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Kurt Vonnegut: Unlikely Apologist

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

The late Kurt Vonnegut inspires loyalty among his readers. He’s the kind of author whose fans devour book after book, reading one after another in rapid succession. Or at least I did. Back in 1997 a coworker recommended Vonnegut to me, specifically Slaughterhouse-Five. Unable to get my hands on that novel, I checked out Deadeye Dick. I was hooked. By the end of the year, I’d read at least ten Vonnegut novels, only whetting my appetite for more.

Vonnegut is often thought of as cynical, edgy, and distasteful, not the most inviting qualities. This reputation is based—I believe—on his role as social satirist and his liberal-leaning political stance. The Vonnegut I love, on the other hand, is found in his letter to an English class at Xavier High School, one of the most popular Letters of Note posts from last year. He’s charming and kind, concerned with the students’ flourishing, aware of the indignities of life (his aging and its effects), yet vanquishing them with humor and grace. Reading that letter reaffirms my enthusiasm for Vonnegut’s work.

At one time I felt a little timid about my affinity for Vonnegut. He was often conceived as tasteless, a charge getting its bite from a cursory reading of the author’s irreverent and iconoclastic titles. Satirists tip sacred cows, and Vonnegut’s no exception. His outspoken agnosticism further reinforced my timidity. Having flirted with both theism and atheism, Vonnegut was willing to commit to neither. He even claims that his first wife’s conversion to Christianity was a key factor in their divorce. Even so, Vonnegut retained interest in scripture and Christianity, with a particular fondness for Christ himself. Closing the letter to Xavier HS “God bless you all!” is, ironically enough, vintage Vonnegut. He also once claimed, tongue in cheek perhaps, his epitaph should read, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Vonnegut’s words consistently dance with such delight, even when dealing with death and dearth—the firebombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five), apocalyptic nightmares (Cat’s CradleGalápagos), Nazi war crimes (Mother Night). Yet the most salient response he elicits from readers is laughter. The humor lacing Vonnegut’s letter to the high school class permeates all of his books. However heavy the subject matter, he never loses his light touch; however tragic, he retains the capacity to laugh. Vonnegut’s humor exposes man’s fears and limitations and invites his readers to reject human pretensions.

As he wraps up the opening chapter to Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, he turns the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on its head, using it as a parallel to the destruction of the Nazi-occupied city of Dresden and challenging us to reconsider the source and nature of evil and our obligations to one another:

Those were vile people in both cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them. And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

Then, poignantly: “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” The tension between loss and life, pain and joy, is felt in every line of this and many other of his books. Mingled among these jokes and laments are moving passages honoring human beings. In the aftermath of Dresden’s firebombing, the main character rests in a horse-drawn wagon, appreciating the sun, rest, and full belly he’d been denied while a POW. At this moment, Vonnegut introduces two German obstetricians who care for the horse Billy and his comrades have failed to feed or groom properly. Picturesque scenes like this one recur in Vonnegut’s work, encouraging readers to reject easy cynicism amidst pain and tragedy.

Vonnegut is a paradox like that—a likeable curmudgeon, a pessimistic optimist, an earnest humorist. And it’s his honesty about the paradoxes of life that draws me back to him again and again. It’s an honesty that, despite Vonnegut’s inability to submit personally to the gospel message, brilliantly proclaims its truth. As Christian enthusiasts of popular culture realize, evidence for the truth of the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places. In Vonnegut recognition of fundamental gospel truth abounds, reinforcing and renewing for me the wisdom of John 1:1, that in the beginning was the Word, that the logos of Christ underpins reality and speaks to us all. I no longer hide my fondness for Vonnegut and his work; I embrace it. I have come to realize that reading Vonnegut enlivens my understanding and practice of Christianity.

For this reason, I see in Vonnegut a depiction of the world as it is—filled with sorrow, overwhelmed by joy, populated by valuable human beings, capable of being redeemed (if only on a small-scale in his work). I see, too, Vonnegut’s inescapable paradox, a paradox resolved only by Christ: victim-perpetrators seeking salvation and absolution, powerless to save themselves. Such a world resonates with my experience, and Christianity makes best sense of it. The God he denies is the One who enters into the world to save the humans Vonnegut cherishes.

Photo: “Severalls – Cornered” By R. Walker. CC License. 

