Archives for category: Books

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There’s a war going on between my old and new selves. My nostalgia-tinged childhood is weeping with joy while the most recent, progressively enlightened iteration of myself sulks in shame. Ender’s Game is finally becoming a movie. In the near-decade since I first cracked open the novel, that story’s been one of the few I’ve bothered to re-read, and at vital points in my life too. After my parents announced their divorce. Again to comfort me through my first real romantic rejection. Once more right before leaving to start collegiate life.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Card has strong feelings about sexuality. Hell, let’s be candid. Card hates gays. He’s not ashamed of it, and he’s quite outspoken.

I think it’s safe to say that my coevals and I aren’t entitled to have lukewarm feelings about rights for those who are gay. We’re either convinced of the absolute immorality of non-hetero sex or we’re fervent supporters of equal rights. Myself, I’ve been brought into contact with too many wonderful individuals irrevocably damaged (but not impaired) by prejudice. I’ll always remember the day one of my best friends came out to me. I didn’t know how to tell him I already knew; he’d come out to another of our best friends months before. He’d waited to tell me because of my Christian faith. Never before had it occurred to me that a faith-label could create distance, could drive a wedge between me and the people I care about.

But the question here isn’t whether Card is wrong; I’ve got my mind settled on that issue. What still needs to be decided is whether it’s “wrong” for me to have this kind of pants-wetting giddy anticipation for the Ender’s Game movie, even if it’s written by an unapologetic bigot. Can art be separated from the artist?

Art is never one specific message. Even for something like Piss Christ. Every audience bring something to the art experience. It’s probably the scariest thing about being a writer. I always know that what I’ve written makes sense in my head. But to see it make sense in someone else’s head, that’s the true test.

I wouldn’t argue that a piece of art should necessarily mean something different to every person who views it. Communication of a consistent message is, I think, one sign of a great work. However, it is also nice if something can have relevance to more than just the current generation. Such a feat takes substance. It’s a sign of genuine creation, rather than commentary. The sight of The Creation of Adam will hopefully evoke something within hearts for generations to come. With any luck, we’ll forget about Jersey Shore in a few more months.

It wasn’t reading that made me question my faith. Especially not the His Dark Materials series. For those unfamiliar, the HDM series was one of the many fantastic young adult novels which rode the Harry Potter wave to popularity in the past few decades. Among the highlights of the series: a quest to kill God. It’s successful. To the young me, raised in a church, but armed with only the most rudimentary apologetic tools, (granted, these tend to be the most effective) I still had no problem with this. If he could be killed, then he wasn’t the “real” God. Dilemma solved. Fourteen year old me put the stunt out of mind and returned to the business of enjoying a wonderfully imaginative series. And in the process, I saw beautiful examples of what God’s love meant to me. Magical “dust” came into being when people lived good lives, an amazing product of our own free agency. In my own vaguely complicated way, I saw this dust as a compelling picture of the wisdom behind a theological, as opposed to material, conception of the world. Was this Philip Pullman’s intention? Yes and no. Consult unbiased commentators like snopes or Pullman’s own website, and you’ll see Pullman unapologetically discuss his disgust with religions in general, and with certain actions taken by the largest faith institutions. explicitly talks about his desire to promote atheism through his novels.

But another, more nuanced intent can be seen as well. Commenting on the Anglican Church, Pullman explores some of his own, if not religious, at least spiritual instances in life. He acknowledges how the subtle nurturing of the church is an undeniable part of who he has become as a person. Even as an enlightened adult, you cannot unlearn those memorized prayers, forget those moments in the pew with stern, stolid grandparents, or tamp down the shared identity of having at some point participated in worship. Those not raised in the church are hard-pressed to hide from religion’s media bombardment. Pullman, while fed-up with theological efforts to control and stifle, admits to having had experiences of his own which he can only describe as “intense, transcendental feelings.” Even if not of an organized bent, he can at least see how the spiritual plays an inescapable part in the life of any person not raised by wolves.

For me, I ultimately took comfort from Pullman’s work. My image of God became more malleable, more resilient against a world best equipped to wash away those who cling too tightly. A quote from his website suggests Pullman might be more than a little okay with my liberal interpretation of his books: “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”

Does this always benefit the artist? My most dearly held example of art being turned against the will of the artist is the story of Anthony Burgess‘s A Clockwork Orange. The book would later be immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in his 1971 film of the same name as one of the most flamboyantly vulgar mainstream movies of our time. The masses never could overcome the deliberately shocking depictions of sex and violence to see any sort of more subtle message. Burgess turned out this, his most famous (in North America) work in a little over three weeks, a rushed masterpiece to meet his contract quota. Burgess intended the story as a satire of exactly the sort of behavior it depicts, demonstrating through extreme example the consequences of trends he had noticed in popular culture. Ironic that it would, through transformation into a new medium, lose its satirical bite. The reversal would haunt Burgess the rest of his life.

But what about Card? With the introduction of the much anticipated Ender’s Game movie, he’s receiving a good deal of backlash for his position on gay rights. People have even gone back to some of his older works, in particular his Homecoming Saga, which actually features a gay male character. As an early teen, really during the period before all of my friends started discovering their sexuality, I had little to no exposure to what it meant to be gay. Most of my insight was glimpsed through little windows, like Card’s Homecoming Saga. Zdorab is one of many characters who find themselves caught up in the almost deified machinations of the planet Harmony’s controlling artificial intelligence. Privileged to be one of the few to restart the human race, but the tragic irony behind Zdorab’s election is his well-concealed homosexuality. Over the course of the series, Zdorab convinces himself to overcome his lack of attraction and father a child with another character, Shedemei.

