Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fiction representing reality

I referenced Tom Perrotta’s excellent book, The Abstinence Teacher, over at my other blog, Words Matter. I don’t read very much fiction, but when I do, I prefer works that make you think, and have believable characters and a plots.

Perrotta’s characters were believable, and not hokey, or cardboard thin. What also impressed me about the book, was how the author handled the subject of born-again Xianity and the characters from the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, and in particular, Tim Mason, one of the book’s principal characters.

Mason is the soccer coach for one of Stonewood Heights’ (the fictional northeastern suburb of the novel) youth soccer leagues, who becomes embroiled, and entangled with Ruth Ramsey, the book’s protagonist.

Ramsey becomes enraged when Mason gathers the girls on his team (which includes her daughter, Maggie, a star player on the team) for a post match prayer. Ramsey, a sex ed teacher at the local high school, is already in the midst of her own controversy, after a churchgoing snitch reports her teacher's blasé endorsement of oral sex to her parents. This brings down the ire of several Xian parents, and puts her in the crosshairs of Pastor Dennis, the right-wing firebrand preacher of the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth. The school, which has signed on to pushing an abstinence agenda, forces Ruth to push something she regards as ''a farce, an attack on sexuality itself, nothing more than officially sanctioned ignorance.''

Ruth, who now finds herself the target of the church’s crusade, describes the experience as like ''living in a horror movie. ... 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' or something. You never knew who they were going to get to next.''

Many writers misrepresent fundamentalist and/or conservative evangelical Xianity, not due to errors of commission, but most often, omission. It’s hard to write about something that most people have no firsthand knowledge of. Perrotta, on the other hand, writes like someone that has spent time within the inner sanctums of this world. His treatment of Mason, Pastor Dennis, and the other believers, especially the part of the novel that has a group of men on their way to a Promise Keepers-type rally, and the ensuing drama that transpires really hit home with me (although this "true believer" has issues with Perrotta’s fictional account).

Tim Mason is every man that at one time, or another, got sucked into the vortex of manipulation and control that is right-wing religion in America. In Mason’s case, a former musician, with a substance abuse problem, and someone whose life was spiraling downward, Xianity provided a lifeline that he grabbed onto. (in the book, his mother accuses him of ''using Jesus like a substitute for drugs, like methadone.'') His conversion experience is one that tens of thousands of other so-called believers share, and has become a spiritual meme trotted out over and over during Sunday night “testimony” sessions, and other public displays of conversion stories.

Given my own background as a former “follower of Jesus,” Mason’s pangs of guilt and conviction as he begins to see the cracks in Pastor Dennis’ theological subterfuge are realistic, and something I experienced when I recognized my own fundamentalist house of cards was crumbling. His own “arranged” marriage to Carrie, a nice Xian girl, but someone so unlike Tim that matrimony becomes the equivalent of doing time, rather than the connubial bliss promised by Pastor Dennis, when he brought the two of them together.

When Tim tells the pastor that there are problems in the marriage, he counsels that what Tim and Carrie need to do is spice up their sex life, courtesy of Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage, a Xian sex manual for couples that according to the pastor, revolutionized his own sex life with his wife.

Perrotta obviously did his homework, because Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage is the fictional equivalent to the books of Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Xian fuck manuals designed to help Xians "sex up" their marriages. These books were what I knew LaHaye and his wife for, long before Mr. LaHaye became better known for his Left Behind series of books, co-written with Jerry Jenkins. (Tim LaHaye once made the statement that "Christian men and women experience a higher degree of orgasmic enjoyment than non-Christians")

Pastor Dennis is like so many pastors that populate evangelical and fundamentalist churches across the U.S. Men that have their own “Damascus Road” experience, and feel “called” to pastor. The damage done, and the human wreckage that emanates from their spiritual wake is something that isn’t widely known, unless you’ve been a victim of their methods of control, and abuse.

The Abstinence Teacher is great fiction, and even better if you’ve got your own issues with the religious right, whether a former convert, or someone, like Ruth Ramsey that they’ve trained their sights upon, because she’s violated one of their archaic codes, or stand in their way of taking over their little corner of the kingdom. The book also accurately captures the politics of smaller communities, and how religious mores, rather than being the exception, are often the norm, contrary to the claims of religious right leaders who know better, but use this subterfuge of persecution quite effectively.

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