Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Believe Me

I began reading Believe Me, by Nina Killham, with some trepidation. The author initially approached me about reading this novel, and I agreed to let her publicist for Plume Paperbacks (Penguin) sent me a copy. What worried me was the blurb, describing the novel as about a relationship between a mother who is "an atheist and staunch Darwinist" and a son who "is starting to embrace the teachings of the bible and Creationist theory" whose "beliefs are put to the test" when "an unexpected tragedy strikes." What does this sound like to you? To me, it sounds like religion to the rescue. But I was pleasantly surprised by the complications of this novel, which advocates for neither "side," but tells a story showing how difficult it can be to respect the beliefs of others.

The protagonist of the novel is Nic, age 13. That interests me already, as the mother of a 13-year-old boy. And his grandmother spouts the inoculation theory of religion, which I've spouted ever since before I first became a mother (once, memorably, to an Episcopalian priest): "Of course he's going to grow up and join some weird cult. What did you expect? You've got to give him a bit in the beginning so he can grow antibodies to the real crazy stuff." But Nic's mother, Lucy, is an atheist and has raised him as one, while many of the cool kids at his school are fundamentalist Christians. That interests me too, as one inhabitant of a small town where the school board still hasn't managed to fire a teacher (John Freshwater) who has done some of the same kinds of things that a character in this novel, Mr. Branden, does:
"He brought a Bible to class one day. Made this big show of sneaking it out of the drawer....One day Ms White, our principal, came in and sat at the back of the class taking notes. Mr. Branden didn't mention [God] once."

There's also a character in the novel, Mrs. Porter, who I was prepared to dislike, early on, because she "got them to put stickers on the biology books saying that evolution is just a theory." But as the novel goes on, the characters become more real, and Mrs. Porter also does some genuinely thoughtful things for people, including Nic and his mother. She reminds me of the mother of a boy on Walker's soccer team who is an ardent John Freshwater supporter and also one of the nicest people I've ever met.

I thought Nic's mother missed a good chance to explain the difference between a philosophical and a scientific theory when she and Nic discuss some of the young-earth creationist books Mrs. Porter gives Nic. But this is a story about people, and the interest of it is not so much in the ideas, but in hearing about stuff like the 13-year-old's opinions about who God likes (his pretty young friend Sandra Miller) and who God doesn't like (Mrs. Vogler, an old lady whose child was killed in an auto accident). The part where Nic wishes for a mother like Mrs. Porter, who would "probably jump up and offer to make me a sandwich" rings absolutely true to me. Also the part where the 13-year-old blames his mother for the failure of his parents' marriage sounds like genuine young teen ranting: "all she had to do was make some meals, do the laundry, and keep her husband, and she's failed completely." Nic definitely sounds like a real 13-year-old to me when he muses "the more I learn about life the more I realize grownups have no idea what they're talking about. I guess I'm just surprised how much they don't know. Until a couple of years ago I thought they knew everything and it turns out they can't agree on anything."

The fundamentalist Christians are aligned with this 13-year-old way of thinking when Mrs. Porter's son Kevin says to Nic that Lucy got brain cancer because she isn't Christian, making it personal the way Nic had earlier made the ideas about who God likes and who he doesn't. Kevin says to Nic: "God's attacking her brain. Think about it."

What interests me most in this novel are the parts where someone who strikes me--and Nic's mother--as wrong explains his or her point of view. When Nic's Muslim babysitter Layla wears a headscarf, for example, she says it's because "I am treated as a person, not a sex object." When Nic talks to the new "senior pastor" at his church (at the urging of Mrs. Porter), he is asked "Do you know what happens when we think for ourselves?" and told (immediately) that the answer is "moral decay." The most incomprehensible scene, for me, is when Nic's fundamentalist Christian friend Melissa attacks Lucy's research to find out the mass of a planet, saying "God will reveal it to her when He's ready" and then giving a speech about why scientists shouldn't try to find out anything about our world: "Don't you think He has enough problems without people nitpicking the details. Try to refute His story. Coming up with wacky theories of their own. He's exhausted. Here He is trying to conquer Satan and your mom is quibbling about how old His universe is." Finally Melissa works herself into such a frenzy she pulls out Lucy's computer wires, asking him "Do you want her to prove there is no God?"

The fundamentalist theme culminates in a back-and-forth reading Layla and Nic do with the Koran and the Bible, a reading that leaves neither party on a clear moral high ground.

The end of the novel, though, is partly a celebration of the virtues of organized religion. Mrs. Porter is the kindest and one of the most useful people who come to visit Lucy in the hospital. A pastor helps Nic get some perspective on his situation, and afterward Nic thinks there should be a class in "Death and How to Survive It" and "the first thing they'd have to teach you is to never go to an atheist funeral....They are not a hell of a lot of fun. They try to be cheery because they're supposed to be celebrating a person's life, but there's no MC like a pastor or anything so people just wander around with huge craters in their hearts."

Nic reaches a point where he seems better able to answer his own question, posed early in the novel: "why would anybody be good if there wasn't a God?" At the end of the novel, the love Nic and his mother have for each other is stronger than their need to make the other one understand what they believe is true. They learn to respect each other, even if they don't respect each other's beliefs. And it's not just because of Lucy's brain tumor, which is one of the things the blurb made me fear.

