Saturday, April 16, 2011

In Which I discuss the Importance of Novels for Doing Theology

My PhD advisor has often suggested that fiction is good for theologians to read.  Until I met him, I had generally thought that my reading mystery novels when I was supposed to be reading Barth IV.2 or, heavens, the Summa Theologica, was a big vice. But who am I to argue with my Doktorvater?

Truthfully, some of the mystery novels I read were not worth the pulp they were written on, but most of the greats are worth any ethicist's time.  You can read one and call it an examination of motives, intentions, consequences, and all those other wonderful parts of action theory.  It is no mistake that many theologians were also mystery writers: G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown), Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), Ralph McInerny (Father Dowling - and I used to love the tv show, shot in my very own beloved Denver), to name a few.  Can I count Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael) in there too?  I guess she was more a medievalist than a "theologian" in the modern sense, but let's face it - most medieval historians also have to be theologians to one extent or another. Some day I want to write a book about them.

But it usually isn't a novel by a theologian that captivates me or that says something theological.  I continue to be mesmerized, years later, by Nick Hornby's About a Boy (which has also been made into a decent  movie version).  This is a book about two "boys" - one a thirty-something man who acts like a boy, and another a twelve-year-old boy who acts more like a man than boy. 

Hornby plays with names - Will Freeman, the adult, has no responsibilities.  He has no family left and is independently wealthy (because his dad wrote a popular Christmas song, no less).  The first time we meet Will, he talks about what it means to be cool:
How cool was Will Freeman? This cool: he had slept with a woman he didn't know very well in the last three months (five points). He hadn't spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket (five points). He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut (five points) (How was it possible to spend less than twenty pounds on a haircut in 1993?). He owned more than five hip-hop albums (five points). He had taken Ecstasy (five points), but in a club and not merely at home as a sociological exercise (five bonus points). He intended to vote Labour at the next general election (five points). He earned more than forty thousand pounds a year (five points), and he didn't have to work very hard for it (five points, and he awarded himself an extra five points for not having to work at all for it). He had eaten in a restaurant that served polenta and shaved parmesan (five points).
Will is the quintessential "free man," to the point that he meditates on what it is to say "No man is an island," but finds himself as a wonderful island, thankyouverymuch.  Moreover, in what sense is he free?  He is free to buy as much as he can, and exactly those things that make him cool.  But he is not free in what I call the "riding the waves" kind of free.  (Meaning: I used to go river rafting fairly often; there's something really amazing about being on the river and going with the rapids.  I've never tried surfing so no idea if my view of it is similar to that....)  He does not find himself able to enjoy life except insofar as it wins him points. 

Hornby contrasts Freeman with Marcus, the son of divorced parents.  Early in the book, his mother attempts suicide, so Marcus finds himself in the role of parenting his mother and worrying about all the things about his life that most parents hope their children wouldn't worry about at such a young age.  So, he finds himself an outcast at school because he can't be a boy.  He is as isolated as Freeman and as un-free as Freeman.

 Hornby's novel aims toward making the man a man, and the boy a boy.  That requires that the two "islands" become related to others.  Communities - weirdly shaped communities that don't look necessarily ideal, by the way - get formed in the course of this novel.  What the characters find is that being related is scary - Freeman speaks of being a newly hatched chick, bewildered by and vulnerable to this world in ways that his consumer-island self had not been. 

The novel is therefore rich in theological themes and in themes theologians ought to be interested in, even if not inherently theological: freedom, what it means to be human, one's purpose in life, consumerism, gender, identity. 

A good book is thought-provoking in so many ways - this one's worth a read if you haven't yet done so.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Considering the History of Three Year Olds

When I was a sophomore in high school, my history teacher asked us to write essays on the subject, "Why do we study history?"  It was a good question to ask us, as I think most of us had, by that point, long since entered the realm of "WHY do we have to learn these dates?  History is boring."  If Harry Potter had been around then, we would totally have identified with his view of history classes.

I cannot now remember what I said; I don't guess it was very interesting.  Yet the question has stuck with me throughout the years - particularly when I became a history major in college and studied a medieval monastic community known as the Gilbertines.  I also had to take historiography classes then, and started seeing all the varied reasons people study history (and the varied ways they study history).

Motherhood apparently offers yet another view on the question.  Yesterday, we were telling our three year old about being children once ourselves, she looked thoughtful, then asked, "Where was I when you were a boy, Daddy?" "Well, you weren't born quite yet."

It was clear that was disturbing to her a bit.  How could she not have existed? She exists now!  The mystery of life is very present to her... The question made me realize that I don't think about where I was before I was born anymore.  That's actually rather a scary question, in much the same way that contemplating death is for most adults.  It seems like a great nothingness.

 Then I realized: I don't really think of World War II or the Protestant Reformation or the patristic period as "before my time" anymore.  I know I wasn't there, but it has still become part of me and who I am.  History found a way of creeping in and becoming my story.

Our three year old is starting small: first we'll tell her the family history, about Mommy and Daddy and Grandmas and Grandpas.  But then, I don't know, shall I pull out some of my medieval stories? ;-)