Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christian Heroes and Dante’s Shit-List


I took a trip, with my son, first to visit my 88 year old mother and my 84 year old aunt who share my childhood home (in Tennessee). Then we went on to Philly where I was attending the International Headache Congress.

On the trip I started reading one of Headless Unicorn Guy’s science fiction manuscripts and enjoying it. In Tennessee my son, an avid book reader, wanted to check out “Books a Million,” the big box bookstore. While watching him shop, I made my way to the classical section.

It has been about nine months since I started my project of reading through the top 100 English novels. I had never read fiction before because in my Evangelical-Dualistic frame of mind, I considered fiction a waste of time.

Before I got to the classical section, I passed the spirituality aisle and made a right turn. I always like to see what the Evangelical mainstream is reading these days. The first thing I noticed was the rather large Christian fiction section. With my new-found love of fiction my initial impressions was that this was a very positive thing . . . where Christians can now express and enjoy the art of writing for the sake of writing without any great spiritual purpose. Rght away I noticed a remarkable trend. I would guess that 80% of the books had people (usually a woman) on the cover dressed in either a prairie dress (including head covering) or a Victorian high collar gown. I was puzzled. Then I start to figure out that these ages, plus maybe the 1950s, are considered the “gilded age” by many Evangelicals. All of life was black and white and those were Christian societies . . . with plenty of virtue . . . or so it seems. But I really wonder about that. I simply suggest that those sod prairie houses had some closets. I’m not an Igor, but I think I see life as more realistic than I did before. After all, our hope is in God’s grace after all, not some idealized human existence.

Speaking of which, I turned around 180 degrees to the best-selling Christian section. There on top was The Shack. I was glad about that. While the book had endured its theological criticism, I do think it has exposed a more realistic side of Grace . . . which is a good thing. Then, just above The Shack was a book that really caught my attention. It was about Jon and Kate called “Multiple Blessings,” which was published by Zondervan. I’m proud to say that I’ve never seen an episode of Jon and Kate Plus Eight . . . not because of my good taste, but that we don’t get the channel it comes on.

I wouldn’t know much about the couple except that my mom and aunt are celebrity junkies. There coffee table is literally buried in gossip magazines. I was just skimming them the day before. Okay, I carried a couple into the john with me and actually read the articles. Certainly the Jon and Kate break up was on almost every cover. He said this and she said that. His unfaithfulness and her nasty domination (thus says the reporters). So I just had to look through this Christian version of the couple . . . before the messy separation. I never knew that they had claimed to be Christians. The book was sweet and precious (like a Precious Moments figurine). Each chapter began with either Jon’s or Kate’s favorite verse. The chapters described how they were able to keep Christ at the center of their marriage in the midst of the chaos (and buckets of money coming in).

My point here (and later about Dante) is not about my shock of how bad Christians are . . . but my shock of how good we claim to be. Our boasting of greatness seems always to come back and bite us. I hope God will forbid that I would ever publish a book about how great I am or my marriage is. I put the book back and moved on.

I finally found the classics. As I looked for a top 100 books, I could only find hard backs with high price tags. I’m sure they had cheaper versions somewhere in the huge box store. Before I could venture on my eyes stumbled upon a copy of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve never read it. It was only five bucks. So, even though it is not on the “Top 100 English Novels of All Time” list, I bought it.

The translator-commentator (I’ll call T-C) made a very good point in the books’ forward. He said there is no way you can translate Dante’s (fourteenth century) Latin pose into modern English and still appreciate the beauty of it. T-C says that there is so much depth to his writing, so many wonderful narrative tricks he deploys, play on words and rhymes that are frankly lost in translation. But T-C does a wonderful job taking you through his translation cannon by cannon. So, maybe I, a twenty-first century English speaker, can get 40 or 50% of the message and beauty of the original. I do wish that I was fluent in late-Medieval Latin . . .and the Greco-Roman culture.

I approached the book thinking I would get some philosophical or metaphysical insights to how Christians of Florence thought during the early Renaissance.

