The theologian as thief: A reflection on Subverting the Norm via The Orphan Masters Son #STN2

April 9, 2013 · 8 comments

The Orphan Master's Son

In addition to attending last weekends Subverting the Norm conference (StN), I finished reading Adam Johnsons captivating and improbably epic novel The Orphan Masters Son (TOMS). Id picked the book up about a week earlier and totally devoured it over the next seven days in enraptured spells squeezed between work, homework, and conference travel and events.

About halfway through the conferences activities, with several speakers words ricocheting around my head alongside whatever developments Id recently read in TOMS, I made a fleeting connection between the two, having detected an overlapping theme. This reflection, then, is my attempt to connect some of these disparate dots. Hopefully, what follows will make clear just what, in my experience, happened1 at StN.

Now, if youre still with me,2 in order for any of this to make sense I must first provide some context. Theres simply no way around it. But before that, two things: 1) You should know that TOMS is in the early and distant lead for 2013s Favorite Fiction Book, which means I have been and will be recommending it frequently, and as such, 2) it is not only benevolent, but is more importantly in my best interest to keep the ensuing context-setting as spoiler-free as possible, at which task I will do my best.

The primary setting of The Orphan Masters Son is the necrocratic state of North Korea, a.k.a. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. While TOMS is indeed fictional, Johnson has said in an interview: If literature is a fiction that tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love. One of the ways in which this eating-away of totalitarianism manifests itself in the book is through one of the books narratives recurrent pieces of propaganda, which propaganda asserts that upon reaching old age, after having performed hard labor (and in most cases slaved — literally) for most of their lives, some of North Koreas elderly are whisked away to Wonsan, whereupon they will enter the paradise of retirement (p.66), and subsequently are never heard from again — in theory because of the (supposedly) ceaselessly absorbing nature of Wonsans opulent retirement community.

About two thirds into the novel, a character known as Commander Ga is lying in bed with his wife, and the topic of Wonsan comes up.3 Having internalized a lifetime of propaganda concerning Wonsan, Gas wife holds dearly to the belief that her mother is alive, well, and safely savoring retirement on North Koreas east coast.4 Ga, however, is a man who has experienced and seen first-hand many things in his adventure-filled life. We join the two characters as Commander Ga begins his confession:

I have to tell you the truth, he said to her.

I am an actress, she said. The truth is all that matters to me.

He didnt hear her roll to her side, so he knew they both stared into the same darkness above. He was suddenly scared. His hands gripped the sheets.

Ive never been to Wonsan, he said. But Ive sailed past it many times. There are no umbrellas in the sand. There are no lounge chairs or fishing poles. There are no old people. Wherever the grandparents of North Korea go, its not Wonsan.

He tried listening for her breathing, but couldnt even hear that.

At last, she spoke to him. Youre a thief, she said. You are a thief who came into my life and stole everything that mattered to me. (p. 301)

It seems to me that despite our (read: my) initial, visceral reaction to this shattering of hope, this thievery of belief, Commander Gas trepidatious revealing of the fiction of Wonsan is in fact the only possible loving option. Not so! we might object. What she doesnt know wont hurt her! Wheres the harm in letting her continue to believe her mother is sitting on the beach beneath the shade of one of Wonsans many umbrellas? But what Gas wife doesnt know — what she now knows — does hurt her.

You see, Ga has freed his wife from her dual unknowing (she desperately wants to believe in Wonsan, and yet she has no proof, no verifiable knowledge of its existence or her mothers safety) and the shackles of her false hope, and in so doing has gifted her the chance to authentically grieve her mother. By forcing her into a confrontation with the broken reality of North Korea in general and the human condition in particular, Ga has indeed acted as a thief. But what is found in the empty space vacated by his thievery is life at its most authentic: Cavernous, emotional, broken, ambiguous, and often dissatisfying. Or, as Peter Rollins (one of the conferences keynote presenters) has said:

Peter Rollins on the density of life

And it is here that I believe we can see the crux of many StN presenters theological projects illuminated. In these presenters keynotes and in their various works, there is a manifest and persistent theological thievery at work.5 Speaking only for me, I find myself drawn to these and other theologians primarily because they are in the business of thieving away some of my deepest and — frequently — least examined theological convictions. In so doing they leave me, like Commander Gas wife, frustrated (to put it lightly), stupefied, and ultimately wondering what to do in the convictions absence.

