Short Story Friday: Abraham’s Purgatory by B. G. Christensen

Since Tyler has posted his excellent two-part review of The Fob Family Bible, it seems appropriate to feature a story from it this week. Enjoy! Or don’t. Either way, speak up in the comments so Theric isn’t forced to talk to himself about his own project.

Title: Abraham’s Purgatory

Author: B. G. Christensen

Publication Info: June 2009, The FOB Bible

Submitted by: Theric Jepson

Why?: Theric writes: “.

Though I’m adding this story from Plain and Precious Parts of the Fob Bible last, it is, in my opinion, the best entry for the SSF sweepstakes. This story has been published in other forms elsewhere before and has always engendered debate. It’s not a long read, but it challenges the reader and requires us to take sides. Highly recommended for SSF.”

Participate:

Submit to Short Story Friday

Possible online sources of stories and link to spreadsheet with current submissions

All Short Story Friday posts so far

32 thoughts on “Short Story Friday: Abraham’s Purgatory by B. G. Christensen”

  1. Two things struck me deeply on my first reading of this story. One was this line: “He lay the knife against the boy’s neck and cut.” I was cruising through the familiars of the tale until I read that and got the wind knocked out of me (er, metaphorically speaking). It really caught me off guard and threw me into something of the same tailspin Abraham experiences here at his most human. Which is the second thing that struck me: the prophet’s humanness. I’ve considered the Abraham/Isaac a few different ways, but never have I thought about what a nightmare life was likely like for him leading up to the sacrificial moment. And that’s what I read this as: a reiterative, recurring nightmare, a Groundhog Day from hell.

    And, of course, there’s the ending. Yes, the ending. Which I also read as a witness of the prophet’s humanness. Rundown-stressed-out-(over)anxious-about-pleasing-God human. But what about the outright disobedience this revision portrays, you ask? I don’t think it’s really that easy. Sure, Abraham says, “No. I will not,” the angel’s missing, and it’s ambiguous whether or not God really sent the ram. But I’ve also been considering that Abraham’s tired emotional state, his mental fatigue could have been the sign he was looking for. Then again, I might be trying too hard to reconcile both versions of the story: the one in Genesis and the one by Ben.

    What I’m really wondering is this: does this version really force us to take sides?

  2. .

    When I first read this story almost two and a half years ago, I too was struck cold by the knife cutting into the boy’s neck. That changes the story, right there, and in a massive way. No longer the violence of the knife above the head, but an almost intimate life-letting.

    I’ve told Ben more than once since then that he should read Stephen King’s That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French which treads similar ground, but I don’t think he ever has. It would be fun to debate the two stories regarding their various merit.

    As a close friend of the author’s I view this story as a clear statement regarding his views on spirituality at that time. And I will never be able to divorce those two. I wish I could read it through someone else’s eyes, and experience this powerful tale without the goggles of Authorial Intent.

  3. As a close friend of the author’s I view this story as a clear statement regarding his views on spirituality at that time.

    The first time I read it, I didn’t know anything about Ben at all, and didn’t know you much better, Theric.

    I got it. Oh, yeah. I got it.

  4. I feel that, of all the works in The Fob Bible, this sexfree one has the most potential to cause controversy and vigorous discussion.

    I completely agree, Th. And though I can’t dismiss the Biblical account (like the line “I will not” seems to suggest that I do), neither can I just ignore the compelling narrative Ben’s created. I guess I ask the question about taking sides because I don’t want to choose and don’t really feel in the end that I have to. I can hold these disparate versions in my head (yes, one is canonized scripture, the other “just” a fiction—and I use that word “just” somewhat facetiously) and let the dialogue between them inform my reading of both.

    At least that’s where I’m at with things right now. (I hope someone else weighs in that feels differently.)

  5. Like Theric, I have a hard time removing myself from the life context in which I wrote this, but there is a difference between what the story was then and what it is now, which I believe helps lessen that burden of authorial intent. In the original version of the story, there was a stronger implication (or perhaps even explication) that Abraham just made up the part about the ram. At Theric’s suggestion, I made that part more ambiguous, allowing for the interpretation that God sent the ram after all and thus that it was God’s intent all along for Abraham not to kill Isaac, as in the biblical account. I believe this ambiguity makes it a stronger story precisely because it means you don’t have to take sides–unless you want to.

  6. I, like Th., was struck by the sentence “He lay the knife against the boy’s neck and cut.” It was startling to think of the implications of actually sacrificing Isaac. To me, the demand for and completion of Isaac’s sacrifice is a moral catch-22,a doctrinal gray area. Can killing be justified by God’s will? Or can disobeying God’s will be seen as justified, as with the case of Eve and Adam’s fall.