It has been fun reading. But, I can’t help but deconstruct Dante from a bigger than life, talented poet, into a mortal like myself.

Warning Side Bar: When I was a staunch Evangelical, I was critical of others but it was the perspective of “looking down your nose.” We applied this all the time to non-Christians. They were the pits. But also (especially when I was a Navigator) we had the habit of looking down at the little “church people.” Those were the non-committed Christians unlike ourselves. Those little church people dated, and listened to worldly music. We were the true disciples.

But now, when I criticize, I am actually trying to put pants on the people who are presenting as bigger-that-life. Okay, like Jon and Kate.

Dante does a very intensive word picture of his decent into the bowels of hell. I can see how imagines, such as expressed in What Dreams May Come (staring Robin Williams), had some bases in Dante’s work. But soon I started to see a pattern. On each level Dante was meeting his contemporaries . . . and naming them by name. TC was quick to point out who these people were in Dante’s real life. Arch-enemies, family adversaries, rival poets and people who had done him wrong. Hey, the Inferno is populated with Dante’s master shit-list.

I found it almost humorous that on the eight level of hell, where the homosexuals are condemned to live forever, he names several of his Florentine associates. TC points out that none of them were known as being gay . . . of course in those days such admission might get you executed. But it seems like Dante was basically doing the adolescent antic of name-calling (equivalent of saying “hey fag.”)

So, maybe I’m the last to know that this was the nature of Dante’s great work . . . a beautifully versed . . . shit list. Actually, his word pictures had many of his enemies covered in shit . . . literally.

So once again it is a question of motives. None of us are above reproach, where our actions don’t have at least some primal intentions. Hey, I mean that there are days that the carnal Mike wouldn’t love to write a long poetic epic, where I could list all the people whom had harmed me (at least in my broken imagination) and then do things to them like cover them in feces, or put their heads on backwards, or put then into tombs of fire. But Dante, as talented as he was, was a mortal.

I will say that Dante and I end up at the same place. He (and I alike) would put in the anti-apogee of hell the so-called Christian deceivers. In his case it was the popes who were liars and greedy, making money out of their faith. I’ve always favored the TV Evangelists, those who have built financial empires on the backs of the little ole ladies (like my mother and my aunt) giving the pennies form their social security checks.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Before I got to the classical section, I passed the spirituality aisle and made a right turn. I always like to see what the Evangelical mainstream is reading these days.

No. You. Don't. As a member of the Lost Genre Guild, just trust me on this one...

The first thing I noticed was the rather large Christian fiction section.

Too late...

With my new-found love of fiction my initial impressions was that this was a very positive thing . . . where Christians can now express and enjoy the art of writing for the sake of writing without any great spiritual purpose.

Wrong-o. The only purpose of Christian Fiction (TM) is To Save Souls (TM). And keep the Church Ladies comfortable.

Right away I noticed a remarkable trend.

Other than the 22-volume sets of Left Behind, plus the 40volumes of Left Behind: The Kids in the children's section? (No joke; that actually happened to me the last time I was in a Christian (TM) Bookstore two years ago.)

I would guess that 80% of the books had people (usually a woman) on the cover dressed in either a prairie dress (including head covering) or a Victorian high collar gown.

You have just discovered what are called "Bonnet Romances". Harlequin meets Little House on the Prairie, except CHRISTIAN (TM). All sanitized so as not to possibly offend any Weaker Brethren and/or Church Lady. And if the publisher is really feeling "edgy", the Pure Christian heroine actually takes off her bonnet at the end!

But I'll tell you what's coming down the chute that sounds worse. According to one of the Guild who attended a Christian (TM) Publisher's Conference, the Next Big Thing in Christian Fiction will be -- Christian Paranormal Romances! Just like Twilight, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)! You can't call them "vampires", but they'll still Bishie-sparkle in the sunlight!

(That was the point when I started beating my head against the wall and screaming. I hope Prof Tolkien, Jack Lewis, and Cordwainer Smith joined me in that oft-cited "cloud of witnesses".)

