Satirist dodges under the radar

One man's religious satirist is another man's blasphemous agent provocateur. James Morrow, whose new book revolves around the infamous 17th Century witch-hunts, tells Steven Russell why he seems to dodge the flakEIGHT o'clock on a spring morning in Pennsylvania.

One man's religious satirist is another man's blasphemous agent provocateur. James Morrow, whose new book revolves around the infamous 17th Century witch-hunts, tells Steven Russell why he seems to dodge the flak

EIGHT o'clock on a spring morning in Pennsylvania. Birds are singing; the sun is shining. It's quiet at the Morrow homestead - which is mildly surprising. If not tanks on the lawn, one might at least have expected a few placard-waving protesters denouncing the heretic who dwells within.

You'd imagine James Morrow would be Public Enemy Number One on the United States' list of social agitators. Well, perhaps not in top spot - that's still the unassailable throne of film-maker Michael Moore, scourge of America's Right and multi-national corporations - but nonetheless up there somewhere.

For starters, he's described President George Bush as a “vile, corrupt, and stupefyingly unreflective man”. And then there are his novels.

In Towing Jehovah, the two-mile-long corpse of God is discovered floating in the Atlantic. The sequel, Blameless in Abaddon, sees the body become part of a religious theme park. Then a magistrate puts God on trial, charged with crimes against humanity. In Only Begotten Daughter, Jesus's half-sister is born into a modern world. You get the idea.

In dramatising the dark side of religion - Christianity in particular - Morrow doesn't set out to offend as an end in itself. “I'm driven to make arguments,” he explains. “It's a matter of maybe letting the reader think things he or she has never thought before.”

Most Read

Such justification probably wouldn't sit so comfortably on this side of the Atlantic, however, where memories of the Muhammad cartoons furore and the Jerry Springer The Opera controversy show how religious sensibilities can be provoked.

James Morrow hasn't had bricks through his windows, though.

“It really has to do, sad to say, with the status of fiction in this culture,” says the Yale graduate with a master's degree from Harvard. “Most serious fictions flies right below the radar of the religious right.”

In his native United States, he's not a public figure as such. “I have 'a readership'. If anyone were to make a movie of The Last Witchfinder (his new book), or some of the novels right before it, I might have to put a box on my lawn and barbed wires. Then I'd be in trouble,” he laughs.

Morrow appears the antithesis of a ranting firebrand. His manner is thoughtful, humorous and gentle - and in appearance he could pass for one of the Bee Gees.

“You know, it's very hard, now, to write fiction whose blasphemy is news. It's just not newsworthy if somebody writes a blasphemous novel, because the whole medium of fiction is so circumscribed. It's a minority art form - as opposed to television.”

The author, 60 next year, is nevertheless delighted to receive letters from Christians. “I have a lot of readers who are churchgoers. They write to me and say 'Thank you, because your books are sort of saying that a person can believe in God' - because, after all, God is 'on stage' in my earlier books. There's a sense of a supernatural agency at work in Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah.

“And they say 'Well, you're sort of - whether you mean to or not - you're kind of saying that the theistic world view is not incompatible with being a thinker, with being confused, with wanting to indulge in theological speculation, in being perplexed.'

“I value those letters as much as those from the die-hard atheists who just cheer me on and say 'Go ahead, Jim; kick the carcass of organised religion once more for me.'”

The Last Witchfinder explores the issue of superstition versus scientific rationale. While the Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia is scouring the countryside for satanists, daughter Jennet is left in the care of Aunt Isobel - who teaches her about the science-based “new philosophy” being promoted by Isaac Newton.

The inevitable happens and Isobel falls foul of the witch-hunters. She implores Jennet to fight to overturn the Witchcraft Act. In America, Jennet is present at the Salem witch trials, is kidnapped by Indians, and - hmmh - has a liaison with Benjamin Franklin.

Her brother becomes Witchfinder Royal, and Jennet finds herself accused.

The seed was planted in James Morrow's mind about 20 years ago, by American physicist Edward Harrison's book Masks of the Universe. It talked about how the Renaissance was an invention that transformed the “bedlam” of a superstition-ridden period of history to a rational, modern epoch. European society would have been destroyed had it not been for the intervention of science, it argues.

“I thought 'What a great subject for a novel: the near-destruction of a civilisation in the hands of its own theology.”

Then, eight years ago, he found the plot vehicle to carry a story. “I figured out that a woman born around 1678 would have lived through the great transition that Edward Harrison is talking about: the rotation from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment - the Age of Reason. And so the novel became the story of Jennet Stearne and her one-woman crusade to destroy the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604.”

It's a tale about the dangers of theocracy going off the rails. There are echoes of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, in which hysteria grips a claustrophobic community.

It also calls to mind another of Morrow's bêtes noires: the debate about whether or not the notion of “intelligent design” should be taught in America's schools. Basically, the principle states that the world was created by a supreme being, rather than evolving in the way Charles Darwin suggested.

Opponents say intelligent design is a faith issue, rather than a testable theory, and therefore has no place in a biology lesson - particularly as the U.S. constitution keeps government and religion apart.

Last year, campaigners won election to the school board in Dover - a small town near Morrow's home - and obliged teachers to include the intelligent design viewpoint in class.

