Short Story Club: “Second Journey of the Magus”

Once more, here’s the story; it seems to have missed out on any coverage in the print Locus, so here’s Lois Tilton:

With this powerfully disturbing tale of faith and doubt, MacLeod joins a notable list of authors who have reimagined the temptations of Christ. It is not really an alternate history; Jesus’ choice has taken the story entirely out of history into eschatology. This vision of Jerusalem transformed by a Satanic Christ is strongly unsettling in its resemblance to the heavenly city of so many pious imaginations. But the conclusion may leave the reader puzzled as Balthasar finally makes his own choice, which the author leaves us to imagine. Recommended.

… and since I’m writing this before I go on holiday, at the moment that’s your lot. What did you think?

31 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Second Journey of the Magus”

  1. I’m not a huge fan of stories that re-hash Biblical events. Especially in the time I was a slush reader, I got really burned out on it. So when I realized that this was a story involving the three magi present at Christ’s birth, I kind of rolled me eyes.

    However, it didn’t make me abandon the story. I liked the alternate history aspect of it, with Christ’s temptation in the desert as the jonbar point. That’s a neat idea that I hadn’t seen before, and it made Jesus into a more nuanced figure instead of simply an icon of something. I also liked the implication of Balthasar’s continued doubt: it seems to assert that no matter what the universe throws out there, it will never be enough to silence all debate.

    I wonder how much this story is a somewhat inappropriate application of Enlightenment values (represented by Balthasar) to an entirely pre-Enlightenment time, story, and phenomenon. I think that doubt, faith, science, and religion have changed their aspects and relationships so much since Christ’s time as to be almost entirely different things now.

    I only read the story once, so I’m with Matt in being really unsure about the ending. Summoning what? I also liked Matt’s interpretation that that Jerusalem was gearing up for an eventual show-down with God… I hadn’t thought it through that far. In the end this story was just another Biblical what-if story for me, although better done than most; I never really felt an emotional resonance with it.

  2. There’s not too much for me to say about this story, it seems to assume a degree of religious knowledge I don’t possess.

    I will say that it was refreshing to read a story that employs a relatively straightforward narrative, without relying on section breaks, stories within stories, or other structural ploys. I like those well enough, too, but this is the first short story I’ve read in a while that built momentum simply through a point A to point B narrative (albeit with some embedded flashbacks). It is a nicely paced mix of description, exposition, dialog, etc.

    But as to what it means? I can read it as suggesting that if Jesus could see the world as it is now, even he would have succumbed to temptation. I can read it as suggesting that questioning will always lead to the devil: as it did for Jesus; as it does, perhaps, to Balthasar at the end. I can read it as suggesting that faith is not a matter of believing that something is divine but believing that it is right.

    Unlike Matt H, I can’t see any of the readings as developed into something theologically interesting here, though. It’s an okay story, but I’m not sure it does much beyond presenting a well-described vignette about how things might have been different if that different choice was made, without necessarily engaging with the full implications of that different choice. Although again, it’s hard for me to know for sure on that latter point: like Balthasar, at the end I’m left questioning my own understanding, scribbling marks…

  3. Karen: I think Balthasar isn’t a post-Enlightenment figure but he certainly could have been handled better. He sees miracles that would astonish a modern person and doesn’t seem very impressed, which seems appropriate to me given the ancient mindset that of course such things are possible, even if rare. Maybe it’s left vague to let him serve as a reader surrogate, but I would have liked a little more detail about Balthasar’s own world view. Surely a Zoroastrian would be trying to assign such phenomena to either Ahura Mazda or Aingra Mainyu.

    Matt D: I think the story is trying to convince us of the centrality of love in the gospel narrative by showing us how it might have gone had Jesus been less sympathetic. He rejects the real timeline for seemingly selfish reasons: people wouldn’t listen to his teachings and would mess up the world he made.

  4. This story is well-written and has some great imagery, like Balthasar’s journey across the blasted battle field, but it irritates me. I generally can’t stand Christmas SF, but at last this is more about the Apocalypse and the problem of evil. The vision of the Kingdom of Heaven was pretty chilling, and King Jesus sounded more like an Anti-Christ. Beggar Jesus had some interesting things to say, but no matter what, Balthasar was still full of doubt. What exactly did he want to believe in?

    This story makes the most sense to me as a counterfactual to prove that God must allow evil to exist so we can have the free will to fulfull our potential. The people of Jerusalem seem happy, but happy like sword-wielding Moonies. In our world, we live amid amazing things and terrible suffering. You can’t win.

