Friday, August 29, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

I've read a few graphic novelizations of literary classics -- Kafka's Metamorphosis prominent among them. When I picked up John Zmirak and Carla Millar's The Grand Inquisitor, I expected something similar. That's not what I got. Instead, I got a traditionalist Catholic retelling of Dostoyevsky's tale from The Brothers Karamazov. And what a retelling. Dostoyevsky told the story of a Christ reborn in Spain who is interrogated by a Spanish Inquisitor. The Inquisitor informs Christ that humans cannot ever hope to live up to his ideas so instead, the Church has established a system of fear, punishments, and control to make their journey to heaven easier.

Zmirak and Millar's retelling casts an African priest from Darfur as the Christ-like figure who finds himself in Rome in the midst of a contentious papal election. The Inquisitor is a liberal cardinal who argues that the liberalization of the Church has been done so that people cannot see the difference between sin and salvation. This would make them innocent of sin and allow them entrance into heaven. The cardinal imprisons the African priest in a mental hospital and uses therapeutic techniques to show the priest the error of his ways.

In evaluating this, I'm of two minds here. As a piece of theology, this book is stunning in its audacity. It is unabashedly traditionalist in its Catholicism. As a one-time traditionalist who still has a soft-spot for this sort of thing, I find the piece refreshing. Ten years ago I would have been floored by how amazing this is. And for traditionalists, this undoubtedly will be. Zmirak and Millar are unrepentant papalists and exclusivists -- for them "extra ecclesiam nulla salus". Islam has nothing to offer but oppression and falsity. Liberals are degenerates at worst and misguided paternalists at best. There's little room for subtlety here. As I've matured as a Catholic, I find this world view stunning in its reductionism and intolerance.

But as a piece of art, this book really is an achievement. The illustrations are beautiful and disturbing, reminding me of Bosch and Bruegel's work with wonderfully out of place portraits of Stalin and Malcolm X thrown in. The writing is poetic and truly lyrical. In the end, this is truly a great book in service of a questionable cause.


JZmirak said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review of our book. Just one observation I'd like to make:

Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough, but there was intended critique of the new pope's rigid moralism... indeed, Mwome's "rush to martrydom" was equated (aptly, I think) by D'Angeli with the latter's own 'grand inquisitor' attempt to stamped people into heaven. The elderly cardinal Miroslavsky is pivotal here--please reread the last few pages, and attend to his critiques of Mwome, and the fact that he will serve as mentor to the new pope, mellowing his harsh justice with mercy....

Also, I'm not a strict "extra ecclesiam" type; no Feeneyite would think that D'Angeli's plan for salvation could work. I think it would--which makes the prospect more chilling.

And Carla's not Catholic at all, but an active Freemason!

Thanks for looking at the book.

John Zmirka

David Colon said...

As I tried to say in my review, I think the book is an intelligent and thoughtful retelling of Dostoyevsky's story. I'd still stand by my assessment of the book as rather exclusivist. While D'Angeli is forgiven for his views, there is no sense that Mwome's views are anything but correct. Miroslavsky doesn't doubt the error of the Cardinal's views, but only says that he may yet be forgiven. There is mercy in Miroslavsky's position, but no lack of certitude.

I think our views stem from fundamentally different views of ecclesiology. Attributing overtly demonic symbolism to D'Angeli's ideas (non serviam?!) is a pretty clear swipe at those who hold a broader interpretation of the Church. As I said in my review, I find that position intellectually tenuous, but you state the case clearly and thoughtfully.

Thanks so much for taking note of my review and participating in a dialogue on your book's meaning.