Michel Faber’s slim novella The Fire Gospel is part of a collection of novellas called The Canongate Myth Series, featuring modern retellings of ancient myths. The Fire Gospel is inspired by the Greek Titan Prometheus, who introduced humankind to fire and lived to regret it. The subtitle of this work reminded me instantly of Frankenstein, and I was wary of Faber trying to outdo that text or become overly influenced by it, but this concern was unfounded because these stories have no relation to each other. Frankenstein is a tragedy through and through while Faber’s The Fire Gospel is a romp; this story turns everything into a parody, from the publishing industry and the media, to similar stories and even the Prometheus myth itself.
Meet middle-aged Theo Griepenkerl, the world’s foremost Aramaic scholar. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend and quickly jumps a plane into the heart of war-torn Iraq to negotiate exhibition rights with the curator of the Mosul museum. While he’s there, predictably, a bomb goes off, ravaging the museum and destroying some major artifacts. After the initial shock of the blast, Theo notices the pregnant belly of an ancient statue has been broken open, and inside lay perfectly-preserved scrolls written in Aramaic, scrolls written by a man who witnessed the life and death of Jesus.
I describe the plot as contrived contrivance because everything happens so perfectly, as Faber meant it to. The premise of the novel satirizes the overnight sensation of The Da Vinci Code, and parodies the plot of the dashing professor whose discoveries rewrite history and incense millions of Christians. If you can’t guess already, that’s exactly what happens to Theo Griepenkerl.
Upon translating the scrolls, written by a man named Malchus, Theo finds that the Bible’s version of New Testament events do not tally with Malchus’s eyewitness account. Malchus, with the aid of Theo, unknowingly debunks several miracles included in the Bible. For example, Malchus is identified as the man whose ear was cut off by a Roman soldier, but in his account, it never grew back–it just got infected and then healed like a normal wound. More shocking discoveries include Jesus’s “real” last words: not the Biblical “It is finished” that reflects courage and godliness, but a human plea for death, “Please, somebody, please finish me.” And the most shocking discovery is that Jesus was never buried at all, and his so-called Resurrection was the result of the twelve disciples experiencing collective hallucinations while on drugs.
Needless to say, the book becomes an instant bestseller. It outrages millions of Christians who find it impossible to tally their beliefs with what is allegedly historical truth. In this manner, Faber criticizes organized religion, but not belief in God. Those who are able to accept Jesus’s humanity and still believe he was God incarnate are applauded, while those who burn Theo in effigy or lose their faith altogether as a result of the text are roundly criticized. Faber suggests that faith in human courage is more important than faith in a perfect God, whether or not you choose to believe in God.
But back to the Prometheus myth. As you probably know, Prometheus gave humanity the gift of fire against the express command of Zeus. As punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock for all eternity while every day buzzards feast on his liver, and every night it grows back–forever. Theo gets his divine comeuppance, though in a rather more ridiculous way. At a book signing, two thugs kidnap Theo and hold him hostage, forcing him to record a video announcing that he made the entire thing up. The video is aired as Theo is released by one of his captors after sustaining a serious gunshot wound. The narrative ends as Theo nears death, and passersby are responsible for getting him to a hospital before he dies.
Thus Theo becomes a modern Prometheus, responsible for bringing mankind “fire” in the form of religious truth. However, his gift is not as enlightening as Prometheus’s was. He finds in mankind an unwillingness for the truth and a stubborn preference for the familiarity and comfort of religion. Theo is also not the magnanimous Prometheus helping humanity; he’s a self-serving, arrogant, grumpy atheist who cares more about his own well-being than that of humanity. These details turn the Prometheus myth on its head and definitely makes for funny reading.
It’s a weird little book. I read this slim novel in four hours, racing through the text and leaving myself little time to ruminate on the story. I found it ridiculous (albeit endearing) when I was reading and it was only on reflection that I realized its many layers. I don’t know if I’ll read it again, but it definitely made me think about religion versus faith, and human nature. This was the first book I read by Michel Faber after The Crimson Petal and the White enchanted me a few years ago.
The verdict? 3.5 out of 5 stars