Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Broken Angel 03: Weak points and Conclusion

And now, the part I hope no one's been looking forward to: the weak points of Sigmund Brouwer's Broken Angel.

The first strong negative I encountered was strong enough that had I been reading the book for myself, not as part of a tour, I would have dropped it. Chapter Two is largely Hobbesian, being nasty, brutish, and fortunately rather short. It is also gratuitous: I don't believe any unique and vital information lies therein, so I'd advise others to skip it. It mostly details how obnoxious Mason Lee is.

I've already mentioned that Theo's virtual disappearance later in the story annoyed me: he was an intriguing character and should've been retained. I'm sure Brouwer's a good enough writer to have done so without diminishing the more important characters.

There is also a careless plot hole toward the end of the story, in which some people with very important information apparently aren't going to be debriefed, much less interrogated. If they were, it would undermine the grand scheme that had been running the whole time. But how could a proper tyrant not take the time to break out the thumbscrews?

But the main problem I had was the handling of fundamentalists and Christianity in general:

Outside, most people knew that decades ago, the religious fundamentalists lost the ability to transform society when they became a political movement. Their boycotts and protests became so commonplace, any outcry against anything beyond the narrow range of what they saw as biblically acceptable was dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction. Once Appalachia was established, there was no one Outside who opposed liberalism and humanism. (p. 172)

There is some truth to this. We do tend to yell about things that don't matter or aren't even true, such as the various myths that are e-mailed around. And we often act as though political solutions existed for spiritual problems, so that outlawing abortion (for ewxample) would make it disappear. We should invest ourselves more in spiritual tactics that form the infrastructure for any permanent solution.

However, there are also some misperceptions of the sort that secular sources, through laziness, ignorance, and plain bigotry tend to spread. For example, there is already some disaffection with the idea of spiritual change through political means, and it's been there for a few years now.

Also, "fundamentalists" are not a cohesive group, and American Christians in general have no theocratic inclinations, so the "Appalachia Solution" simply wouldn't happen. When CNN likens Christian fundamentalists to Islamic fundamentalists and tries to demonstrate that fundies want to fly outsized KJVs ("with Thompson Chain-reference Machine Guns!") into buildings, they forget that most of the things fundies support and oppose aren't even mildly theocratic. Even some atheists are pro-life, for example, and many non-Christians support such common "fundamentalist" concerns as action against religious persecution.

[Brief Digression] This is why the idea that public prayers or displays of religious symbols could somehow lead to "an establishment of religion" (i.e., the founding of a state church) is ridiculous. It is impossible to establish most any religion in the abstract. Establish Christianity? Okay, what kind? Catholic? Orthodox (which kind, again)? Coptic? Don't even get started with "Protestant." Even if you're trying to be open-minded, what's Christian? Are Catholics? Pentecostals? What about Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses? To mean something, it pretty much has to endorse one group above others, a priniciple that will lead to an ever-tighter circle. Any action or display that does not specifically give one denomination an edge over others cannot establish that denomination and therefore the religion of which it is part.

On the other hand, sometimes it's hard to tell what's "narrow" and what's important. For years, Catholics were about the only ones who realized that abortion was important, and whether homosexual marriage is critical or trivial depends on who you ask. When I was in high school, a teacher asked whether we would be willing to go to war. One student said it would depend on the war: for an important one like WWII, yes; for Vietnam, no. But one of the reasons we were so late getting into WWII and let so many innocent people die was that most people were convinced (to use modern terms) that "the war in Europe" was just a Vietnam!

So on this point, I'd say, pray about what is important and what God wants you to do; then do it. Seek spiritual solutions, but also remember that laws represent our standards. If our law allows something, at a deep level, we do too.

A related point is "the kingdom of the cross" versus "the kingdom of the sword" (p. 182). This isn't just a crock, it's a slanderous crock. The idea is that Christians try to force belief on the unwilling. Historically, there have been some cases of this, though it's far less frequent than current mythology claims. Someday Brouwer is going to find himself in the company of a multitude he has blithely condemned without bothering to comprehend. It will be interesting to see his response.

Now, it is true that our strength comes through weakness, and grasping power leads to defeat. However, the Clan uses its own amazing cleverness to concoct the scheme that underlies the plot (a scheme that again would not actually survive routine questioning) and derives its protection from homicidal outlaws. So for them to look down on others seems a shaky move at best. It's also mildly amusing that they don't seem to be directly involved in evangelistic outreach: they help place people Outside and shelter others from the Appalachian cult. But mostly they remain cloistered in their caves.

Brouwer can be very subtle, and I'd like to think this is reverse psychology: that he is actually arguing against the Clan's hypocrisy as much as anyone else's. It's not impossible, but it leads to a kind of relativism: the Christians are no better than the unsaved, so what's the point?

Conclusion. In spite of these points, Broken Angel is a very engaging book, and the problems are a small part of the whole. I'm not sure how many readers will even notice them, unfortunately. So as simple fiction, and more, as a craft exemplar, it is worth reading. It sets up strongly for a sequel, I think, and I hope that will be even better.

