I am a Disciple of Kurt Vonnegut and Jesus

Modern Christianity could learn a lot from Kurt Vonnegut. This is a bit ironic because Vonnegut was a Humanist who at the best of time might have been Agnostic. But the morals in his novels might as well have been included in the Biblical canon.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kurt Vonnegut, in addition to being a Humanist, he survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a prisoner of war in World War 2 and then became a bestselling novelist.

9780385334143I am currently re-reading his book, Mother Night, and I wanted to share some thoughts. It doesn’t take long for Vonnegut to tell you what a book is going to be about. Often, he gives his own spoilers in the Introduction. But you don’t read his books to find out “whodunnit”, you read them because he was a brilliant writer who understood the human condition and he cast light on “the least of these” in the most humanizing ways possible.

Mother Night is a first-person portrayal of American Nazi war criminal, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who is on trial for his crimes against humanity in Israel. Campbell claims early on that he was acting as a secret agent on behalf of the Allies while at the same time actively working in propaganda for Nazi Germany. The book is Campbell’s memoir as he awaits the verdict of his trial.

This is from the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book:

Before seeing what sort of a book I was going to have here, I wrote the dedication–“To Mata Hari.” She whored in the interest of espionage, and so did I.
Now that I’ve seen some of the book, I would prefer to dedicate it to someone less exotic, less fantastic, more contemporary–less a creature of silent film.
I would prefer to dedicate it to one familiar person, male or female, widely known to have done evil while saying to himself, “A very good me, the real me, a me made in heaven, is hidden deep inside.”
I can think of many examples, could rattle them off after the fashion of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. But there is no single name to which I might aptly dedicate this book–unless it would be my own.
Let me honor myself in that fashion, then:
This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of this times.

I love that line, “a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly”. I also completely understand the concept of someone doing evil while assuring themselves that they are good deep down inside.

Now, contrary to popular belief, Humanists don’t believe that people are inherently good. Rather, they believe that humanity is capable to both good and evil. Christianity differs here in that they say that humanity is inclined toward evil and goodness can only be accomplished with divine help.

In the preface to the book, Vonnegut writes:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Christianity would disagree and say that there are plenty of people who pretend to be good, but are quite evil inside. And while that is true, Christians also shouldn’t be worrying about the evil inside of other people. God is the only one with the authority and knowledge to judge accurately in these cases. Besides, I don’t think Vonnegut is writing with these people in mind.

Mother Night is more of a warning to people who do evil in the name of good, not the other way around. And there are probably a lot of Christians out there who are willing to treat people in less-than-loving ways because they are sinners. But does the Bible really tell us to be mean or treat people badly because they are sinners? Doesn’t it tell us that we should do good to those who hurt us? Doesn’t it say that we should love as Christ, a guy who hung out with prostitutes and turncoats, loved?

Anyway, I know that there are some areas that Humanism gets wrong, and I’m more than prepared to admit that Vonnegut wasn’t a saint, but there is this to say for him that can’t be said of the Modern Church: He loved people without judging them.

I only hope I can do the same.

100 Word Challenge | Would seven prove to be too much?

“The line between bravery and stupidity is exactly as thick as the people who can’t tell that stupidity is fighting someone else’s fight,” spat the former Pvt. Thorne.

“Coward’s talk,” growled Capt. Crenshaw as enemy fire made cheesecloth of the tents they occupied just minutes before. “It was always our fight. Every fight is our fight. That’s the curse of being the best fighter.”

“Ha,” laughed Thorne. “If fighting is cursed, I’m blessed to be a coward.”

“Now isn’t the time!” Another spray of bullets. “I count seven enemies.”

Thorne knew that he could handle making enemies with Crenshaw, but would seven prove to be too much?

4 Things Writers Can Learn from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut
Nov. 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007
So it goes.

I am in love with the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. Let that be my disclaimer.

