Theodicy is a real problem for literature. A real problem for anyone, sure, but the problem of the origins and nature of evil is a thing that most authors assiduously avoid confronting. When even the greatest writers try to hit it head on, the results are often… interesting. Outside the Old and New Testaments, the two most powerful and influential Christian works are the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. Milton was a believer, a puritan, yet when he set pen to paper to craft his poem, Satan ends up the hero. We can understand, and sympathize with, Satan’s cry of Non Servium! Lucifer has a human face – we recognize him. How can something we recognize be entirely evil? Flawed, perhaps…
God himself is ineffable, impossible to relate in fiction. Gregory Palamas said that we can’t know Gods’ essence, but we can know his energies, his effect on the world. Perhaps true evil is something else altogether as well – something more Lovecraftian. We can see the effects of true evil, but not know it without losing our sanity.
War in Heaven: The Other Side of Evil
“Are you religious?” It’s the inevitable question I’m asked whenever I explain the concept and theme of The Other Side of Evil to an interested potential reader. My most common response, “No. I was baptized Catholic but I’ve been to more Shinto shrines and Jewish Synagogues than Catholic Churches,” often leads to quizzical looks. “Then what made you write the book?” It’s not an easy question to answer.
Truth be told, I don’t adhere to any organized religion. It was my interest in the development and history of religion that drove me to explore the foundations of the many faiths that proliferate, not the spirituality supposed ingrained in belief. What I consider to be logical questions motivated me: How do these religions have such a hold on so many people? Where did their rituals develop and what social and economic conditions influenced their core belief systems? What was considered apostasy and why? Who got to decide what was important and upon what basis were these decisions made? What motivated people to release themselves totally to something that can’t be touched, tasted, or seen in a literal way? It was the history of religion that drove me to classes on John Milton in university.
Sitting one day while discussing Paradise Lost, it struck me as odd when the professor introduced the idea of Satan as the “hero” of that most famous of modern epic poems. It’s Milton 101, yes, but I was still an impressionable 19 year old and the concept was new to me. I mean one simply does not naturally associate Lucifer/Satan/the Devil as the “hero” of anything other than evil. But if one regards the “hero” as the main protagonist of a story, the character for whom the reading audience develops the strongest connection, the deepest sympathies, then Milton’s Satan takes the cake. He’s the classic underdog so many people like to root for, leading the “free armies” of heaven to make things right. His only real evil is that he does not obey God and for that he burns. Literally, it turns out.
Identifying with this controversial take on the supposed author of all evil, I considered whether the stories we know of Satan were the stories of a crooning victor; God’s version of what happened, as biased as one would expect it to be. What conquering society hasn’t changed written history at least a little bit in order to persuade posterity that their cause was the right cause, carried out in the right way? So far as I know, no ancient, medieval, or modern society has proven itself completely immune to this little creative indelicacy.
That got me thinking. What if I had the chance to sit down with John Milton’s hero and understand the story of his fall from God’s grace…from the his point of view? The loser’s point of view? What would Satan tell me? Would he lie, as all students of western religion are taught to expect? Would he take the opportunity to give his jump-up-and-down-on-the-sofa, shouting out to the airwaves, “tell it all” story? And if he did, and it turns out his claim is that God rewrote history to cover up what would otherwise be the proverbial chink in the armor of faith, what would Satan tell us about the lies God had to tell in order to justify the slaughter of so many of His angels and the insubordination of his most revered creation? Even more, what would happen if Man came to know of God’s half-truths, fabrications perhaps? Would Man’s faith, so elemental to accepting God as the divine light that so many religions claim him to be, falter when it became known that Man’s creator was, indeed, as malignant, deceptive, and self centered as so many of history’s victors? “The story of Satan has to be told,” I thought. My paper on the evolution of Satan as portrayed through literature got me an “A” in the class but, more importantly, it set me up to begin crafting the tale that would become The Other Side of Evil.
I harnessed my love and knowledge of ancient and military history to create a truly new storyline but with many of the same characters and places we’ve become accustomed to and comfortable with. The Heaven and Hell of The Other Side of Evil had to be something no one had ever read before, yet it had to be plausible. To that, Heaven had to be like any empire that’s existed through time. Roman. Vicious and singularly focused on making itself the most important power in the known world. Byzantine in the huge bureaucracy needed to keep the known universe afloat, with the inevitable backstabbing and power brokering that accompanies so many people jockeying to get ahead. Olympian in the sense that violent revolution brought the Supreme Being to power and his subjects were slaves to his ephemeral whims. When, years later, I finally got down to putting words to paper, it wasn’t too difficult to dip into my many experiences working as a lawyer for international broker/dealers, banks, and government regulators, and develop the vile and vituperative world that had to make up the Heaven and Hell, in all their glory, of The Other Side of Evil.
As it turned out, the smoke-and-mirrors world of government and the faith-based world of religion were two sides of the same coin. I mean, let’s face it. What could the war of all wars, the war in Heaven, have been if not political? And if it all came down to politics, why should any of us have the faith demanded by the great religions of the world necessary to achieve salvation?
In the end, The Other Side of Evil is fiction. It tells a story. It’s not meant to espouse atheism directly but it is meant to give a reader another angle from which to look at something that has often been taken for granted. And if that reader comes away from my story and asks themselves some deeper questions than perhaps they’d asked themselves before, I’ve done the job I set out to do those many years ago, in that classroom, reading of Man’s first disobedience and the supposed cause of it.