Thursday, November 3, 2011

#46 - "Go Tell It on the Mountain" by James Baldwin

After spending most of October side-tracked with various distractions, I'm firmly back on course, and have finished my 46th book from Time magazine's 100 All Time Novels; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.  Sadly, it's the first book from the list I've read since Portnoy's Complaint, which I finished September 25th.  It isn't that it took me a month to read this one, I didn't start it until last week, and read the bulk of it on the long flight from Vancouver to Honolulu.

The book follows, at different points in their lives, a Harlem family from their roots in the South to their migration North to New York.  But it isn't about this family, it's about their moral short comings and the influence of religion on their lives.  Most of the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain are deeply flawed, or at least have gone through troubling times in the past.  And as continues to often be the case today, how they use religion to cover up their morality, or lack there of.

Gabriel, a preacher, and the patriarch of the family, has perhaps the most troubled past, but now uses his devotion to Jesus and God to forget that past and proclaim himself as a good person.  As is so often the case with religion, 'what I did in the past is okay, because now I've found God.'  And because of his new found discovery, he is now free to judge and condemn those who are, for all intents and purposes, just like him.

Really, Go Tell It on the Mountain is more about the role of religion in African-American communities as it is about the characters or any plot.  Gabriel, basically a horrible person, without any training or education has become a fiery preacher.  His power arises from the fact that he can yell louder and with more conviction than others, not because he's more devoted or more knowledgeable.  And his new found religion hasn't made him a better person either; but he is now more respected, as a man of God.  Only his family knows the truth of who he really is.

The book speaks of a time when the majority of African-American people in the United States were poor, uneducated, and highly influenced by religion.  They fear and respect Gabriel because he stands at a pulpit each Sunday and tells them why they are bad people, without any understanding of his hypocrisy.  The book serves as a condemnation of religion and people's blind allegiance to it.

Part of me found the book a little depressing because of this.  Personally, I can't stand this religious hypocrisy that we see all too often; people of the cloth, putting up a facade of morality, but living a completely different life backstage.

I think Go Tell It on the Mountain is one of those books that's like 7-Up. You never order 7-Up, but it is refreshing and you aren't sorry you drank it, but you probably wouldn't recommend it to your friends either. Same thing for this book. I more or less enjoyed reading it, was interested in the story and characters, but it didn't knock me off my feet. Would I recommend it to others? Probably not, but if someone said they were reading it, I wouldn't dissuade them, and would look forward to discussing it afterward.

My next book, which I'm well into already, and should finish this afternoon, will be Animal Farm by George Orwell.  Despite Nineteen Eighty Four being one of my favorite books, I've never read any other Orwell.

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