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.

Fairy Tale Logic

My daughter has recently noticed that many of her friends have been watching Disney movies for some time, and so lately we have picked up both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  We’ve probably watched Sleeping Beauty six times in the past two weeks – or at lest we have watched *half* of it – she is no less sensitive now than she was nearly a year ago, so we fast forward through any “scary parts,” with the result that the story sometimes needs even more explanation than it would otherwise.   But fairy tales, even when intact, are inexplicable in parts, and when her questions come I wish I could put more spin on my answers without doing violence to the story.  I was relieved yesterday evening when, in the midst of another Sleeping Beauty Q&A, she made the breakthrough observation, “movies are different.”  Which led to a long (for a preschooler) conversation about how things happen in movies that don’t happen in real life.

But I have to admit, while the “movies are different” realization is a significant turning point, I was even more excited about a conversation we had earlier in the day.

“Mom, why does the bad witch take the prince and put him in her castle?”

“She doesn’t want Prince Phillip to kiss Sleeping Beauty and wake her up.”

“But why doesn’t she want the prince to kiss Sleeping Beauty? … I know! Because Sleeping Beauty can wake up herself!”

I know that there is a good chance (if her romantic attentions focus on the male gender) that there will be many years when she forgets the insight that she doesn’t need a man to “wake her up” – as if life begins with “love’s first kiss” and ends with waltzing in the clouds together.  And I don’t want to knock the importance of community, friendship, and even of finding one’s “soulmate” – certainly my life has been changed by having such a loving and supportive husband.  But too often girls find themselves coming to believe (quite early on) that their chief worth lies in who wants to kiss them.  With the result that many women are the products of their contortions to fit the ideals of the boys whose attentions they most wanted.  To the chagrin of their parents, who see natural talents squandered, and special qualities carefully hidden, and new shames cultivated.

So today I am grateful for my sweet and confident daughter, who can say unselfconsciously, “I like being Hannah!”

It’s Complicated…

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched It’s Complicated.  He had a cold, and I was recovering from food poisoning, so we were looking for something light.  We figured that the cast would be worth watching – Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski – so we had been hoping to get some good acting and call it a night.

The movie’s marketing campaign leads you to expect a bedroom farce, but while the movie is certainly a comedy, it never leaves the realm of the possible – you can imagine knowing a friend in this situation.  (Hopefully you cannot imagine yourself in this situation.  If you can, call me.  Seriously – we need to pray together before you do anything rash.  Or, God forbid, after you do something rash.)

I have never known of anything in real life even half approximating accidentally dosing your dead father’s lover with LSD, and then stuffing him in your father’s casket after mistakenly thinking that he was killed by taking a dive into the coffee table.  SayFor instance. I suppose it *could happen*, and it certainly was an amusing red herring of a climax in the midst of a hilarious movie, but I’m not sure that I could say with certainty that something like that has ever happened before.

But being divorced for some time, and then, while drunk, feeling attracted to this person that you (after all) were attracted enough to to marry some time ago, and then sleeping with this person that (after all) you had slept with many times before – this probably happens all the time.  Especially if you share children with your ex, and have plenty of opportunities to see them over time, to forget all that was bad about the relationship for long enough to wax nostalgic about – well, at least about the sex.  But not just the sex, either – the easy division of labor, the intact two parent family… it just feels wrong for Dad to drive away just when Mom and the kids are sitting down to the dinner table without him for the two thousandth time.

This business of suddenly waking up and deciding that you are in love with your ex-wife again has been happening for millenia, if we apply a hermenutics of suspicion – the Bible would find no need to forbid going back to an ex-wife if this idea presented no temptation to anyone.  But a single true premise does not make for a true story.  And that is where I was surprised by It’s Complicated.

Some of you may know that I have, over the past eight years or so (corresponds with taking Intro to Christian Ethics with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas.  Hmm…), found myself having more and more trouble enjoying fiction.  I went through a stage, on the movie front, where I could only watch documentaries with any success.  Even long standing favorites, like The Princess Bride, fell victim to new scrutiny.  Slowly I came to have a film canon, consisting of movies that seemed either true or at least insightful, whose few flaws I could forgive in the interest of the merits of the larger package:  The Empire Strikes BackThe Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serenity, Groundhog Day, Mystery Men, Galaxy Quest, Millions – wait a minute!  Aren’t there any on here that don’t have a scifi/fantasy element?  Sure – The MissionAbout a Boy.  Wait.  I know there’s more – let me think… Fargo? Six Degrees of Separation? Intolerable Cruelty?

But movies that gave me this feeling of being true to reality – of being untainted by any false premise (for every story makes multiple assumptions at the outset) about people or sin or relationships – became increasingly difficult to find – and so increasingly prized: The Savages, Love Liza, Owning Mahowney, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead…  And it made it worse that sometimes a movie could be true and yet I could not like it for some difficult to express stylistic reason – Magnolia, say.

