Gospel in the Bardo

“It was the touching that was unusual.

                                    the reverend everly thomas”

What are ghosts in our stories? What are their goals, their hopes? Why aren’t they resting in peace? In this year’s Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost story—a historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor. A ghost love story. It is one of the strangest novels I have ever read, and I loved it.

Trust me, you need some context.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie.  The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment, in a D.C. cemetery, and Lincoln’s visit there after hours to hold the dead body of his son—which may or may not have happened in real life.  It’s the stuff of rumor it seems.

The cemetery holds a wide cast of characters, who we might call shades, or ghosts. They are given backstories and it becomes clear that they are each lingering, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. They are in denial, and it pegs them to this in between state (the bardo of the title), where they wait to have their life finished out. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick.  Soon he will recover and consummate his marriage with the wife he loves.  Roger Bevins III regrets having injured his wrists so violently.  He is sure someone will find him and revive him soon. Etc.

Ghosts are people who can’t admit that they’re dead.  That open secret haunts them.

For me, this raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: You were dead in your trespasses.  God diagnoses our state: dead.  Before we know him, we are in denial. Yet our hearts sometimes whisper that secret, and it haunts us.

In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures.  Some who have lingered give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. One night, though, Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.

He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a key turning point in the novel.  As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come—they come, but disconnected. If they do touch, it is roughly: to steal a body or mock it. But mostly, they never seek to touch.

“But this—this was different.

                        roger bevins iii

The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!

                        the reverend everly thomas


                        hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?

It was cheering. It gave us hope.

                        the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

                        roger bevins iii”

This broken father-love does not shrink away from embracing even death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up their deepest hopes. This broken-father love, I recognized it immediately. It is the same love that saved me.

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

The course of the novel is so much more than can be touched on here, and I encourage you to read it. But at its core, it holds out a vision of salvation for these ghosts: Willie receives broken-father love.  It tells him a truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. But in the end, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go – surely a blessing in the context of the book.

God’s love is so much greater. He is the Father of broken-love, the Christ weeping over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death, but to embrace him, and live.

This novel gave me renewed hope that not only do we need to hear this story, but that this story salves the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny - that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love. Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.