Good Ground

Young adult literature gives me hope.  The quality, speaking for a guy who grew up in a small town with limited choices, has improved astronomically over the past several years.  One of my favorite (adult) novels is Wuthering Heights, and so it’s no surprise that I found Christy Lenzi’s debut novel Stone Field quite engaging.  Set in a different time and place, and with a younger readership in mind, it retells the story of forbidden love based on xenophobia.  The message has never been more relevant.  Although it avoids explicit language, it does include adult situations and features a strong female protagonist in an age of explicit gender inequality.  During the chaos leading up to the Civil War, star-crossed lovers are set against one another because prejudice is a most effective poison.

While not a religious story, the iconic Bible plays a large role in it.  One of the main characters is a preacher, but even without him Catrina Dickinson’s family and friends are ready to quote the Good Book as unquestioningly as a Republican (with my apologies to fiscally conservative friends untainted by this aberration).  This is beyond a realistic portrayal of American life of the 1860s, it reflects the way that many people continue to think of Scripture.  Nevertheless, in one crucial episode of the story set in the church at Roubidoux, Missouri, the iconic role of the Bible becomes clear.  It is deftly woven throughout the story in a way that might serve as a lesson for modern writers seeking verisimilitude.  Many authors fear to address religion, but the Good Book is alive and well in these post-frontier days.

Often the desire to avoid religious motivations leads to stories that lack a key element of the social fabric.  In my own attempts at fiction religion is seldom absent.  It is the way average people live.  Lenzi presents Cat as being aware of but unwilling to be cowed by the Bible.  Indeed, as the story unfolds with several tragic events (remember, Wuthering Heights) she demonstrates that Catrina knows but doesn’t accept the strictures of Scripture.  The issue of theodicy hangs heavily in the atmosphere of the novel.  To me, this makes stories appear more life-like than tales that simply suppose religion doesn’t impact people.  When tragedy strikes, many people question what God, or their stand-in for the divine, is doing.  Anyone who’s asked “why me?” has directed that question into the world of theodicy, whether intentionally or not.  Reading this story while going through a family illness may have drawn this to the surface, but it underscores just how effective it may be for a realism that is otherwise lacking, whether in fact or young adult fiction.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Dark Theology

I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another.  Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug.  But flies keep coming back.  They won’t be ignored.  Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery.  I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects.  America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me.  Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King.  Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds.  Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long  pedigree and almost canonical status.

This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book.  Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing.  I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling.  Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund.  Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree.  King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction.  We dismiss such observations at our peril.  Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?

Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something.  As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers.  Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there.  I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life.  One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers.  In this field, answers are merely speculations.  We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions.  Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds.  We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.

Utterly Indifferent

One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity.  It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels.  Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory.  From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it.  It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.

The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth.  Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God.  Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth.  One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant.  Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars.  Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.

Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power.  Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story.  Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories.  Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens.  Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes.  Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion.  None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.

Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?