Charting how the notorious biblical myth of Sodom has evolved

Faith is a dominant colour on my novelist’s palette, since it’s through their faith (or lack of it) that I’m best able to reach my characters’ hearts

Michael Arditti: 'My greatest hope is that my work will contribute to the pluralism that is the strongest defence against religious fundamentalists.'

Michael Arditti: 'My greatest hope is that my work will contribute to the pluralism that is the strongest defence against religious fundamentalists.'

 

Some years ago, I enjoyed a stint as a lecturer on Swan Hellenic cruises. While my fellow lecturers were described as ‘Professor of…’, ‘Bishop of…’, or ‘Former Ambassador to’, I was billed simply as ‘Writer.’ On one voyage, a passenger approached me to ask: ‘So what is it you write then? Novels or something serious?’

As a novelist, I didn’t respond well. What could be more serious than to give readers new insights into the world, to introduce them to unfamiliar ways of thinking and to extend their sympathies to characters whom they would otherwise consider alien? What’s more, for much of my career, I’ve explored the deeply serious issues of the relationship between faith and doubt, the connection between spirituality and sexuality, and the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism.

Some claim that religious fiction is as irrelevant as the faith that underpins it. They point to the sharp decline in both communal worship and individual belief over the past 50 years. This is, of course, a predominantly Western phenomenon; the picture is very different elsewhere, as I found when travelling across the Philippines to research my novel, The Breath of Night. But, even in the West, the decline is not as dramatic as critics like to make out. In Ireland, 90 per cent of the population still identifies as religious, while in more secular Britain the proportion is half and half.

Faith is a dominant colour on my novelist’s palette, since it’s through their faith (or lack of it) that I’m best able to reach my characters’ hearts: their sense of themselves, their relationships, and the basis on which they make their life choices. But it’s also a means to examine the wider world, since so much of Western society has been framed by the Judaeo-Christian tradition: even the most diehard secularist would find himself hard-pressed to expunge religious idioms from his speech.

That tradition has been equally pivotal in framing our moral and social attitudes, particularly in the realm of sexuality. Eve in the Bible and Lilith in the Talmud have led to the demonisation of women, from which only the Virgin Mary is exempt, although at a cost of the familiar dichotomy between madonnas and whores. Even more savage has been the persecution of homosexuals, based on a selective reading of biblical passages, without any acknowledgement of their context or ambiguity.

As a novelist, I’m well versed in ambiguity, and my greatest hope is that my work will contribute to the pluralism that is the strongest defence against religious fundamentalists: people who, no matter their creed, hold up a book and claim, with absolute certainty: ‘This is the truth.’ In previous novels, such as Easter and The Enemy of the Good, I explored the battle between liberalism and fundamentalism in the contemporary world. In my new novel, Of Men and Angels, I extend that exploration back into history, charting the creation and evolution of one notorious biblical myth.

The myth of Sodom, in its differing forms, has defined Jewish, Christian and Muslim attitudes to gay men over the centuries. At the start of my novel, the Archangel Gabriel, reflecting on his role in the destruction of the city, describes its consequences: ‘The ease with which I effect it – shattering the rock on which the sinful city stands with a single finger – is in inverse proportion to the devastation caused, the repercussions of which are still being felt by those trapped beneath the rubble.’

Of Men and Angels offers an explanation both of how the myth came into being and how it developed in four momentous times and places: medieval York, Renaissance Florence, 19th-century Palestine, and 20th-century Hollywood. The method I use is speculative history. Unlike the fundamentalists, I can’t hold up the book and claim it to be the truth, but I can claim that it might be the truth. Moreover, I hope that, like all good fiction, it creates a deeper truth.

Sodomy was so rife that a special court, the Office of the Night, was set up to try cases

No one can say for certain when the Genesis myths were written, but most experts believe that they existed in a basic form in the 7th or 8th centuries BC and were codified either during or shortly after the Jews were exiled to Babylon, which is where the novel begins. Jared, the scion of an influential scribal family, has been given the task of translating the stories of Abraham and Lot for King Nebuchadrezzar. He discovers an original scroll, in which the Sodomites are not homosexual rapists but rather worshippers of Baal. Ashamed, however, of his own encounters with the transvestite prostitutes in Ishtar’s temple, he accedes to his fellow exiles’ wish to dissociate themselves from the sexually free Babylonians by giving the myth a ‘homophobic’ slant.

Two thousand years later, the guild of Salters is presenting the pageant of Lot’s Wife in the annual York mystery cycle. There was no such pageant in York, but the knowledge of one (now lost) in Sherborne prompted me to insert it into the cycle, while the titular character’s fate led me to assign it to the Salters. Sir Ralf, a chantry priest, is commissioned to write a new pageant, but his efforts are hampered by scandal within the guild and a series of trials for impotence, adultery and sodomy in the Minster court.

From medieval York, the focus shifts to Renaissance Florence, where Sandro Botticelli, the novel’s only real-life protagonist, is caught up in the clash between religion and humanism during Savonarola’s rule of the city. Sodomy was so rife that a special court, the Office of the Night, was set up to try cases. Inspired by Vasari’s claim that Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola and threw several of his pictures on to the Bonfire of the Vanities, I depict him painting four panels based on the story of Lot for the Office of the Night, only to renounce them after a series of mishaps involving himself, his apprentices and his friend, Leonardo da Vinci.

Lot is a far more significant figure in the Qur’an than in the Bible, and the fourth episode, set in the Holy Land in the late 1850s, offers an Islamic perspective on the story. Gilbert, a Berkshire rector, mourning the loss of his son and finding his faith under threat from both biblical critics and scientific discoveries, journeys to the Dead Sea in the hope of unearthing the ruins of the biblical Sodom. But his mission is compromised by the relationship between his Druze guide and a Bedouin youth.

The novel ends in Hollywood in the late 1980s, where Frank Archer, a celebrated movie star, is playing Lot in a biblical epic. The Aids pandemic is at its height and conservative commentators gleefully describe it as God’s vengeance on a second Sodom. While he struggles to finish the film, Frank has to decide on the nature of his legacy. But, as he takes his final step, Gabriel is by his side.

Of Men And Angels by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia £16.99

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