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The Reverend and The Snake – A Short Story

A post that has been waiting for too long! Hello Charon Continuum, here is a short story written during the first week of the New Year. A time for self-reflection, inner demons and re-examining what it means to hold beliefs in today’s society. Really it is to be read as a radio play with prose added between acts.

Let us know what you think!

The Reverend and The Snake

“Now, Reverend, you said in your previous interview, and I quote here ‘There is always a chance of basic life appearing, science has taught us that; but theology has told us that we will never encounter anything so developed that we may look into its eyes and see humanity looking back’. How do you feel now?”

“I don’t think I understand what you mean, Phil.”

“You said that we would never meet an organism more developed than bacteria; that to do so would breach everything we think about God.”

“I wouldn’t say I went that far; what I meant was that mankind would never encounter something that resembled us. The scripture tells us that we are made in His image; now unless the good Lord is vain enough to create a plethora of different versions of himself without informing us I believe that my quote still stands.”

“Have you seen the Eden Snake, Reverend?”

“Only images, but I think you may have answered your own question. What you are really asking is whether religion, whether Christianity, is still relevant in today’s world. I think all you have to do is look at the name the serpent has been given and you will find that it is just as relevant as ever.”

“Also with us tonight we have lead xenobiologist at Beijing University, Professor Zhou Yu. Professor, what do you make on the Reverend’s claim that it was religion that named the creature, not the scientists who discovered it?”

“Good evening, Phil. Well the idea that the name reflects what society still feels about religion simply isn’t true. Of the xenobiologists that discovered the Eden Snake, more than have are atheist and the rest are members of the Pakistan-Indian Scientific Exchange making Islam the closet faith even vaguely relating to the Garden of Eden. In fact the name comes from the snakes dependency on the planet’s apple like fruit and the small horns that protrude from the top of it’s ‘head’. Even the idea of it being a snake is a misnomer, only the shape is similar, it is in fact more similar to a colossal Gnathostomulid jaw worm than it is to Judeo-Chrsitian iconography.”

“Reverend?”

“Well the first thing I can think of is that if Professor Yu had read the Koran she would know that the Garden of Eden plays a rather tremendous part in it and that it’s significance should not be downplayed simply because the crew didn’t have a Jewish or Christian member. You brought up my earlier quote about looking into the eyes and seeing humanity. From what I understand the Eden Snake does not have any eyes at all.”

“Pure semantics. What we are seeing here is a religious dogma that has claimed to hold answers for millennia and cannot accept that it has been proven wrong.”

“Did the Hindu and Muslim scientists who discovered the Snake proclaim their conversion to atheism? Not at all. Religion does not pick quarrels with science and does not dispute the facts that you uncover about the universe; what we try and do is give meaning to the new life discovered, consolation to those in North America who find the cancer cure is too expensive to save their lives due to the drug company’s laboratory costs, advice to the people of newly colonised worlds who are promised an actual Eden but find only a wasteland when terraforming techniques go wrong. We do not wage war on truth or numbers; we just want to make the world a better place to live.”

“Tell that to Alan Turing who was chemically castrated for committing the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. Tell that to Galileo who was called a heretic for claiming wildly that the Earth rotates around the Sun. Or even Einstein who was forced to flee his mostly Christian country of birth for being Jewish!”

“Professor, you are talking about some cases that are a thousand years old and if I remember correctly didn’t Einstein’s work lead to the creation of the atomic bomb, one of sciences greatest mistakes?”

“To me, Phil, this conversation highlights the problem religion faces in the modern world. The closer science comes to defining the universe, perhaps even defining God if such a thing were to exist, the more difficult it becomes to grasp what they really believe. If the last century has proven anything it’s that religion has caused more conflict than peace, that millions are still raised in ignorance of the facts to protect the history of faith and that every time a new piece of evidence arises that contradicts the Holy Scripture they seep back into the woodwork to find yet another vague excuse to cover the truth. And vague is the word. When was the last time an issue, a real problem humanity has faced, was solved by religion? Now ask the same question about science. Smallpox, HIV, these were not cured by faith; and nor was the Eden Snake discovered by God’s plan. We put the shuttle on the planet, we discovered the creature and we should have nothing more to prove in order to show mankind how the universe is truly made.”

“While I agree with the professor that science has been a huge boon to us all and that very few chemists have caused harms to others in order to prove their science is the one true science I think she is approaching the issue from the wrong angle. Faith is not about evidence, love is not about proof and religion is no more the same beast as it was in the time of Galileo as astronomy is, certainly the Cardinals no longer have four dozen naked prostitutes collect chestnuts from the floor of the Papal Palace, much to their disappointment I am sure. Certainly we must thank the scientists who have granted us the many luxuries we would otherwise not have but in a universe with the Lord’s infinite knowledge and infinite love, it is simply arrogant to claim that he played no part in the creation of something as complex as the cures previously discussed.”

