Saturday, 6 September 2008

Pausing for thought on how I come across to others

This week I began the second narrative in The Moonstone, the intricately-plotted mystery novel by Wilkie Collins – first published 1868 – which is an enjoyable read. This second part is written from the point of view of a stereotype, Miss Clack. You find in Collins that he uses stereotypes (often mildly eccentric ones) as a source of amusement and as a way of making his various narrators distinctive.
Miss Clack is clearly the “religious hypocrite” stereotype. Fervent in her support of charities and women’s groups, she is a nuisance to everyone else. Always willing to condemn and disapprove, and unsympathetic towards anyone else’s situation, she sees her mission in life to “improve” others with a mixture of religious tracts and books. While she knows some theology, she does not allow truly Christian principles to affect her. Even in a few pages, we see her preoccupation with money and with self – even finding “evil” done to her in what is perfectly ordinary treatment (p.198)! But it was the following passage which struck me most. Miss Clack, disapproving of the “insolent silence” of the hand-maid who answered the door, attempts to give this “young castaway” a tract called “A Word with you on your Cap-ribbons” (stick with me, I’m actually going somewhere with this).

“She looked at the title. ‘Is it written by a man or a woman, Miss? If it’s written by a woman, I had rather not read it on that account. If it’s written by a man, I beg to inform him that he knows nothing about it.’ She handed me back the tract, and opened the door. We must sow the good seed somehow. I waited until the door was shut on me, and slipped the tract into the letter-box. When I had dropped another tract through the area railings, I felt relieved, in some small degree, of a heavy responsibility towards others.” (p.198)

How utterly ridiculous of Miss Clack! If she had a responsibility towards this household, she has failed in it! She has not acted in their interests at all by supplying them with tracts that they are not interested in reading – and the manner in which she has offered them suggests both her poor view of the household and her high view of her utterly pointless actions (she thinks she has sown “the good seed”). It is clear she has become obsessed with outward signs to justify herself. Miss Clack may have fooled herself into thinking she has the moral superiority, but her whole manner shows that she does not in the least care for these people (members of her family, no less!); she simply wants to be able to point out how they need to be more like her.

What’s my point?
Well, it’s interesting to think about how Collins plays with this stereotype to discredit his narrator altogether (especially when compared with the previous narrative, written from the point of view of Mr Betteredge – a highly caring individual Clack dares to refer to as a “heathen”, p.198). Because of her character, it is easy for everyone to dismiss what Miss Clack says, including the reader. How does this work today? Stereotypes in the 21st century also often suggest that fervently religious characters should not be trusted. The difference today is that in modern films and pop culture religious characters often turn out to be more than harmless social nuisances or hypocrites – they are more often deceivers or evil cultists, extremists or paedophiles. I guess this is partly understandable, in light of the weight of condemnation and militant force coming from Muslim extremists – many suspicions of religion seem to have been confirmed by terror attacks.

But also I would suggest that it is easy to distrust someone who suggests you should change your life – especially if they claim to be “spiritual” in a way that distinguishes you from them, or if they claim to be living the correct way. Both of these betray arrogance – thankfully something that the Lord Jesus (who I follow) showed none of. His call to change your life is not asking you to be “better” but it is an invitation to a loving relationship with God, and the happiness and gifts that come with that. If we are followers of him, let us distinguish ourselves from proud Clacks, who distance themselves from even from their own families, and become more like our humble, helpful, kind Lord, offering life to those who need it as we also have need of it.

Finally, Miss Clack mentions that she must “try to be worldly” (p.200) in giving her account of the facts of the case of the moonstone. She finds it restrictive not to be able to spiritualise everything and find a moral in everything. She prides herself on living “very much out of the world” (p.220), and even avoids newspapers (p.199), so she does not know what is going on in her area. We can see that her view of “faith” and religion is effectively divorced from her view of the “world” – which is looked down upon. The writer Steve Turner recently challenged me once again to see that the day to day things of life are important and spiritual. Having clarified how Christians should not be worldly in the negative sense of following antichristian methods, goals or ideologies, he talks about the way we are to be positive about human culture in general:

“The world is all that God made and came to redeem. This includes human culture…music, songs, stories, paintings, games, rituals, decorations, clothes, languages and hairstyles…
Christians should be worldly in this positive sense. They should be lovers of life because God is the giver of life. No one is more worldly than God-he made the world, upholds the world and sent his Son to die for the world. Christianity doesn’t teach that the world is an illusion that will trap us or a hell that prevents us from attaining our true purpose.” (Imagine, IVP, p.44)

In fact Jesus was an earthy man, and concerned with the totality of life, not just religious activity. “He lived alongside ordinary people, went for walks, ate and drank with sinners, built furniture, slept, wept, relaxed, cared for his mother, sailed in boats and attended social functions.” (Imagine, p.60.)

So let’s be more earthy, real-life Christians! Any reader of The Moonstone can appreciate the folly and insensitivity of the genuinely amusing Clack – may we avoid her dry disapproval of her culture! May we, like Jesus, prize humility, and aim for truly godly lives that get involved in serving and loving our peers and those around us.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Review of Starman: Night and Day

Although I had never heard of the characters before, plunging into this, the second volume in the ten-volume series, was as refreshing as it was rewarding. The writing is incredibly sharp. Within the opening pages the internal monologue of the young antique dealer and self-confessed geek Jack Knight (aka Starman) includes the moody description of the “copper sea” of fields which surround Opal City, interspersed with Jack’s own slightly paranoid obsessions about some of the people who live there. Then suddenly the genre turns to mystery and dark fantasy simultaneously as Jack reluctantly (and partially out of guilt) takes the role of hero, freeing some freakish people he meets from their oppressors. Jack’s emotions soar, and, as often happens in the 212-page volume, we see that Jack has been forced to grow through his experience, to get rid of false prejudice and take action to help the needy – and in all this, we realise he is not the typical DC superhero, whose moral compass we can trust to always face north. This young punk from the big city lives for what he can get, and the difference is fascinating. Even the action is a little quirky, and brilliant scrappy fun. The only downside of this volume is some extreme and probably unnecessarily brutal violence near the end.

I recently discovered that the excellent writer, James Robinson (about to finally return to work for DC on a new Justice League project), is well known for penning the whole ten-year lifespan of the comic (and bringing it to a great conclusion), and if the two volumes I have read so far are any measure of its quality I can not wait for more – especially as I’ve discovered there is a 2-part Batman/Starman/Hellboy crossover as well! Finally I think it is worth noting the unusual themes of Starman – one of the most striking is the idea of the “generation gap”, shown not only in Jack’s obsession with the past and with Opal City, but foremost in his relationship with his father. The way their worldviews jar is particularly well realised, Jack continually being surprised by the experiences and knowledge of his father, and often guessing him wrong. It is brilliant because it highlights how often in the busy western lifestyle, the younger generations are out of touch with what is important to their elders – who would have thought that idea would be shown up in a comic book?

If you can get hold of Starman you are in for a treat. Apparently, DC are about to reprint the entire run in some giant hardcover editions, so look out for that!

Made of leaves

Padded leaves layer up
And lean down under delicate weight.
Tight structures, spreading abroad.

Downy green, downy in the light,
No matter how you turn it.
Experimental twists, growing.

Patchwork sunshine does not
Carpet, but pauses lightly there.
Light made up of leaves.

What texture? To touch it would
Transform it to something solid;
And lines would slant away.

That frozen grain in the wood
Shows you – the shape of use.
Away! Planes and lines! Away!

Closely clustered, in pairs
And larger statements:
Form evolves, happily!