Lucifer's Last Laugh

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Chapter 23: The Theologian’s Tale

Gil, I am gratified to discover, proves to be a natural for the television age. Looking, as always, as if in his mid-thirties, he is conventionally handsome in a way that reassures women but does not threaten men. And his voice constitutes by far his most attractive asset, resonant, reasonable, sonorous, seductive, Gil sounds like an improbably ideal combination of Ronald Coleman, Claude Rains, Richard Burton, and Walter Pidgeon.

To my chagrin, you swoon upon first seeing him on TV, waxing even more pre-orgasmic than when you were in the presence of Orlando Cruz. “I don’t care what his message is,” you sigh, “he’s a dreamboat.”

A frequent guest on daytime and late night talk shows, Gil exudes a charm that even his caterwauling critics on the religious right cannot deny. He soon goes international, where his command of all modern (and ancient) human languages captivates viewers.

Mainstream religious leaders grow nervous and launch a well-coordinated campaign to slur, smear and generally pooh-pooh him. But Gil is up to the challenge, effortlessly translating sacred texts in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, and Tibetan to say nothing of ?Pang, :Holla, .Prft, and !Xoop.

Gil soon meets with Pope Elvis I, the first American pope, regarded by traditional Catholics as unacceptably unconventional. Devoted to radical ecumenism, the long-haired pope publicly declares that he sees no inherent conflict between the core teachings of Catholicism and the tenets of PR (Paganism, Reformed), overlooking minor theological disagreements such as PR’s rejection of the divinity of Jesus and the existence of God.

In a last-ditch effort to discredit Gil, the World Council of Churches challenges him to a television debate with the acknowledged dean of Christian theologians, the Anglican Ardrey Ames Montagu, who is also a polymath and popular preacher, a former president of the Oxford Union, and a noted wit, wag and wisecracker.

You and I ensconce comfortably in front of the160 inch TV in my capacious den, delectable hors d’oeuvres and gallons of drink (mine alcoholic, yours organic) within easy reach and prepare to watch the so-called “Debate of the New Millenium.”

I am mildly concerned for Gil’s safety. The debate is being held before a live audience which, though carefully screened and meticulously searched, might well contain a loony-tunes or two. Still, Enkidu is present to protect him and no ordinary human would dream of messing with the former Atlas Shrugg.

The proposition is: Resolved that Paganism, Reformed (PR) is a Fraudulent Cult.

Montagu begins with the Affirmative.

“Let me begin with a joke which illustrates the unnecessary divisions that have plagued Christianity from its inception”

“Calvinist: I believe in limited atonement, among other things.

Arminian: And I believe you’re a fucking idiot, you dotterel tulip lover.”

The audience is only mildly amused. Montagu continues. “But however many schisms Christianity has endured, it has steadfastly maintained its bedrock Trinitarianism, an unshakeable faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit who are not to be referred to, as my opponent often does, as ‘Daddy, Junior and the Spook.’

“Nor is it appropriate to call the Holy Mother ‘Mary with the Cherry.’

“PR is blasphemous and theologically unsound, proclaiming as it does the existence of dozens of gods where Occam’s Razor demonstrates that logically there should only be one.

“Moreover, my opponent has given the impression that he is the reincarnation of one Apollonius of Tyana, a Pagan contemporary of Jesus who was a close friend of the Lord. And you know what they say about reincarnation: ‘Life sucks and then you die. Then life sucks again.’”

Montagu continues in this vein, alternately ridiculing PR and Gil himself, seeming conclusively to demonstrate that one would have to be a bona fide bonehead to believe in such a half-witted heresy.

When Gil arises to present his refutation, the crowd is clearly against him murmuring sotto voce boos as he strides confidently to the lectern.

“My learned opponent’s remarks remind me of a recent theological conference I attended at Pope Elvis’ invitation,” Gil begins, “ where the assembled scholars engaged in a heated discussion regarding the ethnicity of Jesus. All were familiar with the hoary argument that Jesus was Mexican because a) his name was Jesus, b) he was bilingual and c) he was always being harassed by the authorities.