    I feel like the repetition of the sacrifice was necessary until there was a change in Abraham’s actions. It seem as if the completion of the sacrifice caught him in this perpetual moral gray area that would be impossible to justify and, therefore, something in the story needed to change. Therefore, when Abraham spares Isaac from sheer exhaustion in the end and Abraham’s life moves forward it seems that he was justified in his actions. In this reading, Abraham’s disobedience could be celebrated like Eve and Adam’s, and the idea that God sent a ram only after Abraham’s disobedience seems to justify this reading. Or, as is suggested, that the ram was just a happy coincidence, as was Ben’s original intent, which leaves us with the interpretation that God’s command was itself amoral and, therefore, Abraham’s disobedience is justified morally.

    However, I think the ending in this iteration of the story is more ambiguous than that. I think that sparing Isaac was a release from the cycle that seemed to dead end in a moral conundrum, but I’m not sure it was the only action that would have released him from that repetition. Perhaps the sacrifice would have been completely just and acceptable if Abraham had acted with pure intent and less regrets. Could the pathos of Abraham have caused the broken-record repetition? Could the killing of Isaac have been justified by the fact that God has the right to demand the life of any of his children as the crucifixion and the story of Laban teaches us? If that is the reading, you do end up with a prophet would acted against God’s wishes and was completely out of line.

    I know which side I feel inclined to stand on, but I don’t think that the story necessarily forces my hand.

  7. That’s a really interesting reading, Claire. I hadn’t thought of the possibility that Abraham’s hesitation is what triggered the Groundhog Day thing, but it makes sense.

  8. .

    Which is why literature becomes greater each time it adds a reader. No matter how talented, a writer is only one person with one set of perspectives feelings and beliefs. Each reader is an equally rich human being and adds that much more.

    “Great literature” thus may just be stories that have reached a critical mass of readers and thus have enjoyed reinterpretation through so many perspectives that they become more than merely one person’s story, but timeless things that grow and change and deepen, seemingly on their own.

  9. “Great literature” thus may just be stories that have reached a critical mass of readers and thus have enjoyed reinterpretation through so many perspectives that they become more than merely one person’s story, but timeless things that grow and change and deepen, seemingly on their own.

    I really like that idea, Th. I’d never thought of it that way before. Each person’s reading adds another level of value to the text that, perhaps, wasn’t there until they read/commented on it.

    Another justification for my life’s work, for my abiding interest in criticism…

  10. I believe that the value of a piece like this is that it forces us away from the glib interpretations we’ve been conditioned to accept over time. Another wonderful aspect of the ambiguous ending is the degree to which it empowers the audience to explore the resolution themselves, rather than merely sucking on the spoon which is given to them. Upon my initial reading, I was jarred not only by Abraham’s disobedience in the end, but his deception as well as he – in my interpretation – justified it to Sarah. I’ve pondered on that in a manner pointed to by Claire (comment #12) and wonder if Abraham does not gain a greater appreciation for the atonement in these moments. As Abraham lives this moment over and over and over again, so too does Heavenly Father do the same with each of us through his Only Begotten. Christ did not suffer and die according to a mortal timetable in which the sins and sicknesses of humanity were conveniently schedulued. The blood was sweated, the nails pounded on behalf of billions. But it was still personal. It was still intimate. And in that moment when Abraham says, “I will not,” I could not help but imagine God’s response… “I know… but I will.” And now the father of nations, who has sought to become like God from the beginning, now troops home knowing all-too-well the God to whom he sends the smoke of his sacrifices. The beauty of brother Christensen’s story for me is that while Abraham is spared from sacrificing Isaac, he is not spared from sacrifice.

  11. .

    The blood was sweated, the nails pounded on behalf of billions. But it was still personal. It was still intimate. And in that moment when Abraham says, “I will not,” I could not help but imagine God’s response”¦ “I know”¦ but I will.”

    I’ve been thinking about Eric’s comment (18) for an hour or two now and I must say that his interpretation is quite powerful and haunting.

  12. I absolutely loved it. Something I’ll think about over the next few days, for sure.

    I’m left wondering as to the question of Faith. Was Abraham released from his purgatory when he refused to sacrifice his son because it took more Faith to refuse to destroy the Gift he knew God had promised him (progeny)rather than following, unquestioningly, what seemed to be a conflicting commandment?

    I like how you had him go through the gradations of denial until he finally told his son, and then expected unquestioning obedience from his son (in the manner of God and His son’s sacrifice).

    I also like how you included that Sarah knew about it. One problem I have with the Abraham/Issac story is that Sarah is completely left out of the picture. I love the thought that she also could have expressed her faith through allowing the sacrifice, rather than being deceived and pushed aside in the name of the Lord’s commandments.

  13. Now I’ve read all the comments, I see the story in a completely different light. I wish you could fill in the background information you’ve been hinting at, Theric.

  14. .

    I don’t know that it’s really my place to do so, but I’ll let Ben know that we’re still discussing it and if he will, he will.

