Speculative Fiction

Over the past two years, I have been honing my thoughts about fiction.  And I just received some help from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in that regard:  I have (finally) read Good Omens.  (Thank you, Kate Flynn – you were very generous to loan me such a great book – I promise to keep faith with you and return it.)

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that I am typical rather than outstanding among readers in the tendency to become absorbed into the world of whatever book I am reading.  This can mean that when reading, too often readers feel that they are gaining greater insight into the world and how it works — instead of understanding that the world of a book is at best a collection of the author’s own insights.

I started becoming a more critical reader about ten years ago – less easily absorbed, more able to hold a book at enough of a distance to understand that I was reading an author, instead of unquestioningly allowing each new book to redirect my thinking (no longer “blown about by every wind of doctrine…”)

Which is especially good when it comes to these “battle between good and evil” books.

Usually sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are prominent among what people mean when they use the term “speculative fiction” – fiction in which the world is not going about business as usual.  But in fairness, all fiction is speculative:  all fiction takes place in an alternate universe that is the creation of the author – and perhaps “literary fiction” is the more dangerous for seeming to be set in the “real world,” when in reality the characters and the settings and the way that one event leads to another reflects the author’s philosophy of life as much as in more obviously contrived universes.

Of course, there is so much more that may be altered in “speculative fiction” – and this is usually done in service of addressing ultimate concerns.  Which may be why “the end of the world” is so ripe for the speculative fiction treatment. There are a number of agnostic/atheist writers who are drawn to write fiction loosely based on their ideas of what Christians mean by the Apocalypse – Evil is usually misunderstood or more interesting, God is usually rigid, distant, disinterested.  Usually those who find themselves compelled to read such works are God haunted in some way, and when they are swept up in the narrative, echoing “yes, yes – of course!” they find themselves in crisis:  how shall they reconcile what they had understood about God before encountering the book with what they now understand, given the “reality” of the world of the book they are now immersed in?  It escapes all too many that God and Satan, angels and demons all exist as fictional characters in these books – creations of their authors like any other fictional characters.  (Which typically troubles the authors not at all, since for them God and Satan, angels and demons are always and only fictional characters.)

Good Omens was better than most books in this sub-genre.  And not just in that it was better written – if the book only gives me insight into the minds of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, then that is a good gift indeed.  They must be a lot of fun, and they are now definitely on my short list for the old “if you could have any person living or dead join you for dinner…” question.  They are brilliant and hilarious, and their book exhibits faith in the goodness of everyday life and friendship.

But as much fun as I had with what Pratchett and Gaiman imagined the friendship between an angel and a demon might look like, Good Omens was extraordinary in that it was more complex than the usual “evil is so misunderstood / God is such a right bastard” storyline.  Evil was evil.  God was inscrutable.  Fate was precise and yet thwartable at the same time.  In the face of all that was wrong with the world on a macro level and micro level, love of the particular triumphed over rage.

But I cannot say that I had any “a-ha!” moments about the nature of life, or God, or good and evil.  Because I believe in God’s wisdom and love for us, I am not for a minute worried about Heaven being boring – and since I believe in the resurrection of the body / the renewal of all creation, I don’t see God’s ultimate triumph and a fully sensuous embodied existence as an either/or proposition.  And I am going to be extraordinarily surprised if Hell turns out to be permanently populated.

So Neil and Terry – if either of you ever read this, I would love to have a beer with you should you ever find yourself in North Carolina.  Scratch that – I would fly to almost anywhere for the privilege of a long conversation in a pub with either or both of you.

To the rest of you out there:  remember when you are reading Good Omens – or any other book (or blog post) for that matter – that when you read you are reading an author – not an absolute and reliable guide to what life, relationships, God, or anything else is all about.

Train wreck

Laurel, Maryland, 1922
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.06782.

A friend of a friend came completely unglued on Twitter last night.  Among the dozens of Tweets were a “colorful” Tweet suggesting something he would rather be doing, others that contained not a single word you would want to say in front of a five year old, and at least two or three that my ninth grade health teacher would have classified as “a cry for help.”  When, in amazement, he Tweeted this morning that he hadn’t lost any followers in spite of his “rants,” another person, with remarkable honesty, Tweeted back, “You just made us curious!”  “Yes,” I thought as I read that comment, “everybody loves a train wreck.”

Which is a ridiculous expression, really.  Nobody loves a train wreck.  Car wrecks, yes.  We all slow down for them, craning our necks to figure out what really happened, looking for vehicles damaged beyond recognition and counting the firetrucks and police cars on the scene.  Train wrecks are rare and horrifying and perhaps interesting at a distance, but the required distance is greater than most of us can manage.

