Where the sacred has met the profane in my fiction-writing life: The story behind my novel, Because the Angels
by Kathleen Kern
In 2008, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in some higher-end Japanese anime series, to the point that I began spinning stories in my head with the series’ characters. I had done similar story-making as a child, taking the characters from books, movies and television shows to use in my own plots—the ability got me through many long sermons. But I became alarmed that I was expending so much mental energy on these anime characters as a woman in my forties. When I met with my prayer group, I confessed my concern regarding this absorption, and one my friends asked, “Have you offered it before Jesus in prayer?” So for the next week or so, during my daily prayer times, I, feeling extremely foolish, asked Jesus why my mind was so invested in these characters.
Years earlier, I had completed a farcical novel about a group of Christian human rights activists working within the Israeli-Palestinian context. I started a second farcical novel, about a young woman named Spike who worked in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. It was never compelling enough for me to finish, but Spike stayed with me.
One day, as I was praying about my anime problem, I had an epiphany. The deal with Spike was not that she worked at a group home. The deal with Spike was that her sister Margie had been kidnapped while working for a human rights organization in Iraq, and because Spike had more of an affinity for certain Japanese anime characters than she did for most human beings, she did not have the resources she needed to get through the crisis.
I was finishing up a 620-page history of my organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, at the time (See http://wipfandstock.com/store/In_Harms_Way_A_History_of_Christian_Peacemaker_Teams/.) I felt I could not ethically start the novel while I was still working on the history. Then the pressure of not writing it became too great, so I rationed myself to working on it twenty minutes a day, sitting beside my husband while he watched the news. In two weeks, I had 10,000 words. During a nine-day retreat with my spiritual director, I finished it. The first draft came out with so little effort, I almost functioned as a printer. It was perhaps the most extended inflowing of the Spirit that I have ever experienced, and yet, the main character, Spike, who was such a large part of that inflowing, is secular. As she tells her sister, she just doesn’t care whether God exists.
However, the secondary viewpoint character in Because the Angels, is Otto, Spike and Margie’s estranged father and a Reformed Anabaptist* pastor, who is still reeling, years later, from the calculated efforts of Spike’s mother to demonize him in her daughters’ eyes. Otto, who reunites with Spike after they learn that Margie has been kidnapped, struggles to balance the love he has for his children and the rigid theology that helped hold him together after he lost his daughters. Below was one of my favorite scenes about Otto, which takes place after one of the Reformed Anabaptist Peace Team (RAPT) hostages in Iraq, Margie’s colleague Ray Epp, is executed by his captors:
Epp's writings on the RAPT website bespoke a simple piety that Otto thought his own congregants would find appealing. Had his Christian faith been a factor in his murder? If his daughter had not been caught up in this hostage situation, he would have preached next Sunday on the virtues of martyrdom, how Ray had joined the “Cloud of Witnesses” spoken of in the book of Hebrews.
But right now, he regretted having named his oldest daughters after martyrs and was grateful that Hermine [his second wife] had rejected Anneken for Hannah and Dirk for Phillip (after Dutch martyrs Anneken Heyndricks and Dirk Willems, burned alive by Catholic authorities during the Spanish Inquisition.) He'd rather have Spike and Margie at his house for holiday dinners, than have them extolled as heroes of the faith.
I know, that's selfish, God, he prayed, but if not for me, can you do it for them? Can you do it for Hannah and Phillip so they'll have big sisters when I am gone? Can you do it so people will know there is no woundedness, no brokenness so big that you cannot repair it?
The prayer brought him to his knees and he reflected on the carnage in Iraq that Margie had wanted to confront and which he just could not bring himself to care about as much as he should. Then he prayed again:
God, I know there must be at least one family in Iraq with children who have been estranged from their father for years. There must be at least one father who desperately yearns for a reconciled relationship with his children. And maybe it's not that important when children and adults are getting blown up when they're walking to school, buying food for their families or praying in a mosque, but God, I am praying now for that family, for the healing of the relationship between that father and his children who are trying to find their way back to each other, because I know you love them as much as you love me and my girls.
He felt the unclenching of his heart, a sign that God was telling him he had prayed right. Although it was 9:00 in the morning when he finished praying, he fell asleep for an hour and arose eager to resume his pastoral duties—another sign, he thought, that God had approved of his prayer.
So why does this theme of what happens when the sacred meets the profane keep recurring in my fiction?
When I look at the novels I have written (or am working on), I see that they are also preoccupied with the ironies and tensions that arise when people of faith work with or love secular people. I have always been a committed Christian, but I have also always had considerable contact with secular people, including members of my family. In Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.CPT.org), I work closely with many non-Christian human rights workers—so much so that hearing the F-word makes almost no impact on me anymore, nor do I let their differing sexual mores get in the way of accomplishing our shared goals of human rights promotion and violence deterrence. (I don’t let the swearing and sexual mores of my younger Christian colleagues sidetrack the work for me either.)
In Where Such Unmaking Reigns, the farcical novel mentioned earlier (which I self-published using prize monies awarded by the Omni Center for Peace Justice and Ecology), the two viewpoint characters are Eugie Yoder, a devout Reformed Anabaptist*, who is trying to recover from a broken relationship with a secular Jew, and Tess, whose gods are women’s fashion magazines, and who is currently involved with Eugie’s ex. Eugie struggles to keep working with her broken heart as she confronts the typically bizarre incidents in the Occupied Palestinian territories. Although her faith separates her from people she loves, and she wonders what it would be like to give it up, she knows that doing so is not an option; God is integrated too deeply in her psyche.
I write for the church constituency that supports the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams. I know how to interpret our work in Iraq, Colombia, Israel/Palestine and Indigenous communities for the average churchgoer in Kidron, OH or Kalona, IA. Likewise, my monthly column, “World Neighbors” in Mennonite Weekly Review provides a portal for Mennonite readers into situations around the world that the mainstream media does not cover, often because there is a religious component to transpiring political events.
I also write for secular publications—perhaps the most notable being the Baltimore Sun and my chapter on mineral exploitation in the Congo for A Game As Old As Empire, the follow-up to John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. I draft reports for secular human rights organizations to use in their own work. I know that secular people’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about Jesus, and so I interpret our work and the work of our colleagues around the world in ways that secular people will understand.
Maybe the Holy Spirit has sent me my novels to break down the compartments in my life. Maybe the sacred and profane elements inside me need to come out of their boxes and take a good look at each other so that they can exist in a truer space, a space where sex, and sin, and failure and faith all exist in the light. A space that might not look much like a church, but from which God is not absent.
*I invented the Reformed Anabaptists, because I wanted my characters to belong to a denomination more neurotic than the Mennonites (also because I feared the wrath of my Mennonite readership). But for the third novel, I have decided to let Mennonites be Mennonites.