Gay means a lot of things to a teenage boy raised on bathroom stall scribbles and locker-room talk, but nothing remotely accurate. Later years would teach me through the valuable friendship of many who were openly gay. Yet for those early teenage years, I still knew relatively little of what it meant to walk through the world with a different sexual orientation. And then I read Card’s homecoming saga. Through the words of an alleged bigot I saw the dehumanizing effects of bigotry on a lone human soul. Card never portrays Zdorab’s struggle as a battle with temptation or a hedonistic hobby. Critics cast Zdorab’s eventual procreation with Shedemei as Card suggesting gay people should simply grit their teeth and ride the heterosexual train anyway. This interpretation never occurred to me. If anything, I saw Zdorab as a hero, sacrificing an essential part of his identity to contribute to the reseeding of the human race. Nothing in the book implies people should give up their orientation when not pressed by the moral imperative to preserve our species. Despite Card’s words in public, he seems to have generated stories which tell with some honesty of the struggles human beings undergo in a bigoted world.

No matter what artists may desire, whatever they may intend, the true message of their work is its impact. Pullman seems to have embraced this fact, and presumably still writes because he sees more good than bad in the produce of his hand. My personal hero, Burgess, fell into despair because of the dark turn his three-week project took. Card must submit himself to the same social forces as these authors. Whatever his personal feelings, Card’s works stand alone, and their message will be a result of both their content and what society wants to see.

I’m thankful to Card for giving me that piece of my childhood, but I in no way owe his ludicrous ideas about orientation any fealty. Boycotting this movie isn’t the right response. Hell, if this were a gay-bashing story, we have a responsibility as part of society to see it, if only that we can then participate in its denunciation. When you disengage from culture, you’re giving up your vote. Those ideas which make you most uncomfortable are precisely where you’re most needed. See you at the movies.

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A recent shift away from doctrinal Christianity left me with many estranged friends. It’s a weird place to be, because I recognize that in a lot of cases we still care about each other, but there’s a wall between us. And I, as the undeniable builder of the wall, have felt and feel powerless to fix things. Yet, a few weeks ago, one old friend reached over that wall and tossed me a book. It was Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” I read it.

On the surface, Miller’s book is the story of how his first big hit, Blue Like Jazz, became a movie. But it’s really about what he learned from that process: that a truly well-lived life resembles a story. The characters care about something. They struggle. And then, hopefully, they succeed.

It’s rare for me to commit to just one book at a time. Often I’ll have a fiction book and a non-fiction book going at the same time; one keeps me sane and the other gives me useless facts to lord over other people at parties. Since my religious falling out, I’ve also been spending each morning reading essays on religion and meditating. It’s a decent surrogate for the Bible reading and prayer which used to fill my mornings. The latest essay is by McTaggart, “God, Evil, and Immortality.” You know, easy stuff. McTaggart outlines why, in his eyes, the presence of evil in the world necessarily precludes God’s omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, he must be permitting evil to exist. If God allows evil, he cannot be called good. And if God isn’t good, he isn’t a god we should worship. Or so it goes.

As careful as McTaggart may have been in covering his philosophical bases, he overlooked what is now a pretty common explanation for this seeming contradiction: God is a storyteller. Evil makes creation complete, just like a story without a villain isn’t really worth reading or watching. I’d heard this explanation before, but thought of it as merely quaint. However, juxtaposed against McTaggart’s rigorous analysis, this pithy explanation gained new esteem in my eyes. This seemed to be an explanation which McTaggart fails to address.

If I had to guess, I would suspect McTaggart would argue that a truly omnipotent God could devise a way for stories to be meaningful without the presence of evil. He dispenses with the argument in favor of free will in this kind of fashion. In reply, I would have to question the ability of a being of limited perspective (e.g., man) to evaluate the comparative worth of any one of the theoretically infinite variations on what it means for a story to be meaningful. I’ll admit, this response just returns us to our circular-thinking origin point. If God is omnipotent, the explanations for his existence hold up; if he is not, they don’t. Circularity often seems to be the best I can do when dealing with philosophy.

Then what do I find in Miller’s book, just a few minutes later, but the statement: “God is a master storyteller.” A little surprising to see this idea come at me from two different directions. I like it. I enjoy thinking of myself as being merely a character in a story. Much less pressure that way. But on closer examination, I feel that the story explanation solves less than I might hope. God’s story doesn’t necessarily have to follow the Christian narrative. The knowledge that there is some kind of plan doesn’t confirm that the plan is good. Too often I see people jump from making a general argument for human spirituality (e.g., why do we perceive beauty?) and then claim they’ve proven there is a God. And then: if God, then obviously Christianity. If Christianity, then clearly the Bible. If the Bible, then the Springfield First Southern Baptist Church’s interpretation.

Why can’t the “story” be the fall of Christianity? I’m not necessarily saying it should be. I think Christianity is well-suited to modernity because it’s so adaptable. I just think we can’t eliminate any possibilities.

And if I really am just a character, and God’s holding the script somewhere, calling my lines from the wings, does this really change the way I’m going to live my life? As much as people like talking about different “possible” futures, there is, and always has been, only one way that the world actually “will” turn out. Leave those suggested alternative universes aside, and admit that something was always going to happen in the future. So our world’s always been predetermined, at least in a sense. If there is a plan, then I’m part of it whether I know or not.

Reading Miller’s book was the final impetus to get me to start this blog. I want to live a story-filled life. Based on prior experience, I know that one of the best ways to bring about change is to kick introspection into overdrive. The additional practice writing certainly couldn’t hurt.

And who knows, I might be the most important character. Maybe I’m the villain.