Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American Christian fundamentalism: The Second is a work of nonreligious religious fiction that engages all the markers of religion, with “belief” as the core of a modern-day American Gothic in which a trinity of characters clash over the complex ideologies that shape politics, religion, and spirituality. The vibrant, French Canadian Chantelle—a woman who promotes a spirituality based on principles and not traditional dogma—must balance her rocky romance with an aspiring half-Jewish architect, the continuing embrace with her activism, and a connection to a New York organization run by a secretive anti-Semite. But, such a caustic entanglement creates a situation ripe for a devastating conclusion, as the “religious” more frequently lean toward evil over good, the novel’s characters ultimately confronting their individual identities through the realization of just how hard it is to make belief believable.
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)|
About the Author
Alan J. Cooper began a career in writing after being struck by an impaired driver and incurring a severe brain injury. His articles have appeared in the Globe & Mail and he is the author of Brain Injury.
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A Novel About Spirituality, Religion, and Politics
By Alan J Cooper
Exile EditionsCopyright © 2013 Alan J Cooper,
All rights reserved.
Friday April 27 2007
Early on in my undergraduate years studying architecture in Chicago, a professor suggested that if I kept a diary, I could better know myself and so harness those skills I had. He was a reformed alcoholic and I guess he could see an insidious something, but I did not dismiss his idea as a bad one, since I had never been able to communicate with my mother in particular and had written, as a child, rebuttals I was never allowed to voice. As things then wound out, that journal became a place to vent thoughts that I had previously bottled up and perhaps was one reason why later, when pursuing my master's in Architecture, I began to win awards. Yet after I had been out in the actual profession for a while, nothing would come to dominate that diary more, for a thousand days, than the thoughts and acts of one other person.
I was alone on a Friday evening, as was my wont, trying to sketch out thoughts never given time during the work week. Three years had passed since I had graduated and the Chicago firm of Cork & Church had dazzled me with visions of carrying forward the architectural enlightenment of the city. But the job due Monday was reflective of the drivel by then landing on my desk. Architecture was becoming consumptive and the dreams of three years earlier were distant at best. I was feeling increasingly expressionless but nothing could have prepared me for what would happen that night to begin a change in me.
The green of spring was bringing new life to the 100,000 square miles around the Great Lakes, but underneath this spring's renewal there lurked a feeling that the continent's heartland was in trouble. Construction was still bustling but many of the contracts had been entered into in the years prior, and any optimism from a boom now gone was giving way to a new diffidence. The United States could smell debt, the worst ever, and across the Great Lakes, the cities of Detroit and Cleveland lay dead, Toronto lay in Canadian abeyance and Chicago, a city that sat at the hub of the continent and linked the waterways all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic, sat sick.
As the hands of my watch ticked past 9:00 p.m., I took in a long breath and reared back to get a better view of what lay in front of me. As the breath then came out, I knew I had done enough for the day and so lifted away from my desk, got my beloved bush pilot jacket and toddled out of my office to charge across the firm's warehouse floor and escape outdoors.
Lake Michigan was breathing a free feeling into the eastern part of the city in what seemed like about 60 F, and for a moment I felt invigorated. I probably should have stayed outside for the short walk home but opted instead to head west, as was Friday's rite, to the Drake Hotel for a glass of California red.
Once inside the Drake, I did not savor the wine at week's end but instead quaffed a half-carafe, then went back outdoors to start the trek home down Michigan Avenue. I ambled past its designer stores and clutter shutting down for the evening, and within minutes, arrived at the steps of my old low-rise on Huron. Suddenly, though, I found myself stopping at the bottom and feeling a need for more outdoors, and so continued south.
As the time then reached 10:00 I was approaching the Chicago River where it flows into Lake Michigan, and I found the breeze bracing. I ventured across the river's bridge and proceeded southeast, in the direction of Grant Park.
Soon I was entering the park and found the blackness of night relieved from time to time by the treetops lit by lower lamps. Deeper into the park,
I came to see a floodlight, washing over a broad lawn that contained hundreds of people who looked to be concentrating on something of consequence.
I could make out a silhouette higher than the heads of the listeners, and the silhouette had the shape of a tall woman who was making gestures. As I kept up in my approach, I began to hear her soft alto voice. "One would have to have a low opinion of God to think God perfect. Perfect is a construct of our human minds and a fast-fix for certitude. But perfectionism can breed disappointment, and the people disappointed are often consoled by being told they are members of an elect few, gifted with hearts and minds of distinction.
"Yet among any peoples at any time, there can emerge a person whose gifts are so harmonized as to bring new life to those people. Jesus of Nazareth was one example and, as he professed in Aramaic, was a messiah or deliverer. 'Christ' would have been the rough translation into Greek but Jesus did not say he was the son of God – people spun that caption and when Jesus balked, they put the words into his mouth anyway."