    I love the idea that the city might be gearing up for a war on God, but if that were the intent, then both the story’s world and our world would be evil. You really can’t win.

    As for the ending, I think Balthasar wanted to change his past, presumably so his world would be more like the one we live in, the best of all possible worlds. But don’t you need to believe in something to work magic? Whose or what power is he was going to call on?

    If this link works, my full comments are here.

  5. My belated and short comments are here. I don’t have much interest in Christian apologia, so while this is better than most, it didn’t do much for me.

    In the end, I was struck by the shoddy copyediting of the text as much as by anything in the story itself.

  6. Matt H said in his post that “This is obviously an idea story, but it’s a pretty good one if you are interested in religious questions.” I’m not so I found it both pointless and unintelligble. I quite liked the writing for the first page or so (a surprise since I’ve not liked MacLeod’s prose in the past) but as soon as it starts riffing on the bible in detail I lost all interest. Then an angel appeared – am I the only person who read this as science fiction? That the angel is a robot from space? Everyone else seems to be reading it as a fantasy in which god and magic actually exist but that seemed so stupid to me that I was searching for another reading. So I was perhaps even more confused than most when Balthazar started making a spell at the end. I didn’t even realise they had spells in the bible.

    In the end, I was struck by the shoddy copyediting of the text as much as by anything in the story itself.

    Yes, this was extraordinary, particularly given last week’s story was also from Subterranean Online and didn’t have this problem.

  7. I was unaware of the whole temptation of Christ by the devil. (I blame this on my Jewish upbringing and never having read the New T – as we cool people call it).

    As it is, the story does feel needlessly blasphemous. It seems to be saying that no matter the choice Jesus makes religion will never bring peace, it will always lead to War. And that felt all a bit obvious.

    I also felt that Balthazar was an aimless character looking for a motivation. He finds one, I think, in the last line. But like everyone else, I find that last line a bit befuddling.

    I did like the flashbacks to Jesus’ birth and how ordinary the whole experience was.

    But I get the feeling that I missed the point of this piece and that it simply wasn’t for me.


  8. Martin wrote:
    am I the only person who read this as science fiction? That the angel is a robot from space?

    No, you’re not. The battle ground that Balthasar passed was so blasted, I was wondering if it had been nuked. For a moment, I thought the angel was an alien, but then I recognized the description from Revelations.

    As I find religious questions entertaining, I got something to chew over from the story, but it felt like I was being made to eat my vegetables.

    If you like, you can read the story as a counterfactual to make you glad that God’s power manifest on earth can only happen in fantasy.

  9. What I’ve wondered about this story is whether the author meant for readers to figure out what Balthasar was up to at the end, or whether he meant to leave it a mystery. Since there is a bunch of sharp readers here and none of them can figure it out, I conclude it’s the latter.

    It’s pretty clear what Balthasar wants – he wants a do-over. He wants to go back to the beginning and make a change, correct the mistake he believes he made. He holds himself responsible, and it’s related to the myrrh, the gift of death. I suspect he wants to go back and make a different gift, but it’s not inconceivable that he wants to kill the child, instead.

    The problem is that we don’t have any idea what Balthasar is capable of, what his powers are. Since we don’t know what he -can- do, we can’t tell what he does.

  10. I just don’t get this story, although I freely admit that might be due to my Jewish upbringing. I generally enjoy stories about religion, but not really this one too much–the main character is not fleshed out enough, although the imagery is very engaging.

    I also don’t get some of the earlier comments about setting up for a confrontation with G-d. My (limited) understanding of Christian theology is that Jesus, G-d, and the Holy Spirit are 3 aspects of the Divine. That is, they are one being (either that, or Christianity isn’t really monotheistic, right?). So I see the Satan temptation thing as more along the Jewish concept of Satan being not evil personified, but as an “Adversary” of G-d. So the temptation just convinces G-d as Jesus to “save” the world in a different way–through direct action rather than as a symbol. The war/war preparations are a direct reflection of some of Jesus’s words, where he says he doesn’t come to bring peace. Here, we see this literally.

    The whole Jerusalem as a city on a hill reads just like old concepts of Heaven. This is what early BCE Christian writers really envisioned for the world to come. It is what some modern Christians SAY they envision. I think it is jarring to moderns in non-Third World countries, who don’t worry much about starving to death, conquering armies marching through, being eaten by wild animals, or dying in a plague. We see the inhabitants as “Stepford people” with our modern emphasis on free will and personal action.

