Some interesting and challenging food for thought from Anglican Bishop NT Wright. If I recall correctly, I am pretty sure Canon J. John once spoke at my church in Melbourne, Australia years ago.
Thursday, 5 November 2015
It’s not a morality tale, I remind myself as I sip my long black coffee and tap out some new dialogue. I don’t want to write some thin, barely-disguised thesis on the merits of social order or religious structures, nor do I want to write a manifesto on rejecting the ruling polis through sheer hard work and dogged individual agency within a hostile system governed by two-dimensional bourgeoisie. I want to write a story that’s just that, a story – a series of events that occur to a group of connected individuals, and the exploration of the meaning they derive from these events. Even if they will respond and react differently to me, the author, if I were in the same setting.
Even though I’m writing about topics that interest me, topics like religion, politics, social power and control, these are not the central issues of my story. Under all that I want characters with their own interests and motivations that might sometimes align with the interests of socially constructed powers, and sometimes might not. The individuals in the story have varying levels of autonomy and agency that they can express within their social system.
For many years I was strongly encouraged (if not forced) only to read Christian books by Christian authors from the approved Christian bookstores. Strongly encouraged in the sense that I was often told, “read this, you’ll love it,” in a tone that suggested that I’d better love it or else. Forced in the sense that as a stay at home married parent and part-time university student with no personal income, I was never in a position to buy books for myself. When the religious powers that be threaten serious spiritual and membership consequences if they don’t get their tithes and offerings and gift offerings and building fund offerings and missions giving and Christian school fees from the struggling single income family who can barely afford to put food on the table, luxuries like books are few and far between. To get to the library meant driving, too, as the nearest library was well beyond walking distance for a mum with a toddler and baby in tow; and as we had only one car that the husband used to get to his job an hour away in the city, opportunities to visit the public library were rare. In fact, the only bookstore within walking distance was the one owned by my then-church. At the risk of this sounding like a petty first world problem well, maybe it is – but literacy and access to information and knowledge and ideas is surely something all people need. Books not war and all that. Books are more than just an escape or a diversion, they’re a means of growth. I often think that if I had spent as much time on real books as I did on facebook in the last decade, I’d probably be a lot wiser. And definitely a lot happier.
I think of the lyrics from the Rage Against the Machine song “Bulls on Parade,” that said,
“Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an moving
They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells…”
Of course, I’m not going to get all my politics from song lyrics – though I can probably point the finger squarely at Rage Against the Machine and blame them for setting the foundations that led me to quit studying Education and Journalism, where I would’ve at least been employable, to Sociology, an education of the mind at the intersection of politics and history and philosophy… and no career money in it whatsoever. (I joke, I joke…) But I agree with their notion that a place without books is a “mind cemetery.”
As for having no access to “secular” books and all their supposedly evil ideas from roughly the time of my conversion in 2002 through until I finally went back to university, it’s hard to explain to observers who thought I was just intensely enthusiastic about my faith that deep down I was hurting for the loss of my books. I mean, I was genuinely enthusiastic, but I also wasn’t allowed to be anything other than wildly enthusiastic. To be any less than excited about Jesus was to be lukewarm, and at risk of being spit out by God Himself. It says it right there in black-and-white, Revelation 3:16, which I note is a whole lot more scary than John 3:16’s reference to God’s love for the whole world. The observers – both family and friends – may not have realised the extent to which I was controlled within that system by a handful of laypeople who had significant influence over my husband and I: me as a vulnerable and newly enthusiastic Christian and him as someone thoroughly raised and indoctrinated in that system (my prior twenty years of involvement in the Catholic church as regular mass attender and church volunteer were off-handedly dismissed by them, of course, as though it were entirely irrelevant).
This control spread over every aspect of my life. I was made to throw out my “secular” books, my university materials pertaining to feminism (of course, as I did a degree in feminism that meant most of it), my “immodest” clothes, and my “satanic” music collection. I had to dress in a way more befitting a mother: my jewellery was gone, my earrings, my make up, and there was talk that I ought to cut off my long hair (it’s too vain and impractical). I drew the line at that one.
Eventually I fought back against this drive to strip me of my personality and my autonomy in Jesus’s name, but by then many of my favourite books and nearly my entire music collection was gone. When my life and interests were withheld by the small group of people who controlled my access to, and use of, money, I gave up. I gave up on writing, on playing music (I used to play multiple instruments), I gave up on drawing, too, because my drawings were not adequately spiritual for these individuals. Drawings of Unicorns don’t resonate with the spiritually minded (though in the past they were sometimes used as a symbol of the purity of Christ). I lost most of my friends as I went from a vaguely interesting, introverted yet quietly sociable, intellectual, widely-read, open minded and creative person to a robot void of all personality. “Less of me and more of Jesus,” as we were told, as if that were somehow a core tenet of Biblical faith. Sometimes I wonder how I could’ve so easily complied, but the heady combination of severe-yet-undiagnosed mental illness, my enthusiasm for the discovery of a newfound love for Jesus, and my desire to be accepted into the community of fellow believers, not to mention being a newlywed and trying to negotiate the complexities of a new relationship and fit in with the husband’s intensely-Christian friends and family – well, basically, I ceased to exist.
