Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On "Barabbas" by Par Lagerkvist ****

Another novel focused on religion from one of Sweden's great writers, Barabbas tells the hypothetical story of what happened to the thief Barabbas after he was set free in exchange for Jesus Christ. One could look at the biblical account as being a microscale metaphor for the larger concept that Christ gave his life for all. Barabbas the thief lives on because Christ died in his stead. I can't help but think that Lagerkvist is playing off this idea as he tells of the follow-up events.

The difference is that Lagerkvist is writing in the twentieth century when high thinkers no longer believe that such an event could have occurred. So now we have all the miraculous events of the Bible brought down to the physical sphere. Barabbas witnesses one of the miracles: the darkness after Christ dies. And he get first-person testimony of a couple of others: one who has seen Christ risen and one who was dead and now lives. The darkness, Barabbas comes to question the reality of; he had lived so long in dungeons and so many others didn't notice the darkness that he wonders if the state of the sky was merely an illusion of the mind (though later others testify of seeing the darkness). The first-person testimonies are told, but how, without witnessing such events himself, can he believe?

It is not for want of belief that Barabbas doesn't manage to come to belief. At some point, after spending some time among Christians and witnessing the martyrdom of one (Barabbas--always one to act in this world rather than to hope for the "next"--kills the man who casts the first stone and later helps burn Rome, when he believes that Christ has returned to destroy the city), this Barabbas ends up, late in life, a slave in the copper mines, where the man chained to him proves to be a Christian. When this Christian finds out that Barabbas was in Jerusalem when Christ died, he is astounded--especially when Barabbas adds to said account by claiming to see the very resurrection of Christ (contributing to the doubts we might have regarding the first-person testimonies Barabbas has heard from others). The man's Christianity eventually leads them out of the copper mines into the fields as slaves--an unheard-of blessing--but also it leads eventually to the Christian man's demise. For one day, it is found that the man will not worship Caesar, only Christ. Barabbas who was saved from the mines by the man's testimony of Jesus to their superior now betrays his friend; Barabbas denies Christ when the man is taken away for declaring Christ. Asked by the master, "Are you a believer?" Barabbas's answer is "No, but I want to believe." He wants--but he cannot.

And in this is the crux of the problem for Barabbas, a man who wanders the earth wanting desperately to believe in something greater than himself, wanting to believe in God, but who ultimately is unable to come to have such understanding or faith. Barabbas's fate is that, I would venture to guess Lagerkvist is saying, of modern man.

Others dies for Christ; Barabbas can only die for death itself.

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