Missionaries: A Novel
by Phil Klay.
Penguin Press, 2020,
Hardcover, 416 pages, $28.

Reviewed by Joshua Hren

It isn’t surprising that Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity begins by immersing us in the rejection thereof, the highways of doubt and the demystifications that make the rudiments of faith so easy to ignore or dismiss in our day. Ratzinger is right: anyone who tries to give witness to the faith amidst the mores of “modern life” can “really feel like a clown, or rather perhaps like someone who, rising from an ancient sarcophagus, walks into the midst of the world of today dressed and thinking in the ancient fashion and can neither understand nor be understood by this world of ours.” He may also recognize not merely the chasm of difference that divides our day from the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but also “the insecurity of his own faith, the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe.” This is to recognize that both unbelievers and believers are surrounded by the same culture of uncertainty.

In contemporary fiction that chases incarnations of faith in our time, doubt typically receives as much if not more dramatic nerve. This dynamic holds in National Book Award Winner Phil Klay’s new novel Missionaries, which crescendos toward the complex nexus of military and political forces determined to establish peace in Colombia, in large part by removing an infamous drug lord. It so happens that the most defined, most moving strand of the story, pulsing with explicitly Christian concerns, belongs to the Colombian officer Juan Pablo and his daughter Valencia, a university student whose intellectual milieu introduces her to the evils of “technocapital” (“whatever that was.”)

Valencia’s conservative father, keen to the prospect that she might be radicalized, gives her a copy of Che Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare, certain that she too will come to see “Che as an icon, his hair like a halo, his eyes sorrowful like the eyes of Christ, looking not at the reality of the world but at his utopia, where none but the free suffered, and all the rest obeyed.” Her reception of the revolutionary defies his dream. “[Che’s] actually quite heroic,” she concludes, before he lends her another stack of books that spell out the ills of these ideologies. Surprisingly, Valencia’s desk is soon decorated with a “framed print of Albrech Durer’s Praying Hands,” then a tiny coin “imprinted with the image of the Virgin.”

The connection between Che and the Virgin Mary is understandably a mystery to Juan Pablo, until she tries to articulate her motive for joining several peers as well as a professor to “do field work in Norte de Santander,” a rural region filled with (as her father puts it) “Murderers. Kidnappers,” and “child soldiers.” Valencia cites Christianity, not Che, as the source of her courage. When her disbelieving father asks “is this a religious thing?” she reminds him that “Christ spent time among the fallen,” then clarifies that she doesn’t wish to sound “ridiculous and self-aggrandizing”; she merely wishes to imitate the Lord by spending some time with the “defeated and the scorned,” even if this means proximity to “the unworthy and the cruel.” Her father is furious: “Jesus Christ,” he confesses, “We send you to church because that’s what a young woman is supposed to do. Are you really telling me you believe in all that shit?”

Juan Pablo did not always scoff at real religion. As a child he had studied the Passion of Christ during a Jesuit-run retreat and, listening to his peers share the suffering that continued in His wounded body, the Church, Juan Pablo felt as though “a secret world had been unlocked, a world in which sin and pain were real, and mattered, and infused us with a terrible sense of the meaning of the world.” Crucially, although he is recalling the retreat from the perch of middle-age atheism, his revisitation registers God’s presence as real, as “a wound where the eternal had touched the temporal, and I wanted to live in that wound, expand it, allow it to engulf my universe.”

His “fall” comes on Easter morning when, waking from a nightmare, Juan Pablo leaves to take a shower on the military base. Bleary, unwittingly, he walks into the women’s stalls and finds himself “no more than a meter” from a “naked woman’s breast.” The encounter embarrasses him with arousal, even as he realizes that her body is covered with stitches and scars that “neither added nor detracted from her beauty, such as it was, but only underscored her astounding strangeness.” Naked, ashamed, he waits for her to exit and slips back home. But the memory of her “wounds and pregnant belly and chewed fingernails” works on him as “powerfully, and as incomprehensibly, as my early encounter with what I was then calling God.”

