THE ORPHEAN PASSAGES: The Drama of Faith by


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Is this a novel or a theological tract? Both, actually, as Wangerin weaves together the Greek myth of Orpheus, a modern tragicomedy about a faith-obsessed Reverend Orpheus, and Buber-like musings on religion. Wangerin proved in The Book of the Dun Cow that he can write fiction that dances; here, oddly enough, the theological passages march steadily along, while the fiction falls fiat on its face. This is a book about faith: faith as a living relationship (""faithing"") with an active God, rather than as a set of frozen propositions. According to Wangerin, this understanding of faith requires a story, which he presents in six ""passages."" Passage one, ""Experience and Language,"" introduces the mythical Orpheus, who used words ""with godly consequence""; and the contemporary Reverend Orpheus, who as a young boy gets hit by a car and visits a dentist, events that help him to develop a sense of ""An Other"" and to name it ""Jesus""; and musings by Wangerin on the relationship of language to faith. Subsequent passages recount the familiar story of Orpheus' voyage to the Underworld in pursuit of Eurydice, and the--sorry--equally familiar story of the pathetic minister, who undergoes his own descent into despair before finding resurrection in the love of his fellow outcasts. In one respect at least, Wangerin strikes a little-mined vein: the Reverend comes across as one of the most unbearably pompous, whining, obsessive protagonists in recent fiction. The subordinate characters--inner-city poor, for the most part--seem little more than makeshift springboards for this boring man's tussle with faith. By the third passage, utter indifference about his fate blots out any interest in Wangerin's spiritual commentary--itself a stew of near-meaningless aphorisms (""Laws are the nouning of terrible verbs"") and pretentious rumblings (""How deep the darkness? How dark the silence? How planetary the solitude of the faithing one?""). As a text for use in pastoral counseling, this has some value: lessons about ego-death and spiritual regeneration can be found by those willing to hack their way through the weeds. But readers who delighted in Wangerin's sparkling earlier works will be sorely disappointed.

Pub Date: May 28th, 1986
Publisher: Harper & Row