Friday, December 19, 2008

These Movies

And so these movies. These two simulacra. It’s a Wonderful Life and Schindler’s List. Are quite similar in their subject matter. In the focus of their stories. And not surprisingly they are quite similar in the quality of their outcomes. Schmaltzy party in the one. Schmaltzy real life people and actors join hands across the generations in the other.

In a sense, they are both fictional. Fictional because they do place before us dramatizations. Imitations. Mimetic semblances. Stories that are quite selective as to what they include and exclude, unlike real life. Stories that are acted for us by professional actors whose job it is to play a plausible someone. A possible someone. A someone we might know or be ourselves. Or could be. Or could be like. Stories that include dialog that strictly speaking, in the case of Schindler’s List in particular, may have never happened. At least some of it. Dialog that is there to support the story. To make the story more compelling. More interesting. More explicable.

Most of our stories aren’t altogether explicable. Most of the time, we do things that are. Oh. Random seeming. Out of character. Whimsical. We wonder off track for no apparent reason. No good reason. It happens all the time. Look for example at all the Christians who divorce. Half of Christians divorce. Christians, mind you. People who are supposed to be taking the Bible seriously. Taking God seriously. Taking love seriously.

But we all have this tendency to go random. Go evil. Do destructive things. Say harmful things to people we love. Not once. No. Many times. But sometimes once is enough. And then it’s done. Then we’ve participated in the destructive processes of the cosmos. Then we become members of that army. That relentless march of the living enlisted in the army of death. That army that hurries itself on toward its own destruction and that tears at itself, tormenting itself as it goes.

And so what these two films do is to show us a different way. A different way to be human. A different way to be before God. To be in God’s presence.

And they show us that we aren’t necessarily talking about self-control here. Personal discipline. Resisting temptation. An act of the will in defiance of or rebellion against our natural impulses. We aren’t necessarily talking about denying ourselves anything when we choose to turn toward love and life and God.

What these films intimate is that there is something natural and wonderful in us. Residing in us. In our hearts. Something that wants to love and care for and look after and nurture and provide saving help to others. Even though this may be costly. Even though we have to sacrifice.

And sometimes. I don’t know. I think that love and sacrifice are the same thing. Aspects of the same thing. The same reaching outward to affirm. Encourage. Support. If you think you can love without sacrifice, maybe it isn’t really love. Maybe it’s something masquerading as love.

So these stories encourage us to rethink our willingness to love. To love practically. To love faithfully. To love in how we live. They allow us vicariously to participate in the protagonist’s love. His acts of love. And by doing so they encourage us to try our hand at this sort of love. To take it into our lives and see if we don’t feel that sense of.

Oh. That presence of the beautiful. That presence of the divine. That we experience when we watch these movies. But maybe it’s also possible out here, we think, as we watch the credits scroll up into nowhere. Maybe its possible also with us, out here. In our particular stories. In our normal, everyday lives. To experience the beautiful also. To experience love this way also.

Maybe it’s possible for us to be protagonists. For us to be the main character of our own particular story, rather than the bystander or the Potter or the Goth we sometimes feel ourselves to be. Maybe we have, today, the opportunity. To.

Well. Despite all our self-doubts and fears and second-guessings. Maybe we have the opportunity to love like a protagonist in a novel. In a play. In a movie. Maybe we have the possibility of living as if it really did matter. As if it really could bring hope or faith or peace or safety or love into somebody’s life. As if it could really save somebody’s life. As if it could open the door to the light of the beautiful and allow that light to come flooding in.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Twentieth Century

When I was eight or nine or so, I discovered The Twentieth Century, the CBS documentary TV show on Sunday nights. Walter Cronkite was the host, and. Well. What a contrast. I mean, Cronkite in his day and at this point in time was regarded as one of the most trusted men in America. But he would show newsreel footage of the most horrendous and disturbing things.

There was a lot of war footage, particularly World War II. And I was horrified occasionally to see film of the concentration camps. Film showing Jews who were still alive after liberation. A lot of film showing Jews who were dead in the camps. Other film related to the Holocaust. I became so upset that I would routinely turn off the TV in the middle of the program. How could this have happened? How was this possible? Dead people stacked like distorted, emaciated dolls on carts or on shelves. Living people so malnourished that they looked more like animated skeletons out of a horror film than real live people.

I felt. Oh, I don’t know. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t. I felt cruel looking at these people in their misery in my comfortable suburban home. I felt like I was doing something evil. Unforgivable. I felt like Walter Cronkite should be ashamed of himself for showing these horrors to us and should be prevented from doing this ever again.

And so when I watched Schindler’s List, I felt some of those same emotions. I won’t go through the plot in any detail. If you haven’t seen it, you should, but to understand this post, you might look it up on Wikipedia and read the plot summary.

So Schindler’s List is about a corrupt business man that becomes a Nazi to profit from World War II. He buys a factory in the Krakow area, which is also the location of the Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp is run by Amon Goth, a madman who personally kills certainly many hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jews. A man who as I say does this personally. Many other Jews are killed at the camp and in Krakow, but he is personally responsible—with his own handgun—for killing perhaps thousands of people.

Oskar Schindler buys a factory and then arranges to use slave Jewish labor to operate the factory. Initially his objective is to make a great deal of money from manufacturing war goods for the German government. He bribes people left and right. He becomes a darling of the SS. But then he witnesses one of the Krakow roundups of the Jews in the ghetto there, in which Goth murders many, and his attitude toward his factory workers changes. They become human. And he decides to protect them.

The rest of the movie is about his work to protect the 1100 or 1200 people who work in his factory. How he bribes Goth, members of the SS, and anyone he needs to bribe to keep these people safe. Keep them from being murdered or shipped back to Germany for extermination.

By the end of the war, Schindler has run through all his money to save the workers in his factory. The ending of the movie shows the actors in the movie with many of the real people who Schindler saved. Art and life, fiction and fact, in a sense, come together.

In real life, Schindler went on after the end of the war to start a number of businesses that failed. He ended up penniless, on the dole. And he died that way, alone.

There are some interesting similarities and differences between this film and It’s a Wonderful Life. Schindler is like George Bailey in that he is faced with moral decisions that have significant consequences. They both make good decisions, and the outcomes of their decisions benefit their communities. The benefit in Schindler’s case is life for 1200 people who would otherwise have been murdered. The benefit in Bailey’s case is the economic well-being and moral character of the community of Bedford Falls.

George Bailey is fictional through and through. Oskar Schindler is real through and through. He really happened. Speilberg—the producer and director—and his writers didn’t so much make him as brought the real Schindler through an actor to the screen.

But it’s odd. Schindler almost makes himself up, in a way similar to the way that Bailey makes himself up. There is strong motivation pulling George away from community and toward making money, and there is strong motivation pulling Oskar toward treating the Jewish community in his factory as merely a colony of ants and toward using them solely to make money. But then there is something in both characters that works against this greed motive that enables them to rise to the occasion. Many occasions, as it turns out. To make of themselves something more interesting and salvific.

For both, this resistance comes with a substantial cost. It literally costs each a comfortable existence to listen to their hearts. To act in accordance with what their hearts are suggesting they do. Both are forced into personal economies that are quite iffy. Quite marginal. Quite contingent. Neither becomes comfortable. The choices they make take all economic cushions away and leave them both vulnerable. And in the case of Schindler, he constantly runs the risk of being murdered himself.