Let us not suppose that it follows that all Phillip Seymour Hoffman movies are true!  See, for instance, the disappointing, nuance free, atheist propaganda cheap shot that is The Invention of Lying.  And neither does it follow that all “true movies” I have discovered in the past 6 years feature Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  See, for instance, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, or Blood Done Sign My Name.  Oh, right!  And – It’s Complicated.  (Remember Alice?  This is a song about Alice.)

As with any other movie, I have my complaints about It’s Complicated.  It is hard to believe that Mom would ever find her house to be “too small.”  And I’m generally not a fan of scenes that rely on smoking pot as a plot device.  It wasn’t necessary here, though it was a bit better done than usual.  And as you might imagine, I have to confess it was fun to watch Steve Martin and Meryl Streep pretending to be stoned together.  But (as usual) the depicted drug use was gratuitous.  However, the depicted sex was not gratuitous – it was at the center of the film without leaving me feeling like a voyeur.  Perhaps because the film wasn’t any more explicit than it needed to be to drive the story – which was ultimately a story about family, relationship, and the community implications of individual sin.

So let’s get specific – what’s so surprisingly good about It’s Complicated?  So many things.  Even the minor characters act true to character.  The humanistic therapist only concerns himself with the impact on his client – whether she can learn and grow from the experience – and, as so many therapists do, never considers the question of what the impact will be on the larger family system.  The “other woman” turns out to be a real person, with real feelings that can be hurt – after all, she has now formed a family with her husband and child – she is as blindsided and hurt as the first wife was in her day.  (Though we get only a glimpse of her pain – which may have had the effect for some viewers of letting Mom and Dad off the hook.)  The young child of the second wife is pitch perfectly annoying and insightful, and unquestioningly trusting of his mom’s husband – grabbing and snuggling Dad’s hand as he falls asleep.  And Dad?  He’s as much of a cad as ever.  Unmoved by this young boy’s trust, he is as ready to betray a child now as he was his first three children years before – and for the same reason – better sex with apparently less complications.  Which is not to say that every man who cheats on his wife is a perennially thoughtless idiot who wants to free himself from the slightest responsibility at the first whiff of that elusive mythical beast: no-strings sex.  (Then again…)  Instead, what is true about this scenario is that hiding an affair with your ex from your children is not a recipe for madcap fun, but for more heartbreak – for all the same people as last time, and maybe some more this time around.  When the two main characters end up in bed together, things simply can’t end well – and surprisingly (for post-1970s Hollywood storytelling), they don’t – It’s Complicated opts to tell the truth here.

Taking a broader view, the most generalizable insight of the movie – for me, anyway – was the implicit warning against misplaced nostalgia.  Yes, it would have been better for the first affair never to have occurred, for the first marriage to have been successful, for the first family to have had their father around as the kids came of age and Mom started her new business.  But it didn’t.  Mom can’t get those 10 years back – and really, the only reason Dad thinks Mom looks so perfect now is that he skipped those difficult 10 years.  The rift cannot be repaired – and a now equally messy, equally valid second family will be torn apart, too.  The opportunity for this relationship to be reconstituted has passed.  It is time to move on.  Seasons can pass for even the best of gifts, and we must not let what we wish had happened blind us to our present reality.

In the end, the only people with no regrets about this affair are Mom and Dad.  And in its own way, this moment of pseudo-reckoning is true, too.  Mom and Dad are the ones most guilty, the ones who acted most recklessly and selfishly (“I did this for myself,” Mom explains to her 3 adult kids, as they huddle together in a small bed, comforting each other in their confusion.)  So often, with sin, regret requires distance.  Taking responsibility for – even acknowledging! – the pain we have caused another so soon after the fact is far too painful in a world without grace.  Honest repentance when the victims of our sin remain mired in the consequences of our sin requires that we take on their wounds ourselves.  We cannot hide from it, or minimize it, until the wound has healed sufficiently for the rawness to be only sketchily remembered.  It is seldom that we are willing to suffer so deeply – truly rare that we are strong enough to face our error without being overcome by the dark depth of how our brokenness has infected those around us.

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

If it were not for God’s love – for the assurance that we are forgiven even in the midst of our sin, that we are known through and through and redeemed and redeemable – if it were not for God’s grace, we would not be able to survive the loss of our illusions about ourselves as “basically good people.”  Without grace, we would have to choose between remaining blissfully unaware of our daily acts of violence and drowning in the suffering we have contributed to.  In It’s Complicated, there is no evidence that Mom and Dad know of God’s grace, and so they semi-consciously opt for the route of “no regrets” – the pragmatic choice.

Let’s *not* be reasonable – God has chosen what is foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians, passim.)  Thanks be to God for those lights in the world whose ability to love, to suffer, to repent, to grow is so evident that they (like a city on a hill) cannot be hid.  These remarkable sisters and brothers in the faith remind us that we need not choose between confession of our imperfection and strength in our convictions.  Instead, God’s love gives us the courage to see ourselves clearly – to suffer with those whose suffering we have caused, and in this com-passion to be strengthened – to come closer to that kingdom in which mourning and crying and pain will be no more, when Christ himself will guide us to the springs of the water of life.