There is a point to this. I guess in some ways the books I was allowed to read in those days are representative of that whole era of my life. Now I really did enjoy discovering the Christian book world and I haven’t thrown it out completely, though the authors and books I choose to read today have changed. My enthusiasm was genuine and my feelings towards church were very real. I read different styles of Christian spirituality books. Ten years ago I was buying up on writers like Frank Peretti, whose Pentecostal novels really are quite good, as long as you exercise reasonable caution and don’t reconstruct your entire theology on his intriguing fictional ideas; and charismatic/Pentecostal (not certain of his denominational affiliation) writer John Bevere, hoping that his writings would help me escape eternal conscious torment in everlasting Hellfire. In contrast, last month I voluntarily swung by the Christian book store to buy the Anglican Bishop NT (Tom) Wright’s book Surprised by Hope as a gift, and a collection of writings by the 12th century Catholic mystic, philosopher and composer abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The books I read ten years ago have virtually nothing in common with the books I read today, except for a common lexicon of specific terms like “Jesus” and “prayer,” but even then what they mean by this sometimes seems worlds apart. The books I read today breathe life instead of fear into me. Though the books I was reading upheld the framework of a very specific variant of non-denominational Pentecostalism in which I found myself, it was likewise books that led the way out again. When I finally did start going to the library again, three wonderful books let the light shine in through the ontological cracks: The Inner Experience, a posthumously published text by Thomas Merton; The Dark Night of the Soul; and the writings of 14th Century English mystic and anchorite nun Julian of Norwich.
It was the morality tale novels I read back then – when my reading content was being scrutinised and policed by my self-appointed “superiors” within the church community – that have really turned me off the notion of a morality tale. While I read many of these stories, and there were some real gems of stories published by Christian writers, so don’t think I’m throwing them all out; there were some that really began to grate on me. Novels written as blatantly obvious Gospel allegories, for example, without the nuance and magic of CS Lewis’s Narnia. Or stories where the heroine is unwaveringly pure, wholeheartedly non-sexual (not even in a fleeting thought) and whose intention to marry is entirely about selflessly fulfilling the mandate that it is not good for man to be alone, and who somehow sails through the evil worldly world with its myriad conspiracies against Jesus without once having a bad thought… basically, a cardboard cut out of a human who moves through a comically evil society that looks like a set of stereotypes of left wing political beliefs. Or stories that uncritically romanticise certain Christian sects, as representative of some imagined “good old days.” Or stories that draw heavily from specific culture-and-time-bound theological practices and present them in such a way that they’re accepted as truthful representations of Christian eschatology (but I need not name names on this one).
Of course, I have nothing against stories with ethical concepts and philosophical ideas woven through the narrative. For example, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky left me a changed person: that novel, somehow, communicated to me a love for a faith fully expressed in love and peace. The character Alyosha, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery, had this enduring faith that navigated the chaos of his family’s very imperfect lives and left me wanting to know more of the God that inspired him to live a spiritually richer life than the one given to them by their deadbeat father. Yet it seemed to me that he treated his brothers with incredible patience and kindness, despite their diametrically opposed philosophies. In this story, while there were morals, of a sort, the depth of the characters’ personalities, the strength of their emotions, the complicated results of their actions, the pain they suffered and the occasional joys they experienced despite their sorrows – these were the things that kept me reading. Were there strongly Christian religious and spiritual themes woven through the story? Absolutely; but they were included in such a way that they seemed the natural outflow of the characters’ personalities and experiences. And the non-religious characters were not demonised or singled out as the “Other.” The complexity and paradox evident in real mortal lives was present in Dostoyevsky’s characters.
Another one is Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice, which I haven’t read in years (and certainly wasn’t allowed to in my ultra-Christian heydays) but which despite having a mostly “evil” set of protagonists – vampires and demons – ultimately presents them as complex individuals responding as best they can to the particular set of supernatural circumstances they encounter. I really appreciate Rice’s ability to write complex characters with a huge variety of motivations, interests and personality traits, all of them a mix of good and bad, so often relatable, and her refusal to reduce them to stereotypes. In the very wonderful The Wolves of Midwinter, which since I first read it last year is now one of my favourite Christmas stories, the priest Father Jim – the brother of the main character – is never presented as an anti-Catholic stereotype. Nor is he a two-dimensional character who only does priestly things as though he were a mass-saying robot. He is a very human character, one grappling with the stress of hearing confession from people who’ve experienced all kinds of horrors and from trying to do good in helping addicts in a corrupt society where powerful interests oppose his efforts. I love that even though Rice’s personal spiritual journey has led her out of the walls of organised religion, she never reduces her characters within religious contexts to moral examples, but allows them the freedom to have their own experiences and beliefs. In so many ways I wish I could emulate the writing of Anne Rice. Ever since I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a teenager, her style and subject material has been a huge inspiration for me in my own writing journey.
