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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow June 12, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood.
Tags: , , , , ,

Spoilers for the Tomorrow series in the post and the comments.

Massive, massive disclaimer: I am writing about Christianity here. I am not, and have never been, a Christian, and so my perspective here is one of an atheist discussing Christianity. Because I am an atheist, I view the Bible, as I view the sacred texts of other religions, as one of a literary genre (part pseudo-history, part moral guidance) rather than the word of God. As such, when I discuss it, I am discussing it as a literary text with tropes, themes and metaphors which other literary texts borrow and adapt.

I also write this from a position of some ignorance. For a variety of reasons (studying Jewish history and culture as an undergrad, and currently studying an Irish pseudo-history which draws very heavily on Genesis and Exodus), I am more familiar with the Tanakh/Old Testament than with the New, which I realise is a bit of a handicap when talking about Christianity. I know I have Christian friends who read this, and while it’s not your job to correct my interpretation of Christian belief, if I do get anything wrong and you would like to correct me, feel free to do so in the comments or by email.

With all this in mind, let me actually begin the blog post proper!

I’m a bit of a narcissist when it comes to this blog, and I tend to check its stats quite a lot. One of the things that comes up in the stats is the various links people have clicked on to reach the blog. Yesterday, one such link was the WordPress tag ‘John Marsden’. Out of interest, I clicked on this tag to see who else had written about Marsden recently. In doing so, I found myself of the blog of a Christian music, film and book-reviewer who had written a pretty good analysis of Tomorrow, When the War Began. One of his commenters made the point that the Tomorrow series was ‘anti-Christian’. As soon as I’d read this comment, it started to bother me, and it took me a while to put my finger on why. After much thinking, I realised it boiled down to two things: I can see very strong Christian elements in the Tomorrow series, and I find the division of things into ‘Christian’ and ‘anti-Christian’ categories simplistic and unsettling.

Let’s address the first point. I do not think that John Marsden himself is a Christian. He writes like an atheist or an agnostic. Is it possible for a non-Christian to write a ‘Christian’ book? My answer will probably differ from those of believing Christians, but let me explain what I mean.

The Tomorrow series is deeply concerned with matters of ethics and morality. It’s set in a war-zone, its characters are teenage guerrilla fighters, and one of its main themes is the characters’ struggle to reconcile the morality of what they are doing (killing other human beings) with their personal ethical or moral codes. This struggle is made more poignant by the fact that the characters are undergoing it at the time when most people tend to question what they believe and develop their personal ethical beliefs.

So far, I’d say that this is not necessarily ‘Christian’, although the central character and narrator, Ellie, several times expresses a belief in God, mentions that she attended church before the invasion and examines the morality of her actions against a moral code that clearly draws on Biblical morality. However, she also undertakes actions that do not tie in with Christian-based morality – as well as killing people, she has sex outside marriage, she steals (food and equipment and so on from houses abandoned during the invasion), lies and plans acts of violence and sabotage. In some ways, Ellie’s story can be seen as an exploration of the testing of faith, and whether it is possible to go on believing or being a moral person in times of great crisis and horror; there are several references to the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which is about retaining one’s faith in the face of death and torment. And yet I don’t know if it’s possible to view Ellie’s story as a Christian story, and I don’t think that Christians would necessarily view it as such.

But what about the character of Robyn? She is definitely a Christian; Marsden mentions it many times. It’s in the portrayal of Robyn that I think I could argue that the Tomorrow series is a Christian series. Robyn is portrayed extremely positively. Ellie admires her greatly, and Robyn’s faith is depicted as the basis of her moral behaviour. Robyn, alone of all the teenagers in the books, refuses to kill or directly fight the enemy (she will destroy property and help organise raids to steal food and supplies). Two of the most powerful scenes in the first two books centre on Robyn’s refusal to commit acts of violence: she refuses to pick up a gun (and this is depicted as a real struggle for her) and she angrily rejects Lee’s accusations of cowardice for refusing to kill. He says something along the lines of ‘I won’t let you down’ and Robyn shouts at him, ‘How dare you imply that I am? Sometimes it’s harder to refuse to kill than to kill!’

Robyn’s struggle is in some ways a parallel to Ellie’s (as are Lee’s, Fi’s, Homer’s, Kevin’s and, in the early books, Chris’s), and because we see things through Ellie’s eyes, we, as readers, approve of Robyn’s stance (and the beliefs that underpin it) because Ellie herself approves. This is why I think to dismiss the Tomorrow series as ‘anti-Christian’ is simplistic. His Dark Materials is anti-Christian. The Tomorrow series might not be entirely pro-Christian, but it certainly isn’t anti-Christian.

