September 2007

Barbara J. King

features

Of God and Glycoprotein: Rabid for Religion and Science

September, academia's spring, brings with it rebirth and resurrection. Ideas breed with renewed enthusiasm as minds meet afresh. The new season means, for me, opportunities to join up with others who dwell in the ecological overlap zone of science and religion.

Washington in October, San Diego in November, Boston in February: we will caucus and confer, argue and acquiesce. Enlightenment emerges sometimes, consensus never. No crowd gathers outside our doors to await a puff of white smoke or black. Mostly it's our opposite numbers, the religion-and-science separatists led by Prophet Dawkins, who grab the attention (and the press). Still, ours is an enterprise with a critical mass of disciples who work hard to forge new understandings across too-often rigid boundary lines.

Perhaps in part because I inhabit this overlap zone, I greatly enjoyed a few days' visit to T.K. Kenyon's own hybrid labworld/churchworld. In Rabid, Kenyon pulls together all the beauty and terror found in religion and all the beauty and terror found in science to create a fictional space where every person seeks light, whether at the lab bench, or at the church altar, or both. We all of us are seekers and sinners; we, the devout and the damned, are all the same.

For the first blush of pages, I sorted out the characters and reveled in the language. A dictionary served me well for words like apoptosis (programmed cell death in the body) and pyx (a small box used to take the blessed sacrament to the sick). Early on, Kenyon's words came in dichotomous bursts: carboniferous, pufferfish, micropipetter, intercalate, glycoprotein (p. 24-25); exorcism, confession, communion, excommunicate, Holy Spirit (p. 44-46). Soon, though, the two realms kissed, igniting the story. "Robin Cook on steroids" says one amazon.com reviewer, and I can't disagree.

Sex as truth, sex as lies, sex as sacrament, sex as sin: it's all here, and all embodied in the person of Monsignor Dante Maria Petrocchi-Bianchi, a Vatican-dwelling Jesuit exorcist and Ph.D.-wielding molecular scientist rolled into one. Both religion and science inhabit him and in him swirl both temptation and the potential for salvation. "The convergence of the lab coat and Roman collar must be like a reactive metal engaging an exothermic reaction, magnesium metal sparking blue fire in the air, or lavender metallic sodium skittering and smoking on water." Apt words, sparking and smoking, for Dante longs and lusts, and buys comfort and ruin in equal measure as he goes along.

Other of Rabid's characters include Dr. Conroy Sloan, the adulterous head of a neuroscience lab where secretiveness and deception are the order of the day; Sloan's alcohol-loving wife Bev, a science widow who alternately yearns for and guilts about the good Monsignor Dante; and Sloan's mistress (no, sorry, one of his mistresses), graduate student and lab rat Leila, who announces at one point "I've found the neural locus of the brain's flight up to Heaven."

Leila cannot resist, any more than can Bev, a little Dante on the side, though he invokes for Leila an early and terrible childhood hurt, a sexual crime that stalks the novel's heart. She attends Mass and drinks in the sight of Dante's dark Italian handsomeness: "She could have clipped out his image and pasted him into a temple sacrificing a bull to Apollo or slashing apart a virgin for Quetzalcoatl. The pulse in Leila's left wrist quickened." As the Mass continued, Leila observes Dante: "Petrocchi-Bianchi held the crackers as if he believed that voodoo mumbo-jumbo. But his [science] publications bespoke a mind that was rational and methodical. It was impossible that the seal of Holy Orders and the mind that wrote those beautiful papers could exist in the same chunk of meat."

Later, in a bar, Leila challenges Dante: how can he work in neuroscience and still believe in God? "Dante smiled back. In the seminary, holier-than-thou priests had disparaged science, rounding on him in stone-faced hallways and demanding to know where the Bible mentioned quarks or neurons or the hippocampus. His secular colleagues latched onto him in the tiled, sterile hospital halls and cited studies that equated religious practice with obsessive-compulsive behavior." Not a bad summary of the state of affairs outside the ecological overlap zone.

Some of Rabid is over the top, to be sure. Chapter one, page one: "Her skull burned white-hot under her skin. A caged ape rattled her ribs and an angry bull snapped like an angry bull shark surging through chum…" "Bloody vomit hemorrhaged inside her and clung in her guts, corroding…" "Her heart slammed so hard that her temples bulged and her carotid arteries hurt in her neck, threatening a stroke like the smiting of God." And in order to tolerate close proximity to the book, I had exorcise its open-mouthed cover image, which gave me unholy shivers. (I tore up and discarded the book's paper cover.)

Mostly, though, Kenyon creates a believable world for these not-always-believable characters. It's a nice feat. I won't disclose the plot, except to say that a central character is a knife, sharp and flesh-piercing. Kenyon compares the knife to a communion object, thus neatly binding together religion and science once again.

Alongside the plot points is the constant companion of doubt, doubt within every person, even or especially within Dante: "All that he had thought was holy in him had been nothing but his imagination and longing for a reason for life other than the mindless pursuit of sex." Leila sounds rock-hard sure of herself: "I love science because it fills the void God left when He deserted the world. Any divine spark behind creation wouldn't want to be worshipped. It would want to be understood. Love is being understood at the cellular level." But it's love that's elusive for Leila, and in that heavenly-hellish realm, she too doubts.

Yet in Rabid, doubt isn't darkness, it's a very part of the process of seeking light, and light itself may lead equally to salvation or to danger. Light plays in the book at moments of sharpest emotion, as when the knife causes a central character's brain to conjure his earlier self, together with his father: "Wild, shimmering light bulleted silently past them, like standing unperturbed between the tracks of two opposing, rushing trains. Painless light like laser ablation began to eat through the midsection of his father and himself." But it shines also in ordinary places on ordinary days. In church there are "jewel-toned polygons of light" and in Bev's house, when she serves lemon chicken to Dante, "The dining room glittered. The chandelier above the table looked like melting crystal, and the glass table reflected the scattered droplets of light up to the ceiling and out the windows that wrapped the room. Candles on the table tossed gold sparks through the glass." Late-ish the book, Kenyon ramps up the light imagery, even as she noses closer toward the uneasy proximity of good and evil: "The brightest fallen angel was Lucifer, light-bringer," she writes. "Bright angels become beautiful devils."

Kenyon's intelligence is evident in the way she enters the "dangerous territory" of religion-and-science, yet she manages not to show off. Her bio (MFA in fiction, Ph.D. in molecular virology) too makes her sound super-smart and not at all full of herself. In Rabid, she makes you think, and you have fun along the way. Are deities neurology's artifacts? Kenyon asks this question and answers it with a story. A provocative question threading through a compelling story: just what's needed to ease the crossing from summer's light into September's.

-- Barbara J. King's upcoming talks are in Washington (The Bowen Center for the Family); San Diego (the American Academy of Religion meeting); Boston (the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting).