Category Archives: Literature

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

Good Wrinkles

Since I was late getting my Banned Book in order this year, I went to something that I could read within a week. While my bus time is generally reserved for non-fiction reading, I had to pick something fairly easy so that I could get back to more serious stuff. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was published the year I was born, and I’d never read it. It has ended up on banned and challenged lists every decade since it was published, so I was prepared for some radical stuff. Instead what I found was a well-written book for young readers that quoted the Bible quite a bit and even had a worldview that was appropriate to the Gospel of John. When the Murry children try to name the forces that fight the encroaching darkness, the first name offered is Jesus. The differences between good and evil are the subject of discussion among the characters and it’s pretty clear there’s an obvious distinction. So why is it a challenged book?

Never underestimate the sententiousness of the self-righteous. Objections to a medium, and characters—perhaps best understood as guardian angels in the book itself—perceived as witches, have led to the now familiar accusations of the occult. Here is a book that quotes the Bible, upholds the distinction of good and evil, and encourages children to fight for the former rather than the latter. Yet it also teaches tolerance. Parents who want children to think that only those like them can possibly be righteous start to shudder a little at that. The only good heretic is a dead heretic.

When I saw just how benign A Winkle in Time was, I had to think back over my own Bible. In addition to stories of horrendous violence, explicit sex, and with even a “witch” or two, the Bible contains diverse views. Paul argued with Peter in public, after all. Madeleine L’Engle was concerned about the book burning tendencies of Nazis. We now seem to think that the place for illiteracy is in the White House and, more recently, Alabama. Reading the news convinces me more and more each day that a steady diet of banned books is just the catholicon our society needs. Different viewpoints, like the rays of the sun, will shrink the mildew that finds its ways into dark corners, rotting the very fabric of our universe. A Wrinkle in Time may not sway adults in the same way it has engaged the wonder of children for the past half-century, but it is a start in a battle against darkness that is never-ending. There’s always time to read a banned book.

Sense or Ship

I can tell I’ve been too busy when I haven’t planned for Banned Book Week. A kind of unofficial holiday since, well, it’s about banned things, the point of this observation is that we should be free to read. A fairly large portion of the fiction I read anyway, at one point or another, ends up on the banned list. Not surprisingly, most banned books have diversity content—racial or sexual minorities portrayed in sympathetic ways. Trump has shown us clearly how dangerous such thinking can be. It’s well known that such perspectives are allied with some evangelical Christian interests, or, perhaps I should say, lack of tolerance. There are lots of ways of looking at the world out there, and many of them aren’t evil. I should’ve planned ahead.

Censorship implies a certain arrogance. One way of looking at things is right and all others are wrong. Although we all know that any logical system runs up against its limits (we call them paradoxes) we’re reluctant to let go of that which we suppose, with or without justification, to be right. Banning is an effort to control minds. It’s no coincidence that many of the titles on banned and challenged lists are intended for younger readers. Those who favor censorship want to close the eyes of the young and pretend the real world will just go away. Yes, many of the banned books are fiction, but fiction tells us truths. Those who ban books are uncomfortable with such truths. That’s not to say all literature is created equal, or that all banned books are great literature. As someone who writes fiction, though, I can attest how difficult it is to get it published. That in itself tells us something.

It’s banned book week and here I am without a banned book to read. I’ve got some ideas, of course. My wife and I both take on book reading challenges each year. One of this year’s books (at least) was a banned title, but one that I read too far in advance. Besides, although we have too many books in our apartment already, I used Banned Book Week as an allowance to go to the bookstore. What better way to fight literary fascism than to buy a book? The problem is deciding which one. The lists are long and grow longer each year. Intolerance, it seems, knows no limits. I’m about to do my civic duty for this time of year. I’m about to go to a bookstore and buy a banned book.

Clown King

Like many people, I enjoy a Stephen King novel from time to time. King has a talent for drawing you into his tales, and whether or not they’re scary you feel a kind of relief when they’re over. A few years back I read IT. I was prepared to be scared because many people talked about fears of bathrooms after reading it, and, of course, of the terrifying clown. Not being a fan of serialized television movies, I never saw the 1990 movie adaptation. Besides, reading a novel that long is a serious investment of time, and since I like to hear lots of different voices in my reading, I spread out the wealth. In any case, the novel didn’t scare me beyond the neighborhood bullies (who’ve since moved to Washington DC) and I moved on to other things. The new film adaptation has people talking about IT again, and clowns, and clowns always remind me of college.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was fashionable for Christians to clown around. Taking cues from Paul’s one-liner about being fools for Christ, evangelicals began to experiment with clowns as a means of witnessing. I got involved my freshman year at Grove City College. I researched clowns. Where had they come from? What was the proper way to do it? Was there a deeper meaning? A friend recently sent me a video from Origin of Everything on the subject. I see a lot has been added to the history that I once studied. The idea of the circus clown is one of the more recent innovations of a character that was, in origin, a bit frightening. In classic horror movie style, heavy makeup functions like a mask and we rely on faces to know if someone is friend or foe.

We were taught, in our rudimentary training, that clowns do not talk. To express yourself you had to exaggerate gestures. I learned that makeup did indeed free you from social constraints. The Christian clown, however, had to be good. We weren’t meant to scare anyone into heaven. As nights are growing longer and people’s thoughts are coming to grips with the end of summer, clowns make good companions in the dark. IT may not be King’s scariest novel, but he did understand that bullies and clowns are fears that never go away. And when you combine the two, and move them into the White House, vaunting white faces and corrosive social values, well, maybe it’s time to go to the movies and try to have artificial fears for a while.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?