“But equally sound arguments emerged that Jesus was black because a) he called everyone ‘brother,’ b) he liked Gospel and c) he couldn’t get a fair trial.

“Or that Jesus was Italian. After all he talked with his hands,

he had wine with every meal and he used olive oil.

“Or that Jesus was Irish -

1. He never got married

2. He was always telling stories

3. He loved green pastures

“Or that Jesus was Californian because he never cut his hair, he walked around barefoot and he started a new religion.

“Or that Jesus was a woman:

1. She fed a crowd at a moment’s notice,

2. Men didn’t understand her,

3. Even when dead, she arose to complete her work.

“But, my friends, I was able to settle this dispute by proving conclusively that Jesus was Jewish because a) he went into his father’s business, b) he lived at home until he was thirty-three and c) he was sure his mother was a virgin, and his mother was sure he was God.

“And for those of you infidels who mistakenly think that Muslims have no sense of humor, let me relate to you a brief story that clearly demonstrates otherwise.

“One day a poor Christian passed by a restaurant. Tired and hungry, he smelled the delicious food cooking, smiled sadly, and continued on his way. But the owner of the restaurant, Rabbi Moishe, came storming out into the street. “Come here!” he bellowed. “I saw that! You stole the smell of my food, and you’ll have to pay for it!”

“ The Christian did not know what to do. ’I cannot pay!” he stammered. ‘I am broke!’

“‘Broke?’ shouted Rabbi Moishe. ‘We’ll see about that! You’re coming with me to the judge!’

“‘Hmm,’ said the judge, when he had heard the story. “Well, this is an unusual case. Let me think. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll pronounce the sentence.’

“What could the Christian do? He knew whatever amount the judge demanded, he couldn’t pay. All night long he tossed and turned, unable to sleep.

“When dawn came he made his way to court. As he passed by a mosque he spotted a familiar figure - Mullah Nasruddin. Suddenly his heart lifted. For he knew that Mullah Nasruddin was a clever man who was sure to be able to think of a way around the problem. He poured out his story, and Mullah Nasruddin agreed to come to the court and speak for him.

“Rabbi Moishe was already at the court, chatting with the judge. The Christian saw that they were friends, and feared the judgment would go against him. He was right. The judge began heaping insults upon the Christian as soon as he saw him, and ordered him to pay a very large sum of money. At once, Mullah Nasruddin stepped forward. ‘Your honor,’ he said to the judge. ‘This man is a good friend of mine. Allow me to pay in his place.’

“Then Mullah Nasruddin took a small bag of coins from his belt and held it next to Rabbi Moishe’s ear. He shook the bag, so that the coins jingled. ‘Can you hear that?’ asked Mullah Nasruddin.

“‘Of course,’ replied Rabbi Moishe.

“‘Well, that is your payment,’ said Mullah Nasruddin. ‘My friend here has smelled your food, and you have heard his money. The debt is paid.’

“ And, in the face of such argument, the case was settled and the Christian went free.

“All my Muslim friends,” Gilgamesh says with a smile, “assure me that this story is a real Islamic knee-slapper. But to more serious matters.

“My opponent invokes Occam’s Razor but let me suggest that it cuts both ways. Strict monotheism (and please note that Trinitarianism is scarcely that) posits the existence of a single omniscient, omnipotent, omni-beneficent God, thus giving rise to a fatal paradox: If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can He permit evil to exist? In fact no form of monotheism (including the disguised polytheism of conventional Christianity) can provide a satisfactory solution to this conundrum. Whereas the paradox does not arise in dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism or in polytheistic faiths such as Hinduism and PR.

