Wednesday, March 20

The Lazarus Paradigm (2013)

By Mark E. Eidemiller (The Irons Alliance, Book 2) (available through Amazon)

There is something serendipitous in the fact that I finished reading this book a few days ago, just in time for this past Sunday's Mass Readings – and hence our Monday Night Scripture Study Group a few nights ago – to include the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery from the Gospel of St. John, 8:1-11. I was thus able to use a situation posited herein as a launching point for discussion in our group.

But before bringing up our thoughts regarding the interpretation of that passage proposed by the characters here, which I assume represents Eidemiller's position, regarding the implications of the words that Jesus speaks to the woman, let me provide an overall review and comments.

It's quickly apparent that this sequel to As Iron Sharpens Iron forges a connection between the world of Eidemiller's fan-fiction “Christian Adventures of Doc Savage” series, formally The Bronze Saga, and the separate universe that is the setting for the Irons Alliance tales. Indeed, this story launches directly out of the sixth Bronze Saga novel, Bronze New World, with a minor character introduced there becoming the central character of this book which tells the back story of the mentor character bringing together the members of the Irons Alliance. Of course, that means that this tale is ultimately tied into the old television series, The Time Tunnel, as was Bronze New World. That character (appropriately named Tempor) travels through time back to the early 20th century and proceeds by his presence and nudges to events as they unfold through the years to explain the divergences from our own “real world's” history that were so apparent in As Iron Sharpens Iron.

All of which I think is terribly cool both because I am a huge fan of Eidemiller's take on the pulp hero Doc Savage and his aides brought forward into the modern world and having found Christ – yet continuing through ten books (so far? – hopefully so, but Eidemiller has stated that he intends Bronze Shaped as Clay to bring that series to a close) of adventures generally as rousing and action-packed as the original 1930s-1940s pulp magazines – and because in this second series he does much the same with characters of his own creation while continuing the Bronze Saga tradition of including a wealth of little “Easter Eggs” based on pop culture and history. Using the Time Tunnel as a means of bridging between the two series is just one example, and I suspect I did not catch some of Eidemiller's more subtle or obscure references, but, for instance, a still-living ca. 1952 (the time frame of most of the action of both As Irons Sharpens Iron and The Lazarus Paradigm) Amelia Earhart reappears here, to be joined by Howard Hughes, and motivation for the villain's diabolical plot that drives the later part of this book is rooted in Tempor's encounter with J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings 'way back in the 1930s.

Along the way, we are treated to Tempor's life from his appearance in the early 20th century across most of fifty years in a series of vignettes as he learns by experience the limits of what he can and cannot do. What he can do includes essentially creating a time loop whereby his older self from the past inspires his younger self in the future (more or less “our” present) to embark on his cross-time life. This is a time-travel story, after all. Eventually the narrative catches up to the events of As Iron Sharpens Iron, which are retold again, albeit sketchily and from Tempor's perspective through his recorded meditations. The climatic events in San Francisco and the immediate fame that results for Tempor and the Irons Alliance bring him to the renewed attention of an old opponent whose Satanic plot to discredit C. S. Lewis Tempor had thwarted twenty years earlier. From that point, the horrific revenge that the old enemy intends drives them to an epic confrontation in the villain's palatial home at the summit of Mount St. Helens.

It's altogether a very satisfying science-fictiony neopulp adventure that leaves you eager for the next installment. It is, of course, set apart from other such examples in the growing “New Pulp” movement by its different world view.

As with the Bronze Saga, I have not dwelt on the religious aspect of this book for a couple of reasons. I accept that element as both part of the characters themselves and intrinsic to the character of the work, although the evangelical flavor of the characters' faith and the rather overt and somewhat simplistic view of God's interactions with this world are not precisely in line with my own very Catholic way of looking at things. I'm very much in agreement with the basic Christian outlook, however, and overall find that those elements add far more to the story than they perhaps detract. As I've expressed before, the main potential problem I see would be a new reader being put off by them, not being able to see past them to the wonderful neopulp adventure being told that just happens to be so thoroughly Christian.

