Monday, October 11, 2010

Theologians and Artists: Resident Aliens v. The Unicorn

(reflection upon two books contained in my Amazon kindle: Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Willimon, and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.)

I was shocked once in my early days in the Episcopal Church, still fresh from being a fundamentalist in college.  A gentleman in the choir had laughingly said that he didn't really believe all that theological stuff -- "God is in the music," he said. This was heresy to me then;  I've grown to appreciate what he meant.

Case in point:  I spent some time recently wading through a book by a pair of theologians.  The basic idea is congenial to me, that the Church is, at its best, a sort of colony of "resident aliens" in our culture.  That said, the reading turned tedious and even annoying, as the writers reiterated that the Church and its pastors should be telling "the truth" instead of just being polite and helping people.  This strikes me as, first, a false choice, and second, as banal.  The "truth" turns out to be, so far as I can tell, warmed over Paolo Friere: don't be materialistic, don't support regimes that fight wars. 

I moved on with some relief to read an early work of the astoundingly prolific novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, an agnostic sort of Christian who delighted in pitting political and religious people against each other in her fictions and confounding all their beliefs.  Just in the first few pages of The Unicorn, she gets closer to "the truth" than those theologians in their entire book.

In those first pages, she's setting up a plot that seems to owe more than a little to Henry James's Turn of the Screw:  nervous, tightly wound governess reporting for duty to a remote estate peopled by people either morbid and secretive or outwardly charming and unapproachable.

But she is also depicting a starkly beautiful world -- she uses the words "beautiful" and "appalling" almost interchangeably here -- of violent waves, treeless landscape, vast sky.  All of the protagonist Marian's previous materialistic concerns  fall away from her as she loses herself in this landscape, where she is now the resident alien.

I sense that much of what the theologians have to say is already implied in this novel, and much more besides.  In just the last chapter, Marian and her pupil Hannah (first surprise:  her pupil is the woman who employs her, not some child), seated as if on a stage illuminated by golden light of the setting sun reflected on the sea, have a sudden dramatic moment.  Hannah grasps Marian's hand and asks for forgiveness, for needing so much for someone to love her.  She goes on to reflect that even God is said to have created us because He needed love.  Hannah believes in God because she loves God, and "you can't love something that isn't there, can you?"

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