This is where my second point comes in. I feel a profound discomfort when I see people dismissing certain books as ‘Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian’. As you can see from the example of Robyn, nothing is as clear-cut as that. I feel that if you see the world in such black and white terms, your own personal moral code must be very simplistic. I suspect I may be losing the agreement of Christian readers here (since, as I understand it, belief in a religion implies belief in the absolute morality or immorality of certain actions, irregardless of context or circumstances), but to me, morality can be pretty fluid.

By this, I do not mean that I have no moral code. Quite the contrary. From the ages of about 10 to 20, I thought almost obsessively about what I believed – whether I believed in any higher power, whether I believed in an afterlife, what I believed was right and wrong, what my purpose was as a human being. However, the development of my personal ethical philosophy was (and is) an ongoing process: my beliefs were constantly challenged by experiences and the growth of my knowledge, and I don’t think the evolution of one’s moral code ever really stops. And it shouldn’t. I profoundly mistrust people who have absolute moral values, because I think morality is the one thing which must constantly be reevaluated, tested and discussed. If the growth of your moral code stops at 12, or 18, or 25 or 55, it is a denial of the importance of all your experiences after that age to your development as a person. And I think belief (which is tied up in notions of morality) is something which should also be constantly tested, thought about and reevaluated.

How does this tie in with the Tomorrow series? Well, on this level, the comment that the series is ‘anti-Christian’ disturbed me. Just as I believe one’s experiences should influence the development of one’s morals, I believe in the power of literature to influence one’s development as a human being. It makes me sad to think that a Christian reader would gain nothing by reading the Tomorrow series, because I think that books fail if every person gets the same thing out of them, or if a person can only get one thing out of them. Reading the Tomorrow series as a 25-year-old is a profoundly different experience to reading it as a teenager – but I still learn things from each reading. I don’t understand how it isn’t possible for me to get one thing as an atheist and another person to get something different as a Christian from reading the Tomorrow series.

People who see the world – and its books – in such black and white terms cannot help but live an intellectually impoverished existence. In closing yourself off to a substantial proportion of the texts in the world due to a perceived lack of values, you are denying your ability to gain knowledge from a variety of sources and reexamine your beliefs according to this new knowledge. In the Tomorrow series, characters, both Christian and non-Christian, find their beliefs tested in the face of great hardship and challenge. Surely we, as readers, are equally able to do the same?


1. Imaginary Dinosaur » Blog Archive » Religion in Fiction - June 14, 2010

[…] Ronni has an interesting post in her blog as a response to another blog post that suggested that ‘Tomorrow When the War Began” […]

2. Leah - June 14, 2010

You did give a spoiler warning, right? Just in case you didn’t, I’ll be vague. Basically the only way I can see someone interpreting the Tomorrow series as anti-Christian is if they interpreted what happened with Robyn in book 3 – and particularly HOW it happened – as having an anti-Christian message. That said, I (as a Christian, but I like to think an open-minded one) didn’t get that interpretation at all. I love Robyn, so I hated that scene (still do) but I don’t see that she had any other option. I’ve always really liked it that the others (who aren’t particularly religious) all love Robyn, and Ellie’s comment about her saying “oh gosh” will always be one of my favourite introductions to a character I’ve ever read – it does such a great job of using one small aspect of her character to really show who she is.

I like your comments about morality. I think that maybe the person who described the series as anti-Christian failed to consider (or didn’t care) that war inevitably has an effect on people’s morality. If the majority of Ellie’s group hadn’t started to kill to defend/protect themselves, it’s likely that the whole group would have been dead well before the end of the first book, or at least taken prisoner. I admire Robyn for holding out as long as she did, and I can understand the choices she made (both then and her final decision), but I can also understand how the others reacted.

Short(er) answer: I’m completely in agreement that people’s moral codes should not be set in stone; we need to be open to change. Morality is not simple, and neither is religion, so I agree with you that the Tomorrow series is neither Christian nor anti-Christian. That’s not the focus of the story.

dolorosa12 - June 14, 2010

Oops, I’ve just noticed that there is no spoiler warning. I’ll edit accordingly.

I agree with your comments about the portrayal of Robyn and what happened to her. I certainly don’t think it’s portrayed as being a negative thing, and in fact Ellie states repeatedly that she thinks Robyn is a hero, the implication being that Robyn is a hero not for battle heroics, but for her sacrifice and the principled way she sticks to her beliefs. Heroism in this series is not blowing stuff up and killing people, or even going into ‘battle’ knowing you could be killed: it’s courageously looking out for your friends, it’s refusing to give up your beliefs and principles in the face of great hardship, and as such Robyn is the most heroic character of all. Despite what happened to her, I think she died remaining true to her beliefs and morals.

I’m glad you agree. I’m always wary of writing things about religion, not being religious myself, because my interpretations come from the atheistic background I outlined in the disclaimer and I’m terrified of saying ‘Christians do this/believe this’ and getting it wrong.

