Ever since the hot summer day many years ago that I spent my lunch hour traveling to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, to see the miracle of Shamokin — supposedly the image of Christ’s face lurking in the drapery of an altar cloth — I’ve been weirdly interested in the whole concept of religious relics and assorted miracles. As I recall, one we got to the church we were admonished to stare at the cloth without blinking until we witnessed the miracle. All we saw was some wishful fakery and a cloth that needed ironing. Our cynicism remained intact. On the ride back from Shamokin, an old coal town that had seen better days, we all expressed a certain relief that we hadn’t witnessed any sort of miracle, because that would have not only bewildered us but would also have thrown a highly complicating curve into our lives.
Christopher Buckley’s new novel The Relic Master provides a very funny riff on the whole subject of religious relics and miracles. More importantly, Buckley gleefully exposes all the fakery and big business that supported the trade. The story is set in the very competitive trade in religious relics that was a hallmark of Medieval Europe. The relic master himself is highly doubtful and even feels a bit guilty about the tawdry fakes, but he is surrounded by greedy customers desperate to score the next big coup. To quote Donald Trump, these customers are determined to lay their hands on something “yuge.” Thus, they are untroubled by the entirely fictional provenance of their religious trinkets. They don’t really care whether something is actually the finger of a saint or a shroud that covered Jesus. Why should they bother about such niceties? All they really seem to want is to acquire more religious stuff than their competitors and — no small point — make a ton of money off them? It is all glitz and dollars!
One of the hallmarks of a Buckley novel seems to be the presence of a corrupt yet highly likable hero. Dismas, a former mercenary and monk turned relic salesman, happily fits this bill in The Relic Master. There’s something oddly heroic about how Dismas, an entirely fictional character, goes about his trade. He is surrounded by a wonderful assortment of characters, many of them based on real historical figures, in this comic salute to the historical novel. There’s a lot of greed, violence and cynicism throughout the book, but what I remember most is Dismas and his motley crew as they set out on a ridiculous quest.
This book is a lot of fun, particularly since it features a wonderful array of historic dukes and clerics behaving badly. If you like funny religious satires, I also highly recommend Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a true classic.