|The Rev Sebastian
(creator: James L Johnson)
|The Rev Raymond Sebastian, aged 34 when we first meet him, had long regarded himself as "this poor excuse for a clergyman". He had lost his wife five years previously in an auto crash for which he felt partly responsible. He owed his ready acceptance in the church to his father who "was and is the most famous Bible expositor in America .... When I graduated I had about a hundred pulpit committee delegates waiting for me - no one heard me preach or teach, they didn't even know if my doctrine was right. But that magic name of Sebastian was all they needed". So he became the less than happy minister of a church in Nashville, Wisconsin.
He had a six foot-two gangly frame, high cheek bones and a prominent jaw line, reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln, with "the almost eagle-beak shape of his nose, the greenish-blue eyes set back into receded sockets, the wide mouth with full lower lip and shock of wiry, bushy black hair that always stayed short and close to his head".
The Rev Raymond Sebastian was created by James L(eonard) Johnson (1927 -1987) who attended Moody Bible Institute then worked in Nigeria as a missionary from 1955 to 1958. While there, he became Associate Editor of the Christian magazine African Challenge. In 1963 he received a BA in Journalism from the UnIversity of Michigan. He subsequently set up a graduate communications department at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he became Executive Secretary of Evangelical Literature Overseas. He then became Associate Executive Director at Lutheran World Relief in Carol Stream, Illinois. He was married with one son, Jay, who was ordained an Episcopalian minister shortly after his father died.
He wrote numerous articles and stories for Christian periodicals, as well as fourteen books, including six Sebastian novels. These are really spy stories, not detective ones, but I've included them on this site because they are so concerned with Sebastian's search for/experience of God. They are often really exciting too.
Of his other books, the most notable was The Death of Kings (1974) about young pilots in Africa. As always, he wrote about places where he had either lived (as here) or visited. "Each trip," he explained, "unquestionably did something for my writing, but each trip also ended with me inside my sleeping bag protecting myself from some real or imagined crisis. In the blistering Negev Desert south of Palestine, chasing through the free Cuban communities in Miami, or cruising through the lifeless streets of East Berlin, I had to ask myself honestly if this was the only way to get reality into my novels." He thought it was, and believed that "it was really the way Christ himself would do it .... Could Jesus have accomplished redemption by simply being vaporous spirit, hanging a few safe miles above the smog of humanity, perhaps using a bull horn and shouting, 'Thus saith the Lord'? .... I knew deep down that that there was no other way to communicate Christ anywhere to any people, be they listeners or readers, unless there is something of reality in it all."
He was an enthusiastic, extroverted, driven man who resembled in many ways his creation Sebastian. According to a writer in Servant of Words, a memorial book about Johnson, from which I also took the quote in the previous paragraph, "The novelist in Jim plunged his hero into impossible circumstances and let him work his way through them and out of them. No miracles, no overt divine intervention, no clichés.... He wasn't afraid to present to the secular market a Christian who was imperfect, who had questions, who struggled with his faith .... He believed that most Christian novels were not merely fictitious, but dangerously untrue".
Code Name Sebastian (1967)
Stewardess Barbara Churchill admits to Sebastian that it was no accident that brought the plane down, and that one of the survivors is an agent, known as Christopher, who has secret film of Israel's water routes that he was going to hand over to the Russians. She herself, she says, is an agent of the Israeli Secret Police. But who is the agent Christopher?
There follows a long but exciting and suspenseful description of the survivors' appalling journey over the desert, and their desperate search for water, and conflict with pursuers, during which Sebastian, as the least injured man there, finds that he has to take the lead.
There were two scientists in the party who looked at Sebastian "in that way scientists often did as if clergymen were pieces of jetsam cast aside in the new order of superior technology .... Reason and faith locked horns again .... For the first time in his ministerial life, the antiseptic-safe world of his Christian isolationism was caught in the balance, and it carried very little weight at all".
He realised that the fact that "he had not, as yet, since the crash, even uttered a word to any of them (the other survivors) concerning their own spiritual destinies, caused him to feel a fresh flood of shame". So he read a passage from his Bible, but the survivors' "reaction didn't seem much different from his own congregation in Nashville - the same combination of casual interest mixed with total indifference".
The unbelieving Brelsford, a retired archaeology professor (who knew Hebrew, whereas Sebastian only knew Greek), was able to refer him to a passage in Genesis where Isaac dug what Brelsford said was a wadi and found water. "They dug for those wells, Mr Sebastian - they didn't wave a magic wand over the desert sand and wait for God to do a miracle."
Sebastian could not help feeling "the overwhelming sense of total failure, the smallness of himself and of his God in the full picture here". He wondered, "Are You there at all,God? if you're not, I don't blame You .... You belong in cathedrals with high altars and communion tables wrapped in white linen .... not here in this valley of death".
Sebastian found that he could not pray because his prayers were "words that were trite, meaningless, words addressed for the God of the comfortable, safe and sure way of life he had in Nashville". He felt he "knew nothing of the God in crisis, the God of the Negev, the God of the impossible". But then he realised: "I can't expect any miracle from God bigger than what I'm prepared to do to be a practical solution to this problem", and he leads "Miss Churchill" (as he continues to call her) in a desperate attack on an enemy encampment. He tells her, "I don't make good martyr material, God knows, and I want to live as strongly as you want that film back from Christopher".