Years later, like an artless Dante exiled from his Beatrice, he “would write a series of terrible poems about her in which she was an idealized figure, an eternal image of Colombia, a scarred goddess displaying her wounds and bringing forth unblemished new life.” Still later he renounces her numinous significance, “deciding she was an image of nothing.” He learns that his own father helped this woman (her name is Juana), when, after having survived an assault authored by the baby’s husband, she “went on to give birth” to the “child of God.” When he next meets the woman at the little one’s baptism she insists that “I walk the earth by the grace of the Lord’s prayer and a leather jacket.” Quite literally she barely pries an Our Father from her heart after being beaten thirty-five times, choking out “deliver us from evil” in time to “finish, and ascend to Heaven or go to hell.” But she lives.

Although Juana herself attributes her persistent existence to answered prayer, Juan Pablo doubts God’s intervention. At the baby’s baptism, he hears an “infant scream as the sign of the cross was traced on his skull.” He finds the priest to be “peripheral, a mere conduit,” whereas his father’s “ancient order” that “did not just anoint … received and protected Juana, entering into her history in a way that seemed profound.” Watching his dad beside the woman he saved, Juan Pablo forces a strained epiphany. His father’s days too “had a monastic rhythm, given not by an eternal structure of prayer but by staff meetings, regular reporting requirements, and the rigid timeliness of military operations.” Like the saintly ascetics, military men had a “monastic austerity, missing meals and sleep to work.” Even the chain of command approximated a “monastic hierarchal structure.”

So began his “second failed love” (the first being religion); once he joins the military “God seemed like a weak abstraction[], insubstantial against the weight of the madness we were fighting.” Only later, after Valencia was born, did he recover a sense of the transcendent. Because he is frequently absentee on account of duty, his child is habituated to her mother, Sofia. Once, however, the baby grabs his hand, and pulls it until his arm wraps around her, hugging her small arms around him. The experience, he says, had the same effect as “that sense of God I’d had as a child, of eternity wounding the material world, wounding the boundaries of my own brain and body,” replacing the “cosmic drama I no longer believed in.” Inhabiting a “more circumscribed … faith-drained” world, Juan Pablo finds “a movement to the future” in his daughter, for “all the unresolved failures of my own life can have an answer in her.”

By the end of Missionaries, Juan Pablo’s world has become still more circumscribed. He is serving as a mercenary in the United Arab Emirates, fighting the war of “civilization versus primitivism,” taking out fanatical Houthis who share with his wife and his daughter beliefs in “primitive nonsense, in rituals and sacred texts,” an “embarrassment” he would rather not recognize. Pablo embodies the prejudices and orientations of the secular progressivist Ratzinger describes in Introduction to Christianity, the man for whom “tradition appears to be what has been laid aside, the merely out-of-date, whereas progress is regarded as the real promise of life, so that man feels at home, not in the realm of tradition, of the past, but in the realm of progress and the future.” For such a man “a belief that comes to him under the label ‘tradition’ must appear to be something already superseded”; no such commitment could “disclose the proper sphere of his existence,” for he has “recognized the future as his real obligation and opportunity.”

Juan Pablo’s sober, cold creed is a kind of extreme iteration of the disbeliever’s conclusion that only that which is “palpably present, what is ‘demonstrable,’ is truly real.” And yet, asks Ratzinger, can we really rest easily in such reductive assertions? Perhaps we should “ask rather more carefully what ‘the real’ actually is” lest we settle for a limited lens that “can by no means comprehend the whole of reality and that even leads to falsification of the truth and of human existence if we assume that it is the only definitive” apprehension of what is actually the case.

Unable to contain the truth within the humanist mold, Klay exhales loudly, allowing God to breathe into his book. When Valencia travels to Norte de Santander all of her father’s prophecies come true; she is one degree away from a kidnapping and her efforts to expose the doings of a drug lord leave at least one woman dead in the gutter. Qualms of conscience follow, qualms quashed by her professor when he asserts that “This is no kind of work for messiahs. This is no kind of work for saviors. We only want the guilty here.” Valencia succumbs to a panicked, shocked state until:

God, if there was a God, reached into Valencia’s body, and squeezed her lungs with His large hands, and ran His fingers down her nerves, and breathed hot breath over her eyes, and He tapped her heart once, then twice, as the blood rushed and drained and rushed and drained through her, and then He drew back, leaving a hole behind where the air rushed in.