Interstellar and Partiality

By David Baggett and Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar tells a sweeping story, speculating on potential widespread destruction and human potential in the face of such prospects. Despite its scope, it also zeroes in on individual concerns, using the protagonist and his family as the vehicle for considering important ethical questions. One such question centers on the tension between particular and more general moral judgments.

In an early critical scene, Cooper, the main character played by Matthew McConaughey, must decide whether or not to embark on an incredibly ambitious space mission. This mission requires leaving his children behind and risking never seeing them again. But his success in this endeavor could allow for survival of the entire human race, which has few options. A scientist involved in the mission encourages his participation, appealing to Cooper’s obligations to mankind: “You can’t just think about your family,” Doyle says. “You have to think bigger than that.” Cooper’s response suggests that he recognizes his responsibility involves both the particular and the universal simultaneously: “I’m thinking about my family and millions of other families.”

One could not blame Cooper had he participated in the mission solely out of a desire to ensure his own family’s survival. But as the above quote suggests, he is also motivated by broader concerns. It seems rather unlikely, in light of Cooper’s character, that he would have refrained from the world-saving mission if he did not have his own family to save. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is something unmistakably particular and concrete about his driving motivation.

And this particularity is emphasized through the touchingly depicted relationship Cooper has with his daughter Murphy. Despite his visceral aversion to leaving her behind, and his arduous effort to part on good terms, he feels compelled and likely obligated to leave. This tension—between duties to his daughter and his duties to the rest of humanity—raises an interesting question: is Cooper morally obligated to complete this mission, a mission for which he is the best qualified? Even if the mission is a success and he returns, it’s likely that his children will be considerably older. Does he have a duty to leave them behind? In light of all that’s at stake, perhaps he does, but if this is so, it shows something interesting. Parental obligations have their limits. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct.

In the ethics of Immanuel Kant, a person is to follow the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on those principle we can will to become universal laws. And the principles, or maxims, on which we are to act are to be expressible in universal terms, singular references (like to family) having been expunged. Kant, however, departed on this score from a number of other important ethical thinkers, like Aristotle, who thought that moral judgments are always made in the context of family or polis. Kant’s insistence that such particular terms be replaced with universal ones is an interesting claim, but one that leaves many dubious.

Various feminist thinkers, for example, have emphasized that morality is to be understood in more particular terms than Kant would allow. On their view, moral determinations are to be made in the arena of our relationships, as we take into account all the various concrete details and particular specifics of the richly contextualized circumstances in which we find ourselves. We shouldn’t be guided by universal and abstract moral principles bereft of reference to those we know, those with whom we have cultivated lasting relationships.

They have a point, of course, which makes understandable the protagonist in Interstellar being motivated most of all by a desire to save his own family. But he’s also confronted with a truly universal challenge: the planet is slowly dying, and time for rescue is short. The survival of humanity depends on a successful mission. And this crisis, it seems to us, renders unworkable a desire to care only about his own family. Although most of us won’t find ourselves in so dire a situation, we live in a much smaller world than we used to. We’re aware of human needs that go beyond those of our immediate family, close friends, and nearby neighbors. Because of technological advances, we know about innumerable global needs. If there’s a tsunami in Japan, we can watch it in real time. If there are refugees in the Middle East, we can read tweets about them instantaneously. This makes it less permissible to be indifferent to the needs of strangers. Of course, we care most about our close family members and friends, but this doesn’t license indifference to others beyond those confines. In fact, we can become so fixated on privileging and prioritizing our loved ones that that very partiality can become perverse.

Recently, we read an article about how so many college-aged kids of today’s generation are experiencing a hard time growing up and assuming responsibility. One of the reasons for the phenomenon, it was suggested, is overly protective parenting. Parents are supposed to make their children feel loved and special, no doubt, but parents also have to teach their children that disappointments are inevitable; that, though undeniably valuable, they are not more objectively valuable than others; that achievement requires work; and that failure requires ownership of responsibility. In his examination of Kantian ethics, The Moral Gap, John Hare explains the psychological challenges children face upon realizing they are not the guide of their parents’ moral compass: “It can be a startling lesson for a child who has been the apple of his mother’s eye to discover that his mother is not willing to put pressure on his teacher to get him into a tem, or even to make a scene in the shop to get him the last remaining construction set of the kind he wants for Christmas.” Yet as most parents know, protecting fragile psyches from such hard truths to avoid their kids from experiencing pain is to confer them permission to remain children, if not infantile.

