Towing Jehovah (Godhead #1) (1994) by James Morrow

TowingJehovah1…opening God’s tympanic membranes would not be sacrilegious—heaven wanted this tow… loc. 1208.

A difficult book to grasp. A difficult book to review. James Morrow’s 1994 religious satire defies the excessive eye winks and elbow jabs of familiar SF critical humor, a la Pohl & Kornbluth or Pratchett & Gaiman, (calm down, boys, we get it), while also challenging the reader expecting relentless cannonballs lobbed at its religious and conservative targets. While those targets certainly do get their share of bruises, so do the skeptics, and the novel’s overall respect for faith, despite the blasphemy, makes this a very different kind of satire.

Haunted by the catastrophic oil spill that ended his career, oil supertanker captain Anthony Van Horne accepts a secret commission by the Catholic Church to tow the 2-mile long dead body of God to its final resting place in a North Pole iceberg. A closely guarded secret, but a faction of scientific socialists and feminists find out about the corpse and interfere with the burial, while Church politics, mystical geographic phenomena, and a mutinous crew threaten Anthony’s voyage.

To say it’s shocking is mild. Towing the Corpus Dei across the Atlantic is messy business: some bodily dismantling is required to connect Him to the ship, sea creatures nibble at His soft parts, and the superstitious crew boil His warts and pimples into an ointment. And when the load is too heavy and food too low, Morrow twists Holy Communion to its most literal and blasphemous: blood-filled cargo tanks and seared divinity burgers. “The Idea of the Quarter Pounder,” they call it (loc. 3179). And “He makes a great compost” (loc. 3510).

But all of this sacrilege is expected. What’s unexpected is the depiction of the skeptics: a crew of Marxist overthinkers who employ a club of wealthy war reenactors to bomb the corpse. Led by a feminist research biologist, she will stop at nothing to destroy the body of God— “evidence that the world was created by the male chauvinist bully of the Old Testament” (loc. 1313). While her arguments are sound, her depiction is unflattering, bordering on sociopathic paranoia. She is an unsympathetic character, while the ship’s priest and nun dance on the belly of God in good-natured, global love.

It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition.

(And I might be projecting here.)

There is more going on, but I suspect Morrow‘s main purpose is to illustrate the absurdity of religious assumptions about human nature– the doom and gloom that comes from both skeptics and believers. When “the Idea of the Corpse” grips the crew, they mutiny, running wild on a bra-shaped island of garbage, in violent and orgiastic splendor:

‘whether you were a believer, a nonbeliever, or a confused agnostic, at some level, conscious or unconscious, you felt God was watching you, and the intuition kept you in check. Now a whole new era is upon us.’ (loc. 1798)

Meanwhile, the ship’s priest runs through the streets crying “Immanuel Kant! …Immanuel, Immanuel, where are you?” (loc. 2575)

It’s a complex piece that reaches far beyond the easy jokes. To say Morrow takes no prisoners is inaccurate– Towing Jehovah is less a shooting range than a mirror, where Morrow displays the futile efforts of his fellow skeptics who take such irrelevant religious matters so seriously, while reminding believers of the power of humanity. It’s a reminder that, regardless of what you believe, the Idea of God exists. But so does humanity.

Towing Jehovah is a challenging satire in that it combines respect for its fodder, criticism of itself and its audience, while also displaying a depth of character not typical in normal satirical fare. The blend is… unique. Uncomfortable. Worthwhile.

The Idea of the Corpse. Anno Postdomini One… I fear that we’re a plague ship, Popeye. Our cargo’s gotten inside us, sporing and spawning, and I’m no longer certain who’s towing whom.

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11 thoughts on “Towing Jehovah (Godhead #1) (1994) by James Morrow

  1. wildbilbo says:

    I’ve seen a few reviews on this book – none as balanced as yours I must say. Most seem to take it as solidly anti-religious, so your different perspective makes this a little more appealing (I’m perfectly happy with anti-religious novels, but other reviews made it sound a bit one-dimensional). If its as complex/nuanced as you indicate, I’m in.

    Cheers.
    KT

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      If it wasn’t for the god burgers, I would think this novel was written by a religious person. (It’s not. I checked.) It is extreme in its shock, but on both sides, and most of the sympathetic characters are religious in some way. I expected to read a book that offends others. I did not expect to feel offended, and it took me a while to set aside my reaction in order to understand Morrow’s intentions.

      I think I get it, but I’m a lot less tolerant than him. (And that portrayal of the feminist– wouldn’t get published today.)

      Still, I much prefer satire like this. Constant punchlines are overrated.

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  2. Hestia says:

    Yeah. Pretty much all that.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I thought about you while reading this. I know you were disturbed by The Bone Clocks portrayal of the stodgy male author feuding with the feminist author. I was able to laugh at that, but Morrow’s depiction of a feminist activist was surprising and relentless. She remained the positive love interest for Van Horne, yet the narrative never overcame its negativity about her. It was strange.

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  3. Hestia says:

    And I read this one when it was first out…it might bother me a whole lot more now. It wasn’t my favorite of his books. Thinking back, he does write some fairly unsympathetic women — which I’ve always shrugged off because his men are even less so. (Though of course it’s not a level field.) Hmm.

    It reminds me of the show Veronica Mars, which for two seasons draws some of the most sympathetic young women ever shown on-screen, then falls into the shrewish feminist stereotype again and again once the show is set at college — it’s so jarring. Maybe it’s feeling the unpleasantness of the anger, but failing to explore what causes it?

    If you’re going to read more Morrow, my recommendation would be ‘Only Begotten Daughter.’

    Unrelated, but I just read Cherryh’s book ‘The Wave Without a Shore,’ a short, philosophy-themed novel about a genius (well, he at least thinks he’s a genius) who lives on a planet where the human colonists have formed a very weird coexistence with the native aliens. It started slow, but by the end I really enjoyed it.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Noted about ‘Only Begotten Daughter,’ and that Cherryh book sounds fascinating. I read Foreigner #1 back in the day and it was okay, and I have started and stopped Downbelow Station a couple of times. I need a Cherryh I can dig into.

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  4. Wow. Fascinating. I wonder if I would be able to handle that protrayal of the feminist character. Possibly not. It does sound really interesting and part of me is really happy that such a non-god person would write a satirical book on the subject this complex. That being said, I think I’ll probably take Hestia’s advice and read Only Begotten Daughter next of his.

    Question: were there any laughs for you in it? It all almost sounds too serious for the loz.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I find godly Quarter Pounders pretty hilarious, so yes, it’s very funny, while also being quite deep. A few knee-slappers, a few eye-wideners, but I was just impressed by how often he managed to surprise me, when I think I’ve heard it all. And none of it is just shock-for-the-sake-of-shock– it’s all very, very clever.

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  5. […] (i.e. the intended audience; i.e. me) in a blasphemous religious satire like James Morrow’s 1994 Towing Jehovah? (Well, how many feminists does it take to blow up the corpse of […]

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  6. […] in the pre-Civil Rights era South, and involves brilliant literary interplay. It’s gorgeous. Towing Jehovah is an intelligent, biting, religious satire that offends everybody, even the intended […]

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  7. […] that risks building its plot around citing Kantian philosophy is James Morrow’s Hugo-nominated Towing Jehovah (1994), which, like The Thing Itself, attempts to shake the foundations of unbelief in its […]

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