Six Degrees of Fundamentalism

14 December 2004

From Persepolis II, by Marjane Satrapi

A comic book — ahem, “graphic novel” — leads The Revealer‘s 2004 list of favorite books about, concerned with, or shadowed by “fundamentalism.” (We’re arranging our “best-of” lists thematically. “Politics”; “New Religions”; “Adventure”; and “Love” to follow.) Strictly speaking,Persepolis and Persepolis IIMarjane Satrapi‘s two-volume account of growing up Iranian isn’t about religion at all. God talks to Satrapi when she’s a little girl, but she loses sight of him at a young age. She’s an intellectual, artistic, kind of awkward kid, which ought to be more than enough to deal with. But Satrapi also chronicles the burdens of theocracy on a young girl. Just as importantly, she reveals the ordinariness of life in modern Iran. We’re choosing this book — read both volumes — as our favorite of 2004 because we think a portrait of Iranian humanity by way of one girl’s life will be an essential corrective to the political world of 2005. We’re grateful to Six Billion for publishing this online excerpt from Satrapi’s brilliant novel.

Gilead (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), by Marilynne Robinson. When wenoted Lee Siegel’s ill-informed review of this new novel of a preacher’s life by one of our favorite writers, we saw it merely as an opportunity to call attention to a moving work of fiction. Since then, Gilead has been topping lists all over the country and earning reviews that go beyond praise to hail this book as a work of profound religiousity open to secular and believing readers alike. In short, Gilead‘s success has become a story in itself, a novel that may function in the coming year much like Thomas Frank‘s excellentWhat’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan) did in the last — a book Americans read, rightly or wrongly, to learn Who We Are, and Who We Might Be.

Another book that deserves a spot on that list is James M. Ault, Jr.‘sSpirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, for the sake of geography alone. When Ault, a sociologist, set out to investigate fundamentalism, he didn’t strike out for “red” America; he stayed close to home and spent two years with the congregation of a Falwell-inspired, fundamentalist church in Worcester, Massachusetts. The book that results is sympathetic and respectful, but Ault is neither a believer nor an apologist. Spirit and Flesh takes fundamentalists seriously — as thinking people, as political people, as a spiritualist community. Journalists who aspire to do as much will get a great deal from this book, which is written for a general readership.

With that goal in mind, we’re making a place on our list for Glorious Appearing: The End of Days (Tyndale), the final installment in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which we “honored” with our own true tale of apocalypse-now-and-foreverearlier this year.

Left Behind, graphically

We won’t kid you, and we won’t be condescending — this book is crap. Nothing against the apocalypse, understand — it’s just really, really bad writing. And the world loves it. Believers love it. Non-believers love it. At my public library, the librarian gives it to latino immigrants as an English-learning tool. Books like this usually don’t enjoy long lives — barring rapture, we predictGlorious Appearing will be American studies dissertation fodder in the not-so-distant future — but if they die young, they live fast and furiously. No, wait — that’s a Vin Diesel movie. Well, same sort of thing. That’s our country! (Love it or leave it.)

Or step back and get a better view of the action with Heather Hendershot‘s Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (University of Chicago Press) andAmy Johnson Frykholm‘s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford University Press), reviewed in The Revealer this past week by Omri Elisha, who wrote: “To their credit, neither Frykholm nor Hendershot delve too deeply into the political issues, because the concerns of Christian media producers and consumers are rarely explicitly political. However, political implications are never far from the surface. Focus on the Family and other conservative Christian groups obtain government support for pro-chastity media, Hendershot notes, by subsuming religious messages under the banner of public health. Frykholm observes that apocalyptic fiction is always tied up with political ideology, and that readers of Left Behind become engaged with a powerful form of rhetoric that offers a graphic script with which to view the political and social world around them.”