Leah - June 25, 2010

I like your point on the way Robyn is seen as heroic, and I agree I don’t think she was seen to have betrayed her Christian beliefs. But I like that the others are seen as heroic too, in the more realistic sense (for most people) of responding to a situation as best they can, even if it’s not necessarily the best approach.

I think you’ve got a good approach to writing about religion, in that you don’t generalise what Christian do or don’t believe or do. Any attempts to do that (from a Christian or non-Christian) tend to backfire.

3. Catie - June 15, 2010

I’m really surprised that someone would read ‘Tomorrow when the war began’ and call it ‘anti-Christian’. I read the series ages ago and so it’s hard to comment on any of the detailed responses, but having been reminded of the character of Robyn, I know that was the kind of character that I always looked up to as a kid. I thought they all had good reasons for going into battle though. I regard this series as a stellar example of YA. My (Christian I think) Great-Aunt recommended it to me, my (Christian) cousins love it, and not because it is a ‘Christian’ book but because it is a good book

Sorry, I’ll have to stop myself from rambling too much! I just don’t think you can divide everything into ‘Christian’ and ‘anti-Christian’, or that Christian people can learn nothing from books that are not Christian. But different people can read different things into different books, so I guess it could be possible to read things in that way.

dolorosa12 - June 15, 2010

Yes, that was exactly what I was trying to say (rather clumsily) in this blog post.

I really like what you saying about the book being liked by your cousins not because it’s a Christian book but a good book, and I think that’s kind of the point. If a book is good, that usually means that you are able to learn something from it. If something is good enough, a person’s personal beliefs shouldn’t stop him or her from learning something, only possibly cause a person to learn something different than a person with different beliefs.

4. Catie - June 17, 2010

On a less related note- have you seen the trailer for the ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ movie? I’m too scared to look, but my cousins are excited about it.

Dolorosa - June 17, 2010

I haven’t seen the trailer. I’ve been avoiding everything to do with the film, because even if it’s a good adaptation, it’s not going to be how I imagined the books in my head, and it’s better to keep them the way I imagine them…

How heavily has the film been promoted? I’m wondering who will go and see it – whether it’ll be people our age who grew up with the books, or teenagers who may not have read them.

5. Catie - June 17, 2010

I’ve only really been hearing about it on facebook- and given the demographic of my facebook friends it’s mostly been people who grew up with the books who seem interested. If they rely a lot on social media marketing I suspect these are the people who are most likely to see it.

6. dolorosa12 - June 25, 2010

Leah, I’m replying to you here as I can’t do so directly (WordPress settings are funny – you can respond to comments, but not to replies to your replies, for some reason).

I’m so happy you like the way I write about religion. I know enough Christians (and non-Christians) to know that there is no one type of ‘Christian’, just as there is no one type of ‘Christianity’. Every person brings his or her own ‘selfness’ (I hope you know what I mean) into his or her beliefs and practices, and to say that ‘Christians do that’ or ‘Christians think that’ would be as silly as saying ‘atheists do that’ and ‘atheists think that’. The world is more complicated than that. Belief is more complicated than that.

Leah - June 25, 2010

No worries. 🙂 Weird though – you’d think they’d be happy for people to have discussions in the comments.

“The world is more complicated than that. Belief is more complicated than that.” So true – which is why it’s so tragic that a lot of people don’t seem to see that. (I could already see that you do, though.) And I think I know what you mean by selfness.

Although my morals came from my religious upbringing (and my reading) I have a number of friends who are agnostic, wiccan, pagan, whatever, and many of them have a similar morality to myself, so I’ve never done what some Christians do in assuming they have the high moral ground. So I guess what I’m trying to say is my selfness (and my experience of others’ selfness) allows me to be openminded and see others for who they are, while choosing to retain my belief in God (but not all the associated beliefs).

7. Ben - July 20, 2010

Would you mind providing a link to this blog that said “Tomorrow When The War Began” was anti-christian? I would like to read this argument elucidated in more detail, because I really don’t get how the novel could be construed that way….

It would be more accurate to say that “Tomorrow When The War Began” isn’t really about Christianity, rather than saying it is “anti-Christian”… although “faith under fire” does come up as an issue it isn’t exactly the most prevalent throughout the book.

dolorosa12 - July 21, 2010

I’ve had a look around the tags on WordPress to see if I can find the blog post. (As I explain, though, it wasn’t the blogger calling the book ‘anti-Christian’, it was one of his commenters. The blogger simply reviewed the book. I think, in any case, the commenter was referring to the series as a whole, not just Tomorrow, When the War Began.)

In my opinion, Tomorrow, When the War Began (and the whole series) is about morality. It’s about developing your own personal morality, and testing that morality, and reevaluating it. This is, of course, neither a Christian nor a non-Christian concern exclusively.

8. Religious bents in Fiction | My Crowded Sky - July 16, 2011

[…] Ronni has an interesting post in her blog as a response to another blog post that suggested that ‘Tomorrow When the War Began” […]

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