It's not a perfect ending. But at the center of this novel is Nic's family, and his family's conflict is resolved, even while the important questions with which the characters struggle will continue to be debated and fought over. It's interesting to see them raised in fiction and to get a little bit of the feeling of how deep and divisive they are for these characters, people who aren't interesting in arguing with any of us readers.

Have you talked to anyone lately who disagrees with you about rationalism or fundamentalism? If not, why not? Do you think we all tend to stick to our own side of the street these days?


kittiesx3 said...

Yes, I have. I’m married to an atheist and I am an evangelical Christian which is not the same thing as the fundamentalists described in this book review. That different in belief systems is one of the two reasons I wouldn’t date Kent for three years. I knew that could be an impossible difference to overcome, and frankly for all the stories of obnoxious Christians trying to save your soul, I’ve met a ton of equally obnoxious atheists doing their best to convert me. As a quick aside one of the best lines I heard was from a guy I’d just dated once or twice who solemnly told me, “Elizabeth, you are too smart to belief there is a god.” ::big huge eye roll::

While we are in the minority in terms of a mixed faith marriage, I don’t think we are a tiny minority. And maybe I’m just entirely weird, but I do have many friends who are of very different faiths—more than just a different flavor of protestant for example. I also have friends with hugely different political views from me—who lean either far, far right or far, far left. Respect and genuine affection keep the friendships (and the marriage) strong despite those differences.

Amanda said...

While this is an interesting subject, I don't think I could read this book. I tend not to read books about religion. There is too much around me to want to do so.

Harriet said...

I've been thinking about this lately in the context of a childhood friend who is a teabagger and an outspoken supporter of the "global warming is a hoax" camp. I find I'm resistant to even hearing her point of view. Are there some issues I'm unwilling to discuss? Because that doesn't really gel with my self-conception as a rationalist. My feeling on religion and most metaphysical things is that there are many, many things we don't know and I'm always interested in hearing other points of view as long as the points of view are not designed to shut others down. Anyone evangelical about any topic, even one I agree with, without rational support or an open mind are likely to send me into a toddler-like fit of pique. "I won't listen to you and you can't make me."

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Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I want to be more like you, but lately it seems that my friends are listening to each other less--we have catchphrases that make us turn off.

Amanda, It's more of a novel about the relationship between the mother and the son. It's my review that focuses more on belief, rationality, and religion.

Harriet, what you said is almost exactly what made me ask the question about whether we even listen to each other on these hot button topics anymore.

kittiesx3 said...

Oh well not to give the impression I've arrived because there are certainly people I've reconnected with on FB who are well down the path of LOONEY TUNES! I even set up a filter for one, she's way out there. So yeah, tolerance until I'm stomped on :-)

Jodie said...

A couple of my friends are Christians (was that ever weird when one of them got married, the groom's local vicar spoke and freaked us all way out with a story about how God would preserve them if one of them fell into a waterfall - their honeymoon was in Iceland btw) but we tend not to talk about religion because well, we just don't and will never agree, one of us will get upset because someone will get too into their argument and it just seems easier to avoid the whole topic. As much as I might be happy listening to someone state their opinion (say if we all sat in a circle and took turns, or reading it in a book) I don't find much benefit comes from any dialogue we might have because it devolves into 'and I respect your opinion, but here's why I think you're wrong'.

It's like if I sat down with someone who was against gay marriage, I'd hear their opinion, I'd take it on board, I'd try hard to understand why they've formed this opinion, but at the end of the day I'd still believe my opinion was right (and that's a big thing for me to say, because I so often assume I am just wrong about things - it's only now that I'm really coming to fix on opinions and belief in them). I think that tsking on board/trying to get how someon's views have been created and the ability for everyone to respect people's right to express their opinion is perhaps the most we can expect of ourselves and others.

Anonymous said...

Wow.. this is a really interesting book. I am not sure if I would read it...but that is mostly because I barely read anything non-dissertation related these days. I have to say that I am intrigued by the topic though. I am Christian...but with a side of "its complicated." I struggle with my beliefs because I want to be inclusive and I find that some denominations can make that difficult. I am also probably a lazy Christian because I am not interested in "converting" people. I feel people can believe or not believe in whatever they want.
So, all this rambling is to say...that as a person who is interested in the journeys (fictional or no) of others..maybe when the dissertation is done..I will check this out! :-)

Nina Killham said...

Thanks, Jeanne, for such a thoughtful review. You're right about the blurb. My other books are a lot more satirical. You've got a wonderful forum here. I'm so glad I've found you! Nina

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, amazing how really old acquaintances have gotten "looney tunes" while we weren't there to argue with them, isn't it?

Jodie, I do have trouble letting people express the opinion that gay marriage is wrong. That's one of my hot-button topics.

Martine, the issue of inclusiveness is all through this novel; I think you might like it. Seeing what these characters do has the potential to make an academic act less snotty!

Nina, thanks for commenting! I was going to read your other books already, but now I'm going to read them faster because you said the magic word...satirical!