Sunday, August 10, 2008

Love, Science, and Unitarianism: Duck Egg Blue, by Derrick Neill

Since taking up my crazy hobby of studying Mormon and atheist novels, I've read a number of conversion stories and deconversion stories, portraying the path to accepting (or rejecting) a latticework of doctrines. Most religions have 'em both. But Unitarian Universalism seems like a bit of an outlier. Unlike most organized religions, this one doesn't appear to require belief in any particular set of doctrines, so it's hard to imagine how one could convert to or from this religion. If you've ever wondered how conversion to Unitarian Universalism works, then wonder no more: just read Derrick Neill's Duck Egg Blue.

Unitarian Universalism appears to be quite different in character from the kinds of religious traditions I'm familiar with because it doesn't center around the question of whether any given supernatural claims are true or accurate. It's okay for a Unitarian to be an atheist. It's okay to be a theist, even one that holds very specific beliefs about the nature of God, such as a Christian. It's okay to be an agnostic. And it's more than okay to believe that it's reasonable to redefine the word "God" to mean "nature" or "the universe." But combining all of these cosmologies into a single organized religion requires believing a different set of claims: (1) that one's conclusions about the supernatural are relatively unimportant, and (2) that it's interesting or useful to go to church.

I'm not trying to be flippant or dismissive with my claim #2. The thing is that religion can play a number of different roles in a person's life. "Providing answers for life's big questions" and "giving hope of life after death" are two of the most obvious ones, but it's easy to see how someone might not care about those two, yet might like some of the other perks of organized religion such as the traditions, rituals, community, and spirituality. I can't precisely define "spirituality" here (since I'm even less an expert on that subject than I am on the subject of Unitarianism), but it seems to be an emotion that is related to communicating with unseen beings and is also related to the sentiments inspired by beauty (such as through art, music, or nature), but isn't quite the same as either one.

The take-home message is the following: "Do you like church but hate what organized religion usually stands for? If so, have you tried the Unitarians?" Not a bad niche, really, since there are a lot of apatheists out there who are pretty pissed-off at the religious right these days. I suspect that at the moment the Unitarians are cleaning up just by getting their message out to the growing ranks of the "unaffiliated" and sopping up all the ones who are put off by the dogma of church but not by the Sunday ritual. That's what happens in this novel as science teacher Mark Edwards finds his soul-mate in the beautiful, sensual, and spiritual Harmony Anderson.

As the liner notes (quite accurately) tell us, "more than anything else, Duck Egg Blue is a love story." From the beginning the romance is one after my own heart: lots of honest, straight-forward passionate monkey sex, light on the roses, cupids, poetry, and whatever else it is that the chivalrous romantic hero is normally expected to do to prove the purity of his love before getting to the hot monkey sex. One highlight of their initial courtship is an amusing scene watching a life science video in which Harmony's question "How did they get that picture?!" [regarding the money shot] was the exact same thing I was wondering myself back way back when I saw that same scene from that same film at BYU, of all places. (After that I forgot about all the scientific content of the rest of the film as I spent the next few weeks contemplating the possible ways they might have filmed the shot. Those were the days. But I digress.)

Yet, all too quickly, the warning flags start waving. Harmony refers to working in her garden as "praying." She thinks the ending of Star Trek V is deep. (Star Trek five!) She says stuff like "I think it's like Jesus said. God is love...the center of life...the ground of all being. God's present everywhere, in all things and in all persons and at all times." [Anyone have a reference on that one? I don't recall the passage where Jesus supposedly said that...]

As with any entertaining novel, I immediately tried to put myself in the position of the protagonist. For the purpose of this story, I'm a nerdy, balding high school teacher. The chances I'll find mind-blowing sex like this anywhere else are pretty much zero. Is it worth putting up with the woo? I've gotten ridiculously lucky here since normally a chick this hot would be out of my league. Yet... tempted... to... dump... her... anyway...

I'm very big on taking a rational approach to relationships, and I think if I were a straight guy, I'd be inclined to lower the priority on some superficial traits (here: perfect-body redhead with carpet to match the drapes ifyouknowhatImean), so that I'd be in a position to be more demanding about other desirable qualities. Such as absence of woo. But then I remember I'm not the one who's being presented with this dilemma. It's Mark Edwards, agnostic apatheist who thinks it's crazy to believe in a personal God that answers human prayers, but when asked if he's an atheist, says "No way! That's crazy too!"

Never mind. They're perfect for each other.

Of course there's more to this novel than love, sex, and their relation to Unitarian spirituality. There are the central conflicts of the novel: Harmony's son Cameron is denied the Eagle Scout rank he earned when he admits he's not sure he believes in God, and the local Christian Coalition is running amok trying to get "Creation Science" taught in public school science classes. (This novel apparently predates the euphemism "Intelligent Design".) These and other nefarious schemes are masterminded by Harmony's evil Christian ex-husband, John Wright.

The issues raised are timely and interesting, but I felt like this book's treatment of them was too simplistic and heavy-handed for my personal tastes. Please see my parable of criticism as a compliment for my excuses, but I'm just that much less willing to softball a morality tale when it's one where I agree with the moral. This may be just a quirk of personal taste -- one fellow lit blogger likes to say "fiction is a lie" therefore the reader should be happy to swallow anything, no matter how eye-rollingly obvious the author's agenda may be ;^) -- but I really like a story to leave me a little breathing room to form my own opinions. I don't like feeling like the author is standing there saying "See how very right this character's viewpoint is? And how wrong and misguided this other character's viewpoint is?"

