Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Only Begotten Daughter

Only Begotten Daughter
© 1990 James Morrow
296 pages

A few weeks ago I heard of an interesting book: the story of a child of God, miraculously conceived similar to the story of Jesus. This child is born in 1974, in Atlantic City. Unlike her half-brother Jesus, Julie Katz -- the only begotten daughter -- was not born of a virgin. She appeared in a sperm bank, a miraculous conception of a far less mystic sort. Fortunately the people of the sperm bank had an "ectogenesis machine", a mechanical womb. When Murray Katz -- her father, God being the "mother" -- finds out that they plan on terminating the fetus, he opts to steal the ectogenesis machine with his daughter inside. Fortunate timing, for soon after the sperm bank would be destroyed by Christian fanatics intent on bringing about the Endtimes -- fundamentalists referred to as Revelationaists.

Murray lives by himself at an abandoned lighthouse and raises little Julie there. He is not entirely alone: a quirky woman named Georgina who he met at the sperm bank helps him. She, too, has a child. Her daughter (Phoebe) and Julia grow up together with their very eccentric parents. There are few "normal" people in this book: all of the characters we encounter are bizarre in some way or another. Julie quickly exhibits signs of her divinity -- walking on water, for instance. Murray, realizing how quickly attention will be drawn to her and how dangerous that might be, trains her not to use her divine powers. In this first part of the book, Julie struggles with both her identity as the daughter of God and with the problem of evil. She creates a temple out of one of the rooms in the lighthouse and fills it with clippings of all of the human misery in the world, in an effort to show herself that were she to take the "high road", she would overwhelmed and consumed at the task. The struggle between the "high road" -- using her powers for good -- and the low road, or simply living her life, will preoccupy her for a good bit of the book. She attracts the attention of Satan, who plays mind games with her. At the same time, the Revelationists are increasing in numbers and in their activities, and they will force Julie's hand. The story takes Julie to Hell, where she meets her half-brother Jesus (occupied with offering relief to the tortured) and then back to Earth.

Along the way, the author pokes around at the question of evil and the idea of intelligent, or even beneficiant, design. Julie is convinced that her mother is not a Zeus-type being that meddles in human affairs, but rather a God of physics: part of the fabric of the universe, too broad to be articulated in human affairs. Satan seems to be portrayed as somewhere between the Jewish idea of Satan and the Christian idea of Satan. In Judaism (as far as I know), Satan is a loyal servant of God who tempts humans in order that they might grow. In Christianity, he's arrogant, vain, rebellious, and spiteful. In this book he delights in evil and pain, but speaks of God in the manner of a contemptuous subordinate. Hell exists, with islands for the various wrong-doers (there's an Island of Methodists, an Island of Atheists, and so on). The author employs a lot of Biblical allusions, especially after Julie meets Jesus. (That particular scene is amusing: Julie has to explain Christianity to an unbelieving Jesus, who was quite sure he tried set up a godly and ethical kingdom on Earth, only to be killed for his efforts: he had no intention of establishing a religion and had never heard of original sin. "Good heavens, is that what I became? Another propitiation deity?"

The characterization is good, and the story dark and interesting. It was a bit too dark for me, though. I liked the satirical bits, and the effort by the author to explore the ideas of evil and cosmology in this context. The character of Jesus is refreshing: I was raised a Christian but the guy never appealed to me. He's a much more attractive character in this book: the author makes him more human and more "divine" than all of the gospels did, and in just a few pages.

All in all, a rather interesting story. He's written more that interest me -- Towing Jehovah, for instance, a story of what happens after God dies -- but I don't have access to them.


  1. There was an interesting book I read several years ago called "Daughter of God" by Lewis Perdue. It might be worth looking into. I remember enjoying it.

  2. I just found its website, I think. It reminds me of "The Da Vinci Code", somewhat. I may look for it, thanks for the heads up. :)