It was with great sadness that I learned yesterday of sir Terry Pratchett’s passing away. To quote a friend and colleague of mine, it “felt like losing a close friend”. He was certainly one of the great minds of our time, and was a writer who made me think very deeply about my world and my beliefs.
Sometimes children that I teach (and, sadly, parents of those children) ask me why, given that Sir Terry Pratchett is an atheist and I am vociferously Christian, I so gladly endorse the reading of his novels. The ridiculous suggestion implicit in this seems to be that because our perspectives on God differ, he has nothing of value to offer me. That kind of narrow-mindedness and myopia really irks me.
Certainly, I will write at greater length in my next post about how I believe Christians ought to approach the thorny issue of art. Suffice it to say, I believe that when it comes to art and literature – as with anything in life, really – you see what you look for. I try always to look for what is beautiful and what will both improve me and challenge me to influence the world positively. We are all just trying to understand our place in the universe, from our individual and very limited perspectives, and attempting to genuinely understand another’s perspective is the best way to expand our own. Sometimes we are able to learn the most from those with whom we most profoundly disagree, because they show us a viewpoint that challenges us to ensure that the views we hold are logically sound.
I always enjoyed how Sir Terry Pratchett attempted to understand what religion had to offer. He was a respectful skeptic. He was unlike, for example, Richard Dawkins, whose derision and assumed superiority will always prevent him from achieving the scientific objectivity he believes he has attained. In contrast, Sir Terry Pratchett’s humility allowed for an unpretentious and meaningful exchange of ideas.
Thud is one of my favourite books of all time. It is a tale about prejudice that invites readers to explore the ways in which they have been adversely shaped by culture, religion and tradition. The story is about the conflict between Trolls and Dwarves, but it could really be about any power struggle and the process of othering. He makes a compelling case.
Sir Terry Pratchett was not one to label all Christians as ignorant and stupid. He was an advocate of authentic learning, and resisted categorising people too simplistically. For example, he quite rightly denounces the way certain religious leaders rally their followers to acts of hatred under the banner of holy indignation:
“…Vimes knew just enough dwarfish to know that grag meant ‘renowned master of dwarfish lore’. Hamcrusher, however, had mastered it in his own special way. He preached the superiority of dwarf over troll, and that the duty of every dwarf was to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers and remove trollkind from the face of the world. It was written in some holy book, apparently, so that made it okay, and probably compulsory.” Thud, page 37
‘Why do you carry no axe?’ Ardent snarled.
‘I need no axe to be a dwarf,’ said Bashfullsson. ‘Nor do I need to hate trolls. What kind of creature defines itself by hatred?’
‘You strike at the very root of us!’ said Ardent. ‘At the root!’
Thud, page 421
But Sir Terry Pratchett also recognises that if he were to label all religious leaders and their adherents as monsters, he would be as deplorably blinkered as they are.
‘You know, your religion really messes people up,’ said Vimes.
‘Not in comparison to what they do to one another,’ said Bashfullsson, calmly folding the dead dwarf’s hands across his chest. ‘And it is not a religion, commander. Tak wrote the World and the Laws, and then He left us. He does not require that we think of Him, only that we think.’
Thud, Page 319
Sir Terry Pratchett is the type of thinker I believe we should all strive to be. He never let his own inclinations diminish him; he denied himself the comfort of academic bigotry. Aside from his delightful wit, he was an astute observer of humankind. He refused to accept a world that constantly dehumanises people, and concocted stories that hold up a terrible mirror to humanity to force us to examine ourselves critically. May they continue to do so for generations to come.