Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Casual Legacy

The Casual Occupancy is about
a man who really needs to pee but
the airplane lavatory is in use
every time he gets up to go.

Be advised: This blog post takes as its inspiration the book The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. As with many of our theofictionology posts, however, the book is simply used as a sort of launch pad for the meat of our discussion. As such, if you’re planning on reading it, fear not: there are no spoilers here. I’m sure there are countless other sites out there that would love to tell you all about how Voldemort shows up in the sleepy town of Pagford and turns all the residents into Death Eaters, but you won’t hear a peep out of me. Incidentally, I didn’t eat a single Peep this Easter. But that’s really neither here nor there.

As a huge Harry Potter fan, including the way Jo Rowling spins his yarns as much as anything, you couldn’t keep me away from The Casual Vacancy, the author’s first novel for adults. I am, after all, an adult, chronologically speaking. It’s about time Jo wrote something for me!

What did I think? Well, my first impression was that Jo was intent on making the point that she was writing for grownups by gratuitously inserting mature content that didn’t necessarily enhance the story. I hate it when authors (or directors or producers or musicians, etc.) do this sort of thing because I often find that sort of “mature content” to be hopelessly juvenile. Understand that I am a writer; as such, I work with words for a living. The only sort of language that I personally will never use or condone will be to take the Lord’s name in vain. He deserves my reverence and mocking or misusing anything to do with Him is the most offensive verbal offense that I can imagine. But other words are—well, they’re just words, aren’t they? In my new book (which is currently in the editing/rewriting stage), The Savvy Demon’s Guide to Godly Living, language is one of the tools in my disposal to demonstrate the changing hearts (which is very appropriate, I think, based on Luke 6:45). All the naughty words are censored, mind you—which I feel fits in beautifully with the tone of the book and the narration—but my point is that I believe that all language can potentially be appropriate in the context of a fictional work, like the four-letter words spoken by drug dealers in The Wire. You may disagree and that’s fine, but to get back to what I was saying, my first instinct was that Jo was using vulgarity to artificially make her work seem more mature than was warranted, and that is something I really hate. It’s one of the many reasons I loathe Gregory Maguire’s insipid Wicked series (but am a big fan of the musical, ironically): I’m convinced that the author simply throws vulgarity and gratuitous sex at the page to prove that his books are grownup and it comes across as hopelessly immature, in my opinion.

"Alas, kind Sir, I shall have to disagree vehemently with your
assertion about the expenditure of my illicit pharmaceuticals."
As I continued reading, however, and as the story and the characters drew me in, I began to reconsider. Now I think that I may have been holding Jo to a certain standard based on the Harry Potter series. It took some time for me to accept her characters using swear words and having (and thinking about having) sex, even though I accept this sort of thing from Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Hornby without a second thought. But be warned: this is decidedly not Potter.

In the end, however, although the stakes and the plot aren’t remotely as grave and serious as they were for Potter and the good guys in Order of the Phoenix, I was still thoroughly drawn in by the characters and their small town drama. This shouldn’t be surprisingly since I was usually very entertained and just as wrapped up in the day-to-day lives of Harry, Hermione and Ron as I was by their operatic, life-and-death struggles (aside from one point in the back half of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, at which point I recall shaking my head and wondering if she was just throwing in every single idea that crossed her
All I'm saying is that the scene where Harry and Ron spend thirteen pages
debating what type of cereal they should have for breakfast went a bit long.
mind). I simply like Jo as a storyteller, and I’ll no doubt be scooping everything she writes up in the future.

Everything in the small British parish of Pagford changes when a beloved parish councilor named Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies with an aneurysm bursts in his brain. When we meet Barry, we haven’t the slightest inkling of how much his death could affect the town and the people living in it. Many people probably had no idea the way that he had, for example, reached out to an angry, poor teenager as her coach on the school rowing team, and yet his kindness and encouragement made a huge difference in that young lady’s life and his death creates a void that she has no idea how to fill. This is just one, and perhaps the most poignant, example of how the death of a rather unimpressive, fairly average man left something missing in many lives, which of course means that his life added something to those same countless lives.

This is my Uncle Jeff.
I’ve been thinking about legacy. As I was nearing the end of the book, my uncle, Chattanooga Police Captain Jeff Francis, died suddenly. He probably wouldn’t have used the word “suddenly,” I’ll admit. He had heart problems and, the last time I really got to spend time with him, when we spent a few nights with them in Christmas 2011, he told us that the doctor had indicated that there was nothing more they could do, that his heart would simply quit sooner or later. Uncle Jeff took care of himself well—he was in much better shape than I am!—but his heart did indeed give out.

