This is a The Book That... post from Rafael SW.
I’ve seen religious obsession manifest itself in the lives of friends before. From the weird near-drowning ceremony in a bathtub in Bendigo, to the pushups-every-time-he-thought-of-masturbation. I’ve been an observer, confidant and life coach. But always an outsider.
Peter Leigh, the protagonist of The Book of Strange New Things, is the personification of both outsider and religious drive. A missionary on a new planet (named Oasis), Peter is “spooning bible verses into hungry mouths”. Oasis is every pastor’s dream. With a desperation that we only come to understand later, the Oasans have caught the Jesus bug.
Even before the news events of this century, obsession and fundamentalist religion have gone together like a black hole and dinosaurs. However, the complexity of belief in The Book… is explored in two interesting ways. Firstly, Faber tempers obsession with good old-fashioned human scepticism and self-doubt, and secondly he shows how justified the Oasan fascination is.
Initially our protag and pastor seems a bit obnoxious in the manner of the ponderously religious everywhere. But Faber quickly introduces important contrasts. In the very same scenes that detail Peter’s feeling of being on the righteous path of God, we also see him failing at car sex on the side of the road. When trying to convert airline passengers, we understand that this is to distract himself from the sadness of leaving. The full complexity of Peter is revealed to us over time, but once we find out how much of a shitkicker he used to be, his flaws make him all the more relatable.
“…he’d been a young punk snorting lines of speed off piss-stained toilet lids… stealing money from prostitutes’ handbags…”
And this is precisely the kind of flawed human being that, at least according to one friend of mine, God appreciates. Similar to the saying ‘God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians’, it’s less about the religion you are, but the thoughts and motivations behind your belief. This makes clear to me that where obsession can blind you to a universe of experiences, those who are fallible become more rounded as people due to their contrasts.
This is lucky, because I am a man of almost biblical contrasts. Staunchly moral, but in a pick-and-mix kinda way. A fierce sense of my rights, but a myopic approach to other peoples’. I long for the idea of a clear moral code easily set down in a book, but I value too highly my sense of individuality. It is illuminating however, to see that Christians struggle to understand the atheist mind in much the same way.
An article on Christhum posits “Michel Faber once said that he was an atheist. If that is still true, his latest novel — The Book of Strange New Things — suggests that he takes religion so seriously, considers it so valuable, that he cannot bring himself to sully it by believing.”
Although the book might support this idea, wider research indicates that what is so valuable to Faber is not merely belief, but understanding. Not specifically a religious writer, it is still a common theme in his work (an earlier novel, ‘The Fire Gospel’  explores the life of a scholar who steals an imagined ancient gospel describing the death of Jesus). It’s clear Faber has an obsession with religion, though one dissimilar to that of both Peter and the aliens. Raised as a Baptist but a militant atheist by his teens, he stated in a Telegraph interview “I wanted to burn down all the churches or turn them into second-hand record emporiums.”
This hostility towards religion peppers The Book… But even as the human characters mistrust, decry, or attempt to undermine Peter’s belief, the aliens (and potentially Faber himself) still keep a reverent distance.
“My feelings are a bit schizophrenic.” Faber states. “I get increasingly respectful of people who have faith and increasingly creeped out by them.”
As the novel progresses, we come to understand more about the particulars of Peter’s and the Oasans’ obsession. Both come back to the notion of survival, but while the Oasans’ is more practical, Peter’s is due to being a stranger in a strange land.
“You one of those decaffeinated Christians, padre? The diabetic wafer? Doctrine-free, guilt-reduced, low in Last judgement, 100% less Second Coming, no added Armageddon? Might contain small traces of crucified Jew?”
The unknowable alien world is steadily more comprehensible over time, with Peter eventually learning to distinguish the aliens and speak their language. In contrast, god is a far more difficult presence to understand, with Peter being plagued by the full gamut of sin, from loss of faith to temptation. Thankfully this isn’t a book simply about loss of belief as much as it is the varieties of faith.
And just like my friends might convert to keep their family happy at home, or try to convince their lesbian sister of the perfect man waiting for her, these acts, which seem strange, contrived or obsessive, are all rooted in the desire to survive. Live a better life than one now.
Rafael S.W writes short stories and poetry and is a founding member of ‘Dead Poets’ Fight Club’. He’s been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. A regular contributor to Going Down Swinging online, he also enjoys poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. www.rafaelsw.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.