Oh, and then we have Amon Goth and Mr. Potter. The personifications of evil. In Potter’s case, this is what George might look like some number of years hence if he allows his ambition and his cupidity to get the better of him. In the case of Goth, here we have someone who does not see the Jews really as people. They are more like ants to him, and he enjoys his life-and-death power over them in the way a boy might enjoy life-and-death power over a colony of ants.

What drives Goth is certainly money. So in that way he is quite similar to Potter. He sucks Schindler dry almost single-handedly, he is so greedy. And one can imagine that if Potter were given the legal and moral latitude given to Goth, he would become a profligate murderer as well. But his cultural and legal context does not allow him that. It only allows him bigotry and economic oppression. And so that is what he exercises. He will be as evil as his cultural and legal context allows.

So what we have in both cases is a character doing extraordinary things but doing these things in an ordinary way. Making one decision at a time. Choosing to divert, one step at a time, from the path he begins on. The choices the two characters make are moral choices, but these are not so much motivated by the characters thinking that something is right and they therefore should do it. The choices seem to arise more from their hearts rather than from an idea about what is right and wrong. Choices their hearts make first to love someone, to care for someone, to take care of someone. And then the action—their behavior—follows this choice their hearts seem to have made independent of their minds or their wills.

Both are comedies, then. Oh, I know. Schindler’s List isn’t a laugh a minute. Let me tell you, it’s not at all fun. It’s serious stuff. And throughout watching it, I have a horror and sense of dread and enormous grief that sits in the back of my eyes and in my throat and in my insides like an alien that is trying to tear me into ragged, bloody, little pieces. Like I did back in the days when I watched Holocaust newsreels on The Twentieth Century.

But unlike the newsreels, Schindler’s List shows us what one quite flawed and ordinary man can do, if he let’s his heart have its way with him.

He can save lives. Real human lives. Nothing at all pretend in this. When in fact he’s just an ordinary Joe or Oskar putting one foot in front of the other, doing what his heart asks him to do.

And this choice. These many choices a person can make to follow the heart. When strung together through actual and simulated life. With their many not so happy consequences and the many possibly happy ones as well. Become like a string of gemstones, a glittering and beautiful thing. One weeps or wants to weep, this is so beautiful. So fragile. And so possible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Is George Bailey Frustrated?

It’s almost always useful to ask obvious questions. Questions whose answers appear to be immediately obvious. I suppose it’s useful because stating the obvious needs to be done to get us through the front door of a story and on into its interior. If we can’t make our way through the front door, we can’t begin to appreciate the internal architecture, the furnishings, the interior decoration. We can’t meet the inhabitants and get to know them.

So let’s ask an obvious question about It’s a Wonderful Life: Why is George Bailey frustrated? Isn’t it because of his capacity for love? Isn’t it because he loves too well to suit the ambitious and self-interested impulse in him? Isn’t he really more frustrated by the affections of his heart and the wisdom of his heart and the decisions of his heart than he is by his nemesis, Mr. Potter, or by the incompetence of Uncle Billy, or by the apparent passivity and mediocrity of his father?

Let me remind you of George’s initial motivation and a bit of the plot. George wants to leave his home town, Bedford Falls, since the time he is “elected to membership in the National Geographic Society” and probably before. As a boy behind a soda fountain, he wants to become a famous explorer. As a young man, he wants to travel widely and become an architect who will design great bridges and buildings to constitute and adorn the world’s great cities. He wants to become sophisticated, rich, and famous. He definitely does not want to work with his father in his family business, at the “two-bit” Bailey Building and Loan Association.

But George’s love for his brother, Harry, his love for his father and his father’s memory, his love for his community, and then his love for Mary Hatch keep him from going to college and realizing his ambitions. He sends his brother, Harry, to college, at the same time filling in at the Building and Loan for his dead father so that the working poor and the marginally middle class of Bedford Falls can afford homes of their own, rather than having to pay Mr. Potter’s outrageous rents.

So George’s American Dream of riches and fame is consistently frustrated by the wisdom and the commitments of his heart. As his hair begins to gray and he is barely able to afford his growing family, Mr. Potter offers him compensation that is almost 10 times his current salary at the Building and Loan, if only he will sell out to him. The American Dream side of George leaps at the opportunity Potter offers, and he accepts. But then as he puffs away on one of Potter’s expensive cigars, his heart realizes what a betrayal this would be to the life he has chosen for himself and the values he lives by, and he rejects the offer.

Finally, on a Christmas Eve day, the present of the story, which has mostly been told to us in flashbacks, Uncle Billy misplaces a substantial sum of the Building and Loan’s money, which actually ends up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who keeps it and tells no one. This threatens to result in jail for someone, and George imagines this will have to be him. He can’t figure out how he can go to jail without his family being destroyed. So he goes through a crisis in which he considers suicide, because he wants to restore the money, without harming his Uncle Billy. He feels so overwhelmed by his lost opportunity—his frustrated dreams of success—that he wishes that he had never been born. An angel—Clarence Odbody—who appears to have the intellect of a bag of rocks but who turns out to have considerably more wisdom than any other character in the story, shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

At first, George cannot believe what Clarence shows him. He’s convinced that the world would have been better off without him and that his life has been a waste. Further, he’s convinced that the world Clarence shows him is some kind of mental trick. But no, after he becomes convinced that the might-have-been world that Clarence shows him of joylessness and poverty and greed and sin and viciousness might not be a mental trick—it might actually be a kind of parallel world in which he really never did exist—he prays to be returned to his family. He then is miraculously restored to the world he helped create—the world into which he actually was born. He is returned home by one of the town policemen, and he is reduced to tears of joy and humiliation at his reunion with his family.

The people of the community, after hearing about George’s financial trouble, have apparently all pitched in and more-than-replace the missing funds. The movie ends with George’s restoration to his family, his community, and himself, in a schmaltzy Frank Capra Christmas Eve party full of singing, silliness, and celebration.

Throughout, then, we see George at war with himself. His heart leads him into commitments that his mind tells him are unwise. His mind—his self-interest, which is his ambition—continues to chafe against his heart until the crisis on Christmas Eve, when it is once again put down. It is put down by reality. The reality that George’s heart has helped to create as he has made choice after choice throughout his life. It is a reality that is shown to be much finer—much more fortunate and more beneficial and more happy and more inspiring and more beautiful and more meaningful and more loving—than the alternative reality that Clarence Odbody shows him. The alternative reality in which George’s heart and its decisions play no role and in which Potter, the greedy, loveless, voracious businessman who grasps to own and control all of Bedford Falls, dominates without any contest from George.

George—through his sacrifice to his community, his love of his neighbors—has helped to strengthen the character of his friends and neighbors. They have seen how George has sacrificed for them. Now they sacrifice for him, by contributing more money than they can really afford to bail him out of his trouble. Please notice that they really don’t care what the nature of his trouble is. They will help him no matter what.

What if his community had not come forth and rescued George? Well, the world that he had helped to create would have been the same in its essentials, but it would not have been fully realized. It would not have fully become itself. But George’s decision to pray for restoration to his real and actual life would not have changed. And his joy at his restoration to his family and friends would not have changed.

The party ending is important, but it isn’t essential to George’s life. George’s struggle is what the story is about, the shaping of his character and the shaping of the world that he inhabits. We want to see the sacrifice of the community in the end, though, because it is just and right and beautiful, in a schmaltzy sort of way. It is the realization of the good of George’s temptations and his sacrifice.

