Friday, January 9, 2009

The patron saint of butterflies

Agnus and Honey are best friends but really more like sisters. Raised in a Christian commune from birth, the story unfolds in alternating points of view, as one girl strives for acceptance by following the rules to try and reach perfection-- sainthood, while the other struggles for control of her own destiny. When Agnes’ grandmother arrives unexpectedly during a high holiday, her little brother is seriously injured and fate steps in, offering a new life to both girls. Taut drama erupts with their escape as the girls react differently to their freedom, the truths that are revealed, and each girl struggles to find the courage to make their own life.

While examining the extremities of religious thought- this story does not move beyond relevance for the mainstream evangelical or catholic. Although the author clearly has no intention of taking any hard hits at the garden variety belief in god or mainstream religions, the fundamental questions that believers have are still evident and faith is revealed to be as fleeting and mobile as the latest religious leader. In The Patron Saint of Butterlies, Emmanuel, leader of the commune, is the maker of the rules and it is he who emphasizes just which of the commands are the most important and reveals how they should be interpreted. The small community of believers follow him as though he were Christ himself but with no less zealotry than Billy Graham fans, Benny Hinn audience, or the Papal devotees. His hypocrisy is blatant and crystalline but no less pharisaic than the religious leaders that stand behind the pulpit of Smalltown Community Church USA. God in all these cases is being defined by a person or people (a brief look back at church history will make that clear)- the radicalness or randomness of the belief system has more to do with how accustomed to the belief we are then it's relevance or reasonableness. The abuse in the story is physical and brutal making the rebellion of Honey believable and understandable. But not all abuse is that overt- guilt and threats of hell having as devastating an effect on the psyche as any cat o'nine tailed beating, and the church in all it's stripes has mastered the office of emotional blackmail. Agnes's struggle and her reluctance to leave the community is most keenly understood from that perspective- she has been brainwashed into believing that the leader has the very ear of god. Her soul's destiny after death rests on god's grace which is defined by Emmanuel as well as her parents. She trusts them with the childlike faith that every child offers to their parents, and they, in return, give her half (quarter, one-eighth??) truths, press on her their own unwitting, unquestioning belief in lies and outright lies they themselves tell. She only begins to question her faith when the truth is unfurled before her like a tapestry. Although occasionally tripping up on the toes of how to describe the newness of life as they travel away from the only life they ever knew, this is an intriguing insider look at a hidden world as well as a provocative challenge that real life happens beyond the borders of religious structures.

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