    The set up is interesting, but the story never goes anywhere. We never find out Balthazar’s deal, and aren’t given enough to figure it out on our own. He is clearly horrified by the Kingdom of Heaven, and especially by the costs in achieving it. Beyond that, I don’t get his motivation, his capabilities, or his purpose.

  11. You know, this brings up an interesting point from Gary & Jonathan’s podcast last week. Gary mentioned that Clarke tends to have characters who are merely witnesses to what’s going on, while Heinlein tends to have active characters with agency who really drive the plot.

    Of course there’s a spectrum between purely witness characters and 100% active ones. But I’d say that Balthasar spends 99% of the story near the ‘witness’ end of that spectrum. In the last line it looks like he’s going to become active, but we have no basis by which to predict or guess what he’ll do once he manifests some agency.

  12. Karen, yes and no. It gets at how you define “active,” I think, and what kinds of actions you privilege. Balthasar on his own initiative decides to take action and journey to Jerusalem; and he does so, I’d say, not so much as a witness but rather to gather intelligence, to actively observe, in order to determine what action he should take next. The story’s timeline is also bookended by his actions and choices–his initial choice of myrrh as a gift to the baby Jesus, his ambiguous act of summoning to close the story. Even in his conversation with Christ outside the temple, the focus is put back on Balthasar’s actions, to the question of why he gave the gift that he did, of why he still refuses to act as a believer should (such refusal itself constituting an action).

    To be sure, there’s a segment of readers who would probably prefer a story in which Balthasar loudly denounces Christ’s speech in the temple, makes a few passes with a magic staff, and sends the whole structure crashing down. That, they’d say, is active. But I find the conception of action that treats considered action–acting to gain knowledge before making a choice, acting to reject certain choices or refuse certain courses–as somehow inferior or unworthy of the name, to be unfortunate.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t stories in which characters truly are primarily witnesses; but I don’t see this as one of them.

  13. Matt – I’ll agree that Balthasar is *active* in one sense: after all, as you point out, he acts. And you’re right that refusal can (and does) constitute action. But Balthasar doesn’t have seem to have much *agency*, and that’s the key to my character spectrum here. For example, he doesn’t know *why* he chose myrh as a gift. All his motivations are very vague, and seem to consist of the author needing to move him around and see things so that there will be a viewpoint character showing the reader the important things.

    And at the end, when it looks like he’s going to take matters into his own hands (gaining agency), the story ends. There’s some consensus here that the ending is jarring/confusing, and this is one possible reason why.

  14. Karen, I wonder if it would be helpful first to decouple the oft-paired concepts of active and having agency–we seem to agree that Balthasar is active, but disagree on his level of agency.

    Is having concrete motivations that can be put into words a prerequisite for agency? I’m not sure; there are plenty of times when I feel that I act with agency–that I am in control of my own gaze and movements, that I am dictating the terms of my own story–yet would find it hard to articulate the reasons behind my actions beyond vague feelings like curiosity, disquiet, wanderlust–as with Balthasar. And I can imagine this being especially true when it comes to religious matters, matters of faith; because one way of defining faith is precisely a certainty in the absence of concrete, empirical knowledge. It seems to me that many matters of faith, depicted accurately, humanly, are going to be vague. And similarly, perhaps one definition of agency is being able to take actions without needing to explain or justify them with certainties.

    As others have said, it is true that there may be limits to the agency of any human character in a setting where Holy and/or Unholy beings are manifest. But the feeling I got from this story was that Balthasar’s choices were capable of having an impact on the world. I don’t necessarily agree with Lois’s reading–“It’s pretty clear what Balthasar wants – he wants a do-over. He wants to go back to the beginning and make a change”–but I agree it is at least a plausible reading, and implicit in it is a high level of agency.

    Perhaps we’re disagreeing at a definitional level, though, at least somewhat, since you imply much the same as Lois when you write “…at the end, when it looks like he’s going to take matters into his own hands (gaining agency).” To me, agency is something a character has or doesn’t have, a potential that can be called upon when needed, a political (in the broadest sense) state or status; whereas it sounds like for you, agency is something that only exists when it is actively being demonstrated. Although there again, I’d point to Balthasar’s choice to return to Jerusalem, his refusal to believe as a negative demonstration, etc. What you see as him passively being moved aound like a camera by authorial fiat, I largely see as him taking reasonable actions in search of answers (his finding just the right cave at the end was, to me, the most agency-sapping element in the story; although he had put in all the legwork, as it were, on his own).