When Kester Brewin says,6 People have got to get out from under the economics of religion, hes disembarking his pirate ship and attempting to thieve away the oppressive, internalized, and mostly unscrutinized economic worldview from our cushy ocean liners and leaving in its place one that is (to re-quote Peter Rollins) more dense. When he says, The most godly life is to live as if God doesn’t exist, he is not simply being provocative for provocations sake, but rather is attempting to burglarise7 some of our most basic conceptions of God, and calling us in their absence (the conceptions) to be open to the possibility of deep pain resulting from authentic engagement with our neighbor.8

When Peter Rollins says, riffing on 1 Corinthians 13:12, Seeing in whole is the recognition that seeing in part is seeing fully, hes re-articulating one of the main, plundering points from his book The Idolatry of God, in which he says, There is another, more radical form of freedom hinted at in the Gospels — not the freedom to pursue what we believe will satisfy us, but the freedom from the pursuit of what we believe will satisfy us (p. 80, emphasis in original). Which is to say hes sneaking off with the theological crutch of satisfaction and leaving in its place a richer and denser reality, however difficult that reality is to swallow. Deep down, he said, we kind of know that we are haunted houses.

Speaking of haunted houses, when the eminent and indefatigable philosopher-cum-theologian John Caputo says, Wouldn’t it be better if theology was a spook? A spectral figure that inspires, haunts, disturbs? hes really making the case for this theological thievery at which, it should be said, he totally excels. Wouldnt we be better off if strength and certainty were stolen away and weakness and uncertainty (PDF link) were left in their stead?

When Barry Taylor, after walking the us through the rich worlds envisaged in Mark Tanseys paintings, quoting essayist and science fiction author Philip K. Dick, says, The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum, hes donning a black ski mask, creeping off into the night with our tendency to find misguided solace in the false belief that blessed are the rich and powerful, and leaving in its vacuum Jesus demanding declaration that No! blessed are the poor and the meek.

These and similar assertions, sometimes grouped under an umbrella known as radical theology,9 assist in validating the foregoing claim, viz.: Having faith that Wonsans retirement community exists is nothing but destructive, and its propagandists are no more than perpetrators of a vicious, death-dealing lie. To accept that Wonsans fabled lounge chairs and fishing poles are a fabrication, to simply be exposed to this truth, is to be liberated. It is to be emancipated from the fiction and, newly unencumbered, to set about the task of embracing and making sense of the alternately deplorable and delightful non-fiction that comprises reality. In the coordinated heist that was StN, Brewin, Rollins, Caputo, Taylor et al.10 stole some things from myself and others, but what they left behind is more inspiring, haunting, and disturbing — and ultimately more satisfactory.

Now, this is all an admittedly roundabout take on articulating my particular experience at StN and consequently why a continued participation in these unique theological conversations/gatherings is valuable to me. But if youre still with me,11 Id like to make one final observation, with more help from TOMS.

Later on in the novel, Commander Ga is having a conversation with his friend Comrade Buc, and we enter their conversation here shortly after Ga has revealed some deep-seated anti-government sentiments:

Comrade Buc cringed. No, no, no, he said. You dont tell anyone, ever. Dont you know that? You never tell. Not your friends, not your family, especially not me. You could get everyone killed. If they interrogate me, theyll know I knew. And thats assuming you make it. Do you know the cushy promotion Id get for turning you in? Buc threw his hands up. You dont ever tell. Nobody tells. Never.


Comrade Buc began lining fishing poles up against a tree. His hands were shaky. When he had them all set, a line snagged, and the poles fell over again. He looked at Ga, as if it were his fault. But you, he said. Youre the one who tells. He shook his head. Thats why youre different. Somehow the rules are different for you, and thats why you maybe have a shot at making it. (p. 322)

The theologians at StN are clearly perspicacious, but they are hardly popular; thieves rarely are. I say this not to be critical, but to illustrate the fact that, for theologians, telling gets you killed. While playing it safe — that is, perpetuating the lie — not only keeps you alive but carries with it the potential for drawing massive crowds, revealing truths that runs counter to established and accepted thought — calling the thing what it actually is — well, nobodys supposed to tell.

But thats why these men and women are different. Like Commander Ga, theyre the ones that tell. Somehow the rules are different for them, and thats why they maybe have a shot at making it. And as long as they keep telling, Ill keep listening. And maybe eventually Ill find that I have my own secret to tell, that perhaps I myself am called to commit a bit of theological thievery.

Finally, in his book Rising Up and Rising Down,12 William Vollmann tells the story of a U.N. interpreter who is well acquainted with death, having lost friends and colleagues almost every week. Vollmann writes that this woman

merely did the best thing that can be done for any bereaved person, which was to show me her own sadness, so that my sadness would feel less lonely. (p. 18-19)

When Micki Pulleyking asked us, Do you know what it’s like to grieve the death of your childhood God? there were significantly more head-nodders than abstainers in the crowd. So common is this experience among those who gathered at StN that it approaches the cliché. So it is safe to say that coming together at StN was a way for us, like the U.N. interpreter, to show one another our own sadness concerning this death/theft, and to make the sadness feel less lonely. But more broadly and importantly, it is the call of the church to join together, having been emboldened by the magic of the Eucharist and sent forth as the Body of Christ, to share our sadness and brokenness and in so doing to steel ourselves for the task of making others sadness and brokenness a little less lonely.

And so together we gaze into the gap the thieves and Thief has left behind and with all the sincerity that we can muster, we say to each other and to God: Come.

