Science fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said of one of his most recurrent characters, “Trout was the only character I ever created who had enough imagination to suspect that he might be the creation of another human being. He had spoken of this possibility several times to his parakeet. He had said, for instance, ‘Honest to God, Bill, the way things are going, all I can think of is that I’m a character in a book by somebody who wants to write about somebody who suffers all the time.”(1) In this scene from the book Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout’s haunting suspicion is unveiled before him. Sitting content at a bar, Kilgore is suddenly overwhelmed by someone or something that has entered the room. Beginning to sweat, he becomes uncomfortably aware of a presence disturbingly greater than himself.
The author himself, Kurt Vonnegut, has stepped beyond the role of narrator and into the book itself, and the effect is as bizarre for Kilgore as it is for the readers. When the author of the book steps into the novel, fiction is lost within a new reality. Kilgore senses the world as he knows it collapsing. In fact, this was the author’s intent. Vonnegut has placed himself in Kilgore’s world for no other reason than to explain the meaninglessness of Kilgore’s life. He came to explain to Kilgore face to face that the very tiresome life he has led was, in fact, all due to the pen and whims of an author who made it all up for his own sake. In this twisted ending, no doubt illustrative of Vonnegut’s own humanism, Kilgore is forced to conclude that apart from the imagination of the author he does not actually exist. Ironically, he also must come to terms with the fact that it is because of the author that his very existence has been ridiculous.
The testifying voices of the gospel tell a story that is perhaps as fantastic as Vonnegut’s tale, though one with consequences in stark contrast. The Gospel of John, too, begins with a story that is interrupted by the presence of the author: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people… And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”(2) The word became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. But in this story, the presence of the author is not our demise but our inherent good.
Working in a ministry in the city many years ago, I saw a small glimpse of the strange effects of being present—an incomparable cry to the Incarnation itself, but a lesson in the sacredness of place nonetheless. During the first year, I lived in an apartment just outside the city. But during the second year I was able to move into the neighborhood where many of the children involved in our ministry lived. The difference was profound. Teenagers that previously had held me at arms length came closer. Kids continually came to my door to ask if I could play. We occupied the same space, and it was not unusual for them to mention it. One girl told me that she knew I was real because I stayed around after dark. I was now interested in her life in a way we could physically grasp: a hand to clasp on the way home, a next-door neighbor to sit with on the porch, a heart that knew both the joys and fears of the city. Stepping into the neighborhood changed my experience entirely.
How much more the author of grace and mystery stepped into our world to change our lives. John relays as an eyewitness that Jesus Christ, the Word in flesh, joined the story in body and blood. Eternity stepped into time and brought with it grace and truth. The artist moved into his artwork, declaring it good all over again, making it new, ushering in the presence of redemption, proclaiming again the meaning of life. It is a story that turns the mind inside out with questions of existence and reality. But in intense contrast to Kilgore’s conclusions of purposelessness, we are strangely called to be a greater part of the storyline.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has a purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person.”(3) The vicarious humanity of the Son of God is the nearness of a storyteller who hopes we might know him, and grasp that we are known. His presence is our very overwhelming good.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 2006), 246.
(2) John 1:1-15.
(3) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 110.