    As a hypothetical point of contrast, I could imagine a (not particularly good, but that’s not important) story, superficially similar to this one, told instead by a resident of Jerusalem. “It was four years ago that the Christ appeared at the top of the temple, as I was walking by on my way to the water storage pool….” Just an eye-witness account of what changes had occurred at the street level, what it felt like to (perhaps) become a believer, a pure alternate “history” with the open-ended question of whether that world was better or worse than our own. Or perhaps–closer, maybe, to Clarke–a diplomat from Persia sent to investigate Jerusalem (a “Big Religious Object”) and make a recommendation back to Persia as to a course of action. The mere possibility of these types of purely observational stories, and the points they would occupy on your witness vs. active agent scale, pushes this story of Balthasar pretty far from the extreme of witness, in my view. But more than that, I just don’t see how that’s the best scale to get at what the story is doing. The bits of the story that seem difficult, and thus important, are not to me so much questions of active agent vs. powerless observer–as I said, I see Balthasar as active and in possession of agency throughout–but they are these questions of the different methods and reasons whereby actions are taken by those with agency, the pros and cons of faith and of doubts, the relationship between faith and certainty, the centrality of the barrier of death to the human pysche.

    Having said that, I still don’t know what the story then adds up to; so if reading the story your way gives you insight into that, I’d be a happy convert. Like Balthasar, I’m not so much faithful to my own choices, as I am looking for answers that make sense of this.

  15. This is good, it’s forcing me to take a closer look at a concept that I’ve only recently started using. You’re totally right that I shouldn’t have used the vagueness of Balthasar’s motivation as an example in my last comment–that was a very poor illustration of what I’m trying to get at. I’m using agency in the following sense:

    “Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” [Forgive me for using a Wikipedia definition, but it’s the closest to hand that fits my conception]

    I’ll take a bit of issue with you Matt, where you said: “To me, agency is something a character has or doesn’t have, a potential that can be called upon when needed, a political (in the broadest sense) state or status” I disagree with this a bit in both the real world and in literature. In the real world I’d say that the most extreme counter-example is slavery. If someone is a slave, they almost completely lack agency by definition. If that person is then freed from slavery, they gain a lot of that agency back (although probably a lesser degree than that possessed by the ex-slave owner).

    In literature, I’d say that the difference between lack of agency and agency not being exercised is academic at best. The character is under the control of the author and the author is in control of the universe: that would be infinite agency, in that the author could simply ‘write in’ anything that the character needed or wanted. It’s not really useful to mention, since authors and characters operate within greater constraints than that. If an author has a character that is never exercising her agency, I’m content to label that character as lacking agency.

    Let me go back to Gary’s original contrast: Clarke vs. Heinlein. From the ‘witness’ side, let’s take “Rama.” The characters in “Redezvous with Rama” are primarily there to let Clarke describe this awesome BDO. They have no ability to affect Rama in any way. They have some adventures, but they fundamentally don’t affect the world they’re (literally) in. They lack both the understanding and the capacity to affect any change–Rama is the thing driving the plot, not the characters.

    Contrast that with Heinlein books starring Lazarus Long, for instance. He’s always pushing, bringing events to a head, making things happen and changing the world around him. He’s having a material effect on both the plot of the book and on the circumstances of himself and others.

    So, bringing that back to the story at hand. You’re right that I’m privileging external action over internal action when I talk about it, because my concept of agency includes “impose those choices on the world.” Balthasar makes several choices for himself, and he thinks a lot about his own internal state. But he does nothing that effects the world he is in until the last sentence, at which point we leave him.

    You’re right that this scale isn’t useful for examining the major philosophical issues of the story, because that’s not what I was going for. This reading doesn’t give me any insight whatsoever as to ‘what the story adds up to.’ But it feels like it might be a partial answer as to why everyone seems to be a bit put out by the ending.

    I do want to point out though, that “The mere possibility of these types of purely observational stories…” doesn’t necessarily negate my statement that “Balthasar spends 99% of the story *near* the ‘witness’ end of that spectrum.” The point of having a spectrum is to avoid having to occupy binary extremes of classification. :-)

  16. Karen, taking your definition of “agency” I think Balthasar is demonstrating it throughout the entire story. Right at the beginning we learn that he has acted, that he has chosen a course of action and imposed his choice on the entire world – in spades. Thus his observation isn’t passive, it’s assessment of the consequences of his previous choice. This, I believe, is an essential part of agency.

