Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow June 12, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood.
Tags: atheism, books, childhood, Christianity, john marsden, tomorrow series
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?