He survives the terrible experience, and finally decides to move on from the safety and security of his church in Nashville to adventures new. He explains to a friend that he has been sent a set of visiting cards by "a lovely girl named Churchill". They give his name as Code Name Sebastian. "It's just a clue as to where I go from here," says Sebastian.
At the end of the book, Sebastian quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "The church must get out of the cloister and into the world .... To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some form of asceticism .... but to be a man". That is what this story is all about. It combines an exciting, suspenseful story with a persistent search for religious truth. Recommended.
Sebastian still occasionally thinks regretfully of Barbara Churchill (from Code of Sebastian), and in the first part of the story seems less concerned with religious issues. But when Sebastian asks Bingo if he isn't afraid of getting killed while out on one of the rescue trips, Bingo points out, "You get killed choking on a piece of meat. You die for nothing that way, but out there you die for something, si?". Yet Sebastian has problems coming to grips with the rawness of death: "It was that same old grinding of the gears again, violence vs. spirituality, the disheveled, wrinkled, chaotic world vs. the prim, starchy, well-pressed theology of love".
When Sebastian suggests that they should use Alphonse to rescue some particularly important refugees after Joe's old boat has been impounded by the coastguards, Joe asks him whether God had told him to to suggest this. Sebastian replies, "I'd say God did put it in my mind".
Parts of the story, such as the rabid anti-Castro sentiments, seem a little dated now: "I want to demonstrate a living Christ," says Sebastian "to show that He still loves mankind, that in all the bleeding mass of Cuba, where people are clawing their way out, God is there to help them up." The direct evangelistic approach comes up again in exhortations like, " Reach out in your own soul's need and you'll find Christ - that's why He came, so you could touch God through Him". It seems a far cry from his lack of belief in the previous book, and more like what you'd expect from an author who had himself been a missionary. Somehow it make Septimus less endearing.
But let the last word about him be from a report written by an officer of the National Intelligence Agency: "This man Sebastian is no quick runner in the espionage bit. He seems to be operating out of his element, and he knows it. For some reason, he figures he has a responsibility to identify with the poor, lame, halt and blind - not very good credentials for any of our business. But he's no kook either .... What he has is a peculiar quality of being able to touch the nerve endings of people in their relationship to God; he either gets the unbelievers to work like the devil to prove there is no God ... or else he fans the flames of the weak believers into experiencing what God can do with impossible odds ....I think you're going to see him pop up in some place else before too long."
A Handful of Dominoes (1970)
The German characters with whom he gets involved are well drawn and interesting, as is his description of the East Berlin of the time. One of the people he has to convince is Udal 's girl friend Margot Schell, who works for the East Germans and, as a member of the Communist Youth, had even reported her own parents' attempt to escape over the Wall, with the result that both had died in the process. She is, as usual, a "startling beauty" but Sebastian knows that even to kiss her will be enough to give him away - and she expects more than this.
It is not long before Margot sees through him. She tells him that she is curious about "why you have come... obviously you are not a spy or trained in subterfuge. You are a total disaster in that department.... And it is obvious, too, that you are too much of a clergyman .... to ever hope to operate in the highly disciplined, coldly detached business of espionage." He cares for people too much. That's how his religion shows. There is no simplistic conversion talk in this book.
In the end he tries to help an old man (a balloon expert from a circus) and a group of altar boys on whom he takes pity, escape over the Berlin Wall, using the old man's balloons. "God," he prays, "life and death are in Your hands. But we dare to believe You for life tonight ... because we believe You are concerned for the weak things that have no power of their own to lay hold on life". But things do not work out quite as he'd hoped. There are no easy answers.
Sebastian himself escapes but has to admit to his western interrogators that the story of his exploits "did not sound convincing - it had a predominant note of absurdity even". Yes, it does, especially when one of the characters melodramatically peels off the outside of his face to reveal that he is the real Kurt Udal! But it remains a gripping and interesting story.
A Piece of the Moon is Missing (1974)
Sebastian's orders from Otto Dietrich, the Director of Apollo Security (American patriot? Russian agent?) are to kill Thorsen before he can detonate the rock, but, of course, his religious convictions rather stand in the way. So he is "programmed" while asleep by the Russian "head of the new program of Thought Control and Neuropsychosomatics" to eliminate, or at least reduce, his "deeply fanatical spiritual instinct, a conviction of the all-important value of the individual in the sight of God". He also has "a small electronic impulse unit no bigger than a postage stamp planted in his thermal underwear", so can be exploded as required. It was as his enemies admitted, "a crazy plan".
He says that he knows nothing of travel on polar ice, but is soon ably managing a dog team (kicking them if necessary, as advised by Ah-Ming-Ma, his accompanying eskimo) and building igloos. He has a dangerous time on the icy wastes, but , because the story keeps cutting back to his Russian and American controls, there is less real excitement than in the previous books. Because of his conditioning, "he groped for God. But all that he could think of was Thorsen".
