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The Rapture of Canaan ()

Oprah's Book Club

I'm always amused by authors who set out to denounce traditional religion, but have no form in which to do so other than to reproduce Biblical myths with their own twists.  Even more amusing is when they then seek to replace the tenets of the old religion with their own new ones and, in almost every case, manage to come up with a religion of mere spirituality, devoid of morality.  Todays case in point is Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds.

Ninah Huff is the 14 year old granddaughter on Herman Langston, patriarchal founder and pastor of the fundamentalist and Pentecostal  "Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind."  Grandfather dominates their isolated South Carolina community of believers, enforcing rigid behavioral laws and meting out harsh punishments for transgressions, including dunkings, partial burials, and solitary confinement, while waiting for the imminent Rapture to come.

Meanwhile, Ninah finds herself strongly attracted to her prayer partner, James.  Soon they are doing more than praying and while Ninah is convinced that Jesus is speaking through them (it's not made clear precisely what teen sex communicates), James is consumed with guilt, even going so far as to don a crown of thorns, but in his case it's barbed wire and he crowns his other head (ouch).  As the outrage of the community descends upon them, James kills himself, but when Ninah bears a child, Canaan, who is born with the palms of his hand fused together, he is accepted as a miracle and the New Messiah.    Ninah and the other women of the group begin rebelling against Herman's rules.  James's spirit visits Ninah to tell her she's doing fine.

Eventually, Herman nearly dies of a stroke, then disappears, convincing the flock that he's been summoned in the Rapture, but that they've been left behind.  Instead he turns up buck naked after wandering around in the woods, but Ninah, finally convinced that the group's belief in Herman's teachings and in the miraculous is unhealthy, snips through the flesh that binds Canaan's hands.

As the story ends, Ninah's religious beliefs appear to be vested in the rugs that she weaves, into which she incorporates items from every day life :

    When I've used up all my rags and lies, rope and hair, fabric and love, when I'm out of twine and
    my loom is broken and there's still a story in me, that's when I unknot and begin the unraveling.

    My rugs are never finished.  I use the same materials to make them over and over again, featuring
    something new each time and hearing a different tale.  But sometimes they speak the most wisely
    when they are heaps of fibers on the pack house floor, intermingled and waiting.

    If I sit with them silent for long enough, they will talk.  Just listening, I can give them tongues.
    They will speak like prophets.

Just in case you were having trouble following all that--Herman having stood for the Old Testament God and James and Canaan for Christ (even down to crucifixion imagery and James's resurrection)--Ninah who started out as Mary has now actually become her own god.  She is the Creator, World Weaver, Tale Teller, Prophecy Giver in her own world of ruggery.

Of course, the main trouble with that is : what does she stand for other than opposition to Herman (God)?  Sure it's difficult living up to the high moral expectations which traditional religious beliefs impose, but is her new world a better one?  In an afterword, the author says that she drew the punishments which Herman orders from various medieval sources and, as intended, they shock our modern sensibilities.  But perhaps a world where sin is punished so harshly has something to be said for it.

For all the antiquated rules and penalties, the worshippers at the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind formed a vibrant and loving community and shared a special cohesion precisely because deviance from the moral norm was taken seriously and dealt with firmly.  This helped to make the behavior of others predictable and coherent.  Ninah (well, Reynolds) is arguing for a world without any restraints on behavior, one in which human behavior is totally unpredictable and one in which the trust between individuals is inevitably destroyed.   The book ends, unintentionally, on a perfect note : Ninah sits in silence with her rugs, assuming herself a god, freed from any constraints, the absolute ruler of her own totally atomized world.  Alone.  But, are we each truly sufficient unto ourselves, each of us making our own rules?  I think not.


Grade: (D)