This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
One does not expect to find Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on Christian reading lists. The novel tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a victim of alien abduction whose life of temporally unstuck episodes centers around the pivotal event of his experience as an American prisoner of war who was present during the Allied firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. Vonnegut’s descriptions in the story are often crass and at times borderline pornographic. His satire and dark humor regarding war, killing, sex, and American Christianity strikes one as blasphemous, which partly explains why there have been repeated attempts in the United States to ban Slaughterhouse-Five from libraries.1 Moreover, it is not as if beneath all the book’s irreverence Christians find a worldview they can accept. About midway through the novel, Vonnegut pens a particular episode that provides an important clue for interpreting Slaughterhouse-Five. In this episode, Billy is given some insight into the way the Tralfamadorians (i.e., the aliens who abduct him) write novels. Vonnegut has the Tralfamadorians — who he depicts as more evolved and thus more qualified to speak on important subjects — describe their novels as collections of brief scenes producing “an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.” There is no particular relationship between the scenes of their novels, “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.”2 At an earlier point, the Tralfamadorians already had told Billy that there is no why, only the moment that simply is.3 The structure of Slaughterhouse-Five itself reflects the Tralfamadorians’ description of their novels. Slaughterhouse-Five is a collection of brief scenes with no apparent relationship between those scenes (other than that they center on Billy’s experience in Dresden). The plot’s use of temporal displacement makes this arrangement somewhat natural for readers and suggests that Vonnegut does not intend for his novel to mean anything beyond its brief snapshots of beauty, horror, morality, religion, and humor (both conventional and dark).4 These snapshots are life, and life is nothing more than its moments, some of which are pleasant, some of which are bearable, and some of which are dreadful. We can do nothing to change them. What is more, Vonnegut points out how precarious life is. So many things can easily destroy life: reprehensible human conduct, mundane struggles for survival, and even certain social conventions. How does Vonnegut respond to all this? His answer is, “So it goes.”
Why would Christians want to read a novel like this? Even if Christians can get past Vonnegut’s descriptions, it seems that it is designed to offend those with moral and religious sensitivities. Even if the novel’s satirical dark humor hides a thundering moral statement, Christians find a pessimistic worldview that cries out in disgust at moral atrocities, but provides few, if any, resources for responding to those atrocities. Vonnegut seems to do little more than throw up his hands in frustration and exclaim something like, “Oh well!”
So again, why would Christians want to read Slaughterhouse-Five? What benefit could it possibly have for us? I suggest that one important benefit of reading the novel is that it brings Christians face-to-face with our own deficiencies. In other words, it forces Christians to evaluate themselves to see if they are aligned with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints through the Scripture.
Let me point out two examples of how reading a novel like Slaughterhouse-Five can help Christians evaluate themselves.
Our Ability to Judge Values
Many of the snapshots in Slaughterhouse-Five are directed at the general religious life of post-war America during the 1950s and ‘60s, which was, for the most part, considered Christian. Many of those snapshots suggest that American Christians do not have the ability to judge values accurately. (It is not clear if Vonnegut thinks that Christians once had this ability and lost it, or if Christians lack this ability altogether, but this is unimportant for what I have to say.) Let us look at two examples that call attention to this.
The first example consists of two snapshots that make mention of the famous serenity prayer generally thought to have been written by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.5 The prayer reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”
The serenity prayer appears in Slaughterhouse-Five once as framed artwork in Billy’s optometry office (Billy becomes an optometrist after the war) and once as a locket worn by Billy’s female companion Montana Wildhack in the Tralfamadorian zoo, where Billy and Montana are exhibited for the curious aliens.6 Both of these items, like other decorative items on which the prayer might be displayed, are the kinds of things people purchase in gift shops. Indeed, such items are sold by the same kind of retailer, as Vonnegut mentions in another snapshot in the novel, from which Billy’s mother purchased a crucifix in “trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”7
Already, the description and imagery here seem to express a significant criticism — namely, that many American Christians in Vonnegut’s day think of salvation and spirituality as trifles that can be purchased for a meager sum. And already, Christians should see that such a mindset is problematic, for it assumes that an individual can obtain salvation through cheaphuman effort.
But Vonnegut does not stop there. As part of his description of the prayer as it appears on the locket Montana wears, he includes a crude drawing showing the prayer etched on the locket as it hangs between her naked breasts. Now, readers are faced with the more complicated issue of deciding at what they are more offended: the crude drawing of nudity juxtaposed with a religious symbol, or the consumerist attitude toward Christianity that the locket itself symbolizes. If readers are more offended by the former than the latter, then perhaps that reveals that they are comfortable with a consumerist Christianity — a Christianity that is predicated on being easy and amusing. But a Christianity that is both easy and amusing is not Christianity at all. It is a different religion altogether.8
The second example suggesting that American Christians cannot judge values accurately comes from the snapshot of one of the novels written by the fictitious Kilgore Trout. Trout appears in several of Vonnegut’s books. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy comes to know Trout while undergoing psychiatric care.