And it puts to rights the Christmas story. The story of Jesus. We want to know that it is possible to get a different outcome these days—even in America—to a life of sacrifice. We want to know that a life lived through love and forgiveness does not have to end in defeat. That it can change us this time. We want to know that we can fully participate this time around in the love and the beauty of such a life, rather than be the cause of its destruction.

And so we identify more than we may care to admit with Uncle Billy and Bert and Ernie and Cousin Eustace and Cousin Tilly and Mr. Martini and Nick and Sam Wainwright and Ruth Dakin Bailey and Carter and Mr. Gower and Violet and the others. We want ourselves this time to fully participate in the possibility of salvation. In the possibility offered us by someone who only knows how to put one foot in front of the other on his way to a destination that only his heart knows. A destination that is right here. Right here in this place. Wherever and whenever this happens to be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


But allow me to digress. Allow me to regress. Allow me to readdress myself back, back, back in time to let’s say. Oh. Where and when I lived with my forgiving and loving bride 30 years or so ago. Allow me to send myself and you back to a rather poor, beat-within-an-inch-of-its-life flat in Syracuse, New York, where I read books and wrote papers and was poor. Bassett was the street. A poor, sad-eyed homophone-of-a-street.

We were middling poor, what with me going to school and Pat nursing. We had the one car. The one green car her parents gave us. I think our rent was $140 a month, and that included utilities. Our furniture was junk pulled out of somebody’s garage and doused in varnish remover. A normal meal was hotdog casserole or macaroni and cheese, sometimes meatloaf, when we could afford it. I walked a mile to school and back, down streets and across a park where people were occasionally robbed or raped or murdered or all of these.

Those were the days, as I dim-wittedly dodged knives and bullets on my way, back and forth to school, in which I was both a grad student and a teacher. In which I taught a variety of students a variety of subjects, all of them having to do either with writing or literature. In which I was the particular sort of an indentured servant called a teaching assistant.

And Syracuse was the place where I read my early Plato, my Aristotle, my Bloom, my Campbell, my Brooks, my Wittgenstein, my Clive Bell, my Kant, my Tolstoy, my Beardsley, my Freud, my Jung, my Santayana, my Frye, my Arnold, my Saussure, my Warren, my Ransom, my Leavis, my Barthes, my Levi-Strauss, my Chomsky, and my horde of other literary critics and philosophers, along with literature itself, my Shakespeare, my D.H. Lawrence, my Yeats, my Williams, my Pound, my Woolf, my Faulkner, my Dos Passos, my Beckett, my Ionesco, my Camus, my James, my Forster, my Carver, my Melville, my Flaubert, my Swift, my Donne, my Herbert, my Eliot, my Dostoyevsky, my Wordsworth, my Coleridge, my Shelley, my Pope, my Milton, my Ibsen, my Chekov, my Neruda, my Borges, my Cheever, my Gogol, my Keats, my Browning, my Dickens, my Stendhal, my Bishop, my Thomas, my Heaney, my Carruth, my Dillard, my Whitman, my Hawthorne, my Twain, my Golding, my Updike, my Pynchon, my Lowell, my Hughes, my Lewis, my Ford, my Sinclair, my West, my Roethke, my Hemingway, my Joyce, my Fielding, my Richardson, my Defoe, my Wilde, my Conrad, my Hardy, my Cervantes, my Homer, my Frost, my Millay, Aeschylus, my Euripides, my Sophocles, my O’Connor, my Virgil, my Bunyan, my Samuel Butler, my Cummings, my Turgenev, my Goethe, my. My, my, my, one does go on!

And one of the questions that insinuated itself into me. Wormed its little way in through my ear and into my brain and wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t be shaken out. Was the question that goes something like this: “If literature is an imitation of life, what in us is it imitating?” And its corollary: “If literature is made for reading, what is reading literature made for?”

In other words, why do we need it? Why do we want it? Why do we look for it? What is its use? Yes, it certainly serves the economically and politically powerful in exhaustively and boringly elaborated ways. But it also serves the powerless. Stories and poems and plays seem egalitarian in their service to everyone, everywhere. But what, beyond reinforcing political and economic ideas, is literature serving in us? Why do we put up with the brainwashing aspect? Why isn’t law and custom and social sanction and the exercise of direct political and economic power sufficient to reinforce political and economic interests? Why literature, in particular?

Why all these replicas? These representations? These imitations? Why all this dangerous and expensive and circuitous and labyrinthine and distracting and refracting and indirect and ramifying and recursive and recalcitrant and philosophically illegitimate and illogical and irrational and emotional and morally slippery and impractical frou-frou?

Background. Plato first writes about mimesis or imitation or representation or acting or reciting or presenting a simulacrum in Ion and The Republic. Aristotle picks up the discussion later. And others, down through the ages, have tried to understand what goes on between plays, poetry, narratives, novels, stories, music, dance, art, film, etc. and us. Why we make these things, which I’ll call simulacra for lack of a better word. How we use these things. What their function is. Why they exist. What good they are or do.

And of course the opinions are all over the map. Plato begins the discussion by having Socrates assert that the actor and by extension and implication the poet or story-teller don’t really know anything. They have no truth to convey. They have no particular skill or craftsmanship. They are merely inspired. They are divinely inspired to a kind of madness. Truth is the province of the philosopher only. (If he were alive and writing today, he’d probably say philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and scientists only.) And these stories and plays and art and all other simulacra are therefore mere entertainments. And to the extent they may mislead people and convince them of things that are false, they may in fact be quite dangerous.

So I did quite a bit of reading at the time. And some since. And some thinking. I won’t go through it all. It’s boring and irritating. Tedious. I list some of it above. I circuitously touch on some of it in previous posts, and I’m certain I will in future posts.

So please allow me to skip most of that and arrive immediately in the present. And this present is. Oh. Maybe an eight to ten year ongoing sort of a present.

And in this rather fluid sort of a present, here’s what I’ve come to, propositionally speaking, and in no particular order of precedence or importance: (1) We do think by story, by image, by character unfolding, by accumulating narrative meaning; (2) Our hearts do most of our useful thinking, with the assistance of our heads; (3) Our hearts use words and actions and images and smells and color and flavor and sounds and the feel of a thing to reason about it—but always our hearts place these sensations in the context of a story, a narrative, a timeline, a sequence, with character implicit, imputed, or invented, no matter how minimally realized or referenced; (4) Character is our principal way of entering the world of simulacra, our principal construct through which we extract meaning; (5) Good tragedy presents us with one or more characters who are greater in some respect (usually morally or in their capacity for suffering) than we are; (6) Good comedy presents us with one or more characters who are just about the same as we are, in morality and moral capacity; (7) In both, the most credible protagonists are flawed; (8) Congenitally, we prefer comedy, given half a chance, because it aligns with a terminal orientation toward hope and purpose, a capacity for love and forgiveness and generosity, that is emergent and ascendant and insistent in us; (9) Comedy tends toward resolution, restoration, love, forgiveness, and redemption, while Tragedy tends toward dissolution, destruction, death, suffering, and judgment, and we choose which of these orientations we will like best and perhaps have, ourselves; (10) Poetry (of which song lyrics are a species) is still one of our most powerful and pervasive story-telling techniques; (11) Simulacra (e.g. plays, novels, short stories, poems, songs, TV shows, painting, sculpture, dance, music, etc.) all find their home in narrative, in plot, in sequence; (12) Simulacra are all metaphors in which we imaginatively place ourselves to think usefully and operationally about our lives and one another and the world and God; (13) Metaphor is how we figure we can possibly know anything; (14) We make figures-tropes-metaphors in order to think about or know anything; (15) Most propositional argument—philosophical discourse—is built with metaphor; (15) Most propositional knowledge is explained through the use of narrative or narrative reference, no matter how minimal; (16) Beauty is always (but not only) what we are looking for in simulacra—beauty in character, in event, in appearance, in sound, in movement, in shape, or in expression—as though it were our purpose in coming to simulacra in the first place; (17) Meaning is always (but not only) what we are looking for in literature, and when a work of literature is well done, meaning and beauty become one; (18) Words themselves are metaphors, in a sense, rather arbitrary sounds and marks standing for things and ideas and emotions that only they make present and comprehensible; (19) Grammar and syntax taken together as semantic structure is a metaphor for action and stasis, for living itself.

