Title: Thoughtcrime: Ideological purity versus Michael Riddell Credit: Craig Young Features Friday 26th August 2005 - 12:00pm1125014400 Article: 877 Rights
Whenever I hear fundamentalists accuse us of intellectual repression and 'political correctness,' I think back to a certain recent case where they didn't practice what they preach. Regular readers of my columns in's Politics and Religion section will remember that I recently recommended Mike Riddell's excellent and unjustly neglected masterpiece, Masks and Shadows (2000). In my opinion, it ranks with Nabokov's Lolita as one of the most searing critiques of paedophilia and fundamentalist absence of institutional accountability that I've ever read. I had read that Riddell had left evangelical Christianity for liberal Catholicism, but assumed that he had formed an intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual interest in Catholicism after I heard about his interest in the work of James K. Baxter. I was shocked when I discovered that was not the case. I shouldn't have been, though. It turned out that I was wrong. In fact, Riddell had been a lecturer at a New Zealand Baptist theological college when he published his first novel, Insatiable Moon (1997). Now, Insatiable Moon has no gay characters, but it does have consider candour about a passionate heterosexual nonmarital sex scene between Arthur (a schizophrenic) and Margaret. It also contains some excellent insights about the lives of ex psychiatric inpatients in a boarding house in Auckland. Riddell himself used to run the Community of Refuge Trust, a similar residence for transient and impoverished ex psych inpatients, and his experience is reflected in wonderfully intimate descriptions of their everday lives. I work in the mental health field too, and I love this book for that reason. If he'd written this as an Anglican author, there wouldn't have been such a problem, I suspect. You see, Riddell was asked to leave his Baptist theological lecturers position. He has since found employment at Otago University, but that isn't the point. Why was he asked to leave? Predictably, it centred on fundamentalist outrage at the fact that Riddell had written about Extra-Marital Sex. Never mind that it was integral to the story. Never mind that Riddell's fiction contains the best description of life for psychiatric inpatients since the work of the late Janet Frame, and raises questions about toleration for marginality, isolation and homelessness within that vulnerable section of our community. No, the Baptists were just concerned about the Sex and the Unorthodox Theology. Like many another schizophrenic, Arthur believed that he had semidivine capacities. Oh, and it didn't try to proselytise for The Faith. If the above strikes you as utterly ridiculous grounds for dismissal, I quite agree. In fact, it strikes me as a violation of political opinion and religious belief under the Human Rights Act 1993. Might I politely suggest that if this is the typical Baptist response to theological and social justice concerns, then they have no reason to lecture us about self-censorship, free speech and ideological purity. I suspect that such attitudes explain the recent precipitous decline of denominational membersh ip. Riddell was subjected to attempted censorship, based on a narrow and prescriptive concept of social conservative ideological purity, legitimate forms of artistic expression, and 'permissible' views about religion and sexuality. Quite frankly, the Baptist denomination doesn't deserve an author of his stature and professionalism, and I have no hesitation in acclaiming him for the richness of his work, and his passionate concern for the oppressed and victimised within Western societies. Patricia Bartlett has risen from the grave and is living within the confines of New Zealand Baptist fundamentalism. Recommended Reading: Michael Riddell: Insatiable Moon: Flamingo: Auckland: 1997. Mike Riddell's homepage. Mike Riddell "Art for Arts Sake" (2002) [Personal reflections on writing Insatiable Moon and its aftermath] Craig Young - 26th August 2005    
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