Martin Buber asserted, "The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God." And Friedrich Nietzsche observed, "A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."
In The Testament of Gideon Mack, Scottish writer James Robertson deals with these themes: faith and doubt, orthodoxy and heresy, the overlap of myth and history, and life's uncanny conjunctions.
Gideon Mack is the minister of Old Kirk, in the small Scottish coastal town of Monimaskit, near Dundee. A pastor beloved by his parishioners (most of them), he has raised thousands of dollars for charity by running in various marathons.
Judging from appearances, one would esteem Gideon a successful servant of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, toiling faithfully in the Lord's vineyard.
Trouble is, Gideon is an atheist (or agnostic) whose apparent faith in God is a theatrical performance. He is also carrying on a torrid affair with the wife of his best friend.
Nevertheless, all goes well for Gideon until one day, while he is running in the Keldo Woods, he stops abruptly when he sees an ancient standing stone, a stone that had not been there before. From that moment, his life begins to go downhill.
While walking again in the Keldo Woods, this time with a female minister friend, Gideon attempts to rescue his friend's dog that, in chasing a rabbit over the cliff, is perched precariously on a narrow outcropping in the rock.
Gideon saves the dog, but cannot save himself. He plummets into the treacherous depths of the Black Jaws, a gulf or ravine of great depth, through which cascades the furious torrent of the Keldo River.
Missing for three days, and presumed dead, Gideon miraculously survives the ordeal, fished out of the river by a fellow villager. Gideon has quite a story to tell, one that causes many people in Monimaskit to be shocked by his heresies and blasphemies.
Gideon writes a "testament," a manuscript of approximately a hundred thousand words, in which he describes his encounter with the devil, spending three days and nights walking and talking with God's great adversary.
The devil appears to him as a forlorn, world-weary man who is tired of playing the game, and who reveals to him that there is no grand scheme of things, no eternal plan. Human beings, he asserts, are deserted by the deity, left to their own floundering devices.
The devil also tells him that people believe what they want to believe. The proliferation of world religions, with their conflicting claims, indicates that one man's faith is another man's fiction, that one man's persuasive myth is another man's preposterous legend.
Gideon learns the truth spoken by John Milton: "The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven."
Seeing the folly of his hypocrisy, Gideon resolves to speak the whole truth to his congregation--his lack of faith in God and his erotic liaison with Elsie Moffat--which he proceeds to do. Definitely not a brilliant career move.
Robertson's novel alludes to the movie E.T., to Pascal's wager argument and its fatal logical flaw, to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to Captain Ahab's obsession with the white whale, and to Goethe's Faust.
Is Gideon Mack's account of his visit to the netherworld the diary of a madman or the memoirs of a supreme truth teller? Although reading Gideon's incredible document requires a sustained suspension of disbelief, one becomes convinced that Gideon, even if he is pitifully delusional, firmly believes in the truth of his revelations.
Although of dubious worth philosophically and theologically, The Testament of Gideon Mack, the devil's advocate, is a fascinating and captivating psychological character study--of the conflict of head vs. heart, thinking vs. feeling, faith vs. unbelief.
Reading this novel is an unsettling experience. Such is the artistry of James Robertson, one occasionally forgets that this is indeed a work of fiction, and is caught up in the passion of a real-life drama. Like Gideon Mack himself, Robertson has engineered a powerful theatrical performance that leaves his audience stunned and nonplussed.
James Robertson is the author of two previously critically acclaimed novels published in the U.K., The Fanatic (2000) and Joseph Knight (2003). The latter was awarded the two major Scottish literary awards in 2003/4--the Soltire Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year. He has also published stories, poetry, anthologies, essays, and a Scottish Dictionary of Quotations. He served as the Scottish Parliament's first writer in residence in 2004 and was selected for a prestigious Creative Scotland Award in 2006. He lives in Angus, Scotland.