Oh, I know. What I’ve done here is skip the proof. Skip the steps in the mathematical proof. Or proofs. Skipped the argument and the evidence and gone straight to the conclusions. It’s wrong. It’s illegitimate. It’s backward. It’s non-linear. It’s convoluted. It’s anti-intellectual. It’s non-verifiable. It’s an outrage. It’s not to be trusted. It comes out of pure air. Pure blue air. If this were a Freshman essay, I’d give it an F.

And another thing. These propositions (and others like them) are to this blog as quarks are to atoms, and to all else that I write. Or know. Or think I know. I think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

But Then

But then, after saying all that, it also occurs to me to say that we do all end up dead. No matter our choices for good or ill. No matter whether we had a jolly good time or a jolly rotten time. No matter whether we married and had children and were happy. Or whether we were murderers and were chronically angry and depressed.

We could have been loving and forgiving all of our lives and been blown to bits in a spectacular highway crash or drowned in a tsunami or killed by starvation in a dusty, barren, and indifferent wasteland of a world.

Depending on the activity or inactivity of others and of nature itself, we could lead utterly trusting and loving and forgiving lives and be rewarded, in part, by suffering—by terrible suffering—and early destruction here on earth.

And so if that can occur—and let me assure you that it does all the time—you have every right to wonder what I could possibly be talking about. Comedy? you might ask. Comedy? You call the people who perished in South Africa leading up to the ending of apartheid characters in a comedy? You call the Holocaust a comedy? You call Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Hitler a bunch of comedians? A bunch of characters in a comedy?

You’ve got to be kidding, you are thinking. You have got to be out of your mind.

You call Jesus’s story a comedy? A story in which he dies a terrible death at a young age. A brutal and lonely death. This is comedy?

And so this is what I mean about Laurel and Hardy, for example. Comedy in the sense that I am using the word may include Laurel and Hardy, but it also definitely does include Hitler and Stalin and all the rest. It does entail an iffy plot and a lot of characters that do not come out to entertain us so much. Rather, many of them come out to torment us and destroy us, as it turns out.

So when I assert that life and the world has within it a comedic structure. Or the possibility of a comedic structure. When I say that life lived in a certain way is comedic. Is a comedy. What I don’t mean is that it is a laugh a minute. What I do certainly mean is that beneath all the suffering and evil is something that is more real. More essential. More actual. Than all the suffering and evil that conceals it.

What I do mean is that liveliness and loveliness and hopefulness and forgiveness overpower and overwhelm what endeavors to destroy these qualities, when exercised. When lived. When given human expression. When insisted upon. When embodied. When enspirited. When allowed expression by one’s spirit. When lived out by anyone, even by people who are facing death. Whose bodies are failing and passing away.

There is something thrilling about a person who in the face of death and suffering will choose to love, to forgive, to affirm, to encourage, and not to despair. Something noble. Something that seems beautiful. That makes one weak in the knees, it is so beautiful.

It is this underlying beauty that I am talking about here. And this beauty, which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, and our mysterious, mystical response to it, which tells us we’re on to something. Tells us we really do have something here. Independent of the evidence and logic and beauty and rightness of the Resurrection, which I’ll get to later.

Oh, I don’t know. Have you ever seen the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life? How about Schindler’s List? One is largely fictional. The other is largely factual. But don’t these stories get at something that we want to believe? Aren’t we drawn to the possibility that we can personally make a difference? That we can change the world?

Isn’t changing the world in our blood somehow? Isn’t wanting to bring a contribution that makes a difference deep down in us somewhere? Isn’t there an intuition that changing the world is what we are put here to do?

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a Wonderful Life is schmaltzy and old-fashioned and kind of silly and not really what the real world looks like. And you’re thinking that Schindler’s List is an extraordinary example. That real people don’t have the opportunity that Schindler did to make a difference.

But of course these are merely rationalizations for living a comfortable life. A selfish life. A greedy life. For preferring comfort over heroism. Over beauty. Over sacrifice. For preferring safety over risk.

We can all make a difference, if we choose to. We can make a difference to one another. To our families and friends and co-workers. We can make a difference in the suffering and pain of others. I see it all the time. I see better people than I am do this all the time.

But seeing it does require opening one eyes. It does require one to look for this sort of thing. To expect it. To expect God to give us help right here and now to live this way. To live beautifully. To live lovingly. To live forgivingly. To give up the comfort and righteousness of one’s anger. To give up the comfort and righteousness of a materialistic and money-oriented life. To give up acquisitiveness. To give up the idea that one’s significance has anything at all to do with money and acquisitions.

In the divine comedy that I’m talking about, we all. Without understanding it. Against our better judgment. Against our American instinct for economic accomplishment. Could very well find ourselves like George Bailey. Frustrated and wanting and vulnerable. Just scraping by. Wet-faced with tears of joy and humiliation. Dependent. Completely contingent. A few paychecks away from homelessness. Grinding out ordinary lives that occasionally seem schmaltzy and contrived and flawed by impatience and anger. But also tilting the world, however minutely, in the direction of the sun.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Characters in the Play

The characters in the play, in other words, need to help write the play. Write the play that fits the genre in which they wish to exist. The kind of world in which they want to live. Write themselves the kind of role they see for themselves. The kind of role they want to play.

The playwright has chosen to do only so much after all, and the characters must do their part. They must develop. Well. Their own character, their own logic. Their own attitudes. Their own motives. Their own particular places in the action.

It’s kind of like improv. Only instead of stand-up comedy, it’s stand-up narrative. Stand-up playing. Stand-up theater. You and the other actors in your play are all improvising your parts, largely.

I say play, but pick your literary form. Pick your medium. Could be a movie. Could be a novel. Could be a narrative poem. Could be. Oh, I don’t know. A TV show.

But here’s the idea. You’re an actor, see, if it’s in one of the performing arts. Or you’re an agent, if it’s purely literary. Purely written and not performed. A clue is that an agent is not fully human yet. So also is an actor with respect to his character. They are both proto-characters in search of their full human identity. Actor or agent in search of who they will be. Who they will choose to be. What role they will actually play. And that role may change. May evolve. One hopes it does, because with experience, one would hope there is some learning and some changing. As one interacts with others, develops relationships with others, one hopes one would change to accommodate the needs of others. One hopes for a dynamic quality to the performance.