  17. Wait, I don’t understand. In our universe, one of the Magi who came to see Jesus brought myrrh. In the story’s universe Balthasar brought myrrh to the Christ child. That choice of his obviously had no impact on Jesus’ choice to resist or succumb to the Devil’s temptation, which is the jonbar point of the story. So it’s not really a consequential example of imposing a choice on the world.

    Am I horribly mis-remembering my Christmas story, or missing the significance of something?

  18. Karen, it’s clear [to me, at least] that Balthasar -in this story- believes his action in bringing myrrh to the newborn god was a mistake, that it may have had consequences he didn’t intend, because he never believed there would be a god. So the purpose of his journey is to discover what the consequences were.

    In other words, that his choice did have a significant impact, that he feels he was responsible for the formation of the Kingdom of Hell on Earth.

  19. Karen, yeah, I’ve been thinking about these topics myself recently, putting together an essay on agency–because it seems to me that, as we see more and more postcolonial SF&F (in terms of both topics and authorship), popular reader conceptions of what constitutes agency may need to expand. We’re no longer necessarily a genre that can be circumscribed by Clarke and Heinlein, if we ever were.

    Some more detailed responses and thoughts:

    – I’m not sure how your point about slavery expresses a disagreement with the bit you quote from me: it sounds like you’re agreeing with me, e.g., that someone who is free has, all other things being equal, more agency than someone who is enslaved, regardless of whether that free person is choosing to use their agency at any given moment. The agency is there in the potential for action, in the range of choices and opportunities available.

    – I’m also not sure I’d make such a firm division between agency in real life vs. agency in literature. In the non-postmodern/satirical forms of literature whose surface stories are meant to be believed–as I think this story is–I don’t see why we wouldn’t apply the same understanding of agency as in real life. To use your example, we wouldn’t expect a slave character to have the same agency as is regularly demonstrated by a Heinleinian Competent Man, but that doesn’t mean a slave narrative necessarily gets pushed to the witness side of your spectrum. A point of the narrative could be that the ways an enslaved character is able to impact their world are nonetheless vital to those around them. Or it could be that agency can be saved up, like potential energy. Imagine two slave narratives. In the first narrative, a slave repeatedly escapes whenever they see a chance, only to be captured by new masters each time. In the second narrative, a slave spends the story gradually getting to know the guards, the schedules, the landscape, all with an eye to escape, and then makes their escape at the story’s end. Does the character in that second narrative possess, and demonstrate, less agency than the character in the first narrative?

    – At a basic level we’re reading this story (back now to MacLeod and Jesus and Balthasar) differently. All I can do is share why I read the story as I do. For one, Balthasar sees himself as having helped create the situation he now surveys: it’s not a alien BDO, it is the result of a choice made by a human who he, perhaps, helped influence. Balthasar undertakes the journey himself, not at someone else’s behest. And he has, or seems to feel he has, some ability to impact the current world. He knows he has this ability throughout the narrative; the question he is trying to answer is, should he use it. In other words, you’re reading the story as primarily a Clarkeian narrative of observation, while I’m reading it as a Heinleinian narrative, but zoomed in very close to highlight the reasoning behind the key world-changing actions the characters make. We don’t see the results of Balthasar’s choice, it’s true, but that’s why the story feels to me close to the middle of your spectrum rather than “pure Heinlein,” but not really “near” the witness end at all.

    – I didn’t see too many comments to the effect that the architecture of the story, it’s basic contours and movements, were jarring or confusing: the issue all of us seem to have had was that it feels like we’re supposed to understand what Balthasar is using magic to do at the end, and none of us are sure that we do. For a lot of us, this may be an issue of ignorance: I don’t know enough to know if there is a tradition in which Balthasar specialized in a certain kind of magic, which might answer the question. But your suggestion speaks to the larger point I made above, I think. Yes, there is a spectrum between Clarke and Heinlein, but I’m not sure its range represents the full spectrum of story. Where do godgame stories like Ender’s Game fit, in which a character seems to be operating with agency, yet turns out to have been manipulated throughout? Where do postcolonial narratives fit? And likewise, I’m not sure a short story like this fits in the same spectrum with your more novelistic examples, where here we see the actions, but not the result. (Unless the result is, somehow, the religious history that we’re more familiar with, and we just don’t have the religious knowledge to figure out the hows and whys.)