Then he meets up both with Thorsen and with his long-lost potential love, Barbara Churchill who helps restore his faith by telling him, "You are to me what is right, good .... and beautiful ... I love you because you are afraid to go on, and yet you will .... I love you because you have given me faith that is pure even in your uncertainty". They would like to make love, but she is wounded and he knows that he must first go off and dispose of the rock so as prevent a holocaust. But when he returns, it is to find that she cannot be found in the icy wastes. Yet "in the worst of darkness there is some light", and he feels as if she is still reaching out to him. Somehow he knows that "in time the pain would be gone forever, like the ice, and it would never be winter for him again".
The Last Train from Canton (1981)
The plot is certainly attention grabbing. An airliner is hijacked and forced to land in mainland China. Sebastian is sent a newspaper cutting with a photo that looks as if it might include Israeli/Interpol agent Barbara Churchill (last seen floating away on that ice flow in the Arctic 18 months previously), so he goes off to search for her in Hong Kong (in the days when it was still a British possession). He meets up with an old schoolfriend, Bobby Boyington, at the American Consulate, and gets involved in smuggling a boy (the missing heir to the Mandarin dynasty?) out of China. There's a lot of exciting action, involving helicopters, submarines and bamboo rafts, but then the very end comes as rather an anticlimax: there is page after page of lengthy explanatory conversation before the identity of the traitor, Ivey, is eventually revealed. And he turns out to be a character we've hardly met.
There seems nothing Sebastian can't attempt (including jumping into the sea from a hovering helicopter in his wetsuit in the face of deadly fire from Chinese gunboats). He has no money problems either as "he had received a generous stipend from the Navy Intelligence people after his work in the Arctic, a 'rehabilitation' gift. The German government had done likewise after his caper in Berlin. Both were tidy sums. He made sure none of it was for any kind of retainer for special agent status. He had given half of it away at the outset .... bur retained as much as he thought he would need for the future and any emergencies, pending a possible return to the pastorate, although he felt that would be quite beyond him now." But even though "he lived simply", surely he can't have managed on this for years? And how did he fill his time?
Finally he is reunited with a badly beaten-up Barbara, who has suffered drug torture which may, he is warned, bring about a personality change. But she tells him, 'Hong Kong is ours, and no-one will steal this time from us ..."
Trackless Seas (1987)
His inexperienced crew in what turns out to be a truly desperate venture consist of only four: his injured son Ryan, 36-year-old Barbara Churchill (keeping an eye on Julian for Interpol), Sebastian (who has gone all the way to Australia to find Barbara and ask her to marry him, but she says she won't) and a journalist (who knows nothing at all about sailing but to whom Sebastian owes a favor). There are violent storms at sea, and close pursuits by a Russian trawler and Russian and American nuclear submarines, as well as an old Australian Rescue freighter, all of which get involved in the action. Everyone's life is endangered, as is the whole future of the world as possible nuclear confrontation gets ever closer.
The stormy sea scenes are nothing if not violent and exciting, but the lengthy conversations held by the USA President and his top advisers get distinctly tedious. And it's very hard to imagine the president sitting in an empty room at Camp David worrying (or even knowing) about Sebastian, and saying, "Go with the wind, Sebastian. And God go with you!"
Sebastian himself had been defrocked near the start of the story. His denomination had decided that his clandestine activities over the years had not been "befitting the vows you took when we ordained you to the ministry fifteen years ago." When challenged, "By what or whose authority do you do these things?", he replies, "God himself ... I have simply gone where God has led me, to do justice and mercy on behalf of people who have no priest, pastor or anyone else who comes anywhere near being a representative of God. I see no contradiction to my ordination in that". His interviewing committee were not impressed. Even Bonhoeffer, whom Sebastian quotes, is, to one of them, 'the man who translated very nice words into a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and finally was hanged for his crime. That is your example?"
The people he meets, though, do seem influenced by him, if not always entirely convincingly. His presence in the by now badly damaged Pequod is enough to remind Aviloff, the Russian trawler captain, of his dead wife's faith in the Bible. To him, Sebastian becomes the hound of heaven. About to blow up his ship, and remembering him, Avilov "felt peace then. And life larger than he had ever known". The journalist Jameson, about to risk his life, declares, "I just want to know if I can join that company" for whom Our Lord died. "Just ask God to let you in," Sebastian tells him, "Just put all the past right before Him ... and let Him take it Himself ... That's why He came into this bloody world". Even the President himself ends up by asking a surprised colleague, "You ever been to church? ...Come on, old friend, I'm going to introduce you to Someone who was there ... back in history ...a long time ago .... in a little place called Bethlehem".
Sebastian himself has always been sure that "God gave us the miracle that got us through the storm and I believe He's still with us". And right at the very end, when, for once, everything seems to have turned out all right (for the survivors at least), we are told: "For this moment, frozen in time, the rage of man was forgotten. And true peace was seen and known and indulged one more time. 'And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.' And He was there." All this seems a little glib compared with the honest searchings of the first book.
|The first Sebastian novel is perhaps the best book in the series. It combines exciting action with what what seems a real search for God.|