In other words, you start off in the life of the narrative as something pretty close to a blank. A mere possibility. A possibility, however, that is qualified by certain constraints. Certain givens about your circumstance. Some are given more options than others here. And as the narrative progresses, you realize progressively more and more of the possibility you’ve been given. You make choices. You select a particular path through the landscape. Everywhere you go, there are branches off the path you are on, and you are therefore making choices all the time.

The path you take is selected from a many, many possible paths. You become individuated. Your genre almost selects you based on these individual choices you make. Let’s use weather as a metaphor for genre. So your path leads you to. Oh. San Diego, for example, where, except for the June Gloom, it is mostly sunny and warm. Comedic, let us say. Or you select a set of paths that take you to Barrow, Alaska, for example, where for six months of the year, it’s dark, and for most of the year, it’s cold. More of a potentially Tragic sort of a place, where you really must scramble to make any sort of a living at all, where there are few jobs to speak of, and where hunting and fishing are the principal occupations. Which is in contrast to San Diego, where the jobs are plentiful, of great variety. Et cetera.

But let’s shift our metaphor back to the theater, for a moment. So you’re an actor, let’s say. A male actor, who finds himself in a play, playing A, for example. A young man fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in English, of all things. (Who gets a degree in English, you moron? What were you thinking? You can’t get any sort of a job with a degree in English. A good-paying job, I mean. Oh, you can be a clerk or dishwasher or bathroom attendant. Yes. If you want a career in cash register jockeying, an English degree is ideal. But otherwise, you are up a sorry, stony, dried-up creek-bed without a paddle, Fella!)

Where was I? Oh. Then A meets B, a successful comedienne on Saturday Night Live. And that’s it. That’s all you’re given. Now you make up who you are as you go. And what you do. What your attitude is. What your values are. What you believe. What kind of a life you want. Improvise!

You decide what your genre will be. What kind of story you will live inside. What you’d like the beginning, middle, and end to look like. To live like.

For example, here’s one plot and implicit genre that you might try to fashion for yourself: A falls in love with B, but B doesn’t fall in love with A until late in the third act, when A goes to work for an NGO in Darfur. A is rivaled by C for B’s affections, a rich up-and-comer investment banker. C woos B in A’s absence. A feeds the hungry and contracts a disease that almost kills him. He’s rushed back to New York for critical medical care. B helps to nurse him back to health, revives his will to live type of deal. C proves himself to have been a linchpin in the development and sale of mortgage-backed securities. B finally rejects C for his moral bankruptcy. Word-play intended. A writes a best-selling book about his experiences in Darfur. A and B marry, taking an apartment together in SoHo, where they live a bon vivant type of life, routinely having parties for the cast of Saturday Night Live and the homeless, in which everyone yuks it up over hors d’oeuvres and drinks.

Or here’s another plot and implicit genre you might try on for size: A never falls in love. He’s kind of like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, except that instead of falling in and out of love, he never falls in love. He’s too demanding. Too picky. Too whiny. He meets a nearly infinite number of possible Bs, but each of them is faulty. Each of them is something less than perfect. A knows what he’s looking for. He knows exactly what he’s looking for. But he can’t find a B that meets all the requirements. So he becomes a career employee of the New York Public Library. He works in the bowls of the organization on obscure conservation projects. He slowly gets his MA in Library Science, one course at a time. He saves his money carefully for his retirement. He’s promoted slowly over the decades after he receives his MA. He begins to take winter vacations in Belize, where he delights in sea kayaking. He begins to dream of retiring early there. He saves his money carefully, almost never going out, eating macaroni and cheese for dinner or spaghetti, looking forward to the day when he can retire to Belize—he loves the sound of that word, when he says it—where he can live in the sun. But then one day, at his desk, he dies.

In other words, you have a great deal of latitude here. Particularly in North America. You in fact have a great deal of freedom. But so does everyone else. You may have difficulty getting your plot to turn out exactly as you wish, but your character and your attitude. That wonderful Mr. Wonderful You. Is the one aspect of this whole metaphor that you have quite significant choice over. (Particularly with 21st century psycho-active drugs.) And to the extent that character can increase the probability of genre—and it can quite profoundly—you always have that.

Plot. The particulars of plot. Well. That’s a bit more iffy. As I say. What with freedom running rampant all around us and a certain randomness embedded in everything.

But I’m repeating myself. But I’m repeating myself.

The point is that the structure of the world is open in some significant measure. Is open in the sense that much of it can be up to you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Metaphor That Changes the World

So the hypothesis that the structure of the world is fundamentally comedic is what all my examples at the beginning of the last post have in common. Or maybe you want to call it a theory, since there is some evidence for it. Some significant evidence. Take the recent history of South Africa as described in Desmond Tutu’s book.

If people are in fact forgiving. If they act consistent with the theory that forgiveness creates a better life for them. That love creates a better community. That love and forgiveness are possible and that they lead to better outcomes. That they themselves are in fact capable of the improbable emotions and intentions and plans and sacrifices that are bound up with love and forgiveness.

If people will not only entertain the theory but act on it, in contrast to all reasonable expectation. If people will allow themselves to be led into a simulacrum. Into a story in which vicious retribution, bloody revenge, descent into hatred and destruction are all set aside. Into a story in which the oppressors are forgiven. Are allowed to walk away. Free and carefree as birds.

If people will suspend their other less lovely ideas about the way the world works and entertain the comedic idea, no matter how improbable. No matter how apparently naïve. No matter how vulnerable this makes one. No matter how silly looking and perhaps unsophisticated and perhaps stupid-seeming. Perhaps unstylish or unwise or foolish. One may appear.

It may actually turn out to be true. Accurate. The comedic model may fit remarkably well. But its fit. Its reasonableness. Depends completely on our willingness to use it. To live in accordance with it. To operate as though loving and forgiving were our most natural and favored modes of being, of acting, of feeling, of believing, of doing. To live as though we were made to operate this way.

In other words, its use does require choice. Its operative reality does require intentionality. Choice sometimes in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. And contrary emotion. And pressure from others.

I remember, for example, decades ago now, a man who. Oh, the memory is dim. A man who was walking with his daughter. (Perhaps you remember him also. He became famous at the time.) This was in Northern Ireland. I don’t know which they were. Catholic or Protestant. Anyway, a bomb goes off. They are buried in rubble. The young woman is killed. The father survives and goes on the radio saying that he forgives those who did this terrible thing.

He repeatedly goes on the radio and the television also. And I think he was interviewed in the newspapers as well. And everywhere he proclaimed forgiveness. Everywhere for a time he was found to be saying the most ridiculous thing: that he forgave his attackers. His daughter’s murderers.

People called him crazy. Insane. They dismissed him as mentally defective. Because he forgave his enemies. Forgave the murderers of his daughter.

What was his trouble, really? It was that he reasoned by metaphor. He reasoned that the world really does have, underneath all the death and suffering and hate and oppression, a comedic structure. He reasoned that his role in this comedy was to live in accordance with this metaphor’s precepts. And so he forgave.

He was faithful to this idea about the world. He was faithful to this idea about his daughter. He was faithful to this idea about his community. He was faithful to this idea about how all of us are made. And what we are made for.

He was faithful to this idea no matter what. No matter that his beloved daughter had been slaughtered needlessly. For no good reason. A person he loved more than his own life.

