Friday, February 25, 2011

The Color Chart of Religion: Why I Worship in Miller's Kill

I have good news and bad news for you:
  • Good news:  Janet W. lent me her advance review copy of the new Julia Spencer-Fleming, One Was a Soldier, aka "Book #7" in the Miller's Kill series.
  • Bad news:  I have to send it back.
  • Good news:  It's awesome!
  • Bad news:  I told you: I have to send it back.  Otherwise, I'd happily reread the entire thing.  At least once more...
  • Good news:  It's worth the years (literally) of waiting Miller's Kill fans have endured.
  • Bad news:  The ending will make you crazy desperate for "Book #8."
I'm a big fan of Spencer-Fleming's mysteries, and in particular of the romance between Russ van Alstyne, Miller's Kill's chief of police, and Clare Fergusson, rector at St. Alban's.  It's a wonderful love story that spools out steadily and deliberately over the course of the seven books.  If you're a fellow fan, you know what I'm talking about.

The trouble is, not everyone wants to read these books, or even try them.  Some people are put off by the suggestion of adultery, because Russ is married when he and Clare first meet.  I can't see it myself, but then I've been in Russ's situation.  I was married when I fell in love with Ross.  I still love my ex-husband and we're dear friends.  As luck would have it, Henry and I didn't want to be married anymore right about the time that Ross and I wanted to get married.  Worked out just fine for all three of us.  Events work out a little differently in the Miller's Kill mysteries, but if adultery is the issue that's stopping you, please know that the entire subject is handled with great care and credibility.

A bigger issue seems to be religion.  Some people are uncomfortable with Clare's profession as an Episcopal priest.  I don't know what to say to that.  I'm not religious and I love these books.  That might reassure other non-religious readers, but it's not like there are neat cubby-holes with Dyno labels that read: Christian/Protestant, Christian/Catholic, Christian/non-church-going, Mormon, Jewish & observant, Jewish-as-a-cultural-matter, and so forth.  If there were, I could maybe speak for my fellow Lapsed Episcopalians. 

Instead the question of who we are in the realm of religion is like that color chart where each precise spot has its own hex code.

My spot on the Color Chart of Religion?  Well, I was baptized and confirmed Episcopalian because my mother's parents were British & my dad didn't care where he went as long as he could sing in the choir.  I was the youngest, though, and with my father and brothers in the choir and my mother leaving for church at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, I fell through the cracks.  I wasn't required to wake up super early to go with my mother.  (Plus, early service at St. George's Church in Schenectady meant no music.  What's the point of going if there's no music?)  And I couldn't go alone to the later service that did have the choral music, so no church for me.  No church attendance means no habit or ritual to refer back to in times of stress.

For what it's worth, I'm not precisely convinced there's a God the way modern religions explain it.  I'm more of a mystic: I believe there's magic in the Universe, but I also know (as an article of faith) that humans have no chance of knowing what that magic is.  Is it spooky action at a distance, a cool and inexplicable phenomenon in quantum physics?  Is it a Supreme Being?  Or is it something so "other" that we'll never come close to comprehending it?  I'm comfortable knowing I'll never know.  I'm also comfortable (most of the time) with other people being certain that they do know.

That's got to be a spot on the Color Chart of Religion, right?  Whatever that spot is called -- that's me.  Clare occupies a completely different spot on the chart, and Russ a spot rather closer to mine.  (There's a wonderful moment in One Was a Soldier when someone asks if, as a result of his relationship with Clare, Russ was going to become an Episcopalian and the reply is, "I think he's going to stay Law-Enforcementarian.")  But because my background includes a lot of stuff about the Episcopal church -- my uncle was an Episcopal priest, my mother was active in the church up to her death, and one year I had the Bishop of Maine living in the apartment next to mine -- the bits in Spencer-Fleming's books that deal with the Episcopal liturgy, the rites, the vestments, and the business of keeping a church alive and vibrant all seem familiar.  If anything, they make me nostalgic for something I never actually had.

They almost make me want to go to church.  Not for religious reasons, but for that sense of community, the spectacle and elegance of a church service, and a connection with someone as graceful as Clare is.  (I suspect a lot of people who read Spencer-Fleming's books secretly wish they could join St. Alban's.)

What these books don't do is offend my sense that my world is neither explained nor "fixed" by a belief in God.  But again, that may be the result of my precise spot on the Color Chart.  So, can I tell anyone, "Don't worry, you won't be offended/disturbed/upset/angered by the fact that a protagonist is an Episcopal priest"?  No.  Because I don't know how anyone else's spot on the Color Chart is going to affect them as they read these books.

All I can say is:  Spencer-Fleming's Miller's Kill books move me to tears, make me believe in the power of the written word, and give me hope.  They've changed my life. 

Which rather sounds like the effect religion can have...

My spot on the Color Chart of Religion?  I'm a Miller's Killite.


  1. Wonderful essay! Now I want to read these books.

    My family moved so often when I was little, I ended up going to whatever church was closest. And yes, I can't imagine church without the music.

    And I'm an atheist these days, for whatever that's worth, but I have many fond memories of church.

  2. Wow, I've never even heard about these books, but I doubt I'd refuse to read something because a main character is an Episcopalian priest. What a bizarre reason not to read a book!

  3. I am so jealous! When do the rest of us mortals get to read One Was a Soldier?
    --Eliza (I don't want to be anonymous but I don't have a URL)

  4. Eliza -- I believe it's to be released on April 12. Pre-order it for your Kindle and it'll download automatically. (Don't worry, I'm getting for the Kindle and also in paper. Full price, too, as she's published by Macmillan. Julia Spencer-Fleming is worth the $$!)

  5. Read the book on the weekend and loved it. Loved this post as well.

    I can't be objective either, as I am a cradle Episcopalian, my dad became a priest in my teens, and I still attend church regularly (I think of myself as more a person of habit than a person of strong faith). But for me it's like, say, Nora Roberts and her attention to her heroine's jobs--the job/calling is part of who Clare is (just like law enforcement for Russ) and the world-building of the novels reflects that, but the books aren't preachy at all. Clare's response to events always provides an interesting counterpoint to the police procedural parts.


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