Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading: Because Survival Is Insufficient

Two weeks ago I reminded myself to touch base with my students on our summer reading Google Doc. This week, I finally did. Not because I hadn't read anything, but, as you'll see, because I was too busy reading to write. But I finally put fingers to keyboard and posted. Here it is.

I’d seen this title recommended a lot of places—by friends, on the front tables of book stores, some English teachers are even planning to teach it next year. It recently won the National Book Award for fiction (U.S.). And when I put it on a “to-read” list in my blog, a friend I respect said he wanted to talk to me about it when I’d read it. That moved it up the list—to know you have an eager conversational partner.

I read it on the flight from the U.S. to Japan—for a trip like that I always try to choose a novel that will pull me in and keep me there until I fall out the other side without realizing how much time has passed. This book did that for me. As an English teacher, I’m a sucker for literary allusions, and with the first bit focused on King Lear and the second bit on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what’s not to love? (Might not work that way for everyone, though.)

What is compelling for everyone, though, is the apocalypse that sets up the dystopia: a deadly epidemic. With recent scares about various flues (the school I was teaching at in Tokyo a few years ago closed for the summer 1 week early, and we had to make on-line learning plans after that) and the Ebola outbreak just this past year, this feels more like contemporary realistic fiction than fantasy or science fiction.

Sometimes people wonder what the point of art, literature, drama is—even in our affluent society. How much more in a society where the 10% of the population that escaped the apocalypse is scraping by in a wilderness suddenly lacking all the modern infrastructure which collapsed in the chaos? I love the motto of the traveling orchestra/acting troupe: Survival is insufficient. (And, just to keep it real, the quote is not from Shakespeare but from Star Trek.)  

The most evil character, a sort of cult leader, seems to have survived himself and offered meaning and structure to his followers based on a reading of the book of Revelation that maintains everything happens for a reason: judgment on some and salvation for others. The problem for me is that this guy is the sole interpreter of who deserves judgment and who gets salvation.

Might this be aimed at religion? Possibly—but I see it more as aimed at the human predisposition to interpret the world and set up salvation for insiders and judgment for outsiders. The likes of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot did it just fine without invoking religion.

Religion, on the other hand, is this: Survival is insufficient. Because we are more than animals: We are image bearers of God. We might be twisted in ways that make us long for control and domination, that drive us to manipulate insiders and ostracize outsiders, but I believe that when we are untwisted, the real longing is for the beauty, meaning, and community God designed us for.

No comments:

Post a Comment