Postcards From the Margins: Good God (or god?)

Vincent Van Gogh's The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt); St. Remy, May 1890
Vincent Van Gogh’s The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt); St. Remy, May 1890

The description of this painting (on the best of all Van Gogh websites, see sidebar) is “oil on paper” and you’d need to know something about when (May 1890) and where (the St. Paul-de-Mausole asylum) it was painted to make sense of that.  Several times during his year-long hospitalization in St.-Remy, Provence, Van Gogh was too ill to leave his room and yet desperate to paint, or at least draw.  Before drawing/painting this piece, he was probably reviewing prints (by Rembrandt and Millet, e.g.) sent to him by his brother, Theo, for comfort and inspiration. Paper may have been all Van Gogh had on hand to attempt this reproduction.  The other comment frequently made about this particular painting is that Van Gogh drew his own face in place of Lazarus’s.

I sent my revised Van Gogh-related novel manuscript to my most-wonderful-agent-in-the-world yesterday, and have a good feeling that this may be the culmination of a grand, seven-year effort.  The book started as a short story that I wrote after I’d only been writing fiction for a year or two, and so not only has the story grown, but also my skill in its telling.  It’s been raised from the dead a few times, like Lazarus.  As has, in fact, in this past decade of my life, a longing for miracles, for Heaven, for God.

I’m not sure any of it would have come out without the writing.  I can tell you I didn’t intend to write about the Catholic Church, or Holy Cards (are you an old-enough Catholic to remember these?) or priests or nuns or people talking to the dead. Or, in the case of the current novel-to-be, the story of the Roma healing festival in the Mediterranean coastal town of Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer. The one that celebrates the questionably historic but unquestionably believed-in banishment of the Marys (Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe, Mary Magdelene and her sometimes daughter/sometimes servant Sarah) from the Holy Land and their miraculous arrival, in a boat entirely unseaworthy, to the shores of this Mediterranean village.

Maybe a little like Van Gogh, I once had an active faith but it fell by the wayside.  Except–also like Van Gogh–not all the way to the wayside. In middle age I’ve decided I can believe and disbelieve whatever I want. The fine writers, particularly Kaya Oakes, at the website Killing the Buddha, have been a terrific resource for me in my pursuit of intelligent, lively consideration of faith and doubt, as have many of my writing fellows.

Plus, two years ago, my father died.

Funny how that changes things.

So I got lucky enough in the meantime to have a literary journal accept a different one of my short stories.  And in this story the main character is in a pickle because he’s suffered a head injury and he’s trying to prove he’s together enough to take care of his kids.  At one point he exclaims, “Good God, the noise!”  No biggie, right?  But the magazine corrected that to “Good god, the noise!” and when I saw this in the proofs I asked why.  Unless the deity, they said, is being directly addressed, no capitalization is needed.  In fact, they said, small “g” is the grammatically correct standard of use.

To their credit the magazine let me be the final arbiter, and I chose, “Good God.” My reason was that when I say, “Good God,” I do say it as kind of a direct address–as a kind of manic, aggravated prayer. It is, however, also undoubtedly true for me that writing “god” when I mean “God” would be like writing my mother’s name “anne” instead of Anne.

Nonetheless my eyes have been opened to the debate. More and more in fiction I see “god,” and not “God.”  I decided to ask two of my writing friends, the amazing and talented Rebecca Kanner (author of Sinners and the Sea ) and the equally amazing and talented Swati Avasthi (most recently, Chasing Shadows), to weigh in on the matter.  I’m glad I did.

Rebecca was her usual pithy self:  “Lowercase is correct, but we Jews capitalize it anyway.”

Swati was more professorial.  She wrote:

“The question of capitalizing “Gods” and “God” came up in Chasing Shadows. [Swati’s particular publishing} house rules are that “God” and “gods” is correct. But, since the novel is in first person alternating, I relied on my viewpoint character and her religion as my guide. So Holly, who is Catholic, uses “God” and “gods”; Savitri, who is Hindu, uses “God” and “Gods.” (Many Hindus, including her, believe that all the Gods are incarnations of God.) Once I explained the reasoning, my copyeditor made it consistent. I made this choice because the text is, in part, about the religious privilege that Holly unwittingly enjoys. It seems to me that we need to make our work character driven and use the term as s/he would.”

It’s a point well-taken about religious privilege, one that I might not have considered (see “unwitting enjoyment”).  Thank you, Swati, for pointing this out to me and other readers.

Overall, on my preferring “God” to “god”?   I need to own it, mindfully.  Or blame it on the characters.

Gotta love fiction writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  I thank my God, and everybody else’s God and Gods, truly, for our ability to imagine another world.

And I thank all of the wonderful people I have met in this writing life.






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