Thursday, April 12, 2007


LITERARY CHARACTER. One of Indianapolis' native sons, Kurt Vonnegut, 84, died today. Though literary satirist Vonnegut left Indy 50 years ago, he stayed connected to the city in many ways. Of his relationship to Indianapolis, Vonnegut said in 1986: "All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business." I’ve got to admire a person who so freely acknowledges his connection to place in general and this place in particular.

AN ODD JUXTAPOSITION. Though Indianapolis is proud to name Vonnegut as a native son, the writer’s outspoken politics and life perspective seem at odds with the conservative Midwestern ethos of Indy. He was an agnostic, outspoken anti-war advocate, and intense critic of George W. Bush (he was a Bush basher when Bush bashing wasn’t cool). Certainly, those of us who long for rationality in government and an end to military violence as a way of solving conflicts have lost an agitating voice in Vonnegut. But no one who is sane would ever free-associate Vonnegut with Indianapolis politics. I suppose you wouldn’t free associate Vonnegut with any prevailing ideology. He was one of a kind.

OUTSPOKEN AGNOSTIC. Otherwise excellent local tributes to Vonnegut understate that he was also a rather outspoken agnostic. In his novels, essays and speeches, he lashes out--sometimes humorously, sometimes harshly--at religion, particularly Christianity. Maybe Vonnegut was never able to come to terms with the massive loss of civilian life in Dresden, Germany as a result of the American and Allied bombings he witnessed as a prisoner of war there near the end of World War II. His reflections on this experience in Slaughterhouse Five and other writings seem to indicate a conscience that could not reconcile such atrocity with Christian faith. Neither can mine.

A CYNICAL LENS FOR LIFE. I wonder if Vonnegut represents one of many people whose really irrational experiences and confrontations with evil in life are not fairly answered by shallow religious justifications or the rationales of the institutional church and civil religion. In light of their existential experiences unaddressed by wise spiritual counsel, folks tend to become cynics--and this becomes the lens through which they view every other experience the rest of their lives.

FROM CYNICISM TO FAITH. But the response to unjustifiable evil or irrational harm need not necessarily be one of cynicism. Another response is to name insanity and evil for what it is, take seriously the disarming alternative to cynicism offered in the Bible, and lean forward into a hopeful future beckoned by a God who has, does, and shall act to redeem fallen humanity in a heart-breaking world.

(Part of this post was submitted to the Indianapolis Star on April 13 as a "Letter to the Editor")


  1. In an e-mail response to this posting, Kevin Spears passed along this endearing incident regarding Vonnegut's faith:

    "A couple of years ago on a visit to New York, my girlfriend and I attended Sunday services at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in the heart of Manhattan. The sanctuary was magnificent but the service itself was unremarkable. As the procession exited and the last chords of the final hymn faded, I noticed a wild head of hair turn out of the front pew and into the center aisle. As the owner of that hair passed my pew, I gasped to my girlfriend, "That's KURT VONNEGUT!" to which she responded, "Who?" So I was left to marvel on my own.

    So that insistent agnostic, that provocative cynic was not only in church - he was on the front row. Because of poor hearing, no doubt, at his age. But still.

    And this was the man who said, "Music is the only evidence I need for the existence of God."

    So in the last week as I've heard him described as agnostic, cynic, provocateur, burr in the saddle of middle class morality, I've enjoyed a private wink at Kurt as if to say, "I know what you did last Sunday."

  2. A friend sent this e-mail in response to Vonnegut:

    Your thoughts about Vonnegut's cynicism prompts me to share a thought of my own about him. I think that he might not have been so cynical of Christianity if Christians had been who they should have been in front of him.

    Specifically, to say that I saw Kurt on a talk show (I think it was Charlie Rose) within the last year or two. He said that he had a list of principles that people should live by. He then pulled from his pocket a list of the Beatitudes and read each of them, with comments along the way.

    That struck me as exactly how I feel about Christianity much of the time. If I could see some genuine Christians--people who actually live out what Jesus taught--I would be less cynical myself...

    I had very bad examples growing up in the "God will get you, and so will I" genre of fundamentalism. And I have seen very few good examples of Christianity since. My basic trust issues, which were beaten to a pulp early on, have been and remain so tenuous, I have only a flickering faith in Christianity much of the time.

    Thanks for continuing to record your thoughtful reflections. I look forward to reading them.


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