“That is such bull-”

“I’m afraid to say that we have now run out of time. I would like to thank my guests for joining us and pass you back to Abbie. Abbie?”

“Thank you, Phil!”

The Reverend let out a sigh of relief as the stage went dark. He had read the lines, exactly as briefed and let slip as little about what he actually thought as possible. He hated the interviews, the cameras, the lights, the penetrating gaze of the millions who were not even in the same room as him and yet saw him more clearly than he could ever see himself. But he was well liked and influential in his own way though he held little actual power within the church. He was a voice, a mouth piece for all those who still believed and carried out his duty to them in a way that pleased the media men; if that was how God saw fit to use his talents then so be it. Back in the days when he had run a congregation of his own the local television crews had recorded almost every sermon to sell to the various ‘God channels’ that people watched. At first he had been furious, they had lied and said it was for a news piece on the changing role of the pulpit and when he had discovered their deception it was all he could do not to call the bishop and summon the lawyers. But the more he reflected the more he realised the benefit. Were the words given without his permission? Most certainly, but in truth they were not his words at all, they were the words of God and for him to claim ownership over something like that wasn’t fair. Perhaps, if what he said touched one person, it would all be worth it; after all wasn’t that what it really meant to be a priest? To bring comfort to those in need, even when they aren’t in the same room as you?

Well his decision had been a good one; those with power had taken notice and he had been moved on, leaving the mortal confinements of the congregation behind in favour of the immortal digital space. The benefits were many; travel around this world and a few others, more contact with higher ranking church officials than his equals and a much larger flock than he ever could have hoped for otherwise. He still gave sermons now and again, usually at high functions when he was ordered to but often he was allowed to talk at any church he desired whenever he desired.

A summons came in as the car took him back to his hotel from the city’s Bishop and he instantly changed his destination. The Bishop had been his superior back when he ran a little chapel in down town Abuja and had been a confidant and friend ever since. They shook hands when the Bishop opened the door and sat down in her extensive library.

“Have you read the Dahl boy’s latest essay?”

“I haven’t Your Grace, I lost track of his work while in Pyongyang.”

“Hmm. Probably for the best. It’s an interesting discussion he’s starting. Humanity In A Post-Religious Universe. He suggests there’s no place for our outdated belief system on Gliese or any other world for that matter.”

“Naturally. Gliese is a colony of scientists; the closest thing they have to religion is an original copy of A Brief History of Time. If he had been born elsewhere he wouldn’t have those views.”

“And if we were born there perhaps we would.” The Bishop sighed as she poured them both a drink. “You did good work tonight. It isn’t an easy topic to discuss or an easy position to defend.”

“I find myself thinking that more and more. The questions have become less patient and the critics more aggressive. Perhaps I am simply getting old and letting it get to me but every time I hear them ask for the historical data that proves any one of the Bible stories I get a little more uncomfortable. How many times can I say belief doesn’t need proof before I start to doubt the accomplishments of Moses or the trials of Christ? And now? The existence of new sentient beings, the book has always denied the possibility of anything not on our world; now they call us frauds and liars.”

“Well of course that argument can be said if you take the book literally.”

“That’s exactly what a parishioner said to me on Parasone. But when did we stop taking the book literally? They were not meant to be ‘life lessons’ when they were written, nor were they interpreted as such five hundred years later, nor a thousand, nor one thousand five hundred; that way of thinking only emerged when we realised that the world was something we could shape, not something to be afraid of.”

“So Dahl Jnr. would have us believe. Religion must adapt to the modern day, friend. It is no good us denying the existence of the dinosaurs or claiming that Earth is only ten thousand years old when we know now that is clearly not the case. This hiccup, and that is what it is, a hiccup, is just another old lizard skeleton buried in the desert. Yes, people will question for a while, but ultimately their fear of the unknown will bring the flock back to the shepherd. What we must focus on doing is ensuring that these beings are protected. If they are truly His creatures then it is our sacred duty to see that no harm comes to them.”

“What you’re preaching doesn’t sound like adaptation, it sounds like falsification. Everything we have taught about the world has been hypocrisy. We have defended ourselves blindly for too long. We cannot claim on a Monday that homosexuality is a sin and then change the word of God on a Tuesday because it is unpopular; nor can we claim to be the owners of knowledge when what we thought we knew has all been proven false. Even the way we are speaking now; the truth comes after our numbers.” He let out a sigh and cradled his head in his hands. “It is easy to forgive those who doubt when we are surrounded en mass by believers but people just can’t believe in this man in the sky anymore. This idea that when we die he’ll be there to greet us with both hands? It’s ludicrous to them.”