But not before leaving quite a legacy.

I don’t feel that I’m naive about my uncle. He wasn’t a perfect man, and I don’t remember him as one. I genuinely liked him, but on our last visit, sitting and chatting with him, it was sometimes difficult for me to not view him through the lens of some of his failings—and, since I grew up in Michigan, over six hundred  miles away from their home in southern Tennessee, Uncle Jeff’s sins and struggles didn’t affect me in the least. Of course, none of us are perfect, and I don’t think any relationship can get very far without forgiveness because of that.

Here’s the thing, though. I looked around the large auditorium where his funeral was held. What I saw in that church were lives that had been impacted by uncle, many for the Kingdom of God. Given that Uncle Jeff’s sins are wiped away clean by the blood of Jesus Christ, guess what remains? Not his mistakes. Those are gone. But the people he shared his faith with, who decided to follow Jesus Christ as a result of my uncle’s obedience to the Great Commission? That’s a legacy that will last forever.

Woody Allen also wasn't looking for his creepy love
life to be his legacy, but oh well.
When talking about the legacy he was leaving behind in all the films he directed, Woody Allen famously said, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” He understood that his four Academy Awards aren’t going to mean a great deal in the long run. Is legacy something that’s important to you? Do you want people to remember your name after you’re gone? Barry Fairbrother of The Casual Vacancy left behind a legacy, but it’s perhaps part of Jo Rowling’s darkly comic vision to see how much of it is lessened or negated even by the end of her novel, a matter of weeks later. 

What’s that little rhyme? Apparently it’s from a poem by CT Studd. It reads:

Only one life, ‘twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

At the end of the day, that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? Legacy is an interesting idea; I would hope to leave a void behind when I scoot on out of here because that would mean that I had done more than just living for me. It seems all fine and dandy to live for myself in the day-to-day because I’m a selfish creature, but it’s easy to project myself into the future and know that, looking back at my life, I’ll want to have invested in others, or in
I have it on good authority that Weston R. Higgins
desperately wishes he had gotten a higher Gamerscore.
things greater than myself.

But if you want to invest in something that will last, you have no other choice but to invest in the eternal destiny of people. That is the only thing that won’t end up being meaningless, at the end of the day. I think my uncle understood that.

He would tell us stories. He loved to tell us stories. He’d be confronting a bad guy or consoling a recently bereaved widow or something, but his stories would invariably end with him sharing the Gospel and trying to tell them about Jesus. “But you’re a police officer for the City of Chattanooga!” we’d say. “Aren’t you afraid of getting in trouble?” He’d just sort of shrug. “What’re they going to fire me for? Caring about people? They can fire me if they want to.”

I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the final, eternal destination of that widow or criminal or whatever (possibly a widowed criminal) is more important than where my uncle gets his paychecks from. It’s not even a question. And I’m not saying that we need to constantly be proselytizing when we’re paid to be working. But I’m also going to tell you that I do not believe my uncle regrets a single person that he shared the Gospel with on the job. In fact, he may regret not doing it more.

In any case, my uncle was not fired. In fact, I saw the Chattanooga police commissioner tearing up as he handed a folded American flag to my Aunt Gail. That’s legacy.

There won’t be any police commissioners at my funeral. Well, at least not unless my life takes a drastic and unexpected turn. That being said, my cousin Dan followed in his Dad’s footsteps, so maybe he’ll end up as a commissioner himself. If so, I will call him Commissioner Gordon in my head. And I hope he swings by my funeral. So maybe there will be!

I won't say that we're pretty much twins, but I'm
sure no one would argue if you wanted to say it.
Oh, I’ve gotten off track again. Sorry. I was trying to think of what I wanted people to remember me as after I was gone. But you know what? I don’t really care. They can think I’m a stuck-up, half-witted scruffy looking Nerf herder, if they want (actually, that’d be kinda cool - someone put that in my obit). But I want to bring people with me. I don’t mean, like, I’m going to be a suicide bomber or something. Gosh, I’m saying this poorly.

I want my legacy to be that of disciple maker. I want the Holy Spirit to use me in this life however He chooses, but I want to be faithful to the call of God. I don’t care if I’m used to plant seeds or whatever or whatever, so long as I’m used. I got my first really critical review of Emaline’s Gift recently. One of the blogger’s beefs was that it was “too preachy.” Get used to it. Oh, maybe I’ll grow as a writer and sometime learn to be a bit more subtle, but I’m going to pray that every word of every chapter of every one of my books is used to glorify God. The legacy of leaving behind great stories isn’t enough for me. I want the legacy of pointing toward Christ.

Otherwise—what’s the point?

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