    – – –

    On the myrrh, Karen, no, your memory is right. What you and Lois are talking about now is why I disagreed with Matt H’s conception of the story. He wrote,

    I think the story is trying to convince us of the centrality of love in the gospel narrative by showing us how it might have gone had Jesus been less sympathetic. He rejects the real timeline for seemingly selfish reasons: people wouldn’t listen to his teachings and would mess up the world he made.

    This is basically to say, a less good Jesus would have made a less good choice. Which strikes me as obvious and dull. That may indeed be what the story is about, and thus one reason I find myself discontent with it. But if we assume Jesus is the same Jesus, then the closest thing to a potential jonbar point in the story seems to me to be Jesus’s glimpse of the future that we have made, our present: it’s that which leads him to decide we’re not worth his dying for. If you take free will to exist, then that seems to be the main variable.

    But where Balthasar fits into that…(shrug). One possibility is, as Lois wrote, that he intends to enact some sort of do-over: (wrongly) convinced that it was his gift that scared Jesus away from dying for us, he wants to go back and do something different. Another possible interpretation that occurs to me is that this could be something of a time paradox story, and the magic Balthasar does at the end is to enable him to tell us now, in the present, that this story is what will happen if we don’t start treating the world and each other better. Maybe what he is summoning at the end is us, to listen.

    Hmm. I think I like that interpretation best…at least until something better occurs to me.

  20. OK, so this story is super-dependent on reader knowledge of biblical events; cf all the comments above from people saying they didn’t recognize the story at all. So the fact is, the reader *knows* that Balthasar bringing myrrh to the baby Jesus has *no impact* on Jesus later choice to turn evil. That seems like a really weird peg to hang a story on–the character is worried about a choice that he feels was meaningful but that we know is not. I guess that’s one reason that I felt that he lacked agency: he thinks that his actions mattered, but they clearly did not. And the reader, one who can understand the story at all, knows that.

    Matt – I may be using the term agency incorrectly, or at least with a different angle. Certainly I did not mean it to: “represent the full spectrum of story.” No binary analysis could! I also 100% agree that the genre as a whole is not circumscribed by Clarke and Heinlein–of course not! I wasn’t talking about the genre as a whole, I was talking about one way of comparing a certain aspect of some stories.

    I still think that there’s a meaningful spectrum between stories where the characters are primarily observing and ones where the characters are primarily driving the plot. Maybe the concept of agency doesn’t enter into that distinction at all. I agree that this story can be meaningfully read either way–certainly I think that Balthasar does a whole lot of observing in this story, and not a ton of driving. But he is definitely observing for a purpose, and maybe that’s enough to be more active.

    I’d be curious to get some other perspectives on the concept of agency–is it meaningful when applied to literature? I’d especially like to cast a “Summon McCalmont” spell–this is one where I’d like to get a philosophy perspective. Matt, are there any good essays or books that you could recommend on the subject? Thanks!

  21. I started working up an interpretation of the myrrh thing as representing the crucifixion, which is the standard take on it. [gold=king/frankincense=god/myrrh=sacrifice]

    And it’s the standard version of the temptation story that without the sacrifice, there is no salvation; the whole point of the incarnation is making the sacrifice. So Balthasar’s gift is the most important of the three. And if he -failed- to give it, that would be his mistake, that would be how he changed things and how he would be responsible for Jesus succumbing to temptation and abandoning the sacrifice plan.

    And I was really fond of this interpretation but had to drop it because it just doesn’t seem to be supported by the text, which is saying, as far as I can tell, that he -did- present the myrrh and the problem stemmed from this presentation.

  22. Karen, another good person to ask about the topic would be Maureen Kincaid Speller, who has been doing (and may have recently comepleted?) a masters degree in postcolonial theory, and is sometimes seen in this locale. She helped solidify some of my thoughts on agency in fiction during a discussion a few months ago.

  23. Matt D: The problem with Jesus seeing the future as the jonbar point is that in the conventional narrative Jesus can see the future, and is credited with foreseeing his death, resurrection, and the destruction of Jerusalem forty years later. So while I agree your reading of the story is probably more interesting, I don’t really think it works.

    Meanwhile Jesus in the conventional narrative was also presented with myrrh and didn’t fall into temptation so that doesn’t work as a point of divergence either.

    As for this agency business, I think maybe there needs to be a distinction drawn between a character affecting the world around them and a character changing their own mind…their inner world, if you will. In King Lear, after his initial disastrous decisions Lear is basically powerless for the rest of the play. But his reconciliation with Cordelia demonstrates a growth in character and so it feels to me like he’s done something.