Headless Unicorn Guy

P.S. When I was in high school, a book report cited Dante's Inferno (the most popular book of his Divine Comedy trilogy) as "a great list of ideas on How to Get Even With Somebody."

And giving shout-outs to people on your shit list is a writing tradition that continues to this day. Just cop an attitude around Parker & Stone (the guys who do South Park) and you WILL get on TV. Just not in a way you'd want or like. (As several "thin grey ponytail" activists have found out the hard way.)

shallowfrozenwater said...

i just want to say that the previous comment is a great comment.
that was all a nice read.

Jaimie said...

I'm doing a little shit-listing in my novel, but about political parties, so. That's okay.

(All political parties.)

Great read. Great comment by HUG.

I was kind of stunned that you thought that Christian fiction was a place where Christians "can now express and enjoy the art of writing for the sake of writing without any great spiritual purpose."

I'm a Christian, and I do that, but I won't get published by Christian publishers. My book doesn't have God in it, and I don't have a CS Lewis allegory, and I don't think they put even Tolkien in the Christian fiction section. If you take a cursory look at my novel, it's mocking God. (Really, it's mocking our self-image of God.) And so I won't bother looking for a Christian agent next year.

I don't like how they separate Christian fiction from "secular" fiction anyway. They don't do that for other religions. Bizarre.

MJ said...

Jaimie, I just got my first rejection letter from an agent. I hear that you must have pretty thick skin for authors wannabes.

HUG often warns me to stay away from Christian "literature" . . . but I'm a slow learner.

Anonymous said...

Here's the story of a new Christian F&SF small-press, Marcher Lord Press. The guy that founded it used to work for a big-name Christian (TM) publishing house but got tired of beating his head against the wall and went indie.

Here's how he described the Official Christian Fiction (TM) target audience:

"These companies reached a particular demographic with its fiction—white, conservative, Evangelical American women of child-raising to empty nest years—and this demographic is typically not into weird. They tend to like prairie romances, female-oriented mysteries, and women's fiction."

Note that except for "Evangelical Christian", this sounds like the "bored housewife" demographic Harlequin targets. Born-Again Bored Housewives.

Headless Unicorn Guy

pennyyak said...

I went to the library this afternoon, and as usual looked through the new books section (I had wanted a book by Chesterton, but his books are apparently not very important). Anyway, there have been an increasing # of these books with a "Christian fiction" sticker (they have one for SF etc). Skimming them I got the impression that they were romance novels without the sex. Their covers are eerily similar (subdued color, gingham dresses). Weird.

pennyyak said...

Oh, headless, I meant to ask - any chance the rest of us are ever going to see your writing? Any publishing possibilities? If not, a snippet (maybe even a chapter) to see if we salivate?

Jaimie said...

"I hear that you must have pretty thick skin for author wannabes."

Yep, yep. I feel I'm an old pro at this, although I haven't tried yet. But I have enough friends who have. And I'm not one to have the "But I'll be different!" complex.

After dealing with the demands of my perfectionism, and having rewritten this thing nearly from the ground up three times now... finding an agent will be breezy.

It will be a damn good novel. That is the beginning and the end of it.

:)

"Ignore her, she had a good writing night."

Jaimie said...

Oh, I'm not saying I'll get published either. I don't think I will. But *I* will be satisfied, and that's the real accomplishment.

Anyway, so far off topic, ahem, sorry and all that. I have an Instant Messenger mentality, not a blog one.

Anonymous said...

Oh, headless, I meant to ask - any chance the rest of us are ever going to see your writing? Any publishing possibilities? -- pennyak

Novelette "Mask of the Ferret" in the anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God.

Semi-sequel novella "Dyads" in Infinite Space, Infinite God II, due out sometime next year.

These are both small-press publications, so we need all the shout-outs and publicitiy we can.

pennyyak said...

headless:

Very fine. Will do some shouting, though I can't say I have any SF readers. You never know, though.

penny