Saturday, December 13, 2014
Revival by Stephen King: A Terrible Sermon
I finished Revival last weekend and have thought about it since then, playing it over in my mind, trying to figure out where it went wrong. The novel is narrated by Jamie Morton (an unsympathetic heroin addict and guitar player in every cover band in the state of Maine from the 1970s until now), who was telling the story of his former pastor's fall from grace. Although the story is ostensibly about the pastor, Charlie Jacobs, we see very little of him, as the story takes place over a five-decade period in which Morton sees him for only the briefest of intervals. The story is really about Morton's self-indulgence, and, let's just say it, how he is a complete loser, lacking in anything resembling a redeeming quality. All because of Jacobs and the "Terrible Sermon."
There are spoilers ahead. That is the only warning I am giving, so if I haven't yet convinced you the novel isn't worth reading, you may want to stop.
Jacobs and Morton form a tight bond as soon as they meet. Jacobs is a little quirky, having a strange obsession with electricity, but nothing too bad. That is until he loses his wife and son in a horrible traffic accident. That's when he turns away from religion and delivers what becomes known in town as the "Terrible Sermon."
This plot point is where the book really begins to unravel for me. Jacobs, a person of great faith, turns away from God due to a horrible circumstance in his life. The cliche alarm is going off. This just didn't sit right with me. Yes, the loss of his child and wife is tragic, but this motivation is not a compelling one. It's cliche, and, frankly, it is an egregious simplification of how real people go about belief and non-belief and how they may at points in their lives drift from one view to another. But more than that, the way Jacobs goes about declaring his break with faith is, to me, not well done at all.
The "Terrible Sermon" isn't really that terrible. Jacobs likens religion to an insurance scheme, where you pay your premiums every month, but when you need to use it, you discover the insurance company doesn't even exist. Sure, maybe something like that would lead to a reprimand, a firing, or perhaps even get you run out of town with pitch forks and torches, but this "Terrible Sermon" destroys the religion of the community, as they never replaced Jacobs, and service attendance drops to literally nothing in the next few decades, leaving behind nothing but a boarded-up church. I don't think I need to say the worst thing about the "Terrible Sermon" is how the reader has to suspend disbelief quite a bit to accept that it was as "terrible" as King wants us to believe.
Jacobs comes off as a simpleton, yet we find out, based on what he is able to achieve with his electricity experiments later, he is far from a simpleton. It is clear he was never able to get over the loss of his family, which motivates his experiments with electricity. This motivation, the electricity, what exactly he is trying to do, all of it would have made for a far more compelling case for losing his faith. And, a "Terrible Sermon" that reveals what exactly he is doing and the "truths" he is hoping to uncover would have been a far more terrible "Terrible Sermon."
Heck, another spoiler warning for you. Here is the ending and what this whole shin-dig is about, along with an account of what I would've done differently.
Charlie Jacobs is trying to find out what's on the "other side." He devises an experiment with electricity, which he believes will bring a recently deceased person back to life long enough to describe the afterlife. He succeeds (sort of), but also gets a glimpse, as does Jamie, of this afterlife, which is far worse than the heaven he was envisioning. The afterlife resembles a dark, destroyed city inhabited by large ant creatures that enslave humanity for eternity. Imagine if this was his impetus for leaving his faith, such as "Do you guys really know what we are worshiping?! Ant creatures that just wait for us to die and enslave our souls!" Now, that's what I would call a "Terrible Sermon"!