  1. Forgive the scare quotes, Tony. []
  2. Just checking. []
  3. Again, w/r/t avoiding spoilers, I dont think Im giving away much here — The books table of contents reveals that Part Two is titled The Confessions of Commander Ga, after all. []
  4. As with many of the books details, Wonsan is an actual geographical location. []
  5. Does anybody know how Id go about trademarking the word thiefologian? Asking for a friend. []
  6. N.B.: Many of the quotations in the main texts current and following paragraphs have been transcribed from my haphazardly handwritten notes taken during the presenters keynotes. Some of the quotes were transcribed pretty much word-for-word, but several of them are more like paraphrases due to my simultaneous and competing desires to take notes and pay attention to the next sentence. In other words, the quotes are close enough, mmk? []
  7. That Britishisms for you, K.B. []
  8. After posting the The most godly life quote as a tweet, I posted a second tweet, attempting to clarify, which reads: By which [Kester] means that once you remove the grand demands of God, you can get on with tending to the needs of those around you. []
  9. Tad DeLay has compiled a pretty comprehensive bibliography of radical theology for StN attendees and other inquisitives, which can be found here. []
  10. Im aware that I only referenced white males in the examples above, but dont go thinking that StN was an All White Boys Club (I mean, see for yourself); FWIW, I was particularly moved by presentations from Namsoon Kang and Melinda McGarrah Sharp. []
  11. Im willing to venture that the few who have made it this far (a smaller subset of which is probably already annoyed to have been directed away from the blog posts main text by yet another footnote, especially after having made it through what appears to be the main texts most meaty section) and who are at the present moment (perhaps exasperatedly) reading this footnotes text, upon seeing the superscript 11 abutting the phrase if youre still with me in the main text, suspected that this footnotes text might be something like Just checking (or maybe a subtle variation on the theme, like Just checking. Again. e.g.) which isnt a terribly bad suspicion, given, on the one hand, the authors inclination toward but arguably lackluster execution of the type of dry humor into which category that type of syntactical brevity would undoubtedly fall, and on the other hand the readers presumed encounter with the hilarious footnote #2, and so while you had likely expected to be sidetracked by this footnote for a mere two words three, at most! you nevertheless find yourself well into the latter half of this absurdly protracted and indulgently self-referential footnote, the existence of which is by now ambiguous at best and possibly (you suspect) downright manipulative and/or malevolent, but yet here you are, having nearly tackled this seemingly irrelevant monster of a footnote, for which empty feat I, the author, would like to concurrently extend both sincere condolences and hearty congratulations. Honestly? I was just checking. []
  12. Mike, if youre reading this, youll be happy to hear my confession that Ive read less than 1% and closer to 0% of this 752 page behemoth (itself an abridgment of the original 3,000-page, seven-volume set). In fact, I only just picked up the book at Half Price Books this very afternoon and, while flipping through the books first few pages, serendipitously stumbled on the referenced passage, instantly recognizing its (the passages) applicability in this blog posts concluding section. In sum, dont feel bad about the whole Weakness of God thing, okay? []
  • Blake Huggins

    Thanks for this, Jake. Youve convinced me to grab Johnsons book as soon as I can. I really wish I couldve made this conference, it sounds like it was superb.

    (Also, your footnotes are the best!)

    • Jake Bouma

      It was a great conference, @blakehuggins:disqus. I wish youd've been there just so we couldve met. And thanks, re: the footnotes.

      • Blake Huggins

        Someday soon, perhaps (Caputoan pun very much intended).

  • Paul Amlin

    Jake, you have captured a theme from the end of my first and all of my second year of seminary. So many of the presuppositions I brought about God and who God is were shattered as I had my previous faith manipulated and wrangled with through all of my reflections, writing, and prayer as I encountered new ways of thinking about God. I dont believe that journey will ever end and Im not sure Id ever want it to. At the same time, I have a new appreciation for the faith and beliefs that others carry with them. The challenge, as you point out, is when and whether to become the thief who takes away the others presumptions.

    • Jake Bouma

      I dont really want it to end either, @google-fffb894c10381f11b0ccba75059729ea:disqus. Ive been experiencing this robbery since my late undergrad years (beginning w/McLarens A New Kind of Christian) and I suspect its a feeling of which I will never tire.

  • Abigail Smith

    So touching. Thanks for this. I laughed, I cried, I related.

    • Jake Bouma

      Thanks for your comment. Im both humbled and encouraged by it, @facebook-1592080809:disqus.

  • Greg Bolt

    Ive been trying to process (see what I did there?) all of what I heard at StN. It was my first encounter with radical theology and many of the presenters. I found it refreshing and seeming to put language to what I have been thinking about the imminence of God and our call to actually live the call from Christ in the Bible. Some of it I loved (Tony), some of it I pushed back on (especially Kester), all of it made me think. Now Im trying to figure out how to continue my own journey while simultaneously guiding others on their journey. Maybe, Ill have some thoughts by StN3.