Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CSFF Blog Tour: "The Ale Boy's Feast" Day Three

So here we are, the final day of the tour surrounding The Ale Boy's Feast by Jeffrey Overstreet.

As I sat down to start reading this book just a few days ago, one of the things that I had to remind myself was that the Keeper is not God, Auralia is not Jesus, and that I shouldn't go looking for allegorical Christian connections in this book. I mean, I've made that mistake many times. Many, many times. So I was bound and determined, this time through, to keep an open mind, not slide into the simplistic x=y allegorical formula that's tripped me up in the past, and see what the story had to say.

And I'm proud to announce that I didn't have that problem. Instead, I came up with a new one.

Toward the middle of the book, I started to wonder, Is this book truly Christian?

But before we delve into that too deeply, let me just say . . .

Now I'm not questioning Jeffrey Overstreet's faith. Far from it. I've learned long ago that you can't do that, that only God knows what truly goes on in a person's heart, soul, and mind. But as the characters delved into the deeper meanings and mythology behind the Keeper(s) and their larger purpose in the Expanse, I started getting uncomfortable.

Part of it came from some discussions that Scharr ben Fray had with his brother Ryp or with Cal-raven. For example, in Chapter 10, Ryp and Scharr get into a discussion of the Keepers, how Cal-raven was taught to put his faith in it. Ryp observes that if Cal-raven discovers that his faith was founded on a lie, he might cling to it all the harder or let go and despair.

Scharr ben Fray's response worried me a little:

We see the suggestion of a shape among the stars. We give it a name, even though that shape is only a fiction. It's how we've always assembled our myths and our religions. We do this to comfort ourselves about all we do not understand. But surely this isn't an empty pursuit. If it helps us face the day, why fight it? We all choose stories in which to root ourselves. Why not choose the story that enables us to flourish?
Later on, while talking with Cal-raven, Scharr basically says the same sort of thing: it doesn't matter if what we believe is based on a lie, just so long as it is helpful. At least, that's how I read it.

Now maybe I had elevated Scharr ben Fray into something that he wasn't. In the previous three books, he seemed to fit the "wise wizard" archetype, the guy who speaks the deeper truths in a book. In The Ale Boy's Feast, he's definitely not that. At least, not from my perspective. But given that that seemed to be his role for the series, it stung a bit when he seemed to say that religions were built on myths that don't necessarily have to be true.

Can you understand why that made me just a tiny bit uncomfortable?

I'm relatively sure that Overstreet is not including Christianity in that description. I'm hoping that he isn't viewing the Bible as filled with myths that don't have to be true to be "true" in a deeper sense. If he is, then this isn't the most orthodox Christian books.

Which actually brings me to another problem I had with the overall series. Overstreet's central thesis seems to be that Art (with a big "A") is meant to point us to a deeper reality (which Overstreet calls "the mystery," an oblique reference to a divine figure). True beauty shows us that there is more to this world and can lift us beyond the pain and garbage of the world and help us find a connection to Someone Deeper.

And that is true, I suppose. Art can inspire us, uplift us, help us feel and experience a connection to God. But can Art help us overcome the garbage that keeps us from God?

The sad thing is, Overstreet's book, while true in a generic sense, didn't strike me as all that Christian. His "mystery" could be any sort of divine figure or even impersonal divine energy. I could see a lot of non-Christians read this book and agree with everything in it . . . and come away completely unchanged. Maybe I'm being overly critical, but that's where I wound up after finishing the series.

Now, having said that, let me reiterate: I did enjoy this book, as I did all the ones that came before it. Overstreet has a great sense for storytelling. His prose is lyrical. And he kept me guessing to the very end (and even beyond). I would gladly read whatever he writes next and I would eagerly anticipate it. But at the same time, there were a few areas where I felt this whole endeavor fell short.

Go and see what the other tourists have to say:

Gillian Adams
Red Bissell
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
Shane Deal
Chris Deane
Cynthia Dyer
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Dawn King
Inae Kyo
Shannon McDermott
Shannon McNear
Karen McSpadden
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
Sarah Sawyer
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler


Anonymous said...

I had the same observations that gave me pause. When one is told not to read the book as an allegory, then its harder sometimes to find God. Good book: yes. I recommend it. Christian book? I'm with you, not so sure. Art and Beauty seem to be the predominant theme, not God.

Sarah Sawyer said...

I had a pretty different perspective on the spiritual content of the book, which I ended up blogging on today.

Regarding Scharr Ben Fray specifically, the quoted section was one of the first parts that suggested to me he wasn't a wise counselor. His later actions revealed him as entirely untrustworthy and self-serving. Knowing he was speaking the opposite of "wisdom," those words didn't trouble me. But that's just my experience with the story. :)

John said...

I agree with you, Sarah, that by the end of the book, I realized how selfish Scarr ben Fray had been. But I think I had a hard time letting go of my mental image of him being the wise wizard. Live and learn.

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Thank you all for wrestling with these questions about the book.

If it's any help, I shared some thoughts (a few weeks back) about whether or not the book is "Christian" here:

Thanks again for taking these books seriously. It's an honor to have some of my work selected for this blog tour.

- Jeffrey Overstreet

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Jeffrey beat me to it. I was going to say that I've heard him say from the beginning that he doesn't consider these books "Christian" in the way that most of the books we review for CSFF are Christian.

Redemptive, yes, in much the same way as the story of Ruth or Esther in the Bible is redemptive.


Andrea Graham said...

I had a similar reaction to Scharr ben Fray; he ended up being an archetype of "What do you do when the person you trusted to spiritually lead you lets you down? Do you go on or do you go down with him/her?" Not a bad issue to dive into, but it can be thematically confusing for readers when Fray is basically advocating for postmodernism. Seriously, what Fray is saying is postmodernism in a nutshell.