Friday, June 29, 2012
Reading 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'
“That, gentlemen… that is why they thrive. That belief—that we live beyond the reach of darkness—is one that vampires have worked tirelessly to instill through the centuries. I submit to you that it is nothing less than the greatest lie ever sold to mankind.”
~President Abraham Lincoln to his Cabinet in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
What would’ve Abraham Lincoln’s life been like if vampires were real? Add Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to your summer reading list and find out.
I found Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel to be just as critics said—witty, well-written, and engaging. But be forewarned, Grahame-Smith’s vampires are not of the sparkly variety. They are depraved, evil, and malevolent. But, as Abe is told by one vampire: “Judge us not equally.” Among the evil throngs are a few that work towards a greater good. And Abe’s fight against the darkness is greatly enhanced when he keeps this truth in mind—both when it comes to vampires and humans.
Hence, one of the strengths of this novel. Though it is a fantastical story, it echoes the truth of our own world. Like all good stories, it reveals something of what it means to be human and the nature of the reality we live in.
I was particularly engaged by the novel’s depiction of vampires as slave owners. In this alternative history, vampires have fled a hostile Europe and built a haven for themselves in the American South, using the guise of slave owners as a way of obtaining their food and playing out their bent desires upon humanity. This was intentional: "I see them as sort of one and the same,” says Grahame-Smith in an NPR interview. "Both creatures, basically slaveholders and vampires, steal lives—take the blood of others—to enrich themselves."
Criticisms of the story (though more strongly aimed at the film version than the novel) wonder if making vampires the villains skirts the real sins of the nation that embraced slavery or the real issues of the day surrounding its existence. But this novel isn’t The Da Vinci Code of the Civil War. Though an impressive amount of historical information and detail weave through it, this story is fantastical. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the author touches on this when asked what he thought about the idea of using his novel as a teaching tool:
But because it’s fantastical doesn’t mean the novel isn’t revealing some important truths about our own world—and history. Tolkien says the best fairy stories deal with simple but fundamental things, “made all the more luminous by their setting.” While this novel may not be a classic fairy tale, it does something similar. By displaying slave owners and slavery as a vampiric endeavor, it makes luminous the horror and maliciousness of slavery and those who perpetrated it. It makes luminous the evil it is.
And all this made me think about how our efforts to fight problems of human suffering today—from child slavery and sex trafficking to the plights of undocumented immigrants and those struggling in poverty—get stalled, thwarted or waylaid by debates mired in political and economic issues (not unlike slavery in the 1800s). Please hear me, I’m not denying that these kinds of problems are immense, daunting, intricate and diverse, but it frustrates me how far too many of us—especially those of us who follow Jesus—lose sight of the reality of the horror of human agony and suffering. One of the most powerful and horrific moments in the novel for me wasn’t the violent acts of the vampires but a young Lincoln’s witness of a slave auction. We must see suffering as the horror it is. And be it systemic or by human hand, we must work as relentlessly as the ax wielding Abe against it.
But chances are we won’t be throwing axes at vampires, so this is where I leave the novel’s Abe to seek out the historical Lincoln, just as Grahame-Smith intended. While Lincoln’s faith is debated and most agree was unconventional, I resonate with his writings, public and private, that wrestle with God and evil. But, somewhat oddly, it is in his criticism of the organized Christian church that I find one place to begin in considering how to fight evil—in particular, his criticism of a religion mired in debates over doctrine and his longing to find a church centered whole-heartedly on Scripture’s call to the greatest of all commandments: Love God and others.
For this Love is potent and powerful, flowing from a God who is, as C.S. Lewis puts it, good but not tame. A Love like this works relentlessly to restore, free, and redeem creation and creatures. This kind of Love speaks for those who have no voice and stands up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. This great Love lays down his life for others. This is a Love that defeats the darkness.
The novel’s Abe warns that one of the “greatest lies ever sold to mankind” is that we, “in this great age, where science has illuminated all but a few mysteries …. lie beyond the reach of darkness that belongs in the Old Testament.” While the darkness in our world may not be populated with vampires, it is nonetheless as real and perpetrates equally horrific suffering. But the Story in which we live reminds us of a God that Loves so relentlessly that he’s worked throughout history to free us from this darkness—and he calls us as his people to work beside him in this wild restoration. And a people centered on the greatest commandment is a power darkness can not stand against.
For a novel about vampires and an ax-wielding president, that's a pretty good slice of God-talk brought into open spaces.
Now, maybe I’m gleaning too much from this novel. Maybe not. You can decide for yourself if you read it. If you do, however, a last reminder: while the book is indeed a witty and engaging adventure, the vampires in Abe’s world commit gory and horrific acts which he (and we readers) witness first hand.
Those scenes are the primary reason I haven’t seen the film version (I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to the big screen), but Think Christian’s Todd Hertz has and you can read his review at Christianity Today. And if you are looking for a way to fight the darkness in our own world, here are a few places start: World Vision, Invisible Children, or MCC’s Immigration Advocacy.