God, leave me alone so that I may have some happiness.
And it is also 50 years ago, again virtually to the day, when I first made contact with Joseph Heller’s eponymous novel, Catch 22. Phil was reading it during our athletics tour of Scandinavia and I was intrigued by the cover. Once he finished it, he gave it to me. Today it enjoys the status of my favourite book. There’s no other book quite like it and as it happens I am rereading it once again, this time on Kindle. You can pick it up anytime and start anywhere to enjoy the overwritten caricatures of the numerous characters who make up Heller’s disordered world of an American bomber squadron based on a small island off the Italian coast during WW2. The central character is the strangely named Yossarian who in his desire to avoid combat in order to stay alive encounters Catch 22. Such is the power of this novel that the phrase Catch 22 is now part of everyday speech to explain what it means to be in a no-win situation. And as Yossarian tells us on page 4: “Insanity is contagious.” Above all, the book is funny. So Heller enjoys leading us always to the wrong conclusion. “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” So I was intrigued to hear that George Clooney, no less, was producing Catch 22 as a television series. A challenge to say the least, given Heller’s shifting timeline in which events appear repeatedly and out of sequence not to mention his extravagant use of adjectives and overwritten scenarios. Like making a film out of the Oxford Concise dictionary. Last night we watched episode 2 on Channel 4 and sadly I was right, the film does not deliver the book. What it does do is show the sheer terror of flying into flak. Also it helped knowing what Yossarian’s plane actually looked like, showing his utter vulnerability at the nose just below the two pilots. However, the main reason is that the television series follows a strict chronological order which at a stroke takes away the heart of the novel as we continually revisit the death of Snowden over Avignon with a growing understanding of what actually happened. I guess the best thing is just to take the television series on its own merits. If you enjoy black comedy, it’s okay. Jacqui didn't like it. However, one question haunts me. Is my favourite novel subversive of our Christian faith? Am I siding with the enemy? Clearly Yossarian is no believer, the very opposite it would seem as he rails in no uncertain terms against God as “a colossal, immortal blunderer.” He is in bed with the wife of his commanding officer (episode 1 in the film but chapter 18 in the book) and he lets it rip with his disgust for God. But here we have yet another of Heller’s paradoxes. Mrs Scheisskopf is outraged, even though like Yossarian she does not believe in God. "But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be." It’s a case of "I believe; help my unbelief!" As human beings, we can believe and not believe in God at the same time. But more, Catch 22 rails against war and the absurdities it produces, the meaningless loss of life, an understanding which, of course, is fundamentally Christian. For it is the death of Snowden which touches Yossarian most deeply. But if life is essentially without meaning, why bother? I’m currently writing daily Bible reading notes for the BRF, on Psalms 28-42 for publication in January, 2021! I’m now on Psalm 39 in which the Psalmist shares with God his deep depression: Indeed every living being is no more than a puff of wind, no more than a shadow. All we do is for nothing; we gather wealth, but don't know who will get it. (Psalm 39:5f, Good News translation) These images are repeated to demonstrate the unsubstantiality of our lives. And more, the Psalmist can’t take much more. “Don't punish me any more! I am about to die from your blows.” (v10). And more, there is no expectation of any life after death: he is simply living in the present, tense. Tense with anxiety that is. The Psalm ends with a terrible plea which could come from the lips of Yossarian himself : “Leave me alone so that I may have some happiness, before I go away and am no more.” (v13). This is life, often cruel and meaningless as it is lived, and yet the Psalmist shares this with God. For the fundamental is that God can take it. Such is his love for us that he does not dismiss us with a wave of his hand; he allows our complaint. So the Psalmist persists, he like Job will not let go, he refuses – like Yossarian, to back off. For above all the Psalms, at the very heart of the Bible, are totally honest with God. Even during their sufferings there is a profound trust in God. “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (v7). This paradox, of God’s love and our suffering, is something that the Psalms simply accept but yet there is a longing, a longing which can only be met in their future, maybe ten centuries away, at the cross of Jesus.