Religion serves various purposes for believers. For some, it is a source of identity. Some seek in it community and socialisation. Quite many use it as a political tool for gaining and wielding power over others. Those who treat it as the ultimate source of truth are not few.
What is religion, in fact? Rather, what should it be? This is the question that Eric Segal’s novel, Acts of Faith, seeks to probe. Daniel and Deborah are the children of an extremely orthodox Jewish rabbi while Timothy is the illegitimate son of a woman who claims none less than the Holy Spirit as the father of her child. Segal uses 545 pages to tell how these three characters struggle with their religions until they break themselves free of the absurd straitjackets imposed by the religion and realise the true meaning of religion.
The central message of the novel may be summarised in the words of one of the characters: “You mean you hate Deborah because your father was a Christian? Dividing the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ is the kind of twisted thinking that created the Holocaust.... The most important thing is not to be a Jew or a Christian, but to be good.”
While the message is unquestionable, the novel is not good enough to be recommended. The reason is that it was written precisely to teach the message. The novelist’s intention stares at the reader in every page. He is trying to preach instead of telling the story. Thus Daniel, Deborah and Timothy end up as puppets dancing on the strings pulled by Eric Segal.
The novel was published in 1992. I read it recently after reading a blog post on it. (The blog misled me, I should confess.) The novel’s message is more relevant in today’s India than ever. But as a work of art, it fails almost absolutely.
[Yet another Christian church was attacked in Delhi yesterday, the fifth such attack after the Modi government came to power: us-them problem which catapulted Modi to power.]