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five for an Ethics & Literature class offered by the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University. Having never heard of Vonnegut before, I had no idea what I was in for. My previous reading interests consisted of The Lord of the Rings and spy novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five was my gateway drug to harder concepts like war, morality, pain, and patriotism.

I once suggested Slaughterhouse-Five to a friend who had never read Vonnegut. He read it, but didn’t think as much of it as I. He told me that he found the book a bit hopeless, depressing. I couldn’t disagree with that. Vonnegut wrote from his experience as a World War II prisoner-of-war who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden. He prefaces the book with a promise to a war buddy’s wife that he wouldn’t glorify the war. He lived up to that promise.

If you haven’t read Slaughterhouse-Five, read it. I can’t promise that it will be an uplifting book, but it is excellently written and shows an author who put himself onto the pages, sometimes literally, in a way that will stick with you. Plus, it was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, so I’m not alone in my convictions.

I’m not going to bother with an in-depth synopsis of the book, because I fully expect each of you to read it for yourself, but if you need something to go on for the rest of this post, here’s the one-sentence version for you: We follow the out-of-order life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII POW who lived through the fire-bombing of Dresden (sound familiar?) and was abducted by aliens who taught him the true nature of time, free will, and acceptance; an anti-war novel.

Okay then.

4 Things Writers Can Learn from Slaughterhouse-Five

1. Form & Function | When you first start reading Slaughterhouse, you notice that the book is not laid out chronologically. Rather, it is broken up into little moments. It isn’t until the fifth chapter that you read this:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out–in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message–describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments when seen all at one time.”

Vonnegut wrote in the style of the Tralfamadorians, a device that he invented and integrated in order that we might receive something beautiful when seen altogether. There is no real suspense, as he tells you in the first chapter exactly how the book is going to end. It’s certainly a different approach to novel.

2. Author-Driven Narrative | Usually, books fall into one of two categories as far as what is driving the narrative: plot or character. Vonnegut, I would argue, does neither. In plot-driven narratives, the action of the story is what draws the reader in and keeps them reading. In character-driven narratives, the plot comes second to the development of the characters, creating realistic, fleshed-out characters that readers love. Most novels try to balance these two things. Slaughterhouse-Five breaks up the plot into non-chronological order, and we get to the know the characters over the course of the novel, but the reason we keep turning the page is because the author has laid out the book in a very specific way. We follow the author’s lead more than the plot or the character.

3. Writing from Experience | Vonnegut was there. In fact, he even makes a few appearances in the book. This is my favorite, but its a little graphic, so feel free to skip it if you are faint of heart or stomach:

Billy looked inside the latrine. The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over.

An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, “There they go, there they go.” He meant his brains.

That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.

The first chapter opens with a discussion between Vonnegut and a buddy from the war. The last chapter shows them both returning to Dresden in real life.

While I wouldn’t recommend this device for every novel, it is one of my favorite things about Vonnegut’s books. His platform, his authority comes from his experience. He just can’t stay out of his own books. Either he inserts himself by name, or he uses his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. In Slaughterhouse, he does both.

4. Symbolism | Slaughterhouse-Five is rich with symbolism, but rather than point out every symbol, I’ll just talk about one.

Vonnegut could have named his character anything, but he chose the last name of Pilgrim. Pilgrims are travelers. Billy happens to be a traveler through time. But the symbolism goes deeper.

Back in the days when people only owned two books, they had a Bible and a copy of John Bunyon’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Pilgrim’s Progress shows a man on the road to salvation who undergoes trial and hardship in order to get to the Celestial city. It is one of the earliest forms of allegory to describe the Christian life and the path to Heaven.

Vonnegut’s name choice puts his own Pilgrim in direct contrast to Bunyon’s, as Billy Pilgrim undergoes trial and hardship and is rewarded, not with Heaven, but with nothingness.