Regarding the Scouting question, despite being a girl, I have enough personal experience with the BSA to know that it has both very positive and very negative aspects which can be hard to tease apart. Exploring the justification for discrimination against atheists, gays, and even girls would be an interesting place to start a complex and nuanced story about Scouting. Instead Scouting is portrayed as nothing else but a grand opportunity to build service and leadership skills, and the fact that the kid is denied his rank for being an agnostic is presented as some hardly-Scouting-related fluke that's all the fault of the evil villain Christian ex-husband.

The villain himself is a little hard to swallow. He's around and clearly wants to play an active role in his son's life, but only to force fundamentalism on the kid, nothing else. Weird as that is, I guess it's not impossible. Still, I felt like the problem on the one hand was too simplistic (biological dad is just a nutty, narrow-minded, abusive fundy), and the solution on the other hand was too simplistic as well (the kid's high school science teacher replaces the defective dad both as the kid's father figure and in mom's bed). Even if the kid really likes and respects his science teacher and even if he thinks his biological dad is a jerk, this solution would still potentially be an emotional mine-field. Yet the possibility of the kid having confused emotions about his mom's relationship with his teacher/step-dad is glossed-over since it goes without saying that the kid wouldn't have mixed feelings about such an evil villain as his biological dad. I'm more than willing to believe that rigid religious beliefs can be used to justify intolerance and abuse, and still I felt like the villain came off as a bit of a straw-man. I found myself cringing even more at his over-the-top random fundagelical rants than I did at the atheist stereotype character (mean and bitter, but it's not his fault because he suffered a horrible personal tragedy).

Keep in mind that I care quite a lot about science and science education, which is why I'm holding this novel up to such a high standard, perhaps an impossibly high standard. After all, some ideas are just plain wrong, and the idea that "Creation Science" (I.D.) is science (as opposed to being a deliberately deceitful attack on science) is among them. That makes it tricky to come up with a story about it that's at once realistic, even-handed, and complex enough to be challenging. Kudos to Derrick Neill for tackling this subject. The world needs lots more stories about math and science educators. To start us off, for a fun portrait of Unitarian Universalism and the single science teacher, grab a copy of Duck Egg Blue!


Friar Zero said...

Hey, Star Trek V is deep.

A charismatic religious leader gathers the hopeless into an armed band. The logical vulcan and the cynic doctor face down god himself.

What does god really need with a starship?

Oh, and you finally get the great atheist message when McCoy says; "I won't Serve any god who inflicts pain for his own pleasure".

Then they blow up god with a photon torpedo.

Deep. ;)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Friar Zero!!!

Yeah, I'm being a little unfair to Star Trek V here. I actually haven't even seen it. The consensus of all of the Trek fans I've ever talked to about the TOG films is that ST5 is the worst of the bunch, so I never bothered to see it. Word on the street is that it's fun to watch it in kind of the same way it's fun to watch Plan 9 From Outer Space (which I have seen -- fabulous!)

Admittedly, I can hardly find fault with the part about blowing up the supposed "god" with a photon torpedo, but the part that impressed this fictional character was apparently the fact that after not finding God out in space, Kirk profoundly concludes that God must be "in our hearts." Mmmmkay...

Friar Zero said...

I'm just kidding around. V is, in my opinion, the second worst of the films.

Besides, Kirk represents optimistic deism to the cold agnosticism of spock and the cynical atheism of McCoy. Either that or I'm just making this up as I go, which is a distinct possibility.

Joe said...

Star Trek V is one of those movies where you think; people pay other people to make crap like this? I could have done that!

C. L. Hanson said...

lol, guys, that's essentially what I'd heard about that film. I wonder how it compares to the community-cable Star Trek series my brother and I produced... ;^)

Not only that, everybody knows that Star Trek V can't be accepted into the Star Trek canon because the fact that they went all the way to the center of the galaxy in that length of time grossly violates our understanding of the warp velocity equations (see my earlier post on this ;^) ). So it has to be dismissed as a dream sequence on Kirk's part or something. ;^)

This whole discussion reminds me of a song that was going around when Star Trek VI came out:

I don't remember the song's first line
something, something -ive,
Everyone liked Start Trek six much more than Star Trek five,
The cast looked great, they'd lost some weight, Shatner's wig was gray,
but there was some talk about old Spock not speaking the same way.

Bones is looking very frail, Scotty's looking thick,
Uhura's face is awfully tight, Sulu's hair's too slick,
And Chekov is lucky to have a job -- the acting's sometimes scary,
But how I love to see them so! God bless Gene Roddenberry!

Seriously, though, I think the author of the book Duck Egg Blue is right that the Star Trek universe has a positive philosophy, and one that aligns almost perfectly with Unitarian Universalism.

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to Friar Zero:

If STV is the second-worst, which one, IYHO, is the worst?

galen dara said...

okay, totally need to actually visit my local unitarians. this solidified it.

and great review of duck egg blue, will need to check that one out!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks G, glad to be of service!!!

I think Unitarianism is a very good choice for a lot of people. :D