The Rev Dr Thomas Pemberton

(creator: E L Doctorow)

E L Doctorow
The Rev Dr Thomas Pemberton is, at the start of the book, "the almost no longer Rector of St Timothy's, Episcopal" Church in lower Manhattan, New York. The church is dying and he is querying his own faith: "If faith is valid in all its forms, aren't we merely making an aesthetic choice when we choose Jesus? ... How do we distinguish our truth from another's falsity, we of the true faith, except by the story we cherish? Our story of God. But, my friends, I ask you: is God a story? ... Can we believe any more in the heart of our faith that God is our story of him? To presume to contain God in this Christian story of ours, to hold Him, circumscribe Him, the author of everything we can conceive and everything we cannot conceive ... in our story of Him? Of Her? OF WHOM? What in the name of Christ do we think we are talking about!" He goes on to describe himself as a "divinity detective" in his search for "a believable God".

His father had been Bishop of Virginia, "very high church, a stern guardian of the faith". Pemberton himself had studied divinity at Yale, taking a year off for work in the Peace Corps in Vietnam, before coming back to meet and marry a fellow student. He had chosen to enter a seminary, taking "the Gospels for what they were, a manual for revolution". When his wife died, he was left with two daughters. By the start of this book, both of his daughters were married with children, and he has taken to decribing himself as "a confirmed bachelor". Then he meets Rabbi Susan Blumenthhal ...

E(dgar) L(awrence) Doctorow (1931 - ) was born in the Bronx, New York City, of Russian Jewish descent. He attended the Bronx High School of Science then graduated, majoring in philosophy, from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He did graduate work in English drama at New York's Columbia University. After doing his military service with the army of occupation in Germany, he worked as a reader for Columbia Pictures, and became a book reviewer, as well as editor for a mass market paperback publisher. He wrote his first novel. He went on to produce numerous more novels, was given many awards, and held the Lewis and Loretta Glucksman chair in English and American Letters at New York University. As an internationally famed author, his work is published in more than thirty languages. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is married, with three children.

City of God (2000)
City of God begins in mystery: a large brass cross behind the altar of St Timothy's Episcopal church in lower Manhattan has disappeared. The church's maverick rector, The Rev Dr Thomas Pemberton, is shown where it is by the young rabbinical couple who run the New Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism. It is on their roof. How it got there is never really explained, but Pem, who describes himself as a "divinity detective", has more weighty matters to investigate: the existence and nature of God. In the end he falls in love with the recently widowed Rabbi Susan Blumenthal, and converts to Judaism - a not altogether convincing climax. The pair of them both feel that traditional ideas about God have led to war and violence, and want to see them evolve into a new, more contemporary, understanding of God.

A writer called Everett (who seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to the real author), is alerted to the story of the missing cross by a newspaper article, and befriends the priest and the rabbis. He finds that there is a connection between their struggles with their respective traditions and what seems to have happened. Pem himself finds he has much in common with this new synagogue that is trying to go back to the origins of religion, the essence of its approach being "to take the various aspects of Jewish teaching and practice, consider their historic sources or origins and their theological rationale and, in so far as possible, hold them up to modern scholarship and begin to separate what appears to be inessential, or intellectually untenable, or simply, blindly, customary ... from what is truly crucial and defining."

As the narrative advances and the story broadens, more and more people are implicated, and the book ends up by providing a multi-voiced (often confusing) narrative that incorporates some of the main historical events and predominate ideas of the age. The cast involved includes scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, Cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, film actors, and crooners. Even the philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein makes his appearance, along with Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra.

The result is a complex, demanding and often challenging narrative that takes a long hard look at the existence of puny human life against the background of an immense universe. The title, City of God, comes, of course, from St Augustine. But the story also includes all sorts of diversions and apparent irrelevancies, and it's relapse into occasional blank verse does not make it any easier to read, although the lengthy description of Everett's brother being shot down in a wartime bombing raid is vivid and gripping. Amongst the tedious bits, on the other hand, are the (too frequent) mawkish sections entitled The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards. The words of popular songs, included here, do not seem as significant as the author likes to suppose.

AIthough it is all very original and, in its way, a considerable achievement, it is also decidedly quirky: "Movies are a malign life form that came to earth a hundred or so years ago and have gradually come to dominate not only our feelings but our thoughts, our intellects. They are feeding on us, having first forced us to invent them and provide them with the materiality of their existence, which is film or, latterly, tape. Maybe you would have a better idea of what I am saying by thinking of them as having the same desire to suck us up into themselves as a tapeworm in our guts, one planetary tapeworm living in the guts of the earth, using up the cities, the countryside, the seas, and the mountains. But I don't expect you to agree ..."

There are other times when the author seems to get too carried away by his own ideas, as when he describes a certain deep sea fish, "the hatchet, which skulks about in the deeper darkness with protruberant eyes on the top of its horned head and the ability to electrically light its anus to blind predators sneaking up behind it. The electric anus however, is not an innate feature. It comes from a colony of luminescent bacteria that house themselves symbiotically in the fish's asshole. And there is a Purpose in this as well which we haven't yet ascertained. But if you believe God's divine judgement and you countenance reincarnation, then it may be reasonably assumed that a certain bacteria living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet fish at the bottom of the ocean is the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler glimmering miserably through the cloacal muck which he is periodically bathed and nourished."

Everett is also working on the story of Sarah Blumenthal's father, who survived a Lithuanian Nazi ghetto during the Holocaust. This includes an exciting account of how, as a boy, he had run missions out of the ghetto and helped secure a secret diary that held records of German atrocities. Pem, who is now "more or less permamently unassigned" but works at a cancer hospice, cannot accept the failure of Christianity to respond adequately to the Holocaust, and he has doubts too about such doctrines as original sin: "God dealt from a stacked deck. Adam and Eve never had a chance. The story of the Fall is a parable of the glory and torment of humnan consciousness But that's all it is." It was Augustine "who edits Genesis 2-4 into original sin. What a nifty little act of deconstruction - passing it on to the children, like HIV. As the doctrine of universal damnation, the Fall becomes an instrument of social control. God appoints his agents plenipotentaries to dispense salvation or to withhold it."

"From the very beginning, even before the cross had been stolen, the events at St Tim's (a series of thefts) had turned him into a detective of sorts, and that's what he decided his life must seriously become, a truly humble, dogged act of detection," and so off he goes to Lithuania to track down the sealed crate which contained all the evidence of Nazi atrocities collected by Susan Blumenthal's father. And it all ends happily for him. As he explains, "For me, now, Judaism is Christianity without Christ, and I have a glad heart". The diffulties and problems he has faced are real enough - but the solution is just too glib.

The author has his own website. Also see informative articles about him onn Wikipedia and the site.

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City of God cover
The bland simplicity of the cover does not hint at the tangled tale within.
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