“We Reform Pagans do not claim that these manifold gods actually exist in any real sense. Rather, we view the gods as forces of nature and, for the most part, of human nature. Moral evil exists because we permit it; natural evil, so-called acts of God beyond our control, are not acts of God at all but merely the inevitable eruptions of a blind, uncaring universe.

“ Let me share with you, my friends, some thoughts on evil, culled from the cultures of the world:

“If you see a blind beggar, kick him. Why should you be kinder than God?”

“Man sins... then blames it on the devil.

“ The word “yes” brings evil; the word “no” leads to good.

“ Evil people know one another.

“If you have never seen evil, look closely at yourself.

“A face that never laughs betrays an evil heart.

“If you have never done anything evil, you should not be worrying about devils knocking at your door.

“In saying evil it is not necessary to prepare a preliminary draft.

“The more evil you are, the more devils you meet.

“To learn what is good, a thousand days are not sufficient; to learn what is evil, an hour is too long.

“Virtuous for ten years is still not enough; evil for one day is too much.

“If you do good to the Devil, out of gratitude he will deliver you to hell.

“‘Virtue in the middle,’ said the Devil when seated between two lawyers.

“The devil dances in empty pockets.

“When flatterers meet, the devil goes to dinner.

“ Where old age is evil, youth cannot learn good.

“Evil enters like a needle and spreads like an oak tree.

“Every mother-in-law is a piece of the devil’s pants.

“Gossipers are the devil’s trumpeters.

“He who has a stepmother has the devil at his hearth.

“He who seeks evil will find it.

“He who sows the seed of discord works in the devil’s barn.

“If you give a gift to a rich man, the devil laughs.

“Religious contention is the devil’s harvest.

“Tell a woman once she is beautiful and the devil will repeat it ten times.

“And, of course, the quintessential French proverb, ‘You can sell the devil if he is well cooked.’”

“And thus folk wisdom, which is the only true wisdom, demonstrates that evil emanates not from external forces but rather from the hidden recesses of the human heart.

“Father Montagu argues that I pass myself off as the reincarnation of Apollonius but I have made no such claim. I do not believe in reincarnation but rather in metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, and that it is in this manner the spirit of Apollonius guides and nurtures me. It was his spirit, I believe, that enabled me to point out the precise location where the Damis manuscript was to be found and has also recently led me to identify the whereabouts of an ancient scroll of equal importance.”

Gil pauses dramatically. I anticipate gleefully this next revelation because it was I who told Gil where to direct archaeologists to dig. Fittingly, on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Damascus, perfectly preserved in a sealed jar where I had buried it more than two thousand years ago.

“This scroll contains the Epistles of Jesus, the recipient of which was his most faithful apostle, Maria, known to history as the Magdalene.”

Many in the audience look skeptical. Gil punches a button on the lectern and the screen above and behind him is filled with the image of a manuscript page. “The scroll was uncovered two months ago and has since been subjected to carbon dating and other tests that verify its antiquity. It is written in excellent Greek, far superior to that of the Gospels or Paul’s epistles, verifying the statements made in the Damis manuscript that Jesus, a student of Philo, as Apollonius noted, was highly literate.

“The details concerning the scroll’s authenticity may be perused at leisure on my website. Suffice it to say, for now, that fifty-four specialists in first century textual analysis deem it authentically from that period.

“The unmistakable conclusion to which the scroll leads the unbiased reader is that Jesus was not only not a Christian, he was not even remotely a proto-Christian. Allow me to read a passage from the Third Epistle:

“’Jeshua, a rabbi by the will of God, and Maria, our sister.

’Grace to you and peace from God.

’I am, as before, trod upon the path of the cynics, barefoot and free of all possessions, speaking to small groups in Caesarea and elsewhere proclaiming the truth that the kingdom of God is at hand, that a scintilla of God resides in the breasts of all, Jew and Gentile alike, and that we need but nurture that divine spark to attain salvation.

’Yet my companions, Andrew and Simon and the others, appear to grow more uneasy each day by my departures from hallowed tradition.