    By contrast, Othello spends the all of his play doing things and directly precipitates the final tragic calamity, but since (spoiler warning! sorry, Lois etc., couldn’t help it) Iago is manipulating him it sometimes feels like he has no agency at all.

    Now, for slavery, the traditional slave was physically bound so their exterior agency was limited, but their mind was at least somewhat free (though subject to indirect restraints like ignorance, illiteracy, etc.). In Huxley’s Brave New World, the minds of the populace are controlled through drugs, brainwashing, propaganda, and so forth. This is slavery too, but a different sort.

    Going back to this story, I agree with Matt D that I never got a feeling that Balthasar felt he had any control over what was happening in the world. In a lot of stories, the equivalent character would decide this Jesus guy was bad news and assassinate him or somehow sabotage his new kingdom, but he just wanders away in despair. It feels pretty weak, but on the other hand the more typical story where the single protagonist shapes the future of the world isn’t very realistic (and usually has an elitist undercurrent…this guy forces everyone else into his view of the world because he’s smarter, braver, whiter, or whatever). I think the ending is supposed to represent some sort of sea change for Balthasar, some sort of decision or resolution of his search for the truth of the universe, and if so it would meet my criteria for internal action, but so far it doesn’t seem like anyone has a good explanation for what on earth he’s doing. No surprise it’s unsatisfying.

  24. Matt H:

    The problem with Jesus seeing the future as the jonbar point is that in the conventional narrative Jesus can see the future, and is credited with foreseeing his death, resurrection, and the destruction of Jerusalem forty years later.

    But in this story he sees much further into the future than that, to our era:

    “Human life would have continued almost as you know it now–and worse. Armies would march. People would suffer and starve and doubt my existence whilst others fought over the meaning of my words. Cities of stone and glass even more extraordinary than this one you see around you would rise and fall. Clever men like you, Balthasar, would learn how to fly just as you see these angels flying. Yes, yes, it’s true, although I know it sounds extraordinary. Men would even learn how to pass even beyond the walls of this earth, and how to the poison the air, and the kill the living waters of the oceans. And all for what, Balthasar? What would be accomplished, other than many more lifetimes of pointless striving?”

    So it read to me as though it was that, seeing the long term futility of it all if he chose the path of sacrifice, that pushed this Jesus over the edge into succumbing to temptation.

    – – –


    Going back to this story, I agree with Matt D that I never got a feeling that Balthasar felt he had any control over what was happening in the world.

    So as not to confuse people, I should note that I did think, and say above, that Balthasar felt he had the ability to impact the world; but mainly in a sea change, do-over sort of way. He’s not an action hero who would take on Christ and his angelic servants, yet Balthasar did seem to feel, at the end there, that he could impose his internal decision upon the world.

    I do agree with a lot of what you write about interiority and agency, though–good stuff.

  25. Okay, here are my thoughts.

    1) I was intrigued by the choice of imagery. a) The talk of burned and twisted corpses at the beginning reminded me very much of the photos that emerged in the wake of the first Gulf War of Iraqi soldiers burned in their vehicles by allied bombs and left to rot in the desert. b) The sense of unreality surrounding Jerusalem in the good times. The angelic guards and the people running around with magic swords against a background of ever-full fields reminded me very much indeed of the cities in World of Warcraft. So I think that he’s riffing on the themes of neocon holy war and American cultural imperialism, if only at the level of his imagery.

    2) I think that Balthasar is categorically NEITHER an enlightenment or post-enlightenment thinker. His mindset and his purpose in the story is that of a scholastic. A reasoned and sophisticated thinker whose reason is nonetheless bounded within the values and epistemology of the Church in our world. He’s more a William of Baskerville figure than a Daniel Waterhouse.

    I think that the story is about the importance and the redemptive power of Faith. In the desert, Jesus was clearly offered an option : He could take the role that he supposedly took in our world and perform small miracles with a band of followers. Because his actions could be doubted, this placed Faith at the centre of the process of redemption. As Jesus says, the more low key Jesus would have appealed to people like Balthasar who hunger not for proof of the infinite but for something to have Faith in. By revealing his true power in a way that was impossible to question, Jesus denied humanity the possibility of faith. That is why Jerusalem feels such an unreal place and why Balthasar feels so empty when he walks through its streets: It offers no spiritual nourishment. It is not Balthasar but Jesus who is the post-Enlightenment figure.

