From the April, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Terrible Salvation by S. M. Hutchens

Terrible Salvation

A Dark Meditation on God & Hannibal Lecter

Although this, for understandable reasons, is muted in the films, the overriding theme of Thomas Harris’s masterly Lecter novels is the cruelty and unworthiness of God. These are not atheistic, but anti-theistic books, in which the Creator is unfavorably compared to one of the bloodiest monsters ever contrived by the literary imagination, a surpassingly brilliant physician who, like God, kills and eats his victims.

As the novels progress, one discovers the reasons for Dr. Lecter’s behavior, so is able not only to sympathize, but even to cheer him on, to laugh when he tells Clarice that he is having a friend, the disgusting Dr. Chilton, for dinner. There is reason here, even if it is the primitive reason of the trapped beast that springs at his captors (as when he attacks innocent people, like the detective who first apprehended him, the nurse attempting to treat him in prison, or the police officers in Memphis). The people Dr. Lecter kills calculatedly are evil themselves, or at least hopeless, people whom the world would be better without or whom he believes would be better off without themselves.

His violence, both controlled and uncontrolled, arises from a childhood in which he prayed earnestly for the life of his beloved little sister, and the response of God was to let her be decapitated and eaten. Lecter, the murderer and cannibal, is a better person, a just judge who knows how to show mercy, and how to give others their due.

He, like Frankenstein’s monster, is found to be capable of both decency and love, first allowing Clarice Starling to share the place of his lost sister in his affections, and finally giving her fully her own place, not just as his creation, but as a beloved in whom he cultivates a life that he does not control. God, however, who has the power to stop the horror, kills everybody, in every imaginable way, and seems to take particular pleasure in the slaughter of innocents.

God Indicted

I have found myself meditating on Harris’s indictment during the Paschal season, for in the Cross of Christ is contained every possible charge against the goodness of God. Here is the God-inspired death of the most innocent of men, brought about by the unrestrained exercise of every variety of wickedness—one thinks here of Bosch’s depiction of Christ’s torturers.

In Christ we are confronted with the paradox of the man who came to die, the Lamb of God, silent, passive, and obedient unto death, who did the will of his Father, whom it pleased to bruise him—who at the same time did not want this death, prayed that the cup pass from him, crying out to his Father with the unanswered scream of desolation, not only a silent lamb to the slaughter, but an unwilling one, had it not been for the active submission by which he made the Father’s will his own.

Let us put these things starkly, for it is both futile and evasive to do otherwise. Here is unassailable proof that God is evil beyond imagining, and that Christians are not only fools, but, like the unspeakable Mason Verger, devoutly complicit in the evil—the sort of people who flavor their religious cocktails with the tears of children, even though as the Righteous, the Born-Again, the Forgiven, they could never think of themselves in that way.

The faith, on the other hand, insists that in the torture-death of Christ is the highest expression of his goodness and love, of a God who did not send his Son into the world, which meant death for him, to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.

The difference in perspectives comes from faith—faith of a very distinctive sort. Here is its greatest test, a test that some are called upon to endure far beyond understanding how it can survive the horror: the piercing our Lord’s blessed Mother endured as she watched her Son die in agony.

For the victory of salvation, our faith teaches, it is not only the body of the Savior that must overcome death by death, but the hearts of the faithful who must accept his death, and their own, and that of those they love, in him. They must believe their Lord when he says that if the good seed falls into the ground and dies—this implying every terror death can hold—it shall rise again to a new and infinitely blessed life.

— S. M. Hutchens

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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