And he was faithful to this idea when his friends and family maybe joined others in calling him crazy. Insane. Unfaithful to his daughter’s memory. Unfaithful to his daughter. Maybe.

He reasoned by metaphor that life was bigger and more important than his own anger. Than his own desire to destroy the people who would do such a horrible thing. He reasoned by narrative. He reasoned by story. And he found himself—found his real, actual, genuine, made-up, fictional, intentionally selected self—in a role in that story. In the role of protagonist. The role of lover. A lead role in his own story and the story of the world.

Monday, December 1, 2008

And When I Say Comedy

And when I say comedy, what I’m thinking of is, in no particular order, Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, the movie A Thousand Clowns, Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the Gospel of John, and other such simulacra.

Other such representations. Other such meditations. Other such narratives. Other such explorations into the world as a fortunate place, into the idea that life is. Well. Filled with cupidity and insanity and banality and terror and death and suffering and corruption and evil. But also into the idea that life has in it restoration and order and beauty and light-heartedness and enjoyment and vitality and love and generosity and forgiveness and word-play and a modicum of hilarity from time to time.

Explorations that discover a dark world where there are also the moon and stars. And ultimately the sun.

Narratives that acknowledge that while our particular lives end, our endings may not be all that bad. And they may very possibly be good.

And this is from someone who is a hospice volunteer. Who occupies himself with people who are dying.

I sit with people as they die. I sit with people whose brother or sister or wife will not sit with them as they die. So I see death. And I see a bit of suffering. And I see cowardice. In other words, I am not isolated from the real world in a world of books.

So when I say comedy, I mean something beyond Laurel and Hardy. There’s nothing wrong with Laurel and Hardy. I think The Music Box is a scream, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was a teenager, when I fell off the couch laughing as the classic short played on the television.

But let’s face it, the destruction of a home and the destruction of a player piano by idiots, while amusing, doesn’t discover much in the end but destruction and mayhem and guffaws. Low humor such as this can serve the purpose of amusement in a larger comedic structure, but this is not itself an example of the comedy I mean.

The comedy I mean is unlikely. Improbable. The skeptic in us momentarily rebels at the comedic ending. But we put him down. We put down the skeptic in order to let the restoration or the salvation or the consummation or the survival of love in the ending stand.

Oh it may sometimes stand a bit shakily, depending upon our phase of life. Depending somewhat on our life experience. On whether we are clinically depressed or not, for example. On whether we have lost people we’ve loved.

And this shakiness is part of what comedy discovers also. It requires something of us—a steadying hand, in some sense. It requires a willingness to overlook whatever contrivance there might be. A willingness to forget something of what we think we know about the way the world works. And to remember hope. And to remember possibility. Consciously. Deliberately. As a matter of choice.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The River of the Water of This Life

Early in our marriage, before children, Pat and I took a road trip through Maine. One of our stops was in The Forks, where the Dead River joins the Kennebec.

The idea was to raft the Kennebec, putting in north of The Forks, just below the dam near Indian Pond. It was early morning. Sun just up. The dam and the put-in were in a gorge a few hundred feet high, the rock walls intensifying the water’s roar. The water was hilly, as we stood there on the bank, the hills standing considerably above our heads, and the declivities below them a bit dark and obscure.

In other words, we were terrified. It was our first time in serious white water. We entered the raft a bit shaky in the knees and voices and sinews. We felt absolutely swallowed already by the end-of-time noise the water made. Death was here. The great huge potentiality of death. Death was everywhere in the blackness of the water. In the shaded darkness of the frothy white.

But there was also a liveliness. An intensity and immediacy and presence and energy that one associates with life itself. An elemental quickness and the possibility of comedy, of a tour de force ending, in which all things turn out well, some distance down river, where the walls diminish and the fields open up and the sun pours in.

We paddled with the rest of the people in our raft. I think there were seven of us altogether. As we began to nose over into our first major rapid—Magic Falls—I thought surely I would die, it was so deep and dark and shiny and glistening. While the rest of the people sensibly held on, both Pat and I flipped up and out at the base of the fall, suddenly swimming in a souse hole large enough to miniaturize a Greyhound bus.

After a time. What seemed like a day or two. We bobbed to the surface and floated, submerged by standing wave after standing wave, for. Oh. I don’t know. What seemed like a very long way. Thinking. Thinking what? Of course that we would surely die. Thinking all the while how difficult breathing ends up being when one is submerged. How difficult life is when lived underwater.

Isn’t that what living’s like? Normal living? Sometimes? School and work and marriage and children and family and friends type of living? Being alone type of living? Being asked to do more than one can possibly do type of living? All of it’s hard sometimes. The whole blessed trip. One feels like one cannot get one’s breath, one is so submerged in the days that come over one like so many standing waves.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reasoning By Metaphor

“Rather than discussing and debating Trinitarian doctrine and what it means for Jesus to be both human and divine, why don’t we just all agree to call Jesus ‘The Word of God?’ And end the discussion.”

Oh, I don’t know. I maybe have a couple of the words only approximately right. But I’ve captured it about 80% accurately, I think.

This is what a new friend said the other day as we were digesting a delicious lunch that he and his bride had generously made and shared with Pat and me. And as we were chatting. Incurably chatting.

And then I said something like, “Yes. Why don’t we try reasoning by metaphor rather than by….”

“Dialectic,” my new friend said.

“Yes. Dialectic. The method by which words are turned into mathematical analogs.”

And that got me to thinking, and as I thought, I remembered something that Phyllis Tickle taught me some years ago:

God be in my head
And in my understanding.
God be in my mouth
And my speaking.
God be in my heart
And my thinking.
God be at mine end
And my departing.

This is a Celtic prayer of which I’ve found several variants and which I occasionally say in the course of saying prayers from Phyllis’s Divine Hours. And in fact, I keep it in my wallet these days and pull it out and pray it occasionally.

It seems to reinforce this idea, doesn’t it? I mean, that one does one’s thinking with one’s heart, if one is thinking properly. If one is thinking clearly and precisely and effectively.

I think philosophical method misunderstands its medium.

I remember a seminar one day many years ago in which we were discussing Gertrude Stein and her experiments with words. Her attempts to use words in such a way that she strips the words of all meaning. Experiments in which syntax is completely reinvented with respect to the words, so that the words become merely sounds, with no sense.

Someone in the seminar that day said something like, “Yes. What she seems to be doing is stripping words of an essential quality, as if a painter were working only with transparent paint. Various tubes of transparent paint.” As I recall, the comment stopped the discussion.

What I guess I’m insinuating is that dialectic and the sort of discourse that supports dialectical method may not be the best way to proceed in the field of theology. Or the best principal way. It may attempt to strip something essential out of the way words themselves are designed to be used.

Perhaps words and their meanings have more to do with our hearts than our heads. Perhaps mathematical symbols are closest to what our heads use, and words are closest to what our hearts use to understand the world. To apprehend experience. To comprehend what the senses bring to us.

And maybe that’s why poetry and story are so much what the Bible is and what Jesus said and did. Poetry and story seem. Oh, I don’t know. What words seem to be made for.

And yes. We do go to philosophy and philosophic method for help. Just as in everyday life we do go to mathematics for help. But dialectical use of language and mathematical use of arbitrary symbols are both servants to. Well. Story. The story, in the first instance, of our lives.