Neglecting the responsibility to impart these truths, however sober, to their children is a recipe for disaster and perpetual adolescence. Rather than an expression of love, it’s to privilege the particular to the neglect of broader truths applicable to everyone. One is implicated in an objectionable form of extreme partiality when her judgments fail to be qualified and regulated by universal truths. C. S. Lewis depicts this insight in a brilliant scene from The Great Divorce, where a mother has so fixated on her son that her “love” becomes idolatrous, blinding her to the fullness of reality in which he exists. Sadly, her extreme particularism costs her paradise and is tantamount to choosing darkness over light.

So the feminists have their points to make, but it’s a mistake to swing the pendulum toward partiality to the exclusion of what remains true for the whole of humankind. Close personal relationships are particularly vulnerable to corruption, or even abuse, when they’re not guided by sound moral principles that apply universally. Every evil in this world is the distortion of something primordially good—wives whose selfless service gets cruelly taken for granted, a healthy sense of self that transforms into pride. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct. Particular obligations obtain, but don’t vitiate more general ones.


Photo: “Hubble Helps Find Smallest Known Galaxy Containing a Supermassive Black Hole” by NASA Goodard Space Flight Center. CC License. 


By Marybeth Davis Baggett

Speaking in the voice of the demon Screwtape in his positively diabolic letters, C. S. Lewis attributes to pleasure a “touchstone of reality,” a means by which people can immediately apprehend the good and God. The demon’s nephew Wormwood, for whose counsel the letters were written, has foolishly allowed his “patient” to read a book purely for pleasure and to enjoy a walk through a pleasant countryside, all without thought to utility. Screwtape argues that such “real pleasures,” enjoyed for themselves alone—not for social advancement or self-elevation—give the lie to the “vanity, bustle, irony, and expensive tedium” demons must recommend to those they would turn from God.

While Wormwood is only then beginning to learn of the power of pleasure to draw people toward God, Screwtape recognizes that the “deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which [God] has furnished him.” Pleasure, of course, seems more the domain of the devils, but the creation story—and the entirety of scripture, really—challenges that conception. Genesis 1 is punctuated with God’s evaluation of the created order as good, a category that encompasses more than just the moral. In Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Robert Adams explores the ways in which consideration of intrinsic aesthetic and intellectual excellences rounds out a rightly-conceived axiological theory (4).

It is to this source of the good that Screwtape points earlier in his letters when he warns Wormwood to be careful in allowing his “patient” to experience pleasure:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on [God’s] ground. [. . .] He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which [God] has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.

This awareness of the potential misuse of the good, however, should not prevent our celebration of the good and, most definitely, should not interfere with our promotion of the good as a means of orienting others toward God.

Alan Jacobs picks up this same strain in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Specifically in defense of quality literature, Jacobs gives his readers permission to revel in excellent works, not simply because of the paltry and minimalist excuse that it “does no harm,” but because it does positive good: “The kind of pleasure we take in a well-crafted work of literary art is very like the pleasure we take in a well-cooked meal, in that it is something given to us by another person.” These pleasures we should receive as a means to connect better with others but ultimately to partake in the good God has instilled in this world. This excellence productive of pleasure can be found in many areas, from the natural to human-made, as Augustine catalogues in De Trinitate. Goodness, Augustine says, is manifest in mountains, hills, fields, farms, the construction of houses, animals, the environment, food, health, friendship, justice, the celestial bodies, and literature. Even the worm has its glories, Augustine argues, if we but look for them.

This attitude, both of goodness made manifest and of being attentive to glimpses of the good wherever they come to light as reflections of God, shows through in the literary work of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson’s most recent novel Lila wraps up a trilogy of companion pieces beginning with her 2004 Gilead. She is a master stylist who deals with tenderness and honesty toward her characters and this world. She has a lushness in her prose that bespeaks loving care of her subject matter. Robinson is also explicitly Christian, and her religious sentiments clearly inform her literary ones, as she has explained in numerous nonfiction pieces.

