Sunday, July 10, 2005

BOOKS: 'Acts of Faith' an epic for our time

Faith is a very loaded word in our current social and political landscape. In conjures up images of anti-abortion activists picketing outside Planned Parenthood, Supreme Court decisions on the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays in public places, Archbishop Harry Flynn lobbying the governor on behalf of the poor. President Bush has his faith-based intiatives. Gay marriage is one of the reasons John Kerry does not have Bush's job.

These, however, are all superficial expressions of the way we traditionally think about faith: as a faith in some deity, or more particularly the faith in some religious organization's beliefs in some deity.

Faith is a far more flexible word. It can be found in several places. We have faith in government (which was partially broken due to our partial government shutdown); we have faith in individuals; we have faith in organizations. We speak of making deals or speaking in good faith or in bad faith. This definition is something more along the lines of Trust, yet something more profound, something that reaches deeper into the stitching of our social fabric.

An act of faith takes that one step further. The word becomes more verb than noun by making it active. In order to perform an act of faith, one has to reach out toward someone or something and place that vital faith somewhere that may rest outside the familiar.

Philip Caputo's Acts of Faith could easily have been a very bad book. At 669 pages, it's certainly one heck of an investment; one takes an act of faith in merely opening it. Yet Caputo manages to weave a tale that makes the reader question his or her own faith in institutions, beliefs, and personal choices.

I will not bother to produce a lengthy summar of the book; the New York Times has an excellent one here. Essentially, it follows the lives of several individuals providing aid in different capacities in Sudan. The characters are masterfully drawn, and they are the ones making these acts of faith that Caputo does not hesitate in referring to.

The reason I define Caputo's characters as masterful is because as they commit to their various acts of faith, he allows readers to spot their idiosyncracies, their deficiences, and their contradictions. No human being is without these, and therefore, the reader is drawn into the characters because we are allowed to think of what our decisions would be if given the character's particular situation.

I qualify Acts of Faith in the title of this post as "an epic of our time," and I don't mean that glibly. What is lost in the present social and political definition of faith are the idiosyncracies, deficiences, and contradictions of individuals. You are either pro-choice or pro-life; either pro-death peanlty or anti-death penalty; either pro-gay marriage or anti-gay marriage; either creationist or Darwinist. In the mode of socio-political identification, true-false tests are handed to individuals and the results determine where you stand in the American cultural sphere. The problem, however, is that most of the American population stands on individual morals and principles somewhere in the gray ether of these issues.

What Caputo does is extract from these seemingly innocuous black-white distictions the reality of the fact that often individuals make decisions based on their previously held morals and principles that lead them to unexpected ends. Making it more distinct, he focuses on individuals (mostly Americans) living in a decidely un-American setting, which serves to intensify the light shone on their actions, the justifications of those actions, and the results that follow.

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