When I was a pastor in southeast Virginia, there was a train wreck on the Norfolk Southern line one night – two freight trains had a head on collision more than five miles from our house.  The locked wheels of the locomotives screamed against the rails as momentum carried them hopelessly forward, intense and inharmonious and impossible to ignore.  Brian and I were completely awake for several seconds before the dreadful explosion of sound that announced the crash.  The sounds told their story clearly – there was nothing else that would have sounded just like that.  In the morning, we were incredulous – how could the wreck be so far away?  As loud as it had been, we had been certain it had been within town limits.  How frightening must it have been for our friends who lived just down the road from the crash site?  What had it sounded like for them?

It took more than 24 hours to clear the tracks between Newsoms and Franklin.  The line serviced a paper plant in Franklin, so there was strong incentive to move fast.  Can you imagine a car wreck bad enough to block a road for 24 hours?  Cars are easy to clean up after – trains not so much.  The proper equipment is not widely available, and the debris is massive.  Especially the engines, which do not break into little bits just because they’ve been rendered immobile.  The tracks may have been clear by the second morning after the wreck — but the engines sat by the side of the track for months.

After awhile, the engines became part of the landscape.  It was a shock when they were finally gone.  “How did they do it?” I wondered.  What had seen impossibly immobile just days before had disappeared.  I had been certain that they would sit there in perpetuity, a monument to how devastating an accumulation of small mistakes can be when the stakes are high.  I was not sure how I felt about their removal – but I knew that those of us who were in the county that night could likely pick out the place along the rails where it happened for years afterwards, even without the physical reminder.

I was once a train wreck too, long enough ago that the landscape doesn’t readily reveal the story, but those who were there, who know where to look, might turn up a bit of charred or twisted debris under the trees along the tracks.

There were none killed that night, and only two badly injured, but many were haunted long afterwards.  I hope for a better outcome – or one at least as good – for the Man of Many Tweets on a Drunk and Lonely Night.

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.


Looking at the Julian Assange case over time, and particularly over the past 36 hours or so, I am reminded of a common “ethics” exercise: a story is told with five characters in it, each of which has arguably engaged in some sketchy behavior – and it is the job of the reader / student / test subject to rank the characters from most to least moral. I first ran onto this device in my high school Sunday school class, and it certainly led to some interesting discussions / arguments — until the day that one of us called into question the entire enterprise of trying to figure out who is “most right” in an impossible situation – which led to a discussion of life as an impossible situation generally. Apparently, the teacher was satisfied that we had finally grasped the point of these lessons, because we were onto a totally new curriculum the next Sunday.

In college, I learned that this sort of “rank the characters” story was used by some researchers as a test of the “level of moral reasoning” test subjects had attained. Which itself is arguably sketchy behavior on the part of the researchers. [If you prefer, for “sketchy” read “hubristic.”]

It was a tremendous relief, when I was nearly 30, to have the disconnect between my education to date and reality as I observed it articulated for me in the first week’s lectures of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Stanley Hauerwas told us that if we had taken “Ethics” as an undergraduate student, then our ethics were probably even more muddled than the average person, and what we were doing in his class would be not simply unrelated, but diametrically opposed to everything we had been taught about ethics before – because as Christians we make particular assertions about reality that form the foundation of our ethical thinking.

The Christian story goes more or less as follows: To all appearances, the world is FUBAR, so that moral behavior is impossible. However, we are convinced that Christ will return and finish the work of mending all creation, which is what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come…” As Christians, we are called to witness to the coming kingdom of God by living as if it were already here — even when it makes no apparent sense to do so. (This is where singing praises to God as the lions chow down on us comes in, to take the extreme example.) We are instructed in what it means to live into God’s desire for the universe in the Scriptures – particularly in that we are called to love God and love one another. And love requires getting your hands dirty; it is uncomfortable, even wrenching; it is done in close quarters – it is not even in the same neighborhood as “be nice.”

Loving up close (as most of us have experienced, whether in marriage or parenthood or caring for aging parents or sharing space with siblings or roommates or ….) means entering into the uniquely wonderful aspects of the beloved – which come as a package deal with their body odor and morning breath (etc.) Morally speaking, we all have our metaphorical body odor and morning breath – blind spots and willful disobedience that are so much a part of us that we cannot much change it. We can cover up those problems we notice (deodorant!); we can ameliorate some problems with daily ritual practices (flossing!); but we cannot make them go away forever. Spiritual dental floss and deodorant do not change the essential truth of our sinfulness, the distance between God’s best hopes for us and our innate tendency to do our own thing to our detriment. Similar to the way that my husband loves my whole person (I admittedly have wretched morning breath, he admittedly notices, but it is by no means anything like a deal-breaker,) God loves each of us in our totality, a “package deal” – but that doesn’t mean he is a fan of our covetous and deceitful behavior.

So – what does this have to do with the Assange case?

I’m getting there, but first, let’s talk a little more about Jesus –

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Jesus presses the man – when he calls Jesus “good,” does he say this because he knows who Jesus is? Or does he use the word carelessly?