Billy is speaking before a capacity audience in a baseball park, which is covered by a geodesic dome. The flag of the country is behind him. It is a Hereford bull on a field of green. Billy predicts his own death within an hour. He laughs about it, invites the crowd to laugh with him. “It is high time I was dead,” he says. “Many years ago,” he said, “a certain man promised to have me killed. He is an old man now, living not far from here. He has read all the publicity associated with my appearance in your fair city. He is insane. Tonight he will keep his promise.”

There are protests from the crowd.

Billy Pilgrim rebukes them. “If you protest, if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.” Now he closes his speech as he closes every speech–with these words: “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”

There are police around him as he leaves the stage. They are there to protect him from the crush of popularity. No threats on his life have been made since 1945. The police offer to stay with him. They are floridly willing to stand in a circle around him all night, with their zap guns drawn.

“No, no,” says Billy serenely. “It is time for you to go home to your wives and children, and it is time for me to be dead for a little while–and then live again.” At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross-hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at him from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

Vonnegut’s worldview appears through his symbolic name choice, drawing contrast and refuting the Christian faith in favor of Humanism. So it goes.

Using symbolism is an effective tool to portray complex thoughts or to allow a deeper interpretation of your work.

If you haven’t read it yet, read the book with symbolism in mind and see what you come up with. If you have read it, read it again.

And as always, thanks for reading my blog.

My Grandpa was Full of Little Jokes | Memorial Day 2012

I wrote this back in 2008 after my grandpa died. He was a serviceman in the US Navy during WWII. In the spirit of Memorial Day, I wanted to share this and remember him and his service, both to our country and to his family.

God bless you Norman Mosey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My grandpa always used to read the obituary section. He said that if he didn’t see his name there, he knew that he wasn’t dead. It was one of his little jokes.

He was full of little jokes.

When I would ask for a half glass of orange juice, he would ask which half I wanted filled.
“The top half,” I would reply, at which time he would fill my glass full. I always complained that I only wanted a half glass. It took me about twenty years to figure out that in order to fill the top half, the bottom half had to be filled first.

It didn’t take much to amuse him.

I spent a week with my grandparents during one summer vacation when I was eleven or twelve. I discovered that they didn’t do much, or at least, they didn’t do much of what I thought was fun at the time. But the week was not without its entertainment.
Without speaking a word, my grandpa invented a little game while lounging in the sun in his armchair. Sun filtered in through the window and was reflected by his watch onto various surfaces in the living room. I soon noticed that the reflected light was deliberately moving from item to item. From where I sat, I too could reflect the sunlight, and so our nameless game was born. It was a simple game of chasing his reflection around the room. It was possibly the most fun I had that week.

I guess it doesn’t take much to amuse me either.

I heard the story once of how my grandparents met. My grandpa was in the Navy. My grandmother and her sister took part in a morale-boosting program that wrote letters to servicemen. It was my grandmother’s sister who wrote to grandfather. What they said to each other, I’ll never know, but when my grandpa expressed a desire to meet, my shy grandmother’s sister sent my grandma in her stead. And the rest was history.
They had five children; two boys and three girls.
I heard my grandma asked once why he never said “I love you.”
“I told you when we got married,” he replied. “I’ll let to know if anything changes.”

He wasn’t a man who said what he felt.

By the time I met him, my grandpa only had nine and one third fingers. For the longest time, I assumed that the missing two-thirds of his tenth digit were victims of the Second World War. I asked him once if this was the case and he confirmed it.
A few years back, I found out the truth. He had accidentally pinched his finger in the door of a car and it was safer to amputate than deal with infection.

My grandpa wasn’t always honest, but he was always good for a smile.

He died today as he was clearing the snow from his driveway atop his tractor, “Big Johnny.” The tractor was in the road when a car came around the corner and cut the tractor in two and my grandpa into more pieces. The other driver walked away.
My grandparents were two days away from their sixty-second anniversary. I guess my grandpa never changed his mind about loving my grandma.
We won’t be able to play simple games anymore, or lie to each other about the scars that we bear. And soon his obituary will be in the newspaper and he won’t be there to read it.

Maybe that means that he’s not really dead.