If God Were A Bear

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. John 6:15

When the Power of God appears in earthly form, he cannot be driven here and there like a cow, or where would be the wonder and the awe? Richard Adams, Shardik

For a change of pace, I’ve been reading some fiction lately. You’ve probably heard of Watership Down (or even seen the animated movie). From the same author, Richard Adams, also comes the epic novel Shardik. I was introduced to Shardik as a teenager (by another Outhouse Sitter, in fact), and I’ve read it a couple times; but this is the first time I’ve read it since I discovered the Reformation, and a whole new level of biblical themes are popping out at me.

Shardik is about influence vs. exile: the Ortelgan people are stranded on a backwards island at the edge of the glorious empire which they formerly ruled, but which they lost through blasphemy and sacrilege. Shardik is about awaiting a redeemer: in their exile, “all children … pray for that good night when Shardik will return.” Shardik is about incarnation: “If God were a bear…” Most of all, Shardik is about glory vs. the cross; about men co-opting God to serve their own agendas: what if John 6:15 had gone the other way? What if the Power of God could be driven here and there?

When the Power of God appears in the form of the great Bear, the Ortelgans instantly seize the opportunity to reclaim their promised land: “Bekla is a city more rich and marvelous than a mountain made of jewels. It is ours by ancient right and Shardik has returned to restore it to us.” And indeed Shardik does “lead” his people back to power — partly by miraculous exhibitions of the Power of God (or are they coincidences?), and partly by men driving the Power of God here and there. The chief driver is the lowly hunter who first discovered the great bear, and found himself thrust (like John the Baptist) into the role of his herald, eventually to become priest-king of the reclaimed empire.

But it turns out that it was maybe not Shardik’s will to restore the Ortelgans to their promised land, as they eventually lose their tenuous grip on reclaimed power, and the priest-king flees the city. The rest (the bulk) of the book is about his quest — through humiliating trials — to find Shardik, and through him, to find atonement and redemption for his sins against the Power of God. To quote the introduction of the latest edition, Shardik is “in essence, a Christian book told without a shred of Christian apparatus.”

This entry was posted in Culture, Culture War, Review, Theology of the Cross/glory, Two-kingdoms. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to If God Were A Bear

  1. Zrim says:


    While I’m not a huge fan of literature that attempts Christian analogy (sorry, C.S. and J.R.R.), I have always found fiction to be the superior discipline for getting an honest view of humanity. Second only to Reformed catechism, of course.

  2. Carter says:

    This sounds excellent! I will have to look it up.

    Zrim, just for the record, Tolkien didn’t care for analogy and repudiated the idea that the LotR was such. Just FYI 😉

    As to fiction, why do you think that is?

  3. RubeRad says:

    Christian analogy

    At this point, I am unsure whether Adams was Christian, or attempting Christian Analogy. The quote from the introduction suggests that any apparent Christianity in the book is accidental.

  4. Zrim says:


    Re fiction, I’m not sure. My guess is that it is one discipline that isn’t self-consciously trying to analyze the human condition, it just portrays it. Something about that has always seemed better able to capture humanity.

  5. RubeRad says:

    Besides, who says authors don’t self-consciously try to analyze the human condition? I think it’s just that literature is a 2nd kingdom activity that has legitimate, meaningful value. Don’t you feel the same way about U2?

  6. Bruce Settergren says:

    Except for that part where he said he came like a thief in the night.

  7. Zrim says:

    It was just a guess. But fiction writing seems altogether different from city transforming. At least Raymond Carver writes good short stories, Tim Keller can’t even reduce crime. And maybe I’m just saying that portraying is particularly powerful.

    But can’t having legitimate, meaningful value include saying something true about humanity, which is to say accords with biblical truth?

  8. Paul says:

    >>While I’m not a huge fan of literature that attempts Christian analogy (sorry, C.S. and J.R.R.)<<

    So I guess J.R.R.'s claims to the contrary don't work for an enlightened postmodern like yourself? So long as *you* see it there, that's what matters. It is *you* who determines the meaning of the story, banish the author(!), for we can never get into his mind.

  9. Paul says:

    Note well Tolkien’s last interview:


    When asked if he intended Frodo to be Christ-like, he says, “No.”

    When asked about allegory, he says he “dislikes it where ever he smells it.”

    Tolkien drew more from Greek and Norse mythology. He included general principles than could be known from natural law. He thought theology should be left to the experts and didn’t appreciate Lewis’ popularizing of it. He thought you would distort theology of leave important things out of it.

  10. Zrim says:



    That leaves us with C.S. It’s not a matter of being an enlightened postmodern who dismisses authorial intent, etc., it’s just that The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe kinda sucks.

  11. Paul says:

    Zrim, I didn’t think you were a postmodern, I was just getting in some jabs 🙂

  12. RubeRad says:

    Yes, that’s exactly the point of my post

  13. RubeRad says:

    I think Lewis also actually disclaimed “allegory” for Narnia. I seem to recall him making some fine distinction between allegory and symbolism, but my memory is foggy (except I definitely remember not exactly understanding what it was that was said!)

  14. RubeRad says:

    I think that phrase is easily up-chalkable to the general cultural influence of the Bible. Would you complain if Adams used the phrase “his teeth were set on edge”?

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