Friday, 14 September 2007

A subtle peril of fiction

I was at a church elders meeting last night, when I was struck by a totally irrelevant thought: how rarely fiction represents committee meetings. The chief reason of course is not hard to find: they are really pretty boring. (Another reason, incidentally, is that meetings where more than three people are present are very hard to portray; you end up saying, X said this, Y said that, Z commented, and so on.) Fiction, especially the sort that I write, and I suspect most of my readers read, is about action and events. If committee meetings do occur in such works, then we are generally taken straight to some climactic moment of decision: all else is dispatched in a few sentences.

Now thinking about this further, I think this is very misleading in an artistic sense. You see it is in such quiet committee meetings where great decisions are made. The fate of individuals, organisations, and even nations, is decided in slow rounds of often undramatic argument and discussion. It is in these rather low-key exchanges of views that destinies are forged for good or ill. Fiction, because it tends to concentrate on dramatic, emotionally charged events or confrontations, misleads us. The apparently still waters of a big river in fact move far faster than the turbulent bubbling of an alpine stream. In the same way momentous events often happen quietly.

From the Christian point of view there is something very significant here. We prepare ourselves to do the right thing at a great moment of crisis. Here, we say to ourselves, we will not fail! Yet actually what happens is that the pivotal battle is conducted somewhere else, often in a far less dramatic matter. And here, unexpectant and ill-prepared, we fail. We need to be prepared for moments of crisis in life, but we also need to beware of being ambushed by some subtle danger on what we expect to be a quiet stretch. I suspect many souls have been damned in those quiet committee meetings when the chairman has said, with no great fanfare, ‘So then. I take it we are all agreed?’ And unable to resist, a man or woman agrees to something terribly wrong.

Having just written this I have remembered what C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Exactly so.