Monday, August 15, 2011

Faith of Our Fathers

This is an entry that I wrote a little over a month ago, then put under my pillow, wondering if it would be worthwhile to post it. It is somewhat revealing, you might say, but I think it might be all the more worthwhile for that.

I turned the radio on in the bathroom today, in a move of errant whimsy.

Occasionally, I will listen to preaching on the local station that airs that sort of thing. They also deign to play Christian call-in radio shows as well, which gives me pause. How did those begin? Presumably, most people call in because they've heard the host giving helpful advice to other callers. But who was the first caller who thought he'd take a shot and dial up Dr. First-Name-Only (there's a red flag) and see what he had to say? There are very few logical Books of Genesis, so to speak, for call-in radio shows, and I daresay most of the explanations are dubious.

However, this time, there was a pastor on who was preaching about something-or-other. Having heard many of these fellows, I recognized his tone and the cadence of his language, and it struck me as encouraging a doctrine of fear. Not Fear and Trembling, mind you, just fear. Fear of the current culture (or, arguably, the lack thereof) and fear of the degenerative social norms seemed to be the flavors of the day. I turned off the radio with a mixture of disgust and humorous pity, and a terrible thought came to my mind which had been brewing for days.

It began, or at least surfaced, when my friend and I went to see Transformers 3, the title of which tells you most of what you need to know. We entered the theatre on July 3rd, and exited on July 4th. The three hours in between were packed with a sugary conflux of explosions, larger-than-life robots, a busty heroine, miniature soliloquies on freedom and justice, and more American flags than can be counted. I went home, slept, and the next morning, read the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, an essay by Cotton Mather, and an excerpt by Christopher Columbus. All this transpired as, a few miles away, downtown was preparing for a celebration in which the 1812 Overture would be played in time with a deafening fireworks display. Now, I enjoy fireworks, but compared to a reading of the Declaration of Independence - which would attract far fewer patriots to a public park - explosions for fun seem rather lowbrow. In this decidedly snobby frame of mind, it occurred to me that the founding fathers, so often lauded by people who have never taken the time to read their work, might not have been people of simple faith.

Simple and Complex, I thought. Some people have Simple Faith, and some have Complex Faith. People who are high logical, as the founding fathers of necessity certainly were, might find themselves wrestling with angels more, as it were. The thinking man, by definition, has more questions. Obviously, I knew which side my bread was buttered on. I was highly logical, I thought. My faith was Complex. This is, by the way, not a pretty story.

Two things came to mind that countered this elitist cognition. The first was the remonstrance of Paul to the Roman church. "Who are you to judge some other master's servant?" he chides them. "To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for God is able to make him stand."

Perhaps we should not call these flavors of faith simple and complex. In the best sense, they are like bridge designs, I suppose. Over the same chasm can stretch both the Roman aqueduct, stalwart and grizzled as some old sea dog, and the spindly steel harp strings of the suspension bridge. When I hear those words - simple and complex - roll off my tongue though, I cannot help but recall the poignance of the second thing which came to mind.

Jesus drew a child out of the crowd, as if picking a daisy, and juxtaposed him against the righteous swagger and belch of the disciples. Unless you become like this, you won't be a part. The subjects of the King are all like children. He didn't elaborate, but it is striking how simple a child's faith is. There are hard questions, certainly, but the child's faith is never convoluted through a series of pathetically dusty dogmas and intellectual backflips.

As my pastor put it, following Jesus is simple, but not easy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Why Fiction?

I love nightly walks around my neighborhood, when the summer sky can't go dark but holds out an aching blue note of twilight while the the moon glitters like a diamond. I am given to occasionally making these walks barefoot, relishing the cool of the ground in the dark beyond a blazing day. My feet will get black and scuffed from the road, but as I pad across the terra firma, overhung with the boughs of oak and elm, I am reminded that I am connected to this earth, that I am part of it, that it affects me and I it in the awkward grace of our dance. One of us wobbles and reels while the other staggers and shuffles. We each step on the other's feet, but we keep cutting our seven-step rhythm, she gamboling about the heavens and I scribbling in little journals.

In the business of writing, I constantly try to convince myself that it isn't worth the bother. Thankfully, in this regard, I'm not the best of the Devil's advocates. Either that or there are few twelve-step programs to break an addiction to wordsmithing. Continually, though, I trip over the question, "Why?" Why do I do this? For me? Probably. For fame? Probably. For the service of Truth which is the source of and permeates all reality, superseding it with a Glory that would destroy us were it not veiled? Um. That's a question I have to admit I'm not qualified to answer, although the previous two reasons have thus far proven rather unfruitful in some blessed measure. As a reader of fiction, though, this is a far easier survey to take. The more I read fiction, the more I know why I read it. Pure enjoyment and sometimes escapism give way to the interior magnitude of stories, lending scope to the cramped exterior of reality. In a culture of almost diabolical sunderedness between people who, via the internet and cell phones, trade digital summaries for actual personal encounters, fiction reminds us of the sheer unplumbed size of the created world. In that respect, odd as it may seem, fiction gives us truth. Immersed in it, it starts to characterize the way we view the world. It is a waking dream that eventually forces us to look again at the seemingly obvious in front of us.

Good fictional characters become a sort of hagiography of all the real characters in our lives. That girl who had a miscarriage in chapter nine is your sister when you blink a couple of times, though its not so much through empathy as through the suspension of disbelief. When we open ourselves to fiction, to the idea that anything could happen, people - dare I say, inevitably? - become more than the sum of their parts, their quirks, their jobs, and their political leanings. They literally thrum with possibility and hope. You can even hear it in tragic characters like Brett and Jake in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, rattling in between the lines of their dogged and pathetic semi-loyalty to each other and crackling pleasantly in Jake's humor at his own injury. If there is hope and possibility singing in the lives of these ink-and-paper human sacrifices, these mortal ephemera, then the Puckish gleam of curiosity will quietly ask, "What about the guy across the hall from me?"

Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, "You have never met a mere mortal."

Every marginal encounter on the street or in the cereal aisle is the brushing of shoulders between two souls robed in flesh, two immortals sashaying blithely through temporal possibility of Grace or otherwise. This is a role of fiction: to remind us of the unbearably imminent humanity - and the iconic Antecedent of the humanity - of our friends and cohorts, of our enemies and rulers. As Saint Paul put it, "Some have entertained angels without knowing it." You probably can't write that kind of character intentionally. At least, I can't, but in honest writing it seems to happen on its own. Because you probably can't do it intentionally, this is not a practical reason to write fiction, though it may be a very good reason to write it. Even better, it's a reason to read it. It is a joyous thought against the cynical backdrop of crying, "Lies," though, and that's reason enough to scribble and scuttle over paper every day.

Live against the stunted egotism of the denouncing of joy.