We do not use the word “good” with enough care. This is a particular problem with funeral sermons, in which pastors may feel pressure to give an account of the “good man/woman” who died. None is good but God alone! We should rightly feel uncomfortable when someone says that we are a “good parent/teacher/pastor/etc.” or that we are “perfect” as a wife/husband/cook/etc.

From time to time, my mother says “you are such a good mother.” Who doesn’t want to hear this sort of thing from their Mom? Almost nothing makes me feel better than hearing that! However, it is necessary for my spiritual health to be honest with myself, and so I immediately translate that to something like, “I like how you demonstrate your love for Hannah most of the time. And I have noticed you setting some good boundaries with her. Etc.” Because it would be wrong for me to accept that I am absolutely a good mother – I am also a cranky mother, an inattentive mother, a fell asleep on the sofa while her preschooler watched two and a half straight hours of unsupervised television mother.

Compliments like the one my friend Will gave me not long ago require less translation. “I usually like what you cook,” he commented once on Facebook. I can admit that the food I make usually turns out well. Except for those rare occasions when I accidentally use cayenne in place of curry, say, for instance, and wind up with something utterly inedible. (Note: Most mortals cannot handle 3 Tablespoons of cayenne mixed into 2 servings of brown rice. Even if you do add pineapple and tahini.)

So, back to Assange. I have seen a lot of jockeying around on Twitter – even participated in it – trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. What shall we make of Ecuador sheltering Assange? What shall we make of Assange not going to Sweden? What shall we make of the veiled threats made by some members of the British government against the Ecuadorean embassy? What shall we make of the not so veiled accusations of the U.S. government against Assange? What shall we make of the nearly global distrust of the U.S. in the wake of drone strikes and other political assassinations, not to mention legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens? What shall we make of the barely contested (even by Assange’s own lawyer) allegations of rape against Assange? And wouldn’t it be fantastic if Assange were not so fearful, but instead eager to stand trial in the United States, in order that we might have a drawn out public discussion of secrecy in global politics? But I can’t help suspecting that if Assange were to be brought here, that discussion might be so censored as to be stripped of all potency – if it ever saw the light of day at all.

I suggest that we will not get very far trying to figure out who is the hero of this story. In fact, if you still believe in the possibility of heroes, I would suggest the Biblical book of Judges as a particularly good corrective. Actually, you could keep on going through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. That 5 book cycle could be read as one long midrashic expansion on the idea that “no one is good but God alone.”

Perhaps the closest we can come to heroes in this story would be the women who have accused Assange of rape. It is always costly to make such an accusation – blaming the alleged victim is never far behind, and any of us would want to avoid people who don’t even know us writing comments about us such as “why was she even in bed with him in the first place?” as if that justifies any behavior on the part of the man that then follows. But it is clear that the case brought by these women is being cynically manipulated for political gain – because few men are pursued so aggressively when accused of sexual crimes – especially not to the point of talking about extradition for questioning.

Let me be clear – The only thing that would delight me more than rape finally being taken seriously (and Julian Assange’s treatment being a harbinger of a change in global, or even British policy to that effect) would be if MEN WOULD STOP RAPING PEOPLE. Seriously. Quit it. The circumstances are never important – you are not ENTITLED to the use of ANYONE else’s body. Never. Not for any reason. No matter who it is. Sex is a gift, every time. If it is not freely given, then you are a thief.

But I am well aware that though we may reduce the occurrence of rape, we will not eliminate it – not through human efforts. No one is good but God alone. And we may reduce political posturing, but not eliminate it. And we may reduce the use of publicity stunts in order to evade justice, but not eliminate them. No one is good but God alone.

This is a very muddled story – it is not something that we are going to sort out in bursts of 140 characters or less. The number of players getting caught up in this web is ever expanding. Like so many things in life, the deeper you dig, the more impossible the situation appears: FUBAR.

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With God, no one is FUBAR.” (Mark 10:26-27) [A loose translation, I admit. But fundamentally accurate.]

Watching athletic contests, we have become too well accustomed to taking sides, to cheering on one group or person and tying our hopes exclusively to them. But we could easily learn another lesson from these contests – that our allegiances in such cases are arbitrary, even accidental. Why do I cheer for the Durham Bulls? Because they are the only professional team playing in my home town, and I can see their games most easily and affordably. They aren’t more virtuous than other baseball clubs, or more deserving in some way.

As we keep our eyes on the drama that has now moved to the Ecuadorean embassy, let us ask ourselves – to what extent are our allegiances arbitrary? To the extent that we identify with one or another player because of our social or cultural location, or because of our life experiences or education, at least to that extent we are unlike God in our judgments. We are unable to see into the human heart as God does – to love each individual as completely as God does – instead of people we see victims and villains. We may call them tossers, liars, cynics, power hungry, duped, blackmailed, blind, cowards, naive, traitors, rapists, murderers, untrustworthy, incomprehensible… God calls them beloved.

As you and I throw our stones, may we pause to remember that none is good but God alone.