story, but it’s a pretty good one if you are interested in religious questions. It doesn’t have the elegance of Chiang’s best work, but it’s subtle and thought-provoking. I might like it even more if I understood the ending, which I confess somewhat eluded me. At first I thought the magus was summoning the devil, but since he’s already spoken to Jesus, I don’t see what the devil would add. Given that it’s the site of at least part of Jesus’ temptation, I then thought perhaps he was somehow changing history to get Jesus to choose differently and thus produce our timeline, but that seems vastly beyond his capabilities. If he’s summoning an angel or some aspect of the true God then why did he need to come all this way to answer his questions?

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