“Religion is a personal experience, you know that. People will believe whatever they want to believe. Some people can’t fathom the idea that if there is a God, He is anything other than a white, heterosexual male with a long white beard. And if that is how some people choose to express their belief then that is their choice. Son, you are having a crisis of faith, not in God, but how we express our devotion in Him and in you. What do you believe God to be?”

“I don’t know if I believe at all.”

“Don’t be such a fool. You could pretend; kid yourself for months, maybe even years but when you hit hard times you’d come back and beg for His forgiveness. It’s best you come to terms with that and with yourself. Find out what He means to you and maybe, just maybe, you will come closer to the truth that those who still think of Jesus as blonde with blue eyes.”

He went back to the hotel with glazed vision and an aching head. His career was based upon his ability to let nothing slip and yet there and then he had gone too far and he knew it. He had started the discussion by defending his faith from the attacks of non-believers and yet by the end the greatest threat to Christendom was him; the inside job, the hidden atheist. No, atheist was too strong, agnostic? He still believed in God but the rest? The prayers, the symbols, Heaven and Hell, it just no longer seemed relevant to the world that he inhabited; the worlds. And how could it? The morals were worth holding on to, that much was certain; the words of Christ were still pure.

He lay on his bed and waited for the darkness to seep into his head but nothing came; no wave of dreariness, no relief from the buzzing of his mind. Instead he lay there, the lights of the city outside illuminating the room just enough to dance a thousand patterns on the ceiling. He followed each one until they were interrupted by the flash of a passing car or a shadow passing in between them. Is this what my life has come to? He thought, decades of service to a Lord that I now begin to doubt? And doubt because of a snake; how perfectly biblical. For a second he smiled to himself as he imagined this being the beginning of the next Testament; a snake, a doubting priest, an ever expanding universe with a moral pit so deep no one could see the end, what more could the saints ask for?

He sat up and flipped on the bedroom light. The hotel wasn’t shabby but it was clear that church funding was not what is used to be. He showered again, running over the Bishops words in his head, weighing them against Zhou Yu’s strongest objections and trying to find an argument to satisfy both, to bring the warring parties back together. He left the bathroom unsatisfied and so brought up the computer display to dull his mind as much as possible. He checked his messages and siphoned through the usual nonsense for an unmeasurable amount of time; requests for colonial Christenings, invitations to weddings from poor Catholics and rich Protestants alike, three attempts to convert him to the Book of Mormon but only one for Scientology, something that disappointed him for a reason he didn’t quite understand. Somewhere near the end of the pile was a message he must have looked over in the past from an old friend who had attended medical school while the Reverend studied theology. They had debated long into the night many times and it had been to the Reverend’s great surprise when the Surgeon had asked him to officiate at his church wedding. A closet Christian all along, the Surgeon was now one of the Reverend’s closest friends and a message from him at this time was most fortuitous. It simply read:

Rev.

It’s been too long and there is too much weighing on my mind! Take the next shuttle over when you’re free; I’ll be sure to put you up and bore you with my inner thoughts.

Yours,

Dr.

The Reverend smiled and sent a quick reply saying he would do just that and arrive the following day and that he too had things he wanted to discuss, something like the old days.

The moment the sun rose the Reverend packed his bags, drank his coffee and headed to the nearest shuttle. It only took a few hours, despite the thousands of miles, to reach his friends house and after a large breakfast and the usual catching up conversation the Surgeon began to talk.

“I need to confess.”

“I’m not that kind of priest.”

“Oh I know, but I need to talk to someone and you’re the closet thing to absolution I can get.”

“That’s comforting in it’s own way.”

“My wife is – sorry, my ex-wife is seeing another man.”

“You’ve mentioned this before. You’re still angry?”

“At her? No, that ended long ago, she deserves happiness in whatever form it takes, it just so happens it’s not me.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“I know this; I understand that she should be happy but I can’t accept it, not in my heart. Knowing it and knowing it just aren’t the same.”

“So your sin is envy? You are jealous of her happiness?”

“No; the sin is wrath. I hate him; I loathe him. He seems nice, he treats her well, better than I ever could have. She is more confident, more beautifully herself and I hate him for that. I just… I just can’t accept that he can make her that way and I never could even after all the things we said, all the love we had; he has just done it. I keep thinking what if they were in an accident? Their car crashed or something, so he died and she survived. If I returned to her then, if I showed her just how much I truly loved her, would she take me back? But then I remember just what I am asking for, that my only vision for winning love is for God to take it into his hands and kill this man; I am imagining, almost praying God to murder someone. Can he hear me whisper this to him in my mind? For as much as I know that it’s wrong I know this is what I want. In my heart I want him dead.”

“Would you ever act on it? Ever take it into your own hands and strike him down?”

