05 October 2012
The intentional vacancy
In her review of the eagerly awaited book, The Casual Vacancy the Times' columnist Erica Wagner comments that J.K. Rowling's novel harks back to a time when fiction skillfully merged entertainment and education. As such, Rowling rewrites the novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens, who mixed "privilege and penury, hope and abandonment of hope" and similarly uses literature as a force for social good.
Dickens noted the impact of industrialisation on Victorian society and exposed the harsh reality of the Industrial Revolution for the underprivileged. In the 19th Century industrialisation, a tide of individualism left people to find ways of fending for themselves in an impersonal urban world. In the context of major funding cuts and an increasing divide between the rich and poor in the 21st Century, J.K. Rowling draws the reader into the hopelessness of a world where those on the margins are left to fend for themselves in the imaginary rural small town of Pagford.
In an interview, Rowling describes that in her earlier years of poverty she was treated as invisible. Her novel makes the poor visible. So also does the current 'Unemployee of the Year' advertisement campaign of the fashion chain Benetton, featuring some of the millions of young people without work. Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams praised this week the outstanding 'Ladder for London' campaign in the London Evening Standard, inviting business leaders to create paid apprenticeships in response to the massive youth unemployment. All the while, the BBC inspires young unemployed people to never forget their dream. It shows the creative power of the arts, media, business and fashion as a force for good.
Rowling's novel vividly describes the harsh reality of lives shattered at an early age, sketching a bleak inventory of loss in terms of family, education, relationships, purpose and hope, the desolation of which dramatically reverberates through three generations. She also portrays how intentional and consistent mentoring helps people to re-find an entrance into community, develop their gifts, forge a sense of belonging and raise their horizons to new possibilities. There ought to be a place for everyone.
Yet human fragility is placed in a harsh, selfish and hypocritical landscape. A tragedy in the community causes several characters to face the desolation within. And within one of the personas, 'a desire to be absorbed in something bigger' begins to grow: "Day by day, she had waited for the strange new need to subside (this is how people go religious, she thought, trying to laugh herself out of it) but it had, if anything, intensified."
The lives in Pagford are far from imaginary. In our world, like that of Rowling's imagination, the desperately abandoned, the crooked and the small-minded call out for a grander narrative - one more eagerly awaited, about the One who has prepared a place for all.
And they call for followers of the Way to be visible. Not people who contend for positions like the novel's characters, who jostle for the casual vacancy following the sudden death of one of Pagford's councilors. But people who are aware that their vocation is to be a dynamic for good. The Way of Jesus is not about rushing to the 'right' destination, writes the Fransiscan Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward. But rather, the way of Jesus is: "a way of bringing the kingdom of Love to the reality of this present moment, through the Way we travel, through the Way we are, and through the Way we are with God".