Kurt Vonnegut: Unlikely Apologist

The late Kurt Vonnegut inspires loyalty among his readers. He’s the kind of author whose fans devour book after book, reading one after another in rapid succession. Or at least I did. Back in 1997 a coworker recommended Vonnegut to me, specifically Slaughterhouse-Five. Unable to get my hands on that novel, I checked out Deadeye Dick. I was hooked. By the end of the year, I’d read at least ten Vonnegut novels, only whetting my appetite for more.

Vonnegut is often thought of as cynical, edgy, and distasteful, not the most inviting qualities. This reputation is based—I believe—on his role as social satirist and his liberal-leaning political stance. The Vonnegut I love, on the other hand, is found in his letter to an English class at Xavier High School, one of the most popular Letters of Note posts from last year. He’s charming and kind, concerned with the students’ flourishing, aware of the indignities of life (his aging and its effects), yet vanquishing them with humor and grace. Reading that letter reaffirms my enthusiasm for Vonnegut’s work.

At one time I felt a little timid about my affinity for Vonnegut. He was often conceived as tasteless, a charge getting its bite from a cursory reading of the author’s irreverent and iconoclastic titles. Satirists tip sacred cows, and Vonnegut’s no exception. His outspoken agnosticism further reinforced my timidity. Having flirted with both theism and atheism, Vonnegut was willing to commit to neither. He even claims that his first wife’s conversion to Christianity was a key factor in their divorce. Even so, Vonnegut retained interest in scripture and Christianity, with a particular fondness for Christ himself. Closing the letter to Xavier HS “God bless you all!” is, ironically enough, vintage Vonnegut. He also once claimed, tongue in cheek perhaps, his epitaph should read, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Vonnegut’s words consistently dance with such delight, even when dealing with death and dearth—the firebombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five), apocalyptic nightmares (Cat’s CradleGalápagos), Nazi war crimes (Mother Night). Yet the most salient response he elicits from readers is laughter. The humor lacing Vonnegut’s letter to the high school class permeates all of his books. However heavy the subject matter, he never loses his light touch; however tragic, he retains the capacity to laugh. Vonnegut’s humor exposes man’s fears and limitations and invites his readers to reject human pretensions.

As he wraps up the opening chapter to Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, he turns the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on its head, using it as a parallel to the destruction of the Nazi-occupied city of Dresden and challenging us to reconsider the source and nature of evil and our obligations to one another:

Those were vile people in both cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them. And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

Then, poignantly: “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” The tension between loss and life, pain and joy, is felt in every line of this and many other of his books. Mingled among these jokes and laments are moving passages honoring human beings. In the aftermath of Dresden’s firebombing, the main character rests in a horse-drawn wagon, appreciating the sun, rest, and full belly he’d been denied while a POW. At this moment, Vonnegut introduces two German obstetricians who care for the horse Billy and his comrades have failed to feed or groom properly. Picturesque scenes like this one recur in Vonnegut’s work, encouraging readers to reject easy cynicism amidst pain and tragedy.

Vonnegut is a paradox like that—a likeable curmudgeon, a pessimistic optimist, an earnest humorist. And it’s his honesty about the paradoxes of life that draws me back to him again and again. It’s an honesty that, despite Vonnegut’s inability to submit personally to the gospel message, brilliantly proclaims its truth. As Christian enthusiasts of popular culture realize, evidence for the truth of the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places. In Vonnegut recognition of fundamental gospel truth abounds, reinforcing and renewing for me the wisdom of John 1:1, that in the beginning was the Word, that the logos of Christ underpins reality and speaks to us all. I no longer hide my fondness for Vonnegut and his work; I embrace it. I have come to realize that reading Vonnegut enlivens my understanding and practice of Christianity.

For this reason, I see in Vonnegut a depiction of the world as it is—filled with sorrow, overwhelmed by joy, populated by valuable human beings, capable of being redeemed (if only on a small-scale in his work). I see, too, Vonnegut’s inescapable paradox, a paradox resolved only by Christ: victim-perpetrators seeking salvation and absolution, powerless to save themselves. Such a world resonates with my experience, and Christianity makes best sense of it. The God he denies is the One who enters into the world to save the humans Vonnegut cherishes.

Image via Eric Seat©, used with permission of the artist.


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