I Am Herod

By Jay Smith

by Richard Kelly Kemick
Goose Lane Editions
2019/$22.95/240 pp.

Richard Kelly Kemick is an agnostic who decides to try out for a role in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play. It’s a lark. He’s starting to conclude he’s less a writer than a failed writer, his relationship with his girlfriend is in a rough patch—maybe a few months camped out in the badlands re-enacting the death of Jesus with a motley crew of volunteer actors is the answer?

Of course it is. Kemick makes his leap of faith, cast as Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas is something of a historical footnote to the death of Jesus—as one of the leaders of Galilee and Perea in the first century, he participated in condemning the son of God to death. He’s one of the figures that probably mean more to the average Christian than to the typical Calgarian urbanite, which is the company that Kemick keeps normally.

But I Am Herod is less about the historical details than a substrate for Kemick’s ambivalent relationship with Christian faith. The inquiry is set against this bizarre—and celebrated—Canadian Badlands Passion Play, or CBPP. It’s smack in an Alberta that exists, for city dwellers, at the periphery of consciousness, in a town known more for dinosaurs.

Cultural binaries—urban/rural, Christian/non-Christian—play through Kemick’s recounting. One of his anxieties is that his colleagues will discover he isn’t “really” Christian. Rather, he’s just a dithering agnostic with some Christianity in his backstory and a bunch of questions about life in the present. For an urban atheist reader, it’s a “Who cares?” But for Kemick, it’s angst. Throughout, there are outsider/insider codes that Kemick is bridging, uncomfortably. But these are distinctions those on the outside might struggle to appreciate.

The cast is a crew of impassioned eccentrics and straight-shooters with soap-operaesque backstories. Kemick befriends some of them, but it’s hard to keep track and not always clear what these individuals contribute to the story. Similarly, we learn at the outset that his relationship with his partner, Litia, is stumbling. But whenever she appears, they seem to get along fine. These dropped threads suggest this is more a “Guess how I spent my summer vacation?” than an investigation of relationships—between self and spouse or self and god.

But! Kemick has great comedic timing and he’s entertaining company for the book’s 200+ pages. If you’re into passion plays, curious about the CBPP, or a self-proclaimed agnostic who is considerably more concerned about spiritual well-being than you let on, grab a copy.

Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer and long-time AV reviewer.

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