A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (Faith and Fiction Roundtable)

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
Published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins

I can’t even begin to attempt a summary for this book, so I’ll give you the publisher’s summary instead:

In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.

A Canticle for Leibowitz was the third selection of the year for the Faith and Fiction Roundtable, a group of bloggers who like to read faith-based books coming together to read six books this year and then discuss them. It was started and is moderated by the fabulous Amy of My Friend Amy fame.

Admittedly, this was a very tough book for me to get through. I had a difficult time getting engaged in the story or even caring about the characters. Had I not committed to reading it for this group I probably would not have finished. However, I can say that I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it and I’m proud of myself for slogging through when I badly wanted to give up at times.

One particular part of the story stood out to me as discussion-worthy. There is one section of the book in which people have been affected horrifically by radiation poisoning. They are so unbelievably damaged, so hurt, that they beg to be put out of their misery. There is one doctor who performs euthanasia on those who would prefer to die rather than suffer through their pain to their inevitable slow, agonizing deaths. Of course, there is also a priest involved who will not allow euthanasia to occur on his watch.

This stood out to me because I found myself agreeing with the doctor and getting mad at the priest. While I am a Christian, I come at things from a more secular viewpoint since I have only been following Jesus for a few years now. For most of my life, I believed in God in a sense but didn’t really understand what that meant and didn’t really care to follow Him. So when I read about people suffering so terribly, especially when they know for certain that they will die soon anyway – but slowly, and in agony – it makes perfect sense to me that if they request so, they should be put out of their misery when they ask. I have to believe that a good God, a perfect God, would not want His people to be in such unbearable pain. Why would He ever ask that of His followers? What good does that do, what purpose does it serve?

But then I remember – a life is a life is a life, and God does not condone the killing of any life, for any reason. He and He alone should be the decision maker as to who dies and when and under what circumstance. While I believe this to be true, I question its implications in cases such as the one presented in A Canticle for Leibowitz. I am left puzzled, trying to figure out what God really would prefer us to do in this particular situation. I don’t have the answer – I’m still inclined to go with my first thought on this one. How can He condone such suffering, especially when it comes to people who love Him with all their hearts? It doesn’t make any sense to me. But yes, killing is killing, no matter what the specifics are. There is no gray area here, at least according to His word. So I really don’t know.

That just goes to show you that even though I really didn’t enjoy this book, I got something out of it. And that is what makes the experience of reading so important.

Check out the other participants of the Faith and Fiction Roundtable:

Book Hooked BlogBooks and MoviesCrazy for BooksIgnorant HistorianLinus’s BlanketMy Friend AmyMy Random ThoughtsOne Person’s Journey Through a World of BooksRoving ReadsSemicolonThe 3R’s BlogTina’s Book ReviewsVictorious CafeWordlily


10 thoughts on “A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (Faith and Fiction Roundtable)”

  1. I also have issues with the idea that people who are dying can’t take their own lives, but basically, I believe the same things that you do, and that God is the only one who can decide when a life is over. It’s hard though, because lately I have been reading a lot of books about Alzheimer’s, and the rapid degradation of the minds of the people going through it. The only wish for some of the people in this situation is to end their lives, and I can totally understand that and sympathize with that. It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around. I actually think that this may be a book that I would like, despite it’s heaviness. Great review today, and very thoughtful analysis.

  2. Another thought to consider is that it doesn’t take long for “allowed” to become “required” or at the least, “the only sensible thing to do”. No Christian church allowed birth control before the 1930’s and it was against the law to promulgate knowledge about birth control. Today, you are considered odd if you don’t use it, and the idea of requiring the poor to use it is popular. Society discouraged moms from working outside the home, particularly when they had small children. Now it is encouraged, and an economic necessity for many. Divorce used to brand you as unsuitable; now working to improve a bad marriage is considered strange. As humans we may start allowing the terminally ill to end it but in a larger sense, we are all terminally ill–we will all die one day, and while different people get different amounts of pain at different times, we will all suffer at some point. Healthcare is expensive. Who gets to choose the amount to which I’m entitled. Right now, to a large extent, I do. Will the day come when the culture forcefully reminds me that what is spent on my healthcare is money that my grandchildren do not get to use to enjoy life? History suggests than an acceptance of euthanasia would be the first step toward a cultural imperative for the powerless and less productive to be put aside for the strong.

  3. Very pondering thoughts and a great discussion piece Heather!!

    In response to Raan’s thoughts on Health Care-

    If your going to place a monentary price on someone’s life then you close the door on the value of life. So is culture going to come to a place where human slavery is acceptable because of monentary value? Should we accept cultures that sell their daughters into slavery for the sake of money and the family’s well being? Or should we sell ourselves into slavery if it makes the life of another better? I dont understand this concept of one life over another, or an animals life over my own.

    Why is it that the older become less valued by societies measures? One of the arguments against euthanasia is that once you allow the practice to be legal in the private sector, it wont take long for the government to come in and take over, saying its better for the health care system for you to be dead and that its better for the common cause and good of younger generations. Do we really want the government or other people deciding this for us? Because if it becomes a legal and acceptable practice, guarantee you that the government will get involved, like they do everything else.

  4. I also found this particular issue in the book something that made me think. As a mom, I especially wondered how I would handle being in that mother’s situation – watching her child suffer horribly from radiation sickness, wanting to end her misery. I pray and hope I am never put in that kind of situation.

  5. “(A) life is a life is a life, and God does not condone the killing of any life, for any reason. He and He alone should be the decision maker as to who dies and when and under what circumstance.” What I wonder about is this: if we believe that God acts through his people, and that his people turn to him for answers and direction, does the difficult decision to end a life of unbearable suffering actually represent God’s will?

    I don’t know, of course, but books that make us think and talk about questions like this are always worth reading. Glad you got something out of this one, even if you really didn’t like it all that much!

  6. Wow, I’m really interested to read this — I was expecting to find A Canticle for Leibowitz as unbelievably dull as you did, but when I read it for the first time a few years ago, it blew me away. I loved the characters, and the writing was just so gorgeous. “We bury your dead and their reputations. We bury you. We are the centuries.” Gorgeous.

  7. I found your summary of the book quite intriguing, but I am a little turned off by the “faith-based” angle: if it’s a preachy book, then I suspect it will annoy me.

    Regarding the euthanasia question, in my view your body is your body, it’s your most fundamental right to do whatever you want with it, including destroying it. But then I’m not a Christian.

    1. “Faith-based” does not necessarily mean preachy. And there are plenty of faith-free books that are preachy in their own right. Either way, A Canticle for Leibowitz is decidedly not preachy. It’s thought-provoking and maybe even a little disturbing, sad and bare and perhaps profound. If it belongs in one category more than another, it would be dystopian. I’m looking forward to reading more from this faith and fiction series!

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