Saturday, November 10, 2007

Reading journal for A Complicated Kindness

I’m not sure I can write about A Complicated Kindness (or Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, for that matter) without straying and making personal references. And I’m not at all sure I want to or even should make those references (one reason simply that it can be incredibly difficult to write sensibly about something close to one’s heart). Suffice it to say that shunnings do not just happen in small rural communities and they are not a solely Mennonite phenomena. Seven years ago, my sister, like Tash, 1 came home with science books from the public library and set in motion a series of events that culminated in our being shunned by our family and community. The people we left behind would never pick up a book like A Complicated Kindness and so they will never see themselves reflected in it. Everything they read (or watch, or listen to) is strictly dictated by a biblical code. If you – an outsider – were to challenge their tradition of shunning, perhaps calling it cruel (or ‘destructive, sad, ridiculous, hateful’ as Toews has done), they would explain that though having to enforce the practice deeply saddened them it was absolutely necessary in order to keep their community (“God’s people”) free of impurities and apostate influences.2 They would have no trouble justifying the practice biblically or telling you that it was what God wanted them to do. They believe that what they are doing is fitting and right. (And after all, as an outsider, an unbeliever, who is hardly living what they would consider to be a “godly life” why should your opinion really matter to them?)

Miriam Toews has written about a fairly obscure religious practice and the story has been welcomed and praised – by a mostly secular audience but also by some more liberal Mennonites. But among all those who have read and praised A Complicated Kindness, there are certain basic things that must be held in common to be able to read and appreciate such a book; the most essential of them perhaps being the willingness to admit doubt, to question, criticize, challenge. How does one reach people who refuse to do those things? The people we call “fundamentalists” who will accept no lesser authority than God, who accept the Bible as infallible truth, who believe that the men (for it is almost always men) who lead their church are divinely appointed and thus who’s judgments are beyond question.

Perhaps I’ve made it sound too black and white. Perhaps the urge that follows is to dismiss the people who believe this way as being radical, intolerant fundamentalists, lacking in rational thought. But the beauty of A Complicated Kindness lies in the way that Nomi – Toews – refuses to do that: “…there is a kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don’t know what to say.” (P. 46) Nomi “sees all this, names all this, yet recognizes in the same moment that there is in East Village a kind of goodness, a complicated kindness; recognizes that while this excuses nothing, it is not, at least, a place of uncluttered cruelty.”3 The people who choose to live a religious type of life – one that can seem medieval and foreign to us, are incredibly complex, complicated beings, more than just the sum of their parts (or their prejudices). Behind Toews story is a real community with real people in it – flawed, yes, but not lacking in human kindness and who shunned, not necessarily out of malice, but out of misguided love. And if we resort to a reductionist way of looking at them, of distancing ourselves from them, we are falling into a similar fundamentalist trap.4

1 “Why did my sister require more than that? What the heck was she doing with that library card of hers? She’d gone too far, I knew that much.” (P. 120)
2 “And everybody was sad, I’d say. Right? Yes, everybody was sad. It was a very difficult position to be in not only for the person who was shunned but for the people who loved them. God especially, I’d say. Right? Yes, God especially. I loved that hook. Even though he was the ultimate punisher, he got no satisfaction from it. It hurt him, but it had to be done. I thought that was damn heroic.” (P. 44)
3 Richardson, Bill. “A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.” The Globe and Mail. May 1, 2004.
4 “Fundamentalism offers a really simplistic, easy version of things to believe in. All those difficult, unanswerable questions that real life asks, are answered.” (Toews, as quoted in “A Complicated kind of author,” Herizons, Vol. 19, No. 1, P. 20)

[Sorry, this is totally not a real entry, I'm too busy with school work right now to write a real one. I'm just posting this due to a request. For the record, my prof responded to the "black and white" query with the comment of, "No, not really." And to the final sentence, with: "Perhaps, but it's arguable..." I'd also attached a print-off of the Wikipedia entry for "Jehovah's Witnesses and congregational discipline" (a.k.a. shunning) to my RJ so my prof would understand my allusion.]

1 comment:

Elliot said...

So is your prof is exactly the sort of secular fundamentalist you were referring to? You (or me or Toews, for that matter), who have suffered because of religion, are willing to recognize some humanity in your opponents. Your prof, who probably hasn't gone through that experience or anything like it, isn't.

People who arrogantly and judgementally sneer at religious folks and accuse those people of being arrogant and judgemental don't seem to get the irony of their own position.