When he is finished she wishes to weep tears of blood. Notice that the “if” holds God under the weight of doubt, as if trying to suspend Him in thin air, before He acts in spite of this skepticism, acts with all of the visceral concreteness of Christ. Still she can’t, for some time, believe in Him. Or at least she can’t consent to His mercy. “I have done evil,” she contends, “and the evil cannot be erased by a priest with some magic words.” Later, though, “when her faith returned more fully to her, she would describe this feeling as a sin of pride.”

Ironically, it is her faithless father who commences an analogue of the God she has come to question. He fails to absolve her of the sins she committed in Norte de Santander, assuring her that “I’m proud of you” for occasioning the drug lord’s death. And as he rambles on and on, doing his best to manufacture comfort, she remembers that as a girl “she had wanted a simple faith. A sense that she was a sister to all mankind, connected to all creation, that the natural beauty and wonder of the world was a caress of God.” Then, certain that she was “nothing but an unforgiven girl in an ugly world,” she sobs, and sobs, and her father holds her hand, “and his love for her felt painful and cruel, and she wondered, if there was a God, if that was what His love actually felt like.”

“The believer,” argues Ratzinger, “is always threatened with an uncertainty,” and in times of trial quite suddenly and surprisingly temptations “cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him.” Consider Therese of Lisieux, whose sisters were scandalized by her written admission that “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism.” Tormented by arguments against the faith, her firm belief seems to have faded, and she worries that she now wears “sinners’ shoes.” For Juan Pablo atheism is more than a temptation; it is an absolute answer. He finishes with a bitter belief in “progress”; “the future” is his heaven, his only obligation. And yet there was a time when it was Valencia who he hoped would hold “a movement to the future.” All of his failed loves could find fulfillment in her. If this is the case, this positivist mercenary who suppresses all second-guesses is surpassed by Valencia’s own burgeoning faith.

“There’s another type of religious tradition which is really much more about, you know, doubt, and working your way towards more and more difficult questions. And I think that’s the tradition that appeals to me.” So said Phil Klay during an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. Missionaries is an uneven novel: some sections read like an op-ed essay; the vast number of intersecting characters amounts to an alternation between fully actualized beings who solicit your suspension of disbelief and others ill-defined to conjure soulful engagement; at times his pen can wax gratuitously graphic. The Juan Pablo thread throbs with the most blood and Spirit, even as it is underwritten by doubt.

Klay must know that (to cite Kierkegaard) “Not only in the world of commerce but also in the world of ideas our age has arranged a regular clearance-sale … they are not content with doubting everything, but ‘go right on.’” Formerly neither faith nor doubt could come so cheaply, for “faith was a task for a whole life-time because it was held that proficiency in faith was not to be won within a few days or weeks.” Affiliated as he may be with the religious tradition devoted to doubt, in his new novel Klay “goes right on” beyond the hell of wholesale hesitation; he transcends what Ratzinger calls “the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe.” To be sure, the novel ends before Valencia’s “faith returned more fully to her.” And yet, we are assured of her eventual return to the God to whom Durer’s painted hands prayed.

It is worth pondering why Klay refrains from representing her religious turn in real time. Is it because—as Kierkegaard would have it—neither doubt nor faith should come cheaply, and so her resting in Christ must wait for the next four-hundred page novel? Perhaps, but I am doubtful. I can’t help wondering whether his restraint is in large part explained by Kierkegaard’s parable of the clown who begs the townspeople to come to the flaming circus and help put the fire out. The townspeople can’t take him seriously, even when he desperately assures them that the fire is real. As they mistake the earnest man for a total fool not only the circus but the village too burns to the ground. Ratzinger reads in this parable “an element of truth … it reflects the oppressive reality in which theology and theological discussion are imprisoned today and their frustrating inability to break through accepted patterns of thought and speech” in order to make theological truths intelligible as seriously important for human life.

As Walker Percy put it, “the so-called Catholic or Christian novelist nowadays has to be very indirect, if not downright deceitful, because all he has to do is say one word about salvation or redemption and the jig is up, you know.” But Klay’s Missionaries has been named a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Wall Street Journal Ten Best Books of the Year. Who is this “rough beast” slouching out of New York, seized with the gall to render God as scandalously incarnate, even in these dread days of disembodiment and doubt?  

Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Joshua has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, America, and LOGOS. His books include This Our Exile: Short Stories, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy, In the Wine Press: Short Stories, and How to Read and Write Like a Catholic. Joshua’s novel, Infinite Regress, is forthcoming in early 2022.

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