There are, nonetheless, a couple of specific points related to that religiosity that I want to bring up, the second of which I referred to in the opening of this review. It is more important than the first, which can be dispensed with rather quickly. Fairly early in the book, Tempor establishes his financial security – indeed builds the “nest egg” for what will ultimately become the foundation for his philanthropic activities – through gambling … although semantically he argues that what he did is not indeed gambling, because “Gambling involves risk” (Kindle edition, location 1513± of 5141). He has only wagered on major sporting events of which he, being from the future, already knew the outcome. I suppose it could be argued either way, but this seems to me to be of rather questionable ethics at best. Ultimately for someone to win through gambling, someone else must lose, and I personally do not believe that the presentation of what is meant to be a rather model of a Christian as winning through “risk-free gambling” is very edifying.

As a side note, that incident does bring to mind another aspect of Eidemiller's presentation of Tempor's interactions with the early 20th century that I must also comment on. A possible exculpatory factor in the above is the fact that, as a black man, Tempor simply found it much easier to place bets than it would have been to engage in more conventional means of investing. I question whether a black man would otherwise find himself so readily accepted by society, for instance as a teacher when he first appears, as is the case here. Sadly, and bearing in mind of course that although I'm a historian my area of expertise does not include the period of this novel, that is not my impression of the reality of race relations fifty to a hundred years ago. The issues of discrimination experienced by blacks is obviously not ignored, is indeed referred to from time to time, but overall I feel that neither in early 20th-century America nor in 1930s England would Tempor have found so many people, even among his Christian brethren, so willing to overlook the fact that he is a black man and accept him as an equal.

Finally, however, there is the question brought up regarding Christ's forgiveness of the Woman Caught in Adultery and how it is used in this novel. This necessitates a little background, which perhaps inevitably contains more details than I normally try to include in these reviews, which I at least try to keep relatively spoiler-free.

One of the members of the Irons Alliance that we met in the first book was Mark Durant, who first appears as a hunted vigilante wreaking havoc on criminals as the “Antibody.” In my review of As Iron Sharpens Iron I drew a parallel with the Marvel Comics character the Punisher, to the point of referring tongue-in-cheek to Durant as such in quotation marks. The parallel extends to the trail of the dead criminals his blazing guns have left behind him. He is, nonetheless, drawn by God to the rendezvous with destiny which launches that story. Of course, among the other individuals similarly drawn is the FBI agent, Carlin Badge, who has been closest on the Antibody's heels. And eventually, Durant's identity as the Antibody comes to light – but after considerable resistance on his own part he accepts Christ as his Savior and renounces his former life of violence. Events in that book barrel on to their conclusion, and when the story takes back up in The Lazarus Paradigm Durant has resolved that he must turn himself in to the authorities and pay for his crimes. His new found brother in Christ, Agent Badge, is going to take him into custody with the purpose of testifying to the radical change of heart which Durant has experienced. But as far as the FBI is concerned, the Antibody's absence following the final violent confrontation at the beginning of As Iron Sharpens Iron has left him missing for months now, known to have been wounded, and presumed dead.

Whereupon the following exchange, initiated by another member of the team, Malachi Tanaka:

“'Much has been said about Mark and his violent past. However, one thing puzzles me: who, apart from the few of us in this room, truly knows that he is the Antibody?'

“'Nobody,' answered Carlin. 'I had my suspicions, and took them to my superiors, but they refused to see it my way.'

“'Then why must you turn yourself in to the authorities?' [this to Durant]

“'I have to do the right thing, to pay for my crimes.'

“'You feel you must “pay back society” for the sins you've committed?'

“'Yes!' [Durant] stated resolutely.

“'Did the woman caught in adultery pay society back for her sins?'

“'No. Jesus told her to “go, and sin no more”.'

“'Then why can't you do the same thing?'

“It was like a vacuum suddenly appeared in the room. It was such a simple answer that nobody had considered it.

“'But all I've done …,' argued Durant.

“'... has been forgiven at the cross. It is no longer your burden. But if you feel you must do some sort of penance, may I suggest something I've heard of called “paying it forward'. Instead of trying to pay back what you owe, you do good deeds to others, without requiring acknowledgement [sic] or thanks.'”

(Kindle edition, Location 2970± of 5141 ff.)

And it is quickly resolved by the group to aid Durant in changing his identity, becoming a new person in the world as he is a new person in Christ. Or, to put it more bluntly, evading justice.

