The Mysterious Stranger

A number of Mark Twain’s lesser-known stories remain virtually unheard of – not because they aren’t good – but because they’d offend too many people.

His short novel The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1916, certainly qualifies in this regard. It’s not going to be on any of the official reading lists of the various public schools named after him. And it’s an absolutely hilarious and caustic little paperback that you need to get familiar with.

This book will be of interest to anyone suspicious of religion in general. For non-theists that have grown accustomed to the standard academic treatments of the reasons for rejecting belief, as well-written as many have been of late, this book provides a fresh perspective and change of pace. The force of the satire that this irreverent, scathing genius brings down upon the entire Christian conception of God and Moral Sense is really something to behold.

In late sixteenth century Austria, a group of boys meet an angel that has appeared one day. The angel’s name is Satan (no, not the Satan, merely his cousin, hence the same family name). Satan gives them an education, both through words and deeds, about some Ultimate Truths. Here’s a brief excerpt of his examination of God Himself:

… a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell – mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy time seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

In this 120-page work you can feel a lifetime of the great man’s anger, frustration, and contempt for so much baloney (baloney that was taken even more seriously in Twain’s day than it is in ours) on every page. This story belongs in the same class as Voltaire’s Candide and Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan as the best of that rare breed: atheist-themed fiction.

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