Sunday, April 10, 2016

Depart from Me, Ye Cursed, into Everlasting Boredom

I picked up Backcast by Ann McMan (Bywater Books, 2015) at the public library because it had an enthusiastic blurb from Dorothy Allison.  It was worth my time, though I doubt I'll ever reread it.

The book is mainly set in Vermont around Lake Champlain.  A sculptor has won an NEA grant for a project in which thirten writers will contribute autobiographical essays and the sculptor will make metalwork art inspired by them.  She rounds up a bunch of writers she knows for two weeks at a lake resort; melodrama and comedy ensue.  The essays appear between the narrative chapters, unattributed, which makes it interesting to try to figure out which of the characters wrote each one.  (The answers can be found at the end of the book.)  It's all handled well enough, though a tad too familiar: the characters have predictable backgrounds and problems, and McMan has nothing new to say about them.  The one surprise is not enough to balance the banality.

What isn't surprising is the character who grew up in a viciously fundamentalist Christian family; even the terrible things that happen to her -- discovered in flagrante with her first love, turned over by her family to a rapist minister who promised to fix her -- are cliches by now, an easy way to win sympathy for a character without doing the hard work good fiction requires.  So I was particularly annoyed by this passage on page 242.
It isn't that I was opposed to traveling any road that led to a righteous life.  I simply didn't think I should be expected to deny who I was to do it.  That part didn't feel Christian to me.  All the stories I grew up hearing about Jesus talked about his love and forgiveness, not his judgment and wrath.  The way I saw it, God made me the way I was for a reason.  I never really chose to like other girls -- I just did.  And I especially liked Charlene.
It's also a cliche for people to say that they only remember stories about Jesus' love and forgiveness.  (What's to forgive, anyway?  Wouldn't forgiveness require that she give up the behavior she's being forgiven for?  And it should go without saying that there's no forgiveness in Backcast for the rapist minister; I'm not saying there must be, but then I'm not a Christian.)  I suppose it's plausible that even a Pentecostal Sunday school would stress kid-friendly stories of Jesus loving the little children of the world and play down the hellfire and damnation he preaches constantly in the gospels.  But the narrator here was in her mid to late teens when she met Charlene.  Did she never read the New Testament?  (She knows it well enough to quote the relatively obscure passage where Jesus promises that believers will be able to handle snakes without danger.)  Did she never hear a fire and brimstone sermon in regular worship services, or at the revivals her family attended?  I can't believe it; it seems to me that there's some bad faith going on here

I suspect that when people claim not to have heard that Jesus was a hellfire preacher, they're exhibiting a highly selective memory for what they don't want to remember.  Or maybe they just thought that Hell was for other people, bad people, not good people like them.  It's not for me to decide what is (or "feels") Christian; but I feel no obligation to respect the self-serving selective constructions of Jesus that Christians create to make themselves feel superior to others.