Our lives in which we experience God.

And the story, in the second instance, of the Bible. God’s Word.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

November Leaves

Walking away from work, workful still and grateful to have meaningful work to do in this desolate time. This time of stripped wealth and wintery expectations. I cross a parking lot to my car where the wind moves the brown, dry oak leaves back and forth. Lifts them. Turns them. Then drops them again and sends them scuttling across the concrete. This way and that. Dead and scratchy leaves animated by wind.

The tree where more than a year ago I saw a red-tailed hawk brilliantly light and perch in the rich green-and-red-and-yellow-turning color of the leaves is now bare as bones stood up in the dark. Leafless. A place for the cold wind now to make its grieving home.

Day’s end. Walking away from work, I’m thinking of money. Money. Money. Money. How it appears and disappears as if by spirit-work. As if spirits swelled it and diminished it, outside of our knowledge or control. As if it were more idea than substance, or if substance, then a spirit substance, different from all others we know of.

We work for money but if only so, it’s poor compensation for what we do. Or try to do.

Really, it’s never enough, is it? Money. We never have enough. It’s never enough to enliven this November place. This place of chill wind, bare trees, and dry leaves skittering across concrete, a walk alone across the pale concrete. The material world stripped to this staccato hissing of the leaves manipulated by wind.

It never quite gets at what we’re looking for from work, either. It never measures up to the sense we have of infinite expenditure. For what? A few dollars? Many dollars?

The expenditure of self. Of possibility. Of one’s only now. And now. And now. The infinite now that we expend in work.

For what? For money. Yes. A sufficiency. Yes. But there is more to this than that. Our hearts tell us that. Our hearts tell us that the sufficiency we work for once reached leaves us. Well. Skittering around in wind like this. Shed. Killed. In a season that maybe we choose more than we know.

Because we fail to know the other purposes well enough. The other possibilities of our work.

My view’s this. God’s given us something here that’s manifold. That’s non-finite and immaterial. Something that bears his signature and his name.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

But You Say

But you say, Bill! Bill! I thought you understood language better than that. I thought you were sensitive to the actual meanings of words, unlike so many others writing about God and man today. Writing about the nature of God and the nature of man and the nature of their relation today.

Or if it isn’t you, it’s someone.

So let’s say someone, who will remain nameless, says, Bill! Bill! I am disappointed in your careless use of language. Your sloppy slovenly slatternly slothful slinging around of ideas. Your callous disregard for our linguistic contract, one with another. Your fraudulent synonymous use of contradiction and paradox. It is immoral. It is reprehensible. It is indefensible. It breaks our linguistic contract, which is really our social contract, one with another.

But let me explain. I must admit to having a little fun. I must admit to playing a little fast and loose with the words. A little bit of a slight-of-hand with the words in my head. My head-hand. A little logical loop-de-loop. A little bit of a semantic shell game. But it’s all in a good cause. Really. Trust me. Really.

What I’m trying to get at here is that real contradictions are all around us. True contradictions. Everywhere we look. It’s not like one or the other pole of all these contradictions is true and the other false. What I’m saying is that both are often in some sense true and in some sense not true. Both are planted firmly in the ground, and both are planted merely in space—in a gas that is somewhat clouded by particulates.

And what I am saying adamantly and ambiguously is that these true contradictions merely appear to contradict one another. The poles of this truth/not truth continuum merely appear to be at odds with one another. Seem to want dominate one over the other or eradicate one another or falsify one another.

What I’m saying is that the contradiction is apparent. Merely apparent. And real.

I am bringing the logic of quantum mechanics to bear upon the logic of larger life. The logic of the quantum world to bear upon the spiritual world. The life of spiritual ideas about the world. The life of ideas about God and man and the relation between them.

I’m importing the experience of the mystic. The experience of the marvelous. The experience of the sacred. Of the holy One. The experience of the possible Impossible, the spiritual but material. Into quotidian Christian discourse.

Oh that sounds presumptuous, doesn’t it? Absurd. Ridiculous. Silly. Unlikely. Doomed.

Maybe. Likely, perhaps. But one really has no choice in the matter. One is given nothing else that seems. Oh. So possibly useful as this. To do with one’s time.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Or maybe what I’m thinking is not what I’m saying. Or maybe what I’m saying is not what I’m thinking. Or maybe what I’m thinking is not what I’m thinking. Or maybe what I’m saying is not what I’m saying.

I’m reminded of the line from the TV show, Step By Step many years ago. A character by the name of Cody is an idiot. He’s a fortunate idiot because he is irremediably jovial, good-spirited, and optimistic. Everyone likes him because of his effervescent personality. But as I say, he appears to have the IQ of a bag of rocks. This also is endearing.

However, Cody takes the SATs. He’s a high school student, and he’s thinking of going to college, and he is told that people in his circumstance need to take the SATs. So he does, along with a young woman. I forget her name. Also a high school student and also a regular on the show. A person who also wants to go to college and who also takes the SATs. But she comes across as quite bright. She makes sure that she does. She tries to be smart and tries to convince others that she’s brainy. That’s her character.

But it turns out that Cody achieves a higher score on the SATs than she does. I forget the scores. I think both of them were in the high 600s or low 700s on the math and verbal. But I don’t remember.

The young woman can’t understand this. It doesn’t make any sense at all. She gets quite upset at Cody or the universe or God or all three. And Cody tries to say something that will explain what appears to be a black hole in the logic of the universe. Tries to say something to excuse himself for appearing so bright when he also appears so lacking in intelligence. He tries to apologize to the outraged young woman. So he says, “My brain must have a mind of its own.”

Whenever I am down. Whenever I’m feeling depressed or out of sorts, I think of this line. And it cracks me up. Every time. “My brain must have a mind of its own.”

The classic dialetheia—a true contradiction—is exemplified by the following statements applied to Cody, let’s call him, who is straddling a doorway, with one foot in a room and one foot in the hallway outside the room: (1) Cody is in the room; (2) Cody is not in the room.

I think this is the situation that God is in. What I mean is that God is fundamentally contradictory. A paradox. A paradox. A most ingenious paradox.

He’s in the room, and he’s not in the room.

Hey, he’s God, remember. He can be anything and anywhere he likes.

If you hypothesize parallel universes (and we have a good deal of company here) you can have Cody fully in the room and fully outside the room, simultaneously. So using this paradigm, you have no need of the straddling business.

And of course, you have light, which behaves simultaneously like a particle and like a wave.

And so. What I’m suggesting is that maybe God and maybe elements or aspects of his creation. Are dialetheias. Maybe true contradictions are all around. Maybe there is something fundamental here that is paradoxical and that is recalcitrantly and irremediably so.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Paradoxically Speaking

So what am I saying, you are wondering? How can God be both-and rather than either-or. Or why would he, is maybe the better question, since God can be anything he likes. He’s God, after all.

Why would God be this way, though? Why would he choose to be a tiger-lamb? Why would he be the God of the parable of the talents and the God of the prodigal son? Why would he be heaving a person into outer darkness for burying God’s money to protect it, on the one hand, and welcoming home and forgiving a person who had squandered half of God’s wealth, on the other?

