Saturday, April 26, 2014

'Choking on a Camel' by Michal Ann McArthur

Choking on a CamelIn the spring of 1969, Alex Ferguson’s fiancé breaks their engagement. A strong Calvinist, he’s stung by Alex’s sharp questions about predestination, determinism, and the eternal damnation of non-Christians, ideas that horrify Alex.

On June 20, 1969, Alex is forced to face her questions again when her atheist brother is killed in an accident. To think of her beloved younger brother in eternal torment is more than she can handle. Who is God, that He should predestine people to damnation? Her emotions start to unravel.

She returns for her senior year to her fundamentalist university in the heart of the smoldering, still largely segregated South, her mind burning with questions. She’s always been a devout believer, but now she’s not so sure she can continue in her faith. Under intense pressure from the school, outwardly she conforms, but inwardly, she’s seething. She lives a double life to cover up how she really feels. She wrestles with a God she wants to love, maybe hates, and definitely doesn’t understand.

That December, Alex’s older brother’s birth date is selected in the lottery and he’s drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, a war he doesn’t support and is ill-suited to fight. If God is in control of everything that happens, Alex concludes that He must have been in control of the lottery. Her anger and confusion deepen.

To find answers, she turns to her mentor, her maverick philosophy professor, the son-in-law of the university president. He’s embroiled in a battle of his own. He finds the university’s anti-intellectualism and the lack of tolerance for diverse opinions stultifying. He wants to leave, but his wife, mistaking loyalty to her father for loyalty to Almighty God, refuses to go.

As Alex and her professor work together, they become embroiled in a relationship that is both helping her and hurting her.

Alex Ferguson is an intelligent and devout young woman who attends a fundamental Bible College in the year 1970. Her intention has always been to soak in all she can about the nature of God, to be a blessing to the world and make her family proud. But now things have changed. She's close to the end of the course, but doubts and depression have crept in, which she keeps bottled up, knowing they will be highly inflammatory and unacceptable to the staff. Other students have been culled for being controversial and uncooperative, for voicing thoughts more mild than hers. And Alex has the reputation of being a good girl and reliable helper.

She is smothering family grief. Her younger brother, Jack, recently died in a horrific car smash, and her older brother, Mark, has dashed over the Canadian border to escape being called up to serve in the Vietnam War. Why has God allowed this, when she loved and prayed for both boys? Her parents have announced that they want a divorce. And her sister, Lauren, the most generous, loving and stable influence in Alex's life, is a self-proclaimed atheist. Alex is being peppered by observations of heartache and grief wherever she turns; deep poverty, injustice, cruelty. It's getting harder to go through the motions of declaring that God is in control, that His will prevails, and that she loves Him. She's like a simmering pot and I was reading on wondering if, and when, she would erupt.

Her favourite teacher at college is Dr Levi Wells, the president's handsome son-in-law, whose manuscript she's been proof-reading. He has similar issues to her regarding the college philosophy. I've rarely read another story in which temptation is written as such a believably slippery slope.

I appreciate it that this novel isn't one that traces and tries to justify the main character's slide into agnosticism. I've come across plenty of that type of book in the past. Alex retains her faith, but her gradual way of regarding God's mysterious ways and the role of personal choice is interesting. I can certainly relate to her, as somebody else with a history of covertly looking to others to be informed how to think and talk, and believing that dropping whatever you're doing to perform others' bidding should be an automatic 'nice' response. I also appreciate the glimmer of truth in some of her friends' suggestions that she may be wise to be less intense and look at the good around her instead of focusing on the bad. This is something all "Alexs" in the world may get better at with practise.

For anybody who has labored hard at something to the point of weaving your whole identity with it, and then figuring out that it's not what you thought at all, this is a touching read.

I would warn readers to be careful while reading the story. Alex has so much internal dialogue going on all through the story, you need to keep your eye out for the quotation marks to distinguish what she actually says from what she simply imagines herself saying, or wishes she dared say. But Michal Ann McArthur is a very skilful writer who creates wonderful images with words.

I'd recommend this as a must-read for those who say they avoid Christian fiction because they believe it has no depth or reality.

Finally, as 1970 is around the time I was born, I feel funny putting this on my 'historical fiction' shelf, but it definitely isn't contemporary. All the unrest in that time period makes it a good backdrop for the turmoil happening in Alex's heart.

5 stars

Choking on a Camel available from Amazon

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