Trout’s novel is entitled The Gospel from Outer Space and tells the story of an alien who brings a new gospel to Earth. This new gospel was needed because, in trying to find out why Christians found it so easy to be cruel, the alien discovered that the original Gospels actually taught an ethic of cruelty. The rationale for this ethic was that Jesus was the divine Son of God and, thus, the wrong guy to kill because He was well connected. Unfortunately, this teaching from the original Gospels carried with it the assumption that there are right people to kill — namely, unimportant people. The new alien-introduced gospel taught instead that Jesus was an annoying nobody who was adopted by God so that people would know that they should not kill people at all, even those who are considered unimportant.9
Vonnegut’s point in this snapshot seems clear. If there is a gospel, a “good news,” for all human beings, then it should not carry with it the assumption that some people’s lives are more intrinsically valuable than others.
That the Bible regards all human beings as equally intrinsically valuable should go without saying. The good news of Jesus Christ is offered impartially to all regardless of how connected they may be (see John 3:16; Acts 10:34–35), and the church is said to be a new holy nation that transcends those limitations that people use to regard some as more important than others (see Gal. 3:23–29; 1 Pet. 2:9–10).
Vonnegut’s point still has bite today, however, because we recognize that the church does not always preach the gospel with her actions. We may forget that Christian business practices should always consider more than just the bottom line, that our intentionality in evangelism should not include a church congregation consisting of only one demographic, and that race should not affect how we view or treat others, especially our brethren in Christ. And in forgetting such things, we reveal our judgment to be impaired.
Sadly, many of the criticisms directed toward American religious life buried in the snapshots of Slaughterhouse-Five have not lost their force almost fifty years later because the problems being criticized still exist. Perhaps Christians need Vonnegut’s satirical and irreverent moral commentary to spur them on to addressing moral compromises they have yet to correct sufficiently.
Valuing Human Life
In its own dark way, Slaughterhouse-Five calls its readers’ attention to the value of life, especially human life. In fact, if there is a central theme to the novel, this might be it. Consider that every time death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” accompanies it, which ironically highlights both our tendency to ignore the tragedy of death and our offense at Vonnegut for being so cavalier about it.10 Again, in many of the novel’s snapshots, it seems that Vonnegut has American Christians in mind.
Consider also the novel’s alternate title: The Children’s Crusade. The title references the so-called crusade of 1212 in which, as the traditional (legendary) account goes, children volunteered to travel to Palestine in order to convert the Muslims there, but either drowned in shipwrecks or were sold into slavery by two monks sponsoring them. The point seems to be that in order to serve their own interests (which in Vonnegut’s day meant fighting the spread of communism in Vietnam), American Christians have no problem sacrificing their children to war. Or consider the epigram at the beginning of the book:
The cattle are lowing,
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
The epigram appears once again toward the end of the book when Billy is scolded by a German couple for failing to notice the suffering of the horse pulling his wagon. When Billy finally notices this, he cries for the first time in the novel. But Billy’s tears were not for the suffering of a living thing, but for “the condition of his means of transportation.” Vonnegut then notes that later on Billy sometimes would weep privately, and that this explains why he resembles the epigram.11 What is Vonnegut’s point? The church is generally focused on its own desires and only weeps when some inconvenience arises, as infants do, but ignores the tremendous wasting of human life that it sees every day.
There are a number of other snapshots in Slaughterhouse-Five that highlight (albeit many times darkly) the value of human life. In each case, we are faced with the serious question of whether we value life at least as much as Vonnegut seems to do.
A Wake-Up Call
The gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the entirety of Scripture is the answer to humanity’s problems. I know this sounds cliché, but perhaps it sounds cliché because many Christians do not see clearly humanity’s problems. One of the values of a book like Slaughterhouse-Five — and indeed any significant book that is not friendly toward Christianity — is that it tends to identify problems that Christians tend to ignore and to ask the questions that Christians often fail to ask themselves. Not every criticism leveled against Christians is legitimate or fair, but some are, and those that are demand self-examination. Vonnegut ultimately may not have answers, but his sharp pen can help awaken us from spiritual slumber with the result that we examine ourselves to see that we truly abide in Jesus Christ, “so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28 ESV).
Stephen D. Mizell is assistant professor of humanities at Scarborough College in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith