08 June 2013

Observations from The Last Station

I started reading The Last Station by Jay Parini the other week. I've since finished two three other books. This is no reflection on The Last Station; actually, I picked it up as my in between book. See, I'm always reading at least three books at a time. Sometimes more, sometimes less and some I read more actively than others. But through all of that, I always have an in between book. It might be a fluff novel that I read before bed or read over breakfast. It stays the in between book until I've finished with my main book...unless the in between book proves more interesting than the main book. Then I switch off until I've finished the one and switch back to the other.

I promise it isn't as confusing in real life as I've just made it sound.

Anyway, I've just finished a book last night (I finally got around to reading & finishing Casual Vacancy!) so I've picked up The Last Station as my main book. I am only about 20 or 30 pages in, not far at all, but I ran across this quote this morning and it made me pause: Fiction is for people who have not yet properly begun their search for God.

The character speaking, Chertkov, is a character you despise from the moment he opens his mouth. Everything about him reeks of disdain and superiority. (Though I'm not sure that is entirely a bad thing. To fully dislike a character, before he is fully known, based only on a few pages says more about the talent of the author than the preference of the reader, I think.) When he shares this gem, he says it with the utmost conviction and disdain for those who haven't come to as an enlightened place as he has. But all of that aside, I whole heartedly disagree with his statement.

Chertkov talks about authenticity and dedication to Tolstoy's views on life and God. In a letter in the book (fiction or real? could be a bit of both really, which is almost more dangerous than one or the other.) he talks about the Gospels being important, more important than whatever we think we understand about God.

To generalize fiction as a path separate from God or even a search from God is ridiculous. Taking Tolstoy's views into consideration, or at least his fictionalized views, the Gospels are held in high regard. The Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, chronicle the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In it, there are countless examples of Jesus saying, "The kingdom of God is like..." and telling a story to describe and illustrate a kingdom message. In helping people on their way to understanding who God is and what kingdom living looks like, fiction is used. 

The people that Jesus told those stories to had the Old Testament, too. It is full of factual events, all pointing toward a coming Messiah. With the facts staring them in the face, they still didn't understand what Jesus was about. That, I believe, is one of the reasons Jesus uses stories. Stories make us see sense and reason when we don't want to see it in the stark reality of our own lives.
We can easily say, "Oh, you ought to say this" or "I can't believe that person treated her like that! How horrible!" to characters in a story but fail to realize that we've just been rude to that single mom in line at Target or completely failed to treat our families (they are people too, ya know) with kindness.

C. S. Lewis would have something to say to Chertkov about his views on fiction, too, I believe. His Narnia stories are full of allegory, pointing us to Christ and His story of our redemption. And though his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien hated allegory, he also saw the importance of myth and stories. 

I've spent more than a week trying to wrap up this post and currently have three different ways of ending it. I won't use them though. I'll use this one. There is something in Chertkov's view that rubs me the wrong way. I think it is because I have read so many books that not only help me on my path to God but also encourage me onward through the hard parts of life. I've had books reduce me to tears when a biblical truth is translated to modernity. 

Perhaps I'm way off here. Maybe I'm over-reacting. Truth is, The Last Station really isn't about whether fiction has importance or not. For me, though, it's made me really look at fiction and why I read it. 

Why do we read? Is it to escape? Is it just for fun? A love of words? What draws us to fiction? I don't think it really matters. I think the great thing about fiction is that five different people can read the same book and see five different things. Every book we read, I think, teaches us something about ourselves that we otherwise wouldn't know. And as a lover of learning, I don't think that is such a bad thing.