When I write I hope that I resist the urge to limit my characters to mere moral examples in a world orchestrated to prove the point that the exact same worldview to which I ascribe happens to be the correct one. In the hilarious How Not To Write A Novel by Mittelmark and Newman, they make reference to stories that are written in such a way as they seem little more than the author’s own worldview communicated by proxy via their characters – they give the example of a very sympathetic male protagonist who despite his clear efforts to be an all-round wonderful human being, is confronted by the prejudiced, cruel and abhorrent behaviours of a group of feminist women living next door. The agenda in that kind of fiction is pretty clear. If I was writing agenda-laden stories, all my characters would be vegetarian intersectional ecofeminists with a penchant for heavy metal and a love/hate relationship with organised religion and who would find ways to insert references to Trinitarian Christian Universalism into conversations. Luckily for anyone who might read my stories, I try very consciously to not write blatantly autobiographical characters.
PS I must highlight, as always, that while it may often seem that I am attacking all of Christianity everywhere at everytime, that is absolutely not the case. I still seek to follow Jesus Christ, self-identify as a Christian, and I appreciate the humble, kind, God-loving friends I’ve made in my years of involvement in church and respect their faith and greatly appreciate the unsung heroes of Christendom who serve Jesus with honesty and integrity. The thing I am critiquing here is a very specific and statistically unusual yet very influential variant on Christian belief that has only existed within very recent history, within certain cultural contexts; and even then, I am not seeking to negate all that I have experienced within that system. I am merely attempting to process through a sometimes traumatic decade of my life in which this type of Christianity has played a very central role, and sort the good from the bad. I still believe in the teachings of Jesus, and that they are wonderful when shared by loving and gracious believers and when they are expressed as faithfully as possible to the original intent of His teachings, and I love the Bible and seek to read it in light of Jesus’s teachings. I do not think that being a Christian means we shouldn’t critique the socio-historical-political recently invented aspects of this religious system out of an understandable but false attempt to preserve the perception of unity. Every generation of the church needs to confront its damaging social structures and dysfunctional aspects as well as embracing its goodness – it doesn’t need to be a false dichotomy of “for or against.” Only then can we walk in integrity.
PPS I didn’t manage to work on my Nanowrimo yesterday. I made the mistake of saying, “Just a quick look at facebook won’t hurt.” Ten open browser tabs and a whole lot of fleeting annoyance at people’s opinions later, I really was my own worst enemy when it came to writing.
Current word count: 9,129 words.
Today’s writing soundtrack: 90125 by Yes.
Here’s another N. T. Wright lecture video. I often enjoy listening to these while I’m drawing or painting.
This post is part of an ongoing series on this blog sharing videos of religion-themed topics.
Here are the books currently taking up space in my reading pile. The top three are from the library and I’m yet to make any real progress in them. On the bottom, I’m borrowing a friend’s copy of Surprised By Hope. I bought Human Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen just recently and so far it’s incredible. Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories, selected by Cecily Gayford, was my birthday present to myself last year and it is fantastic. It includes ghost stories by such authors as E. Nesbit, Ruth Rendell and Rudyard Kipling. This is my third time reading through the collection, many of which come from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There is just something about the way late 19th Century writers composed their tales that really draws me in. Without having intended it, I have found that roughly half of my most-favourite books come from Europe in the 19th Century, usually Russia and England, but some from other countries, too.
Hence the fact I picked up the 1830s and 1840s short story collection by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (or, if you prefer the Ukrainian translation of his name, Mykola Vasyliovych Hohol). Now, I won’t enter into the debate of his ethnicity or nationality, as those discussions are beyond me. Because my husband is part-Ukrainian I find it interesting learning about Eastern Slavic history, and have found that these old Russian novels are a really interesting insight into the culture. I particularly love the writings of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are novels that were life-changing for me.
So far I haven’t read much of Gogol’s works. I have read some of Dead Souls though I’m fairly certain I never finished that. I have also watched two different film adaptations of his story Viy (Вий), a somewhat terrifying horror story. The 1967 film is said to be quite faithful to the original story, which I haven’t yet read. I also saw the 2014 version at a Russian film festival held at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia. I must’ve been one of five non-Slavic people in the whole audience (the others being a handful of our Anglo-Celt and Anglo-Asian friends – I love our multicultural city!). The 2014 film had rather steam punk vibes about it, and plot-wise had some similarities with the 1967 film, but only loosely so, and was a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and English elements. It also, in my mind, inspired moustache goals that I have since insisted the Husband fulfil. He’s not convinced.
The other two books on the pile, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the lost world of the Celts by Graham Robb is, as far as I can see, a history of Ancient Gaul and Druidry and the spread of Christianity through ancient Europe. Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world by Tim Low is an evolutionary history of the unique and diverse birdlife of our continent. I look forward to delving into these books.
Cox, B. and Cohen, A. (2015). Human Universe. London: WilliamCollins.
Gayford, C. (2013). Tales from the dead of night: thirteen classic ghost stories. London: Profile Books.
Gogol, N. (translation from 2014). Petersburg tales. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics.
Low, T. (2014). Where song began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin.
Robb, G. (2013). The discovery of Middle Earth: mapping the lost world of the Celts. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Wright, T. (2007). Surprised by hope. London: SPCK.