The modern Churchman, in all his spiritual misery, has been a happy staple of British literature for generations. Especially to the great comic novelists (Fielding, Trollope, Waugh), the clergyman plagued with doubts or worse, ideas about his Christian faith epitomizes the hypocrisy of British society and the uneasy mix of the old and new.
In our own day, unprecedented reservoirs of godless despair are available to a thoughtful man of the cloth such as Gideon Mack, the hapless hero of award-winning Scottish author James Robertson's new novel. Hypocrite is both too weak and too harsh a word for Gideon, who undertakes the ministry without a shred of belief in the gospels, but rather out of a genuine desire to help his fellow human beings. The son of a dour and brimstony minister, Gideon finds himself both repulsed by, and irrevocably drawn to, the kirk (Scottish for church ) of his childhood. He does not look for miracles, nor does he hold out any hope for answers to theological questions. That is why, when a string of miracles actually befalls him with sudden and shocking force, he is completely undone.
The inexplicable overnight appearance of a huge, ancient standing stone in the woods near his town is merely a warm-up to the climactic event: Gideon tumbles over a cliff into a river chasm and is pulled out of the water by none other than the devil himself. For three days, Gideon lives in a cave with Satan, nursed by him back to health and caught by him in a torrent of largely inscrutable conversation. The patience with which The Testament of Gideon Mack finally arrives at this supernatural interlude together with its delightful, vindictively Scottish characterization of the devil as a bored, naughty, beautiful, overgrown English schoolboy distinguishes the story as one of the finest instances of diabolical literature in the genre's long and venerable history. Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.