A little something from the UUBooks mailing list

Matthew, thanks for the kind welcome. (And it’s always nice to find multiple overlaps in interest–thanks for the knitter’s handshake.) You raise some interesting questions about The Telling (and other matters!).

> MG> If, as you say, science fiction allows the space
> MG> for a thought experiment to occur (something I
> MG> also believe), how would you describe Le Guin’s
> MG> thought experiment [in The Telling]?
>
I’d boil the thought experiment down to: What is another way of thinking about the relationship between content and method? I think The Telling is not just about the story LeGuin tells, which is slight, but that The Telling is itself an example of the method described in the story. Don’t you think the book is inconclusive about the value of the specific stories the characters tell (the “tellings” if you will) versus the value of their practice of relating the stories (“the telling”)? I didn’t feel that the tai chi stuff, or the floating, or the content of any of the stories was the point of the telling. The idea I had is that it’s like a whole-life koan, a discipline that exists to train and prepare one for a nonverbal, direct, a-rational way of knowing. YMMV!

Always Coming Home is, I think, a similar thought experiment. In that book, LeGuin uses a very wide array of styles (verse, history, story, and glossary, as well as a music cassette in the original version) in order to create a world, into which she drops the reader. You could perhaps begin Always Coming Home at any point in the book. (This makes it a very difficult book to begin. You don’t understand, but you just have to keep reading or you never will understand.) There are two kinds of story in Always Coming Home: there are narratives in the text, which are usually pretty clear, and then there’s the story that only the book as a whole can tell: who are these not-quite-familiar people in a not-quite-familiar place, how did they get there from us, and how can we look at our own world differently from their perspective. I suppose it’s science fiction, but it could just as easily be called speculative anthropology, if such a genre existed.

> MG> The problem, as always, is how
> MG> one defines religion. Just lately, I’ve run into
> MG> a lot of folks claiming that social action *is*
> MG> their religion. This is troubling to me, because
> MG> I don’t feel that the two can really be the same
> MG> thing, but I have difficulty explaining why.
>
I’ll comment on this later in the message.

> MG> Hopefully, our religious values and
> MG> practices will lead us to express our values
> MG> through trying to make the world a better place,
> MG> but it is important to have a spiritual home to
> MG> which we can return when the world disagrees. In
> MG> much the same way I like to reawaken my sense of
> MG> wonder with a really good science fiction story,
> MG> I also need a sermon to do more than just rally
> MG> me to a cause. I also need it to remind me why I
> MG> care about causes in the first place, and how I’m
> MG> connected to people on all sides of all issues,
> MG> or where I can find strength when I’m fighting a
> MG> lost cause.
>
Well now, if you’ll accept a friendly Quaker critique! You make it sound like worship is a safe retreat full of like-minded individuals or a reminder of some abstract cause. Quakers would say the purpose of worship is to connect to God (for lack of a better word). Quakers believe that it is the Spirit, when attended to, which gives rise to our concerns and efforts in the world.

> MG> I’d be curious to hear if you think
> MG> what I believe is a problem for Unitarian
> MG> Universalists is also a problem for Quakers, a
> MG> religious community even more well-known than UUs
> MG> for taking up political causes. How are politics
> MG> and religion balanced in your tradition?
>
There’s a tension among so-called “liberal” Friends (the ones most like UUs) between “spiritual” Friends and “social activist” Friends. There can be a lot of distrust, and there are sometimes generational trends. Many Friends came into Quakerism during the war in Vietnam because of our peace witness. Since that time, many Friends have come into Quakerism because they are searching for a spiritual home. Quakerism ideally joins these two impulses, as I’ve described above, and indeed many individual Friends find the other “pole” becoming more a part of their life as they continue on the Quaker path.

One of the criticisms leveled by “spiritual” Friends towards “social change” Friends is the one you raise, that social activism isn’t religion. I struggle with this, too. Often Friends involved in social change will describe what they’re doing, and it seems to me no different from what I hear from MoveOn or whatever. (And at UUWorld, I get the opportunity to feel the same thing about UUs!) However, I know individual Friends who fit this description and also, in every way I can perceive, are solid, well-grounded Friends. I cannot explain it, but they clearly ARE in touch with the same reality I am.

I was senior editor of a Quaker magazine before I moved to Boston, and we frequently received manuscript submissions that were very dry and heady (among Quakers, the rationalist/scientist approach is a parallel problem to the social change approach; not many atheists among us). Usually we rejected these, but I sometimes argued with the other editors that such a manuscript was, indeed, an expression of the author’s spiritual life. I just had to take it on faith. I wasn’t prepared to argue that an affective response is the only appropriate response to the numinous.

MG> Thanks also, Kenneth, for your other science
> MG> fiction recommendations. I haven’t read Sheri
> MG> Tepper. If she is an uneven writer, which books
> MG> of hers do you particularly recommend?
>
The Gate to Women’s Country is a classic feminist book and one of her early
works.
I enjoyed The Fresco, a fairly recent book.
Grass is very good, if a little gothic.
The Family Tree, Six Moon Dance, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall all sort of lump together in my mind. They have in common (with others of her books) a sudden twist ending, and all these books (as I recall them) are about the relationships within and between groups of people.

My favorite Tepper books are actually juvenile fantasy: the three original True Game books (but not the sequel trilogy) and the three Mavin Manyshaped books. They’re pretty straightforward sympathetic-character-in-swift-moving-plot potboilers.

Kenneth Sutton