My eyes lowered to the lawn and I felt I had heard enough. "Thank God I'm Jewish." I turned to walk away but my next step was halted by her following words: "An obscure rabbi, that is teacher, whose teachings were smeared. Jesus healed the blind by saying 'Open your eyes,' but soon after his death, his words were made literal and his parables spun to every end."
I looked back to eye the woman's silhouette as she continued, "An imperfect teacher such as Jesus can happen in many forms – Gandhi, Gorbachev, Canada's Tommy Douglas – all of them shared with us their principles.
"It was not the Jews who killed Jesus nor was it the Romans but instead it was the kind of self-righteousness that Jesus challenged. Yet the dogma he fought came to be resurrected before his body cooled and a political middling politician, rebranding himself Paul, concocted that Jesus had to be the son of God or his messages meant nothing. Paul's argument was that the teachings of Jesus had more spell if he were the actual son of God, so he had to be and therefore he was.
"So much for Greek logic. About 500 years earlier, Socrates's students had also tried pulling the immortal stunt on his soul, and Buddha's followers had attempted a similar deification, but Buddha would have none of it. Unfortunately for Jesus, he got himself killed and the poor bastard is probably still rolling over from the distortions.
"I should not say 'bastard' because Jesus was born with two married parents, and no one anywhere is illegitimate. Shakespeare showed us the fal-lacy of illegitimacy centuries ago. but in Jesus's case we nevertheless still try to trace Joseph's lineage back to King David, despite Joseph not being Jesus's biological father.
"Jesus-by-Joseph or Yeshua-bar-Joshua – the Greek Christos was not his last name – may have been a bit of a bastard around the dinner table, insulting his hosts et al, but hey, God's not perfect, so why should Jesus be? What's more, you might be angry too if you'd been rejected by your hometown for being, ahem, early, or as one local asked in the Greek New Testament, 'Is not this Jesus the, ahem, son of Mary?' Unheard of, you might say, for a nice Jewish girl to get pregnant ahead of time and true enough in Jerusalem, but Nazareth was kind of a Dodge City not far off the spice route and the Asiatic town had been run by Roman officers. Furthermore, Mary had been betrothed to someone before Joseph and being betrothed in those days meant a lot more than just being engaged.
"Hats off to Joseph for marrying Mary or she may have wound up a comfort girl like another Mary – Magdalene. Jesus held Mary Magdalene in high esteem and she was the first to witness his empty tomb after the body had been removed by another Joseph, who was not happy with the judgment on Jesus. Peter did not believe Mary's report of an empty tomb, because he was jealous of her, but he decided nonetheless to take a look. Then, after Peter's trip up the hill, he managed to milk the male dominance of the land and take credit for discovering the tomb empty.
"Jesus never left a norm for doctrine or organization and after he died, his apostles began preaching a kind of Jewish revivalism, oriented to Temple worship, with gentiles at the back of the synagogue until they accepted the Jewish law. The word 'christ' was not then in use but born-again Saul-turned-Paul saw its marketability outside Jerusalem, and so with Roman roads running anew through the Middle East, Paul was told by his doctor Luke that they could walk across goyim country and get non-believers to blend their brands of paganism into Paul's brew. He could, for example, establish Jesus's mother Mary as the big V – but I am past my permit time tonight.
"Truth and love are principles, not rules, and the stronger our consciences, the less we need rules."
The applause was polite, except for the wolf howls that Americans often make, and then the hundreds began to disperse. Why I stayed watching I don't know, but suddenly I found myself moving forward toward the podium. When I got within 10 feet of it, I caught sight of the young speaker's long legs and her bubble bum as she bent over to retrieve her little speaking stand.
I tried to be casual in my final approach but still sputtered in asking, "May I help you with this?" The striking young woman showed no surprise when turning, and she raised her face back to me. "Thank you, yes. It's wet on the bottom. I'm taking it over to my car. That old Volvo parked over there, just off the lake."
My eyes did not follow her pointing, since I was struck with my close-up look at her. She was tall, almost my six feet, and had long, dark hair. Her smile was wide, her lips generous and her eyes looked to radiate the kind of trust that sometimes comes from confidence.
A male voice then arose from a large shadow on my right, "Are you alright, Chantelle?" and she turned to face the voice with a calm response, "I think so, thank you." She swiveled back to me with that same broad smile. As I then continued to edge forward, my eyes stayed locked on hers and I saw them to be soft, round and brown, set upon an oval face that seemed to radiate good health from lots of sleep, fresh air and a touch of sun.
Before I took my next step, out of that shadow came the source of the male voice, and as the man pressed forward toward Chantelle, I sensed a threat. I kept up my pace and held eyes straight on her, as if to dismiss what was coming in on my right. To my heart's delight, Chantelle's smile held on me.
The other male nonetheless got there first and threw out a long arm to introduce himself, as would a military man to a stranger before negotiations. Chantelle twisted herself to shake hands but still kept her body turned to meet mine and in one more step, I too was close enough to offer my hand. When I did, I deliberately nodded and offered a humble-sounding "Arthur Franklin" in contrast to the other entrant's aggression.
