Monday, November 5, 2007

The Continued Adventures of HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Thomas Covenant HaKofer: Rebetzin Kofer to the Rescue I.

I met my best friend, AS, a few years ago. Some people whom I had just met invited me to come along to some friends of theirs to watch Star Trek. The couple, to whose house we were going to, had a son, which these people thought I might get along with. I walked into the basement and behold there was the Extended Edition of the Lord of the Rings Movies. So that was already one thing we had in common. It took a few more seconds to move from Lord of the Rings to a whole range of other things which we had in common, like our habit of making passing references to obscure topics which for some strange reason most other people are not familiar with.
It was AS who introduced me to the work of Stephen Donaldson and his fantasy series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The original books were written back in the late 70s and early 80s. They consisted of two trilogies, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and the Second Chronicles of Thomas the Unbeliever.
The story is about man named Thomas Covenant who suffers from leprosy. Covenant found out that he had leprosy when he was taken to a hospital after a cut on his hand, which he had not even noticed turned gangrene. This accident lost him several fingers. When his wife found out about this she abandoned him, taking their young son, Roger with her. Covenant, in order to cope with his predicament, needs to believe two things about himself. One, that nothing that has happened to him is his fault. Two, that he does not have the power cure himself.
Covenant finds himself mysteriously transported to this magical place known as the Land. Covenant, with the aid of his wedding ring which is the focus of wild magic in the world, must defend the Land against the evil Lord Foul the Despiser. Now wait you say, this is Narnia and Lord of the Rings and just about every other work of fantasy ever written. Covenant must learn to believe in himself, cast off his notions of what is real and not real, have faith and all will be well. Or at least that is what you would expect. This story, as the title indicates, is not about belief but about disbelief. Covenant does not believe that the Land is real and persists in actively disbelieving in it, earning him the title Unbeliever. It is crucial for Covenant to maintain his disbelief, because to believe in the Land and in himself as its savior violates the very principle upon which he has built his life, the belief in his own helplessness. As the series goes on it becomes imperative for Covenant to continue to disbelieve in the Land even as he falls in love with out and finds himself risking everything to save it. It is because Covenant refuses to give in to simple belief that he has the power to stand against Foul.
The spirit of the series can best be summed up in the tagline to the third book, the Power that Preserves, which is: “Be True Unbeliever.” AS and I have adopted this as the official salute between ourselves.
It would be easy to categorize the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as a work atheistic fantasy similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant though is far more nuanced than a simple attack or confirmation of faith. It is about the dialectic between faith and disbelief. If the series is a polemic against anything it is against absolutism and the demand for simple, concrete answers.
It is for this reason that AS and I so strongly identify with this series. We are both deeply committed religious individuals. Our faith though is about questioning and challenging things. God is the person we love to yell at and Judaism the religion we love to criticize. Aside from Judaism, we love to talk about sci-fi, fantasy and Christian theology. He does nineteenth century evangelicals. I do medieval Catholicism. This is not an easy balancing act, but we keep each other strong in the faith.
(To be continued)

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