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Nutshell – Review

nutshell_mcewanInnovative storyteller Ian McEwan has been exploring the depth up humanity for years. His latest novel Nutshell, just may be his most important and penetrating examination of the 21st century to date. Nutshell is a crime story unlike any other, told from the point of view of an unborn child who bears witness to his mother and uncle’s plot to muder his father. It’s a heart wrenching story of just how far our society has devolved and the mess we’ve created for the next generation.

Lies Will be the Truth

McEwan brilliantly portrays the world of the 21st century though it’s poetry described as, “…Too much about self, too glassily cold with regard to others, too many grips in too short a line.” We’ve become a world of pessimists since, “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking class of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies… We’re bloated with privileges and delights, as well as complaints…”.

The picture throughout Nutshell is one of a world reeling with it’s preoccupation with self in light of it’s rejection of any truth outside our own perceptions. The amoral malaise of a godless society is on full display as the unborn child says to himself, “Who knows what is true? I can hardly collect the evidence for myself. Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me.”Later on adding, “My selfhood would be sculpted by pleasure, conflict, experience ideas and my own judgement as rocks and trees are shaped by rain, wind and time.” There are no more absolutes or truth, just feelings.

I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vise versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by my questioning of my faith.Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil dijnn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs. I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be.

McEwan has nailed us as a culture, “I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be.” We reject the facts that,”Biology is destiny, and destiny is digital, and in this case binary.” With no perceived shackles of “normalcy” or “truth” we seek to control life by the only standard we deem appropriate, our feelings and since they are transitory, who we are is as fleeting as chaff in the wind.

The culmination of this is mirrored in the mother of the story who has helped her brother-in-law kill her husband, so that they can reap the benefits of millions in the sale of the marital house. Her unborn son realizes that, “…my mother is in step with the new times. She may no know it, but she marches with the movement. Her status as a murderer is in fact, and item in the world outside herself. But that’s old thinking. She affirms, she identifies as innocent…Lies will be her truth.”(Italics in the quote from the book).

This is the world we’ve created, this is the legacy we leave to our unborn. Lies for the truth. Nutshell reads like Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul says,

God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32 ESV)

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The Unborn

Nutshell is tragically pro-life, showing the utter disregard that our society has for the unborn. Since we as a society see reality in only what we feel, biology no longer applies, therefore the unborn are only children if we feel they are. Otherwise they are victims of our perceptions. We exchange the truth for a lie to enable apathy and at worst contempt which facilitates wholesale murder. Nutshell is a reminder to those of us that are pro-life, it is not just saving the precious babies, but caring for it and the mother afterwards. For children who are born and are unwanted, we have a responsibility to step up and provide the homes and families, welcoming them into love. If we don’t, the life we save will be lost to a world that clearly has no regard for it whatsoever.

Conclusion

Nutshell is a tragic masterpiece that illuminates the dark recesses of our world, reminding us that life is ugly and cruel without hope. It’s an important, worthwhile read and one of the best books of the year.

atheism · Book Reviews · Books · Christianity · Faith · Ian McEwan

The Children Act – Review

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Ian McEwan’s latest book revolves around the world of family law. Fiona is a High Court judge working in the family division. She is constantly ruling on every known issue that could disrupt a family legally. As her marriage crumbles, the life of a Jehovah’s Witness family does as well. This family is fighting for the religious rights of their son who is soon to be 18. The state desires to save his life with a blood transfusion which goes against the teachings of The Watchtower. What follows is a clash of world-views with no clear winner.

Foundations

McEwan’s book presents what appears to be twopposing world-views, yet with closer examination, they differ very little. Fiona clearly believes in law and order. Yet for her, what is right and best is founded on society-imposed ideas that shift as the sands, flowing from one “enlightenment” to the next. She thinks to herself while meeting with Adam, the boy in question,

“As he said this, looking at her directly, with no particular challenge in his voice, she believed him completely; he and his parents, the congregation and the elders knew what was right for them. She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn’t much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all. Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a far distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?”

Her world-view has started and ended with human thought. And with that as a foundation, the weight of any meaning in life cannot be sustained, all is meaningless.

The most interesting thing that the book does is try to set Fiona’s world-view against a sect of people who claim to know the truth and live by God’s Word. Yet when put to the test, their beliefs are shown to be all about them and the foundation was not God at all. Adam confesses to Fiona later in the book,

“My feelings came out of my religion. I was doing God’s will, and you and all the rest were plain wrong. How could I have got into such a mess without being a Witness…. Oh you know, wanting to suffer, loving the pain and sacrifice, thinking that everyone’s watch and caring and that the whole universe is about you…. That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime!”

When belief is built on anything other than the immutable eternal, it cannot sustain the weight of pain, suffering and glory. Adam’s faith was about him, earning his place and suffering well for the cause as penance for forgiveness and acceptance by others and God. In the end, without a free gift of grace, his faith has no more meaning than Fiona’s.

Meaning

Through their shared experience, Fiona and Adam begin searching for meaning. Fiona asks Adam,

“So you’ve lost your faith”

“…Yes, perhaps. I don’t know. I think I’m frightened of saying it out loud. I don’t know where I am, really. I mean, the thing is, once you take a step back from the Witness, you might as well go all the way. Why replace one tooth fairy with another?”

“Perhaps everyone needs tooth fairies.”

Fiona is on to something. We need meaning in this world. The thought that this is meaningless and oblivion is all that awaits the other side of the pine box leads to nihilistic suicide. Later in the book, Fiona eats a meal with her husband as he pontificates about the bleakness of the human condition and the inconsequential nature of time. As he speaks, she can feel his words weighing on her, causing her to leave the table because of her discomfort. The logical end of her belief system confronts her and sickens her for it’s lack of purpose.

At the end of the book Fiona finds out that Adam’s leukemia has returned and that he refused treatment. She believes strongly that he denied himself treatment as a form of suicide. She thinks,

“Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages of judgements had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child was an island. She though her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.”

The book ends with Fiona lamenting the death of this boy, his loss of hope and her complicitness in his death. The sadness is that the meaning she desires, the meaning that was never truly Adam’s, is the meaning they both need. Meaning can only be given if there is a standard set above us, if there is truth outside us and not dependent on us. Meaning can only come from the eternal perfect, not the temporal fallen. Thank God that there is meaning and hope beyond oblivion.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV)

Conclusion

Adam keeps chasing Fiona for help and “enlightenment,” but she has nothing else to give. It shows how the offer of shared knowledge (books and new ideas), art (music, etc.), and relationships (his wanting to live with her) can’t always go as far as we want them to, even though that’s often the culture’s prescription to problems. The Children Act is well written and McEwan’s prose sparkles as per usual. The though-provoking nature of this book, along with the lack of sufficient answers to it’s timeless questions make it worth the read.