    At the end of the story, Jesus realises that his decision to conquer the world by force and reveal himself in a way that was beyond doubt effectively played into the devil’s hands. No Faith, No Salvation and the Kingdom of God is a purely Earthly entity. This is why he kind of fades away.

    I think that Balthasar realises that things could have played out differently and this realisation gives him the basis for Faith. Faith that humanity could be redeemed by the arrival of a messiah. A messiah who would allow salvation not by conquering the world but by giving the people something to have Faith in (as opposed to giving them something to believe in, which is quite different). Balthasar’s actions in the desert at the end are all about the world of the story re-booting itself. As a magus, Balthasar would have performed spells and readings in expectation of something miraculous coming down the pipe but when it did, it did not work out and so he goes back to the beginning and starts again. Christ will return.

    3) I think that characters possessing agency is very much like characters being sympathetic: It is a type of narrative currency that is only really important in some stories but because it has entered the wider critical lexicon, people tend to invoke it way too easily. For example, the recent films I Am Love and Winter’s Bone are all about characters striving for some degree of agency. Whether they get it or not is central to the dramatic structure of the story. In contrast, BDO stories are never about agency. To read a BDO story and moan about the characters lacking agency is like going to see a romantic comedy and moaning about how terrible the fight scenes were. It’s berating a story’s lack of dramatic currency whilst failing to realise that the story’s actual currency is in a completely different denomination.

    As to whether or not Balthasar possesses agency, I’m tempted to say that the issue is not only academic but theological. Balthasar is almost akin to Judas in that he plays a part in the grand narrative of redemption. Had Balthasar not given myrrh to Jesus then Jesus might never have thought about his own mortality and the importance of his own death in the process of offering salvation. By turning up at Jerusalem and causing the kingdom of God to unravel, he effectively destroys the world but that world needed to be destroyed in order for God’s plan to play out.

    So I would say that Balthasar definitely acted and I would say that his actions had consequences but you’d have to ask a theologian as to whether or not he actually possessed agency or whether he was simply swept along in the eddies of the grander narrative.

  26. Hello! Well, I’ve written about this over on my blog, but much of it’s what’s here already so I shan’t repost. (linky:

    To summarise:

    I too was put off by the appearance of the angel and expected a kind of sci fi narrative to unfold – either space Jesus or this to be asome far-future world where old myths were playing out. I think there’s always a problem putting flesh on the bones of these allegorical figures, and MacLeod doesn’t quite get around it. Embodying them so explicitly saps them of their power, I think.

    I also thought the ending was unsatisfactory. There’s no movement in the story: we’re shown a bunch of stuff, and Ian gives us all a jolly good talking to about getting this whole Jesus thing wrong (and that’s surely the thematic thrust of it – “That is why we Christians merrily do battle against all who oppose us, for we know that we will never have to fear death…”) but nothing actually HAPPENS!

    I dunno about agency – I’m a bureau man – but we spend a lot of time with a character who does not change. He begins doubtful, he ends doubtful. The decision we see is unconvincing and perilously ambiguous, not in a good “open your mind” way, but in a bad “I don’t know how to end this!” way. Who is he summoning (Satan is my best guess)? What will happen next (Satan will have a jolly old laugh)? It’s a total mess.

    I think this is because MacLeod doesn’t want to tell us Balthasar’s story, he wants to tell us Jesus’s story. The choice Jesus is asked to makle is far an away more vital and more intriguing than Balthasar’s watery doubts. The nugget of it is in the encounter with Stinky Jesus, but the framing narrative of Balthasar forces his hand – we’ve invested so much in that character that the shape of the story compels him into paying out, but he turns out to be a kind of sub-prime mortgage of character

  27. MacLeod usually leaves me quite cold so I wasn’t expecting great things from this story, but even by that relaxed standard this was an unimpressive read. Jonathan quite rightly identifies faith as the crux of the story, but this is only to expose how literal-minded and slow MacLeod’s treatment of the issue is (especially when compared to Chiang’s strange, heartbreaking “Hell is the Absence of God,” as Matt H does in his blog post). The story is essentially a flabby, drawn-out travelogue, the first half of which is just a straight-up retelling of the nativity story. It only comes alive once Balthazar reaches Jerusalem. The preceding scenes, both his reminiscences of the first journey, and his initial experiences of the transformed Judea, add little to the story that couldn’t have been achieved at a quarter of the word count, or that isn’t done better in Jerusalem. All told, there’s very little there there.

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