The novel Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is another book I think that vicars and church leaders in general really should read. It’s well-written and a great story, but also has an important theological message…
Actually, it’s even more than that. As well as being an adventure story and a coming-of-age novel, it is also a meditation on the problems of power, structure, authority and faith. Bishop Nick Barnes says that:
“Small Gods is wonderful and should be read by anyone who claims to be a theist.”
(In case you want one! Spoilers!)
The Great God Om finds himself trapped in the body of a tortoise, and the only person able to hear him is Brutha, a novice priest. Due to his perfect memory Brutha is taken by the head of the Quisition, Vorbis, on a diplomatic mission to the city-state, Ephebe (which resembles Ancient Greece). Whilst there Brutha finds out why Om is a tortoise, is used by Vorbis to launch an attack by the armies of Om on Ephebe, and ends up lost in the desert. Brutha ends up back in Omnia, is rescued by Om, who kills Vorbis, and prevents war. He is proclaimed the 8th Prophet, and institutes a golden age of peace and tolerance.
End of spoilers...
The really interesting part, for theological reflection, is Pratchett’s plot device that belief ‘powers’ the different gods. The more people who believe, the more power the god has. If a god has no believers, then they become little more than a wandering spirit.
Whilst in Epehe, Pratchett (p191) has Brutha find a scroll by the philosopher Abraxas called On Religion, in which he says that “Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Building and Priests and Authority, until at Last the Godde Dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed”. In short (p190):
People start believing in the god and end up believing in the structure.
And, of course, Pratchett is absolutely right. We need structures to operate, but it’s sometimes easier to act as if that is the important thing, rather than God, whom the structures of the church are meant to serve.