Seagulls and Spirituality

April 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Posted in christian fiction, genre fiction, new age, pop culture, sidekick | Leave a comment

bach.jpg

  “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect”. new-age-heelas.jpg

         “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”.  

Bach, Richard. Photos by Russell Munson (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.New York: Macmillan.

 Heelas, Paul (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.   

 Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about the self-actualizing seagull is a spirituality classic of new age fiction. It is a three-part fable about the rare individual/bird that refuses to accept the limits imposed by nature and society. Jonathan Livingston Seagull seeks perfection from within, with da-vinci-flight.jpgultimate mastery of flight as the metaphor for attaining the highest purpose in life.  Whereas, his cohort is preoccupied with basic survival, Jonathan denounces the traditional gull path to explore new ways of flying.

Jonathan’s actions represent the first step to enlightenment presented in most new age works, This element is described by Heelas (1996) as the acceptance that “your lives are not working. You’re brainwashed”. The high-flying Jonathan later discovers from his teachers, Chiang and Sullivan, that each being is born with the innate ability to attain perfection. However, it is up to the individual to find the desire and take the steps to reach it. This message– perfection is the responsibility of the individual, not of an external supreme being–conveys another defining element of the new age philosophy (Heelas, 1996).

Bach’s text embraces the mystical eclecticism of many new age texts, interweaving religious beliefs from the East and West with empowerment messages from popular psychology. Hellas, in The New Age Movement, dubs this “Perennialism”. This theory contends there are unifying truths spanning diverse religions which must be discovered to attain wisdom.  In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as our hero awakens at the start of Part 2 in a remote land. The seagull is changed, imbued with new insights and enhanced flying ability.

seagull-flight.jpgOr, you can read the tiny tract as a Christian fable reflecting the life of Jesus. Jonathan is born and lives like any other bird until he accepts his unique gift. Then he’s banished by a mob for being different, ascends to a heaven-like state, forgives his tormentors and returns to help guide the repentant flock. The roles of leader and teacher are accepted reluctantly by Jonathan, who sardonically refers to himself as the “Son of the Great Gull”, to chide his skeptical flock. This strong spiritual leader role is present in most texts and communes following new age principles, despite the theoretical exhortations that “you are your own authority” (Heelas).

 Jonathan reminds the flock that they must lead themselves, setting aside any law or ritual which restricts their freedom to become their “true self”. The message that “freedom is valued” is another new age cornerstone (Heelas). This 10,000 word fable presents Hindu, Muslim and Quaker communal messages of pacifism and love as thematic undercurrents at the book’s end. The teacher Sullivan’s last words to Jonathan are to “keep working on love”. The challenge is to see the good in every creature. This sentiment is another of the 7 new age elements outlined by Heelas : the self is intrinsically good.   

Finally, there are those who read Bach’s work more literally as a tale about the rewards of dedication and self-sacrifice. At this level, it is the classic self help message conveyed in “The Little Engine Who Could”: if you believe it, you can do it. “Nothing is impossible”.  

There is a sidekick in Bach’s work, “rough young Fletcher Gull”, an Outcast who becomes Jonathan’s first and best student disciple. Fletcher is 4-gulls.jpgan eager daredevil, who gives voice to the doubts Jonathan battled pre-transcendence. In the group of gulls, Fletcher is the first to conquer barriers of speed and time, yet he does so in a stumbling, dazed way. Fletcher represents the reader, with his challenge to Jonathan: “How do you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you?”  Although Fletcher is flawed, he remains loyal to Jonathan when others accuse his teacher of being a demon. 

 I would recommend this book for inclusion in a public library collection of new age works. It offers an excellent introduction to some defining new age concepts, such as Perennialism, self-actualization, brainwashing, and the importance of freedom and individual responsibility. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 2007. I warmed to the book’s gentle simplicity and was impressed by its innocent yet earnest tone. Bach’s work was totally lacking in artifice. In contrast, today’s self help or new age books are so slickly packaged and marketed, I often feel like the author came up with the promotional hook before he or she wrote the first draft.  