In case you’ve never read Robinson, let me offer you this example from her first novel Housekeeping, a passage in which the narrator is describing the novel’s setting:

So a diaspora threatened always. And there is no living creature, though the whims of eons had put its eyes on boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace, diminished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it under a stone, but that creature will live on if it can. So certainly Fingerbone, which despite all its difficulties sometimes seemed pleasant and ordinary, would value itself, too, and live on if and as it could. (178)

This passage exudes control of language, positive appreciation for what’s good in the world, a celebration of the possibilities of words. And much as I’d love to use this space simply to include passage after passage of Robinson’s work, my point here is a little broader. I’d like to use Robinson’s work to reflect on the importance of acknowledging, appreciating, and affirming excellence.

I recently taught this novel in a contemporary literature course. During a conversation with one of my students about the effect reading Robinson’s novel had on her, she explained how moved she was by the prose, that the beauty of some passages would arrest her while reading, requiring her to slow down and experience the moment or scene being described. I felt and appreciated that, too, while re-reading the book and preparing class lecture and discussion. Like bad news that fills our newspapers and cable stations, overshadowing the good in this world, bad writing and slipshod work can pile up so high that we forget the power of excellent work. Encountering it is enlivening and, in my view, echoes the transcendent.

The brilliance of this excellence is that non-theists need not agree with this conclusion to apprehend its power. Robinson’s work, for example, is recognized beyond the boundaries of Christian fiction, as she has won a major literary prize for each of her published novels. Martin O’Connell, who discussed Robinson’s writing in an article for The New Yorker, offers some explanation of what draws readers of all stripes, including him—an atheist—to her work. He describes “the grace of Robinson’s prose” and explains that “[t]he simple, unself-conscious beauty of [her writings is] inseparable from, and equal to, the beauty they describe.” The excellence of Robinson’s work, O’Connell explains, provides him with the experience of “what it must be like to live with a sense of the divine.”

O’Connell’s descriptions of the excellences of Robinson’s writing resonate with Adams’s definition of excellence as “the type of goodness exemplified by the beauty of a sunset, a painting, or a mathematical proof, or by the greatness of a novel, the nobility of an unselfish deed, or the quality of an athletic or a philosophical performance” (83), what is intrinsically “worthy of love or admiration, honor or worship” (83).

The quality of such excellences, Adams explains, derives from God who is the Infinite Good. Of course, Adams acknowledges that the temporal, finite goods of this world will always fall short of the supreme Good, yet he maintains that theists should “care about loving the excellent, inasmuch as worship celebrates an excellence in God that is surely much more than narrowly moral” (4).

2 Peter 1 echoes this argument, explaining that God is the source of life, glory, and excellence and that these gifts allow us to partake in the divine nature. James 1:17, too, tells us that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” On such grounds, Adams, as an ethicist, binds together desiring the excellent with the qualifications for living a moral life, arguing that the “good” for a person “is a life characterized by enjoyment of the excellent” (93). He argues further that a good person is one who is for the good (189).

If we are to accept this understanding of goodness as deriving from God, discerning, desiring, and pursuing the excellent ultimately helps orient our minds toward God and enlarge our understanding of worship as daily practice, a mode of living. Our everyday actions and our engagement with others should be bound up in this moral activity, discerning, encouraging, and practicing the excellent, as a means to know, recognize, worship, and follow God.

I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s our obligation as Christians to do so. Gene Edward Veith explains, in Reading between the Lines, that “[t]he process of learning how to enjoy (subjectively) what is admirable (objectively) is known as the cultivation of tastes. [. . .] What we delight in has a spiritual dimension” (46).  As Philippians 4:8 phrases it: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Adams goes as far as to say that “loving the excellent has the more foundational role” than doing one’s moral duty (4). Picture morality as a sprawling Gothic mansion; obligations—however important they may be at our current stage of moral development—constitute but a small interior anteroom; the farther reaches of morality exploding into its towering spires are gift and love, sacrifice and excellence, echoes of the former categories of rights and duties a distant memory.

I’ll leave you with one more Robinson quote, this one from Gilead, which calls us to recognize the goodness of this world and, more importantly, to identify its source:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. (245)

This world is still the Lord’s, and He is at work in it.  Be willing to see.


Photo: “2011 08 06 Farmer’s Market” by G. Billings. CC License.