“What? No, of course not.”

“Then what sin have you committed? If imagining something was a sin or even wanting something to happen was a sin we would all go to hell. Purity does not come from never dreaming of evil, it comes from knowing it and taking the higher path. Your envy and your wrath are not desirable qualities but they are understandable ones. Overcome the demons within you and you have been a good Christian, a good person.”

“Okay. Thank you, I will think on it.”

“But if you do murder him then we will have a very different conversation.” They both smirked.

“I’m sorry to unload all this on you, my weary friend. What was it you wanted to talk to me about?

“Nothing as pressing as your concerns I assure you; a mere crisis of faith. I have been thinking more and more about what all the interviewers say to me; how unfeasible it all is. Noah, Moses, Christ. To a logical mind the stories are obvious nonsense and yet I have always believed.”

“I see we have reversed. Then what is it you are looking for?”

“The Bishop asked me the same thing and I don’t know. I want something… tangible. Something I can believe because I see it, not just because I am told too.”

“You would take the role of Thomas?”

“It seems to me that he was the sensible one and when he asked the story says that he saw the proof he needed. I am just asking for the same thing.”

“What you are asking for is science.”

Is it too much to ask for both? You don’t seem to have a problem living the two lives together.

“Oh I have my doubts now and again. But my belief is as hereditary as my eye colour and the hook of my nose, to deny it would be to deny my family and for that they would never forgive me.”

“Then we must find a way to bring the two closer to together, to close the gap between the body and the soul.”

“You have some ideas I assume?”

“I am not sure. If we want to marry science and God then the two must go hand in hand, I suppose we must accept the scripture is false; that it includes morals and ideas that God embodies but that ultimately it is little more than a story book.”

“What about the work of Christ? Is that all fiction too?”

“Perhaps.”

“Reverend-”

“Let me finish. We know that there was a man named Jesus Christ and we know that he was successful in antagonising authority but did he truly walk on water? Could he cure the sick? That is a matter of belief not fact. If anything the Bible, and Jesus’ role in it, is a way of explaining wormhole string theory and warp technology to a baby. The father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? These are all literal forms of a metaphysical being because humanity was too ill-evolved to understand something more.”

“Is the Holy Spirit literal?”

“I suppose not but maybe that is closer to what God truly is rather than the nonsense about Father and Son. The all penetrating spirit, alive in each one of us, alive in everything.”

“It all seems too abstract; God as a consciousness without a vessel, at least the Holy Trinity is easy to grasp.”

“And that is why people believe it. Its sums up everything neatly into packages of belief that we needn’t question.”

“I get that is what you’re trying to say but couldn’t it be that the answer is not more complicated but simpler? Stories arise because we need to explain what we don’t understand and sometimes what we don’t understand is the thing right in front of our eyes.” They sat in silence and pondered, seconds turning to minutes.

“Science can tell us more about how the universe began than the Bible or at least more accurately. There was a moment, a infinitely small fraction of a millisecond, where all matter existed in the same place at the same time. Everything. If God was to exist, to have a physical form, it would have been there and then; in that slither of eternity. Everything we are, everything we will ever be, everything around us, existed in that spot, for that moment at the same time. If that is not God I do not know what is.”

“So God is within us all literally?”

“Just as He is in every beast, every bird, every serpent, and every thing of the sea. He lives within us all just as we owe our very existence to Him.”

“You realise of course that if we suggest worshipping the universe itself as God we will be called Pagans? They’ll burn us at the stake for heresy.”

“We could also never refer to Him as Him again. There is no father, a son only by belief, God is no more a man than He is a human.”

“You did it anyway.”

“I know, it is difficult. What hubris we have, to try and label God in ways that make him more like us rather than us like Him.”

“Does God becomes an It, in this theory of yours?”

“After giving birth to the universe maybe She is more appropriate. It seems remote, distant; not as if it resides within our hearts. I cannot say, my friend. I suppose I cannot hope to have all the answers at once.”

The sense of relief was instant; it hit him like an adrenaline shot in reverse. His limbs relaxed, his mind relaxed and he excused himself, citing a sleepless night and the shoddy quality of inter-continental travel as a reason for his lethargy.

He went to the guest room the Surgeon had made up for him and lay back on the bed,, instantly feeling the world slipping away. He had not found answers, not truly, but something within himself felt sure, felt certain that he was on the right track. There were a thousand questions still to ask and a million reasons he could be wrong but at this moment, for this slither of time, everything seemed to fit perfectly. Perhaps this is how all pure things begin, the Reverend thought, unshakeable doubt followed by certain knowing. No matter what came next, no matter what serpent tried to tempt him, he would follow this path until the end whether it was his will or not.

All creative work belongs to the author. Not to be used without his express permission.

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