  15. I hesitate to explain the background info on the story because I had such a specific idea in mind when I wrote the story and I like that it’s become much larger than my limited vision of it. But I also can’t resist talking about myself when given the opportunity, so I will, so long as you promise to take my view of the story as just one of several possibilities.

    Long, complicated story as short as possible: I’m gay. I grew up Mormon. Like many people who like to think of themselves as making some noble sacrifice for God, I tended to see Abraham as my patron saint. Just as he was asked to sacrifice his son, I was asked to sacrifice my desire to be with another man. Except, I realized, for two crucial differences: (1) in the end, Abraham did not actually have to make that sacrifice; and (2) while Abraham had to (or didn’t have to) make a single, one-time sacrifice, I saw myself as having to make that sacrifice over and over, every day I decided again not to pursue a homosexual relationship. So I wrote a story where Abraham did have to make the sacrifice, and he had to do it over and over, and because I was at a point in my life where I finally had to say, “I will not,” so did Abraham. If my Abraham comes across kind of self-righteous, bitter, and immersed in an unhealthy persecution complex, it’s because at the time I was all of those things. If he doesn’t come across that way, well, that’s probably for the good of the story. Apart from the bitterness, though, it was also about Abraham standing up for himself and making a decision he could own, and I like to think that really that’s what God wanted of him–why else would God wait until Abraham says no to end the Groundhog Day cycle?

    A longer version of that background story can be found, in reverse-order bits and pieces, here.

  16. “Great literature” thus may just be stories that have reached a critical mass of readers and thus have enjoyed reinterpretation through so many perspectives that they become more than merely one person’s story, but timeless things that grow and change and deepen, seemingly on their own.

    That’s an excellent insight. One of my biggest frustrations with The Old Testament is that this particular set of texts — at face value alone — don’t merit the amount of attention and analysis they’ve received over the years. Yet The Bible is more than the face value of the text: it’s the text plus two thousand years’ worth of layers of human interpretation. That point is at the center of my new review of The FOB Bible: A Great Riff on “The Good (??!) Book”.

  17. On this particular short story: I found it to be a powerful and insightful retelling. It’s interesting to learn Ben’s inspiration for it, but there’s one point that confuses me:

    I saw myself as having to make that sacrifice over and over, every day I decided again not to pursue a homosexual relationship. So I wrote a story where Abraham did have to make the sacrifice, and he had to do it over and over, and because I was at a point in my life where I finally had to say, “I will not,” so did Abraham.

    I though you were still choosing not to pursue a homosexual relationship, right? If it’s too personal a question (or if you’re not reading this thread anymore) it’s not necessary to respond…

  18. Ben,

    Stunning. Absolutely and utterly.

    Sorry for my effusion, I really like a good, poignant analogy.

    Thanks for sharing. I think seeing it both ways (and the multitude of facets and meanings and unintentional symbolism that any good story ends up containing) is a great gift.. to be able to live with conflict. And obviously, this is something you’ve had a lot of experience with…

  19. …it was also about Abraham standing up for himself and making a decision he could own, and I like to think that really that’s what God wanted of him

    This.

  20. Luisa and nosurfgirl: Thanks!

    MoJo: Um, that?

    Chanson: Yeah, I cut out a lot of details in that comment. I wrote this story when Jessie and I were separating with plans to divorce, at a time when I decided I was no longer willing to abstain from homosexual relationships because God said so. We separated for three months, during which time I cut off ties with the LDS church, got a better grip of who I was and what I believed about God and the universe, and then I decided that my desire to be with Jessie outweighed my desire to be with an as-yet-theoretical male partner. I guess I was really into fictional analogies at the time, because what made me realize this was a chapter in a novel I was reading. Jessie, who had never been a fan of the divorce plan in the first place, was willing to give our marriage another go. (I don’t think it can be said enough what an amazing human being she is.) What makes this current situation different for me is that I’m no longer making a sacrifice because God told me to; I’m just giving up one thing I want in favor of something else I want more.

    As a side note, Chanson, no it’s not too personal a question, but I will admit that I’m self-conscious in talking about this with you, taking into account, ahem, other blogs in which my marriage has been discussed. 😀 I worry that in trying to sum up complex situations I will yet again cast Jessie as the object of my whims and desires, but I assure you that every decision we’ve made we’ve made together, taking into account the best interests of both of us as well as our children. If there’s an exception to that, it was the decision to divorce, which like I said was never her idea and that was the thing that bothered me most about it.

  21. Apologies. Interwebz shorthand for:

    “I totally get that and I agree and thank you for saying it for me because that’s what I got out of the story even when I didn’t and don’t now know you at all, and I thought Abraham was RIGHT in choosing that because YES I thought that was what God wanted him to do, to release himself from his own hell.”

  22. Ben — That’s kind of what I thought it was, given what I know of your history. And of course I know exactly what you’re talking about with the latter point since that’s how I (virtually) met you in the first place. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s