Monday night, in our discussion of the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent (Cycle C), John 8:1-11, we discussed the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, which does famously end with the words spoken by Jesus: “Go, and do not sin again” (verse 11, Revised Standard Version). After covering various aspects of the prepared questions, I threw out a further question, abstracting for my fellows the background and situation from The Lazarus Paradigm as presented above, leading to some interesting discussion regarding the societal implications of the forgiveness that we unquestionably receive through the grace of God in baptism. Granted that the Catholic Faith of the members of our Scripture Study Group and the evangelical Protestantism espoused by Eidemiller and his characters do have significant differences regarding the theology and practice of baptism, I do not believe I am wrong in surmising that we are in agreement regarding the fact that the waters of baptism wash away completely both the stain of Original Sin and any prior personal sins, regardless of how grave those latter might be. And, since Durant's life of vigilantism, which included murder, preceded his conversion to Christianity and has now been renounced and replaced with a determination to live his life for Christ and in service to his fellow man, that is the real parallel. Does the forgiveness he received for his prior sins absolve him from “paying for” his crimes? In a more general sense, should a similar conversion by a criminal during his incarceration warrant his immediate release, because the debt for his sins was paid on the Cross? Examples could be multiplied to any earlier stage of the judicial process, from the initial hunt for a criminal, through the trial – if a fugitive, accused criminal converts and leaves behind his life of sin, should that preempt any trial? – if a defendant converts during the trial, should he be declared “Not Guilty” and automatically freed?

As you may have already surmised, our consensus was “No.” A number of points were made, including that the Gospel does not say that there were no societal consequences for the woman caught in adultery, and that we had earlier been discussing how the situation related in the Gospel comes in a very specific context, that of the Pharisees attempting to entrap Jesus between renouncing the Jewish Law or countenancing a violation of Roman Law, assuming that the Jews indeed did not have the right to administer the death penalty (a thorny question that cannot be answered definitively). By turning the question of sin back upon the Pharisees with his words, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her (verse 7) (with the possibility that Jesus' writing on the ground was precisely the sins they themselves were guilty of), Jesus deftly put them in the position of making an impossible choice. Whereupon the crowd of accusers melted away and there was no one left to condemn the woman, and Jesus himself admonished her to “Go, and do not sin again.” He did not thereby countenance her sin, indeed he commanded her “do not sin again” (my emphasis). And it cannot be taken as a mandate for how society should treat those who commit crimes.

But generally I would make this distinction. Prior sins considered in those terms are offenses against God, and while God's forgiveness is indeed perfect, crimes per se are offenses against fellow human beings and society in general and cannot be so easily negated. To put it in purely practical terms, the state of one's soul is ultimately a matter between the individual and God, while the consequences of one's actions in this world are a matter of concern to society at large. Moreover, society cannot be so sure that professed repentance is indeed genuine. To bring it back to the specific situation described in The Lazarus Paradigm, while Mark Durant's companions may have absolute faith that his change of heart is real, society cannot be so sure, and the fact is that they are undertaking responsibility for his future deeds – or misdeeds. In the eyes of the law, they are at the very least harboring a fugitive.

Ultimately, while the example of the Woman Caught in Adultery and the grace offered her by Our Lord is a fine example of the oft-quoted stricture to “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” and a guide for how we should treat our fellow man in the realm of Christian fellowship, it does not seem to me to be a blueprint for how society can or should operate.

I have lingered over this small part of the story for a couple of reasons. Partially I think it reveals a particularly stark example of different understandings of the implications and applicability of Scriptural examples between Catholics such as myself and evangelical Protestants such as Eidemiller – if they would follow through on the implications. Admittedly, in context, the situation plays out exactly the way the reader would want it to. Over the course of the first book in particular, but continuing in this one, Mark Durant, the one-time Antibody, has been developed into a very likeable and sympathetic character, arguably the best delineated character in the first book, and one for whom the reader wants the best. That speaks well of Eidemiller's skill in writing and developing his characters. But in a “real-world” situation, the solution proposed would not be so easily accepted.

But also I wanted to throw it out there as an example of how one can find issues for deep consideration and discussion even in examples such as this, of modern neopulp/popular literature. As was the first book, The Lazarus Paradigm was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and once again I eagerly anticipate continuing to follow the adventures of the Irons Alliance in future volumes.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

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