While I was on my extended, unplanned blogging break, I read a bunch of books, most of which I have no intention to write about. I either don’t have much to say or have forgotten too much about them to have much of value to say, but I do have to say something about one of the best books I read this summer, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.
The book’s premise is similar to that of Mary Doria Russell’s brilliant novel, The Sparrow, although Faber takes the premise in completely different directions. The book’s main character is Peter, an evangelical minister who is recruited by a private space company to come to their outpost on a planet called Oasis to preach to the beings who live there. He is excited about the opportunity to share the gospel, which has made such a difference in his own life, with beings who’ve never had the chance to learn about it. His only regret is that he’ll be leaving behind his wife, Beatrice, who is arguably the more intelligent and pious half of the couple. It will only be for a short time, though, and they both agree that it’s important work.
When he arrives, he finds that he is warmly welcomed by the Oasians, who’ve already heard a bit about Jesus and want to learn more. However, spending large amounts of time with them, in their isolated town, means being away from the technology that allows him to communicate with Beatrice. Beatrice, meanwhile, is suffering on an Earth that is experiencing the very same climate and economic crises that a lot of us these days fear. She’s on her own on a world falling apart, and her messages to Peter gave me a knot in my stomach. Peter, well, his responses are not so great.
One of things I loved about this book was how well Faber captured the mindset of a certain kind of sincere, decent Evangelical Christian. Peter does not necessarily represent all Christians, or even all Evangelicals, but everything about him made sense to me. Peter sincerely cares about the Oasian people and about his wife, but all of his caring occurs within a strict structure. When things happen that fall outside his expectations, he doesn’t know how to express his love and care in that moment. He doesn’t lack love, but his love is limited, formulaic even.
Peter’s way of loving is unable to tackle complications. When Beatrice expresses despair at what the world is coming to, he responds with platitudes. When the Oasians express curiosity about certain aspects of the Jesus story and ignore others, it doesn’t occur to him to ask why. Peter is also rather selfish and unable to step outside his own frame of reference, which further limits his ability to love effectively. (Here, Christianity may have been good for him because it gave him clear instructions on a way to love.) At the end, he makes choices that seem to him to be loving, but may well be the opposite of what anyone wants or needs.
The part of the story that dug at my emotions was that of Beatrice. She’s living my own (and others’) nightmares, so if you choose to read this be prepared for that. But the story of the Oasians dug at my mind. There’s a lot that’s left ambiguous about their interest in Jesus, but some of it has to do with the way they experience sickness, injury, and death. People from Earth bring them medicine and story of a man who can heal the sick and who came back from death. But how does this all fit together for them? And is Peter’s way of reaching out to them helpful or damaging in the long term? I don’t think the answers to any of these questions are clear, and I appreciate that, as I appreciated the whole book.