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The theologian as thief: A reflection on Subverting the Norm via “The Orphan Master’s Son” #STN2

The Orphan Master's Son

In addition to attending last weekend’s Subverting the Norm conference (StN), I finished reading Adam Johnson’s captivating and improbably epic novel The Orphan Master’s Son (TOMS). I’d 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 conference’s activities, with several speakers’ words ricocheting around my head alongside whatever developments I’d 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, “happened”1 at StN.

Now, if you’re still with me,2 in order for any of this to make sense I must first provide some context. There’s simply no way around it. But before that, two things: 1) You should know that TOMS is in the early and distant lead for 2013’s 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 Master’s Son is the necrocratic state of North Korea, a.k.a. The Democratic People’s 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 book’s narrative’s 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 Korea’s 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 Wonsan’s 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, Ga’s wife holds dearly to the belief that her mother is alive, well, and safely savoring retirement on North Korea’s 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 didn’t 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.

“I’ve never been to Wonsan,” he said. “But I’ve 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, it’s not Wonsan.”

He tried listening for her breathing, but couldn’t even hear that.

At last, she spoke to him. “You’re 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 Ga’s trepidatious revealing of the fiction of Wonsan is in fact the only possible “loving” option. “Not so!” we might object. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her! Where’s the harm in letting her continue to believe her mother is sitting on the beach beneath the shade of one of Wonsan’s many umbrellas?” But what Ga’s wife doesn’t 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 mother’s 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 conference’s 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 Ga’s 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,” he’s 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 provocation’s 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,” he’s 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 he’s 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?” he’s really making the case for this theological thievery at which, it should be said, he totally excels. Wouldn’t 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 Tansey‘s 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,” he’s 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 Wonsan’s retirement community exists is nothing but destructive, and its propagandists are no more than perpetrators of a vicious, death-dealing lie. To accept that Wonsan’s 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 you’re still with me,11 I’d 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 don’t tell anyone, ever. Don’t you know that? You never tell. Not your friends, not your family, especially not me. You could get everyone killed. If they interrogate me, they’ll know I knew. And that’s assuming you make it. Do you know the cushy promotion I’d get for turning you in?” Buc threw his hands up. “You don’t 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. “You’re the one who tells.” He shook his head. “That’s why you’re different. Somehow the rules are different for you, and that’s 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, nobody’s supposed to tell.

But that’s why these men and women are different. Like Commander Ga, they’re the ones that tell. Somehow the rules are different for them, and that’s why they maybe have a shot at making it. And as long as they keep telling, I’ll keep listening. And maybe eventually I’ll 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 don’t think I’m giving away much here — The book’s table of contents reveals that Part Two is titled “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” after all. 

  4. As with many of the book’s details, Wonsan is an actual geographical location

  5. Does anybody know how I’d go about trademarking the word “thiefologian”? Asking for a friend. 

  6. N.B.: Many of the quotations in the main text’s 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 Britishism’s 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. I’m aware that I only referenced white males in the examples above, but don’t 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. I’m 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 post’s main text by yet another footnote, especially after having made it through what appears to be the main text’s most meaty section) and who are at the present moment (perhaps exasperatedly) reading this footnote’s text, upon seeing the superscript “11” abutting the phrase “if you’re still with me” in the main text, suspected that this footnote’s text might be something like “Just checking” (or maybe a subtle variation on the theme, like “Just checking. Again.” e.g.) which isn’t a terribly bad suspicion, given, on the one hand, the author’s 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 reader’s 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 you’re reading this, you’ll be happy to hear my confession that I’ve 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 book’s first few pages, serendipitously stumbled on the referenced passage, instantly recognizing its (the passage’s) applicability in this blog post’s concluding section. In sum, don’t feel bad about the whole Weakness of God thing, okay? 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks for this, Jake. You’ve convinced me to grab Johnson’s book as soon as I can. I really wish I could’ve made this conference, it sounds like it was superb.

    (Also, your footnotes are the best!)

    • It was a great conference, @blakehuggins:disqus. I wish you’d’ve been there just so we could’ve met. And thanks, re: the footnotes.

      • 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 don’t believe that journey will ever end and I’m not sure I’d 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 other’s presumptions.

    • I don’t really want it to end either, @google-fffb894c10381f11b0ccba75059729ea:disqus. I’ve been experiencing this robbery since my late undergrad years (beginning w/McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian”) and I suspect its a feeling of which I will never tire.

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

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m both humbled and encouraged by it, @facebook-1592080809:disqus.

  • I’ve 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 I’m trying to figure out how to continue my own journey while simultaneously guiding others on their journey. Maybe, I’ll have some thoughts by StN3.

  • Ruben

    First of all, thank you.

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