Other CSFF posts:
Brandon Barr
Justin Boyer
Keanan Brand
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Janey DeMeo
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Mark Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Ashley Rutherford
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika or Mir's Here
Sean Slagle
James Somers
Donna Swanson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Laura Williams


Brandon Barr said...

You make well-constructed arguments. Sounds like the book causes one to seriously think. And it also sounds like the book reaches deep on ideas and philosophy.

sbrouwer said...

Hello Stephen,

I really, really enjoyed your final post on Broken Angel. Thanks.

One of the reasons, besides the fact that your post was well-written, is the open discussion of ideas. I like having ideas, mine or anyone else's, examined. What's true will stand, and what's not true, should fall.

Examining the idea of faith/politics was part of my motivation for the theocracy backdrop of Broken Angel. I pushed the political philosophy of the today's Christian right to the extreme to see what this world might look like. As I mentioned in another blog, this novel is not a prediction of where America will go. It's just a way to examine its dangers.

Another blogger stated that we (Christians) are called to be the moral conscience of society. In disagreeing with that idea, I think it's clarified my thoughts. If we are to be the moral conscience, then yes, the Christian right should be imposing its values on a secular society.

I don't see that, however, as a directive from Christ. We are to feed the hungry and cloth the poor. He didn't criticize the hedonistic Greeks and Romans, or organize boycotts against them; instead, he questioned why the religious establishment was in pursuit of power and money. (They killed him for it.)

This to me is the kingdom of the cross (suffering, sacrifice) that Jesus accepted. To me, the kingdom of the sword (political power) is something he emphatically rejected. If you like exploring this idea to agree or disagree with farther, I'd suggest Gregory Boyd's 'Myth of A Christian Nation.'

(Does anyone except me think that there is something wrong with placing something as mysterious and wonderful as faith and God and His love into a box so narrowly defined as the 'Christian right' and the implication that there is no other way to believe?)

Loved your digression too about the idea that public prayers or displays of religious symbols could somehow lead to "an establishment of religion". I agree that this is not a danger, and that liberals who suggest it have not given much thought to the idea.

On the other hand, I do support the separation of state and religion in a public setting, ie the classroom. It's a double-edged sword. I would not like to have a teacher with a Muslim worldview given the freedom to proselytize to my daughter during the five hours a day she is in the classroom. I'm not even sure I'm comfortable with the idea of a Christian teacher doing the same. As you point out in your blog, there are widely diverse Christian groups. Do I want my daughter learning from a 'Pat Robertson' that foreign leaders should be assassinated? Or from a 'Jerry Falwell' that good Christians, like soldiers or slaves, ask no questions? Or from a 'Reverend Wright' that God should damn America?

On the other hand, the thought of a Godless 'Darwinian' society is even more terrifying, where the laws of God's love have been replaced by the laws of the jungle. This is Outside, and I'm exploring that right now as I write the sequel to Broken Angel.

Again, thanks for the open discussion of ideas.



Steve said...

I'm amazed that the post was considered well-written. For once I didn't write it ahead of time, except mentally, and I composed it very quickly to beat both my bedtime and an approaching thunderstorm.

The Christian Right: I'm not comfortable with it either, but it seems to be a default position, because thus far the Christian Left has proved itself even more odious: it's "pro-life" for opposing war and capital punishment, yet it's usually silent on abortion, which takes more innocent lives than the other two combined. It would be interesting to develop a truly Christian liberalism; I may try to sketch one sometime.

Meanwhile, the Christian Right is not as hostile to some stated liberal goals as is often claimed. Many conservative Christians do encourage environmental action, though of a less radical kind than many liberals favor, and the main difference in social work is whether it should be done willingly through volunteer effort or under state compulsion through taxation.

Legislating Morality: This leads to the question of legislating morality. But ALL LEGISLATION IS LEGISLATING MORALITY. Seriously. Consider a fairly basic law: Don't murder. I could hire a three-year-old for what follows: Why? Because it's wrong. Why? Because you wouldn't want someone to do it to you. Why? Because it keeps me from throttling you! Why?

As Lewis argued in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man (among other places), all moral imperatives--including all thou shalts and thou shalt nots and thus all laws--must derive from something other and higher than objective observation. They must adhere to a moral law. They are otherwise unjustifiable and simply unjust. Let's be honest: all laws legislate morality. We should just be candid about which morality we're legislating.

What Would Jesus Do?: It's not a bad question, but the answers are often simplistic. Jesus couldn't vote, so he wasn't responsible for his government. He didn't criticize Gentiles, but then he said his mission was to the Jews, a limitation later removed for the Church as a whole.

Annoying observation: if Jesus wouldn't have gotten involved politically, presumably he would've ignored political solution for situations such as those in Darfur. Can I get a witness?

It is true that the American church tends to resort to the courts and media more than prayer, but that doesn't mean that such remedies are inherently wrong, just misused.

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