Late last week I was just coming out of a meeting, when I checked my phone to find a message from Leeman: “I can’t believe the news about Terry Pratchett.” My heart fell, and I turned to Facebook to have my fears confirmed that one of my favourite authors (Sir) Terry Pratchett had passed away at age 66 from complications related to his Alzheimer’s.
It’s hard to sum up Terry Pratchett’s style to someone who has not been a regular visitor to his fictional Discworld, though you can hear Leeman and me doing our best to pay him tribute here. How does one explain the anthropomorphic personification of Death with his horse Binky? Or the Wizards of Unseen University, complete with their orangutan librarian? Or the rise of consummate policeman Sam Vimes? Suffice it to say, Pratchett was glorious mix of Tolkien’s classic high fantasy, turned upside down by a healthy dose of satirical social commentary. With whimsical footnotes.
Terry Pratchett has meant different things to me at different points in my life. But my love of Pratchett always comes back to his unique capacity to harness the power of silliness to comment on the absurdities of the human condition (sometimes with a twinkle in his eye, sometimes with a cynical edge to his voice). What other writer could make DEATH his most lovable character? Death who holds no malice for humanity. He’s just incredibly good at his job.
Among Pratchett’s many memorable creations, the crotchety crone Granny Weatherwax has always been one of my favourites for her no-nonsense insights on humanity. I cannot wait until Amanda is old enough to read his young adult series about the young would-be witch Tiffany Aching, as she comes into her own under the occasional guidance of Mistress Weatherwax. It is also through the eyes of Granny that Pratchett offers some of his most profound comments on the subject of religion. And for all that Pratchett was quite the unambiguously outspoken atheist, I can’t help but feel that he managed to convey some profound thoughts on faith through the piercing perspective of Granny Weatherwax, who just calls it as she sees it. At one point, Granny encounters “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats,” priest of the Omnian faith (the closest Discworld analogue to Christianity). Reverend Oats prides himself on a reasonable approach to his faith, willing to engage all points of view, and not requiring too radical a conversion of life. An attitude toward which Granny bluntly replies:
“You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”
Now, I cannot imagine Pratchett was using Granny Weatherwax to suggest that religions should go about literally burning and sacrificing. But, perhaps, looking at religion from the outside, Pratchett could see a truth that we are often unwilling to face ourselves. Which is that our faith should make profound claims on our lives. If we actually do believe in the message of radical love we, as Christians, see revealed in the life and ministry of Christ, that has to have impact on our life outside the doors of the church. Sacrificing our lives one day at a time in our works of love and our desire to see the image of God in all those we encounter. What else are we to contemplate as we approach the profound events of Holy Week than the boundless love of God that culminates in utter self-sacrifice? How do we dare to imitate such self-giving love?
After all … anything else is just … just being nice.
It might be said in the words of a witch, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging point for us to take to heart. Pratchett was probably the only author capable of writing something at once so absurd and so profound. I also don’t know how he would feel about his words poking fun at religion inspiring an Anglican Priest to reflect on the call to radical discipleship at the heart of Christianity. But I like to think that he would appreciate the irony. Rest in peace, Sir Terry, and Thank You.
In the meantime, perhaps we can all band together and sign the petition asking Death to kindly bring Terry back for us.” Also, check out my friend and author Caroline Lee’s reflections on what Pratchett meant to her. She is, after all, the one who first introduced me to Discworld, nigh 20 years ago!