Chantelle's handshake was firm, almost masculine, like that of a strong swimmer. Her eyebrows were dark and gave off a sense of mystery to an otherwise wholesome face. Chantelle was more fit than thin, and she reminded me of a black stallion from some film I had seen in childhood. Her hair was not the black that I had surmised from afar but was dark brown and fell straight down to her shoulders, gleaming against the park lights.
Chantelle was wearing blue jeans with no belt, and her thighs filled the jeans in suggestive sensuousness. Her stomach was athlete-flat but her Venus mound protruded and seemed to beg my hand to cup it. She was sporting brown cowboy boots running halfway up her shins, and an off-white Oxford-cloth shirt tucked in at the waist.
I tried to fix my eyes on Chantelle to make the other person appear an intruder and for a moment, he actually seemed taken aback. But then he introduced himself to me and did so with a slight smile and a European accent, "Terry Hardy." Any competition from that point on was moot, and it quickly became clear that he wanted only to present his credentials and underscore to Chantelle how far he had come to hear her.
The three of us then stood there stiffly, at a half-pace from one another, and I could not help noticing that we were all about the same height, given Chantelle's cowboy boots. We were also all trim, though Hardy looked decidedly harder, with his brush cut and emaciated face.
Some awkwardness could have settled in, but Terry Hardy abruptly excused himself and departed, leaving me alone with the beautiful woman just met. My eyes turned back to Chantelle's and I sensed again that earlier trust, as if I were an aspiring actor whose moves were being supported by a proven lead. "Forgive me, Chantelle, but I'm a hobby student of accents. You're from the upper Midwest?"
Her smile lessened a little, as if she needed to clarify, but her forehead also dipped as if in apology, and I found it charming that a woman so striking could feel the need to say sorry for anything. "Arthur, I'm not American."
Curiosity then seized me but along with it came a touch of presumptuousness as I tried to console. "You have a whisper of an accent, softened by time. You have lived stateside for at least 10 years."
She corrected, "I have been in the United States for six weeks, since early March," and when my face betrayed confusion, she added, "I'm French Canadian."
I came back fast with my index finger going up, "But your ..." and she jumped in, "Not from Quebec," and I gave what I thought a knowing smile. "You're from straight north! Manitoba!" and Chantelle gently corrected again, "Northeast. A town two hours north of Toronto."
Suddenly, my inquisitiveness overran any sensitivity. "Where is your patois?" and Chantelle's smile disappeared, before her face turned to her old Volvo, parked past the grass. "I didn't have room for it in my car."
I lowered my head. "Sorry. Condescension is not my usual," and the gorgeous smile that came back heated the inside of my chest. Chantelle's teeth were resplendent and her eyes were so forgiving that they seemed to accept fool me who dared to keep looking at her. Here I was, drained from a piece of work that I did not like, wine inside me and suddenly in a city park at night, face to face with a woman just met – a woman of more beauty than I had ever beheld.
Maybe the alcohol fed a fantasy or gave me a sense that Chantelle too was sharing in the moment but in any case, I took another chance. "May I buy a non-Chicagoan a coffee? There's a delightful place up on Huron, a 10-minute walk north." Her smile lightened as she looked again at her Volvo. "Or a two-minute drive."
Chantelle squinted a bit, as if lost in a moment's thought and so I thought to add, "The street is safe for your car ..." She smiled again less broadly. "I have an early morning, Arthur, though an herbal tea sounds lovely, thank you. If you're on foot, perhaps we can take my car and you can point the way. I don't know Chicago."
Buoyed by the surreal, I carried Chantelle's stand over to the old Volvo 544 and laid it into the back, before I sank myself into the passenger seat next to a stick shift. I then turned my head to the driver's side, to ensure that I would absorb the sight of Chantelle entering the car, and as she cradled herself down into the driver's seat, I saw again her long legs that stretched under the tight denim. She turned to smile at me and I noticed her nose had a little ski jump at its end, above a firm chin.
Chantelle's next words took me by surprise. "I love your green eyes, Arthur," but before I could register anything beyond glee, her face turned back to the dashboard and she started the car. Two minutes later, the old 544 was easing its way into a spot, down the street from my apartment, and off we went back along the block to the café.
Balzac's was a coffee-and-wine bar, a stairway down from the sidewalk, in the lower floor of an old row house, and in the front at the lower level was a patio with three white tables, all empty in the cool of late April. We opted to sit inside and as we entered, found the café to be dark and intimate, with a half-dozen rectangular tables of thick wood lit by large candles. Two other couples were near the rear, so we decided to sit down near the front to have space for talk.
What does one say to a 5'10" ravishing young woman who felt comfortable enough to slip away with me, a stranger at night in a Chicago park? I felt a little ill at ease but also, by then, very dry from the wine of an hour earlier.
Excerpted from The Second by Alan J Cooper. Copyright © 2013 Alan J Cooper,. Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions.
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