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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Author: Douglas Coupland
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
"In the end we are judged by our deeds, not our wishes. We're the sum of our decisions." Those words could be the best description of what Hey Nostradmus is about and indeed the agenda behind Douglas Coupland's entire work. He did say to Brian Draper in an interview with UK Magazine Third Way (what do you mean you do not subscribe!) in 1998, "You have to live your life on a few levels. One is the day-to-day. There's another level at which you look at your desires in the framework of eternity: What is the impact of my actions in the long run? Is there something higher or nobler about what I am doing or what I know? What did I do to improve it? Can I improve it?" (To put the record straight for those who have a tendency to get caught up in semantics and a dogmatic rather than poetic view of language, Coupland is not speaking here of our eternal judgement to salvation or damnation but the way other people perceive the genuineness of our beliefs, attitudes, values and motivations.)
_Hey Nostradamus_ works on a series of levels, too. The day-to-day is typically Coupland with all kinds of spectacular events smashing into the characters' lives, the main one being a Columbine-type shooting in a Vancouver High School where Cheryl Anway is murdered by three of her popularity-challenged schoolmates. The book centers around her and her boyfriend, whom she had actually secretly married so they could have sex! They were members of Youth Alive, the school's Christian organization. The book is told from the pen of four people: first, Cheryl from the grave; then, her boyfriend/husband Jason who gets the most pages; third, Heather Jason's next big love; and finally, Reg, Jason's father the impact of whose decisions casts a dark and gloomy shadow throughout.
There will be those who will see and with some justification that Cassie Bernall, the real-life Columbine girl who became a martyr, as being the inspiration to Coupland's story, but the fact that this girl is a Christian is the only real similarity. Yet I guess just as there was much discussion about Christianity in the light of Cassie's story so this book deals not only with the spiritual issues at the heart of most of Coupland's best work but with Christianity itself. Cheryl's faith is at the very core of her identity when her life is tragically cut short. Her faith is very much hers; it is not handed down from family and though she very much sees the other Christians in her Church and Youth Alive as a vital and integrated part of her faith she has great perspective on their strengths and weaknesses.
Jason, on the other hand, has a handed-down faith, and his father's way of handing it down would cause God himself to stop believing in himself. Add the worst kinds of spiritual abuse in the name of Christianity to losing his girlfriend in a high school canteen, and Jason's life becomes a wrestling with himself, his father and his faith among many other things. Again we are painted a very clear picture of the blurred vision we can give the lives of those who face the consequences of the decisions we make. Jason's dad has a wish to be holy but as Cheryl has already pointed out so profoundly -- "In the end we are judged by our deeds, not our wishes. We're the sum of our decisions."
On the day I finished the book, I was at the opening service of a new academic year at Stranmillis College in Belfast where I am the Presbyterian Chaplain. Harold Miller, the Anglican Bishop of Down and Connor, was the speaker and he spoke to us about Jesus' Beatitudes, showing how some of them were things we could not change. We will all be "those who mourn" no matter what we do. The spiritual issue for the things in life that we can do nothing about is how we learn and are resources through our faith to deal with those times. On the other hand the Beatitudes do speak of those things that we can do something about. We can be peacemakers. We will be peacemakers and thus community and nation and world changers by the decisions that our faith compels us to make for the good of all, not just our own ends.
Coupland's book is about those two things: those who have to face what the world throws struggling with the impact and those who are the perpetrators of the throwing forced to deal with their guilt and regret. In all of them we are pastored to and provoked in Coupland's familiar preaching style to take stock of the way we use religion, the way we parent our children, the way we relate to our neighbour and challenged to think before we act and do not think that we are who we are deluded into wishing we are.
There is another overriding truth constantly exposed; at the heart of us all is the potential for the most devastating of evil actions. Coupland always keeps sin at the forefront of our minds even though he would never use such an explicitly theological term or define it in theological ways. His connections with orthodox Christianity are constantly enigmatic. As in _Life After God_ and _Girlfriend In A Coma,_ Christianity seems to be being advocated; there's even an atoning sacrifice in _Girlfriend,_ for goodness sake. In _Hey Nostradamus_ the attention to detail in his observations about how the Christian sub-culture works socially is so accurate that it seems impossible he has not experienced it first hand. And yet, there seems little evidence forthcoming from the man himself that he has ever had any relationship with mainstream Christianity.
Anyway, this should be taking the form of a review, not an essay at this stage, and I would be wrong to give too much of the book away. Suffice to say that it is another book of challenging quotations on almost every page. You need time to read over, meditate upon before moving on. Coupland is without peer when it comes to painting the spiritual landscape of the twenty first century. His books are as powerful as any sermon I get to hear. Healthily nourishing. The title here is very appropriate as within its covers this is a book of a deep prophetic impact. So make it a decision -- not a wish -- to read it.
Steve Stockman 14 October