In the event, the majority were later voted out of office, and a judge also ruled against them.

The author, no-one will be surprised to learn, is in favour of keeping religion out of the classroom. He feels the issue is a symptom of parochialism. “If you wilfully decide you're not going to learn about the world, if you're not really going to try to be a citizen of the world, just sort of a tourist, as Orwell put it, your mind's going to dry up, it would seem to me.”

(The issue probably isn't going to go away - and could become a theme on this side of the Atlantic. In the week that James Morrow spoke to the EADT, the National Union of Teachers warned that religious fundamentalists were gaining control of state schools in the UK and imposing their narrow beliefs on children. The NUT's attack followed Prime Minister Tony Blair's controversial education proposals, which ministers say will give faith groups a much bigger role in running state schools.)

Morrow says there's a constant debate in the U.S. about whether or not the founding fathers intended the country to be a Christian republic.

“It's pretty clear to me that much of what is going on in our constitution is an attempt to secularise institutions or government - to get away from the dark side of religion. That's what the Enlightenment is all about: saying 'God did not arrange our affairs for us; we made these things happen. And we can have good institutions, like an open government. We can have bad institutions, like slavery. It's really up to us. It's not a matter of following principles that we're going to find in the Bible, because the Bible isn't a very good document from which to create a republic.'”

Morrow calls himself a scientific humanist in preference to “atheist”, which he feels suggests an emptiness.

“I feel very filled up by my world view,” he says, cheerfully. “Put God on the back-burner, or subtract the God hypothesis, and I feel all sorts of glorious things rush in to fill the void. I prefer a sort of direct encounter with the world and my fellow human beings.”

If we look back at that witch persecution era, “there you have God either sanctioning horror in the name of a greater good, or God being misused. So I guess I prefer to say 'Well, I don't know anything about God. I maybe would prefer there was no God.”

God, if he exists, does seem to be indifferent to much of our suffering. “But, at the same time,” he chuckles, “I'd have to say I was obsessed with God. So there's something going on there, right? It's a paradox. I'm the atheist who probably thinks about God more than most churchgoers.

“I've always liked the quote from a British philosopher named Galen Strawson - and this is a paraphrase of his quote - but it's something along the lines of 'If there is a god, he loves the agnostics and the atheists best because they're the ones who take him the most seriously.'

“So I feel like 'Well, God put me here to be the person who argues against his existence - to fulfil the role of atheist. Because this is God, after all; who has a very, very broad view of matters. This is not some phD candidate in Leeds or something!”

He's pricked by a “towering irony” in the situation with Iraq. The American president and his supporters would be happy if the country became “a kind of feelgood, low-key Christian theocracy”, he reckons.

“At the same time, the Bush administration is hoping against hope that a theocracy will not emerge in Iraq. They're hoping against hope that something resembling a new Enlightenment - rational, secular government - will occur there.

“They're certainly resigned to it being shot through with Islamic principles; but if it ends up that women virtually have no rights in that society - and it's going to be the ecclesiastical courts who decide the fate of women - well, is that why so many people have died in that particular disaster?”

Lest anyone thinks that Morrow concocts his satirical fiction in some cobwebby hideaway at the top of a gothic castle, we should point out that he writes in the normality of living room.

His iMac is set up in the middle of domestic hubbub, with teenage son Christopher and his friends coming and going, and the dogs barking at the mail carriers.

“I thrive in a low level of chaos,” he grins. “I'm told Jane Austen wrote under similar circumstances. I think that's a good model to follow.”

If it gets too noisy, he'll don a headset and block out the distractions with music.

“I'm told that Jane Austen used that tactic as well . . .”

The Last Witchfinder is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £12.99

IT wasn't part of the original plan, but James Morrow visited East Anglia to weave some geographic realism to his novel.

He's a regular at a science fiction festival in Nantes, for which he gets a free airline ticket, so he asked the organisers if he could stop off in London instead of flying to Paris, and then continue to France under his own steam.

During his short stay in England - which he'd visited only once before, about 20 years earlier - he enjoyed London's theatreland by night and travelled further afield by day.

“I got to walk around Colchester Castle and put in some detail of exactly where they would have done the witch-burning of Aunt Isobel. And other Colchester streets I kind of got the geography of that right; and how long it would have taken to walk from the castle to a tavern - that sort of thing.

“We also went to Cambridge and looked up at the window where Newton's rooms were. So, yeah, I added lots of little pieces of texture to the scenes that are set in the UK. I think it makes it a better book.”

He and wife Kathy are in Suffolk on April 20, to talk about his book, and sign copies, at Ottakar's in Bury St Edmunds. The event starts at 7pm and tickets cost £1. Contact Mark Houlton-Hart or Philip Daws, on 01284 750877, for details.

“I've never done a booksigning in the UK before. I won't expect a crowd . . .” he laughs.

SATIRIST James Morrow thinks it's difficult for people in England to grasp how provincial America can be.

“I keep I think it's a £5 British note in my wallet all the time” - actually, it's the £10 note - “because of whose picture is on that currency. It's Charles Darwin. I often take it out at science fiction conventions when this issue comes up.

“If the topic is the evolution controversy, I'll often say 'Look, in England they put this guy on the money. In this country we would put him on the toilet paper.' He is a demonised figure for the religious right.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter