In Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a minister named Peter is sent to a distant planet, Oasis, as a missionary to humanoid aliens – the Oasans. The drama on the planet is muted – a proportion of the Oasans have become committed “Jesus Lovers” and require only pastoring and preaching; Peter’s job is not the stuff of nineteenth-century missionary adventure books in which the bearer of God’s word must endure cannibals. Life for the humans on Oasis is a little boring but not particularly dangerous or terrible. Yet Peter can communicate with his wife, Bea, through a kind of email system and from her he learns of the growing tide of disasters besetting his home planet. As the Earth fall apart, he feels disconnected from it and from his wife. Continue reading
Tonight I attended the Perth Writers Festival opening address from novelist Lionel Shriver on Literature and Religion. I have long wanted to hear more about Shriver’s thoughts on religion, knowing that she is an atheist with a father who is a prominent theologian.
I had imagined she had at least had a period of belief in her childhood and youth only to reject it; but by her own account, she never believed. She began questioning Christianity by the age of eight and at thirteen had to be pulled (by her hair, she adds) to church.
For her, religious belief is incomprehensible, and that has why she has almost never written about it. (Her one sympathetic religious character, the elderly Gabriel in So Much For All That, loses his faith in God over the course of the novel.) While I feel atheism makes far more sense to me than to most people of faith (as in, I get why people are atheists), her lack of any belief in the possibility of God ever is a little incomprehensible to me, especially when she was brought up in a home steeped with God-talk.
She remarked at one point that religion takes away the ambiguity of the world, the mystery of existence, which is one of the pleasures of life. Of course, faith should have its own mystery and ambiguity. And her atheism could be seen to lack these qualities.
Shriver disproves a theory I’ve harboured in my mind: that it’s unintelligent fundamentalism which produces atheist children; her parents are both intelligent, engaged people, with, she says, high IQs. The moderate Presbyterian faith they brought her up in was not a fundamentalist one.
I was unsurprised by Shriver’s stridency against religion. Her writing is always strident, always serious (even when it’s trying not to be), and often didactic. She was all these things tonight. She also lived up to the strengths of her fiction – insightful and even generous as she spoke of the common ground she has defined between the way her father has lived his life and the way she’s lived hers.
I picture a different audience for this, my literary blog, than my theology blog. (Theology students, at least the ones at the library I work at, don’t read novels, except maybe Tolkien, to their great loss.) You, my imagined reader, are probably not a christian. In fact, you probably have a distaste for evangelicalism and for anyone who talks about the bible too much. There are good reasons for this. I am in sympathy with you. I have these two sides of me, that aren’t separate in my mind or soul, but are often separate socially – the literary world and the christian world.
But the two have to come together at the moment, because I’m writing a paper for the Newbigin Group (a theological discussion group) called ‘Beautiful Stories : writing novels for the kingdom’. In this paper, I have to use the framework for building for the kingdom laid out by Tom Wright in Surprised By Hope to talk about how my particular activity – writing – might be thought of as building for the kingdom.
Here’s a blurb on Wright’s book from the publisher:
Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death. For if God intends to renew the whole creation—and if this has already begun in Jesus’s resurrection—the church cannot stop at “saving souls” but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working for God’s kingdom in the wider world, bringing healing and hope in the present life.
While you, my intelligent reader, might be most suspicious of Christians who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, Wright uses the resurrection as the basis of Christian hope and action for justice, beauty and evangelism in the world. (You probably like the first two and not the third.) For Wright (and for me) God’s action in the world is not confined to the saving of some individual souls, whisked off to ‘heaven’ after death. Instead, God is at work redeeming, renewing the whole creation, which one day will culminate in an intervention when everything is finally set right.
You might remember weeks ago me quoting Julian Barnes piece on the fate of all writers:
For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning: fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. (Nothing to be frightened of : 225)
Yet the incredible claim that Wright makes is that not all art will pass away. For him, God has given us tasks to do here and now that are part of his/her ultimate plans. Part of the task artists have is to depict the beauty of creation – while taking seriously its woundedness and looking forward to its redemption. The picture he offers is of Christ’s resurrected body, still with the nail wounds in his hands – and not as something incidental to Christ, but as the means by which he is identified.
Wright doesn’t know how God will use art (or anything else) in his/her renewed heavens and earth. We have to do our bit, without yet seeing the masterplan. When the time comes, it will fit into place somehow.
A wonderful, comforting idea. But I can’t help thinking of the practicalities. It’s okay for me, writing literary fiction with claims to seriousness and meaningfulness. What about the genre writer writing another crime novel? Does their novel get forgotten or remembered?
Are novels transformed and redeemed themselves? Do they become what they should have been? Does God take their potential and fulfill it? (What would a novel look like edited by God? If the Bible is the book we have from him/her, God seems less interested in perfection and tidiness than we might expect.)
And who reads them? What form do they take? I hope it’s not anything like Borges’ Library of Babel, where very possible book, every combination of letters has been written; that is a kind of hell.
If you want to hear my paper, you’re welcome to come listen at Vose Seminary, 20 Hayman Rd Bentley on Monday 29 June at 7:30pm. Alternatively, stick around and I will be posting it here and on An Anabaptist in Perth.
Gilead / Marilynne Robinson (2004)
In 1954, told he is not long for this world, 74 year old Congregationalist pastor John Ames sets out to write a testament of his life for his seven year old son. Ames has lived in the Iowan town of Gilead all his life. It is a digressive testament, journal-like, added to day by day. It starts out in the past, focusing on the conflict between his pacifist father and his abolitionist grandfather, both ministers of the same church he now pastors. The second half focuses on the present return of his prodigal grandson, Jack Boughton, and Ames struggle to love Jack. In the end, love wins out and Jack confides his secret to Ames.
Robinson’s prose is careful, precise, close to perfect even as she writes in the cadence and idiom of an old man fifty years ago. It was twenty-four years since her previous novel and it feels like the sort of novel a writer might spend decades on.
It is wise and grace-filled. It is Christian in many senses, but perhaps most importantly because its heart is grace: grace is embedded in the narrator and the novel. (I don’t think Christianity is or should be simply grace at its heart, but I think the novel and the novelist might contend so.) It is a novel which shows a lot of love for people and the world, even in their ugliness and brokenness.
Ames’ grace contrasts with his grandfather’s ‘activism’ and his father’s ‘holiness’. Robinson is contrasting three streams of Christianity – what Richard Foster would call in Streams of Living Water the social justice, holiness and incarnational streams. For Ames’ grandfather, Christianity means justice at any cost, and he steals and shoots to achieve it. For Ames’ father, having no part in evil is what counts, and he leaves the church for a time during the war to sit with the pacifist Quakers.
Robinson privileges Ames’ type of Christianity – a moderate, grace-filled faith of small things. There’s less certainty and more mystery.
There are few novels that are both so Christian and so accomplished. There are evangelicals writing consciously Christian novels which are Christianised popular fiction. There are great writers (Updike and Greene, both now deceased; Winton) with Christian tendenancies or some measure of faith writing novels which have some Christian themes. But there are few writers writing great literature that are so drenched in a Christian worldview.
And yet having said that, I didn’t connect to the novel as much as I wanted to. I think it just comes down to my personal aesthetics of writing, that this isn’t the kind of book I like to read best. Perhaps it’s the lack of particular kind of narrative drive I miss. Perhaps I like less saintly narrators with more ambition and sin to their name.
Last year, Robinson published a follow-up novel from the perspective of Jack. I’m looking forward to reading it.
I’ve revamped my other blog, http://perthanabaptists.wordpress.com . It’s now called ‘An Anabaptist in Perth’. I’ve made a few posts in the last week, given it a new template, pruned the categories and updated the blogroll.
For the forseeable future, I think I’m going to be posting to it more than to this one. I’ve been living in this dreamworld where I read too many novels (not even writing that much) and not thinking enough about all the questions of faith which I need to explore. So I’m going to be reading less fiction in 2008, hopefully writing more, and spending more time on theology and faith. Working in my new job as librarian at the Baptist Theological College will help with this shift.
The Perth Anabaptists site started out as the blog for Perth Anabaptist Fellowship, the house church which was such a big part of my life but disbanded in April 2007. I imagined originally that lots of people would contribute to it, that it’d be a multi-voiced blog reflecting our theological ideas about everyone having a say. That didn’t work out. Rather than start again, I kept on contributing to it occasionally. Now it’s time has come properly.
A book of letters written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta reveals for the first time that she was deeply tormented about her faith and suffered periods of doubt about God.
“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,” she wrote to the Reverend Michael van der Peet in September 1979.