‘As you above all others know, dear sister, I am not one prone to suspicion or fear of betrayal yet I cannot help but feel some degree of apprehension that none of my companions have yet fully understood my message. They mutter of a Messiah and are saddened that I am clearly not he.’”

All Gehenna breaks loose in the auditorium. A man in the first row rises from the audience, middle-aged, respectable in appearance, but with an unmistakable display of dementia distorting his features. “Heretic!” he shouts, “Blasphemer! Anti-Christ!” He vaults over the empty orchestra pit, brandishing a small black object that I take to be a weapon and hurls himself at Gil. This happens so quickly that even the alert Enkidu is unable to react quickly enough to protect his friend. Montagu dives for the floor but Gil does not flinch, regarding his assassin with calm amusement. I cannot teleport to the rescue. How could I explain my instantaneous disappearance from your sight and televised reappearance on a stage 2900 miles away?

Just before the assailant reaches the lectern, he vanishes into a cloud of reddish smoke, which clears quickly, leaving nothing but a burnt skeleton that slowly and quietly collapses to the floor. If Gil is as astonished by this as the rest of us, he does not show it but calmly resumes speaking. “Perhaps a brief recess might be in order?”

“What just happened?” I telemessage Melchom.

“Don’t know,” comes the terse reply. “Working on it.”

You, my darling, are as agog as I or, I assume, the millions of television viewers, mute witnesses to miracle.

To my surprise, it is Father, not Melchom, who gets back to me. “All I can tell you, Loki, is that it was not Yanwangye who intervened.”

“Yanwangye?”

“Gilgamesh’s guardian devil,” Father says impatiently. “How do you think he has managed to survive for so long?”

“Does Gil know about this guy?”

“Of course not. And neither does whatever ignited this imbecile. Yanwangye would have saved Gil in time.”

“So what happened, Father?”

“Search me although I have my suspicions.”

But He does not choose to share them with me.

As you know, my darling, subsequent investigation revealed that the would-be assassin was a Super Christian, a fanatic follower (what other kind is there?) of Boola-Boola Shakhur. His weapon was evidently a plastic dart gun, overlooked by the security screeners. Traces of Veninum Lupinum were found in the ashes, presumably used to coat the dart tips. This poison, first described in 1589 by Giovanni Battista Porta, is composed of aconite, taxus baccata, caustic lime, arsenic, bitter almonds, powdered glass and honey. All in all, a deadly concoction.

Following your departure, I teleport myself to Boola Boola’s hideout, appearing before him in the form of a giant cockatrice. I am furious and baffound Boola Boola by accusing him of flyndiggery. I call him a quidnunc and a quiddler, before lapsing into sialoquent silence. In return, he promises to keep a tighter rein on his followers.

As a direct consequence of the assassination attempt, Gil becomes even more of a media darling. Pundits extol his coolness under attack and deride the (quite understandable) cowardice of Ardrey Ames Montagu. Converts to

PR increase exponentially as entire congregations of Christians begin to defect en masse. When members of Congress, rock stars and screen idols publicly announce their allegiance to the new faith, the tipping point is reached. PR is on a religious roll.

The Epistles of Jesus not only becomes a phenomenal best-seller, but quickly forms, along with Damis’ Life of Apollonius, sacred scripture to legions of devout Reform Pagans.

A few days after the debate you, my precious, announce your own conversion and urge me to join you.

“Sorry,” I reply, “but no religion, even one as appealingly quirky as PR, can persuade me that the universe is anything but inattentive and unresponsive. But I can, if you wish, introduce you to Mr. Gamesh.”

You look upon me in near exaltation. “You know him?”

“A friend of a friend,” I say hastily. “But I think I can wangle, finagle, hustle or otherwise obtain a semi-private audience with him for you.

“Oh, would you? You can’t imagine how grateful I would be to you.” Your gorgeous gaze turns me completely agroof and I silently compose two dithyrambs in your honor.

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