Oke: Christian Fiction

March 12, 2007 at 2:25 pm | Posted in awards, christian fiction | 7 Comments

oke-janette.jpgOke, J. (2000). Like Gold Refined. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.

Canadian author Janette Oke is one of the most popular and internationally acclaimed writers in Christian fiction. In 1979, her first Christian novel, Loves Come Softly, was published by Bethany House. This title has sold over 1 million copies and Oke’s work is credited with pioneering the inspirational fiction market. She received the 1992 President’s Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, the 1999 CBA Life Impact Award and the Gold Medallion Award for fiction. Several of Oke’s novels have been translated into made-for-TV movies by Hallmark. For details about her books and movies, visit http://www.janetteoke.com

In the last 15 years, Oke has created more than 75 novels which feature pioneer or farming life on the prairie, cohesive families and stronglike-gold-refined.gif female protagonists. Her bibliography spans 6 series:

  • Song of Acadia with co-author T. Davis Bunn (5 titles, 1999-2002)
  • Prairie Legacy (4 titles, 1997-2000)
  • Women of the West (12 titles, 1990-1996)
  • Canadian West (6 titles, 1983-2001)
  • Seasons of the Heart (4 titles 1981-1989)
  • Love Comes Softly (8 titles, 1979-1989) 

The book Like Gold Refined, represents the fourth and final volume in Oke’s Prairie Legacy series.  It explores how Virginia and Jonathan Lewis, their four children and extended family struggle to cope with significant changes and to reconcile life’s challenges with their steadfast Christian faith. The book cover shows Virginia embracing “daughter” Mindy with their farm and the girl’s beloved colt Buttercup in the background. (The time frame is mid-20th century).  After 10 years, the Lewis’s parental rights are legally challenged when the absentee birth mother returns and asserts her rights.The family agonizes over other life decisions, such as moving frail grandparents from their homestead, and supporting nephew Slate who longs to leave to build a life of his own.  

The common theme in Jeanette Oke’s books is that love and devotion to God and family will provide the strength to overcome hardship. Through her stories, Oke demonstrates that God has a plan for everyone’s lives, although it’s often not the plan the individual has envisioned. As Jeanette Oke explains in her website   Faithful Reader , she views writing as “..an opportunity to share my faith.. . If my books touch lives, answer individual’s questions, or lifts readers to a higher plane, then I will feel that they have accomplished what God has asked me to do.” 

As a Christian but not a reader of Christian fiction, I found this work by Oke to be preachy, stylistically flat and unrealistic. The birth mother Jenny is the only non-believer in the book, and she is a painfully unsympathetic character. Jenny’s a sullen, swearing chain smoker who has a sleazy lawyer uproot Mindy to tend to her last months as she dies from lung cancer. The children are perfect little angels–they never complain, talk back or fight except over who gets to help do chores. The happy ending is that Jenny asks the forgiveness of God, friends and family on the eve of her death. Not my idea of fiction entertainment reading! 

While Oke’s reviewers laud her strong female characters, I regarded Virginia as a submissive even clueless protagonist.  When Jenny demands her child back, it is husband Jonathan who calmly takes control, without discussing his plan with Virginia. Similarly, it is the strong male figure, nephew Slate, who saves the Lewis family farm by contributing part of his inheritance. This is the first genre work I’ve read for this course which lacks an obvious sidekick. aside from trusty Slate. The world of the Lewises and grandparents Davises is a world of family, and neighbors, teachers and other community ties were not explicitly drawn into this world.

The strength of Oke’s work was in its depiction of how evangelicals practice and articulate their faith. It was enlightening to read descriptions about morning devotions, weekly scripture competition and evening prayers.

ECPA lists annual winners of the Gold Medallion (now Christian Book Award) from 1978  to 2006  at http://www.ecpa.org/goldmedallion/gm2005.php

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