…”I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God – tender, personal love,” she wrote to one adviser. “If you were (there), you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy’.”
Reading this makes me feel both encouraged and discourged. Encouraged that she was just like me. And discouraged that she was just like me. (I should qualify ‘just like me’. I am not devoting my life to poor people in Calcutta. But ‘like me’ in suffering periods of doubt.)
Do we want our saints, our heroes, to be so sure of their faith that it makes us think they – and, by extension, we – must be right? Or do we want them to be vulnerable like us? Struggling along?
I doubted a lot when I was seventeen, eighteen. I thought it would never end. It did. For seven years after that, I experienced God in a way that made me feel strong in my faith. I had found something amazing, and I had no problem believing it. And then, in the last year, the doubts have come back. And sometimes I think they will never end. But then – in small ways – over the last week I’ve been experiencing God in fresh ways.
The story of William Wilberforce’s parlimentary fight against slavery in Britain and his marriage to Emily.
I was inspired by the film. I didn’t care how much director Michael Apted was manipulating me, I was barracking for William Wilberforce, I was angry at the capitalist forces which made slavery happen in the first place. I was proud that this man was a Christian.
I wanted to make a difference like he made a difference. Looking back from where we are, slavery seemed clear as such an abhorrence, the greatest evil that needed fighting. But that moral clarity wouldn’t have existed in the 1790s, not for most people. And we can’t have that ‘moral clarity’ about our own times. It takes someone with prophetic imagination, a man or woman who can see the evils that have been naturalised.
And so what is the equivalent today that we should be fighting for? I’m not sure; I don’t have enough of a prophetic imagination. There’s too much grey in any issue I can think of. It’s clearer for my wife, and I can see where she’s coming from – the virtual slavery of the two-thirds world, making stuff for the first world for a pittance.
Add to this all the related evils of the System: global warming, war, greed.
I read the Last Battle – C.S. Lewis’s final Narnia book – twice, but I never noticed the strong suggestion that the humans who have come to Narnia have been killed in a train crash. I found out this was the case after reading it as a casual aside in a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
It seems that all the Narnia ‘children’ – barring Susan, who’s rejected Aslan’s ways – are on the same train, having met up. Conveniently, this means that they all die at the same time and appear in Narnia simultaneously, where they are in high demand for the last battle.
If Narnia is the afterlife, then the idea is this: we die because we’re needed in the afterlife. This is a very comforting idea. My Granny died soon after Ron Pop because he was lonely in the afterlife and wanted her there as well. Perhaps some heavenly band needed Ian Pop to play drums, and that’s why he died of lung cancer in his early seventies. But I don’t know what God wanted with Mark Sandman, lead singer of Morphine, so young nor my favourite theologian, John Howard Yoder, who should have been given another twenty years to amaze the world. And then why such high demand for people in the afterlife during wars and epidemics?
Well, I might respond, these people were dying anyway, and it just so happens that God manages to make good the tragedy of their death by creating a reason for it – invisibly to us who are left behind.
Okay, I could almost live with that, but I’ve got a more serious and sustained objection. I don’t believe afterlife is lived in an invisible realm running parallel to this one like Narnia. I believe that the afterlife is resurrection, that it takes place on an Earth made right. Whatever existence we might have immediately after death, it is but a shadow, a waiting for the time of our resurrection with incorruptible bodies on a new Earth.
C.S. Lewis, I’m sure, never meant me to read his eschatology too literally. But I do think that a lot of Christians see ‘heaven’ as a Narnia-like realm in its basic disconnection from Earth.
People talk so much about life being a journey that it’s a standard way to talk and think about our lives.
But is life like a journey?
Journeys have a destination. Journeys are about getting from one place to another. Sure, they’re more than that; we should enjoy the scenery as we go. But in the end, if there isn’t somewhere we are headed, then we don’t set out on a journey.
Life doesn’t have a simple destination like that – unless it’s death. And death isn’t a culmination, a completion of life so far.
Unless you’re Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
Or maybe even in the Christian story – if death in Christian thought is not a destination as such, then it is at least the transition point to the Christian destination. Maybe it is the expectation of eternal reward or punishment at the end of life that has pushed this metaphor of life as a journey.
And that’s a very individualistic Christianity – it doesn’t factor in Christian hope for the renewal of the Earth, for the establishment of God’s reign on Earth.