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Tuesday, November 10, 2015


“Saint Kurt: The Gospel According to Vonnegut”
 by David James Randolph (C) 2012  

Question: What Survives The Worst?

Answer: The story.

How do we know what survives the worst? Because the survivor tells us.

The primal evidence of this is the Book of Job from the messenger to Job who after the catastrophe says, “I only I am left alone to tell thee” (See Job, Chapter 1).

It is all there in those few words: the story, the storyteller and the audience. This DNA of literature is confirmed by Herman Melville in Moby Dick whose narrator, Ishmael, echoes the Book of Job.

In our time no writer demonstrates this truth better than Kurt Vonnegut. The bombing of Dresden in WWII was the worst bombing of a city in history to that time. Kurt Vonnegut survived that catastrophe. How do we know? Because he wrote about it in “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Read Kurt Vonnegut if you want to know what survives the worst. “Slaughterhouse Five” is a novel and not a tract yet the moral message is powerful. Without explicitly arguing against it the book is one of the most compelling antiwar messages ever written. Wars have continued thanks to the readers and not to the story and its teller.

What survives the worst is the person who keeps going through the catastrophe one step at a time. Billy Pilgrim tells what kept him going early in the book in the realistic citation of a prayer which is pictured surrealistically later: “God grant me the serenity always to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The phrase and theme most associated with Vonnegut is “And so it goes.” This is often taken as a stoical acquiescence. However in the light of this prayer it may better be taken as an affirmation that a higher power is granting this serenity and courage and wisdom as we journey through the catastrophic events one step at a time.

This prayer was first offered by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups helping people get through the worst times of their lives. It stands as a foundation for recovery personal and social.

Read Kurt Vonnegut’s more recent writing such as “Armageddon in Retrospect”  for his wisdom on the tragic response to the War in Iraq and “Like Shaking Hands with God“ for his courage to change the life of a homeless man through writing.

It may seem strange to cite Kurt Vonnegut as a source of wisdom. During his lifetime he was often depicted as a bad boy of American literature some of whose books were banned and since his death his reputation has suffered by tales of nastiness in his “authoritative biography.” But if this is the public Vonnegut then he had a secret life in which he was a decent human being, a contributive member of society and a creative interpreter of Christian faith and traditional values.

How do I know this? Because I knew Kurt Vonnegut and have the experience, the records and letters to prove it. I met Kurt when I was a minister in New York City and he approached me to ask about performing the wedding ceremony for him and Jill Krementz. I agreed, we became friends and later founded Writers Day together. We corresponded and in 1998 when I was invited to come to California to teach at the Graduate Theological Union he wrote this letter.

Read a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to David Randolph like this dated Oct 18 1998:

“Dear Skypilot –
There is a God in Heaven after all, and His eye is indeed on the sparrow. About all that makes life worthwhile  for me is the saints I meet here and there, almost anywhere. A saint is a person who behaves decently in an indecent society. Yours is a case in point. I also get my rocks off when a saint is given public recognition. Again in your case. BINGO! …”

Kurt Vonnegut not only survived the catastrophic bombing of Dresden but lived to tell the story and write it in a book for the world to read. He shows us how to survive the worst through prayer, work and by behaving decently in an indecent society. Saint Kurt!

What survives the worst? The survivor who keeps going through the worst of times because of the best of faith, courage, work and wisdom. How do we know this? Because of the story, the storyteller, and we the audience. The storyteller may be a writer like Vonnegut, a poet, a performer, painter, actor filmmaker or homemaker but always an artist who creates anew out of their own sufferings and those of others.

What survives the worst? Read Kurt Vonnegut.
And he would say, write your story.

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