Sunday, April 4, 2010

David Lodge's How Far Can You Go?

For my recreational reading this Easter season, I took up David Lodge's tour de force satirical novel How Far Can You Go?

Lodge, born in 1935, is Emeritus Professor of English Liturature at the University of Birmingham, England, where he taught from 1960 until his retirement in 1987. Lodge is the author of numerous novels. Lodge was reared as a Catholic and many of his novels deal with Catholic characters. Lodge has described himself as an "agnostic Catholic."

How Far Can You Go?, first published in 1980, tracks the lives of a group of young English Catholics from the early 1950s until the mid 1970s. The novel deals with the changes in the Church and society at large, especially with regard to sexual morality. The biggest problems of the characters deal with sex. In fact, you might say that Lodge's characters are obsessed with sex, just like contemporary Western society. The novel has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex which border on the pornographic. However, How Far Can You Go? is also a very, very funny book.

The title, How Far Can You Go?, has a double meaning. It has the obvious sexual connotation, but it also refers to how far can you go in throwing out theological and moral teachings and still claim to be Catholic or Christian. One of the group of young people, Miles, becomes a Cambridge Don and "comes out" as a homosexual. Another, Ruth, becomes a nun, has a crisis of faith, but then becomes involved with the "Charismatic Renewal." The rest of the group of 10 characters or so marry and have children. A large part of the story surrounds the Church's position on birth control.

Although all of Lodge's married characters eventually decide to ignore the teachings of the Church and use birth control, part of Lodge's message in the novel is that the abandonment of sexual morality by the laity is the primary cause of the unraveling of morals across the board. This is the point which Professor Ralph McInerny makes in his excellent book What Went Wrong With Vatican II? which I read before starting How Far Can You Go? As soon as the faithful feel that they can with impunity pick and choose which doctrines they believe and which ones they don't believe, there is no reason to hold to any of them.

The fault for this lies at the feet of theologians, clergy and religious who decided that they knew better than Pope Paul VI did what sexual morality should be. In the novel, Father Austin Brierly starts off in the early fifties as a dedicated young priest, one who is over scrupulous and is shocked by a young women hitching up her skirt and bearing her leg. By the late sixties, after Father Brierly has been sent to study modern Biblical criticism, he is disciplined by his bishop for publicly preaching against the Church's teaching on birth control. Father Brierly ultimately leaves the priesthood and marries a young woman who he counseled after she had an affair with a married man.

Here's one of my favorite passages:

At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn't. Different people became aware of the disappearance of Hell at different times. Some realized that they had been living for years as though Hell did not exist, without having consciously registered its disapperance. Others realized that they had been behaving, out of habit, as though Hell were still there, though in fact they had ceased to believe in its existence long ago. By Hell we mean, of course, the traditional Hell of Roman Catholics, a place where you would burn for all eternity if you were unlucky enough to die in a state of mortal sin.

On the whole, the disapperance of Hell was a great relief, though it brought new problems.

Throughout the book, there is a lot of poking fun at novel liturgical practices. The mass which is described at the end of the book with dancing nuns and a South American priest-liberation theologian dressed like Che Guevara, reminded me of the recent controversy over the closing mass at the religious education conference in Los Angeles.

Lodge ends his novel on this interesting note:

While I was writing this last chapter, Pope Paul VI died and Pope John Paul I was elected. Before I could type it up, Pope John Paul I had died and been succeeded by John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope for four hundred and fifty years: a Pole, a poet, a philosopher, a linguist, an athlete, a man of destiny, dramatically chosen, instantly popular - but theologically conservative. A changing Church acclaims a Pope who evidently thinks that change has gone far enough. What will happen now? All bets are void, the future is uncertain, but it will be interesting to watch. Reader, farewell!

1 comment:

  1. The first Penguin edition (I think) had a cover with Snakes and Ladders on it - a reference to the text and an illustration of the satire Lodge creates of Catholicism as an obstacle course to be crossed to gain salvation. I greatly enjoyed the book when I first read it, not long after publication; but one could not miss the element of sadness that imbued it. Today I regard it as much darker and strangely prophetic - while the celebrants of the new order in the last chapter appear to be rejoicing in a new life, they are in fact largely missing the point by their own self-preoccupation and lining up for a Catholicism devoid of its power and strength.