Does this make sense to you? Doesn’t it sound more like standup comedy than theological truth? Doesn’t it sound like the joke about the eggs? The one in the movie Annie Hall: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don't you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’”

Or doesn’t it sound more like Zen Buddhism than your father’s Christianity? For example, here’s a koan: “Chokan had a very beautiful daughter named Seijo. He also had a handsome young cousin named Ochu. Joking, he would often comment that they would make a fine married couple. Actually, he planned to give his daughter in marriage to another man. But young Seijo and Ochu took him seriously; they fell in love and thought themselves engaged. One day Chokan announced Seijo's betrothal to the other man. In rage and despair, Ochu left by boat. After several days journey, much to his astonishment and joy he discovered that Seijo was on the boat with him!

“They went to a nearby city where they lived for several years and had two children. But Seijo could not forget her father; so Ochu decided to go back with her and ask the father's forgiveness and blessing. When they arrived, he left Seijo on the boat and went to the father's house. He humbly apologized to the father for taking his daughter away and asked forgiveness for them both.

"’What is the meaning of all this madness?’ the father exclaimed. Then he related that after Ochu had left, many years ago, his daughter Seijo had fallen ill and had lain comatose in bed since. Ochu assured him that he was mistaken, and, in proof, he brought Seijo from the boat. When she entered, the Seijo lying ill in bed rose to meet her, and the two became one.

“Zen Master Goso, referrring to the legend, observed, ‘Seijo had two souls, one always sick at home and the other in the city, a married woman with two children. Which was the true soul?’"

Why, for example, does Jesus tell his disciples that God withholds himself from some people and reveals himself to others? Isn’t God just? Isn’t he supposed to be just? Isn’t he supposed to be available to everybody, no matter his race, color, creed, national origin, or eye color? Isn’t God an equal opportunity God?

Why does God have particular affection for King David, a man who commits adultery and commits murder and has a houseful of sex slaves, or more euphemistically, concubines?

Why does God say to Adam that he will surely die if he eats the apple, and when Adam eats the apple, he doesn’t die?

How is it possible for a good God to send an evil spirit into Saul? Isn’t God good? Isn’t the spirit he sends the Holy Spirit? Versus the spirit that the devil sends, which is an evil spirit? Are God and the devil two faces of the same being?

What kind of God do we have here, after all? Is he a fair God or an unfair God? Is he a judgmental God or a forgiving God? Is he a kind-hearted God or a hard-hearted God? Is he here to support and encourage us, or is he here to pull our feet out from under us? Is he capricious, or is he steady and dependable? Is he destructive or creative?

Will the true God please stand up? Will the real God please raise his hand?

But I think he has, don’t you? I think he has raised his hand. I think he has stood up. And he is Jesus. And Jesus has sacrificed himself rather than harm anyone. He has raised the dead and healed the sick and spoken encouragement to the oppressed, spoken good news to the oppressed.

But still there is paradox, right? Still there is the parable of the talents. Still there is the threat or promise of judgment. Still Jesus hid himself from the priestly class and God the Father and God the Holy Spirit helped to hide him from the priestly class. To them and to the privileged, he was blasphemous, while to the people, he was holy. He was God.

Why was he not God to everyone? Why didn’t he want to allow everyone to experience him as God? Why didn’t he want to bring hope and love and forgiveness to everyone? Maybe the oppressors don’t deserve it. Maybe their souls are so foul that Jesus will have nothing to do with them.

Then there is the camel and the needle’s eye. And so for even the privileged there may be possibility. But one guesses they would need to change to get access to that possibility. They would need to actually accept the invitation to the wedding feast.

They’d actually have to give up their independence. Their stand-offishness. Their haughtiness. Their self-sufficiency. Their self-righteousness. Their privacy. Their solitude. Their hard-heartedness. They’d actually have to want to see Jesus. To experience him. As God. As present. They’d actually have to want to depend upon him somehow. To sit at his feet like Mary. To run to find themselves a place in a tree along his path so that they might see him over the heads of the crowd.

I say they. I mean they. But I also mean we.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Cat is Back

I’ve written elsewhere and a pastor friend has also written elsewhere about my experience. Oh. Since the age of 15 maybe. Something like that. Through periods of atheism and agnosticism and belief. Of God during worship. God wandering the sanctuary, as the congregation sings, growling around, rubbing up against my person, like a great jungle cat. Tall as my sternum. Making me tingly. Making me feel.

How should I say this. Frightened and hopeful and a little bit leaky around the window-shades and excited and loved and loving and naked and. Well. Like I could just as easily be God’s lunch as his pet.

It is literally a hair-raising experience. And when I have this experience, I feel also. Of all things. Reassured.

What? You are thinking. Reassured? By a God that is so fundamentally other. So dangerous. So clearly capable of rending one limb from limb. So ready and willing to rend one limb from limb.

And I know. I’m thinking the same thing. Open-mouthed. Gawking at my own paradoxical reaction. My own odd feelings.

I don’t know. This is what love is, is what I’m feeling. This is what at heart I long for. I ache for this. I look forward to this. To the terrible jungle cat showing up and rubbing up against me.

It happened today during worship. Today, he showed up again during worship. And it’s. Oh. I want to weep with happiness that he has chosen to come back.

Maybe this is what I mean. Maybe this suggests something of what I mean. When I talk about mystic believer priests. About the priesthood of mystic believers.

Maybe what I mean is that for us, being the slaves of Christ is not about us. It is not about us at all. We are just his slaves, after all. Our ontological status is just above the pigs and not far from the dirt clods. And being made of the dirt, this seems fitting.

In other words, our being is not about us. Our being is about him and looking for him and finding him and doing what he asks. It’s about loving him. It’s about trembling with love for him. It is about trembling to do what he asks because he is our beloved.

It’s about wanting to live in his presence always. No matter how frightening. And it is frightening. Don’t let anybody fool you with talk of how God is a lamb. Of how God is a lamb only.

God is a tiger in a lambs’ body. A lamb in a tiger’s body. Both. God will tear your insides out as soon as look at you. And he does. He demands the most difficult things. And when one is shy. When one hesitates. He tears out one’s insides. Strews them all about the place.

God is love. But he is tiger love and lamb love both, at once. He is pussy cat love and jungle cat love at once. With God, anything may happen.

After he eviscerates you, for example, you find yourself whole again. Mended. Healed. That does happen. It happens all the time. The eviscerating and the healing, both. Sometimes both at once.

You find him showing up at worship again, for example. Rubbing up against you. Growling. Purring. Inviting you again into something that you think, maybe, he actually means. Means for you. Something that is certainly improbable but may be. If looked at in the right light. Possible.

But you don’t know. You are a mystic believer priest. And you don’t know. All you do know is who you love. And you do that fiercely. Frighteningly. Out of all proportion. Completely. And with abandon.

You look for him until you find him. Then you stay there and do what he says. Or go, if he says so. Stay or go, as he wishes. Doing whatever asked. No matter what that is.

Why? Why? you ask. For the pleasure of his company. For the infinite delight one finds near him. And nowhere else.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Odd how oppression may not feel like oppression to oppressors. I’m thinking of a homily a week ago. The person speaking brought up the AIDs epidemic in Africa and our response to it. The response of the drug companies, the way they price their drugs, and America’s response. Our financial response. Our humanitarian response. Our Christian response.

He wondered if that wouldn’t look like oppression to us if we were poor people in Africa rather than relatively well-off people in the U.S.

That got me thinking about the priestly class in first century Israel. About Jesus getting in the faces of the priests. Getting in the faces of the priestly class of Israel in the first century. Accusing them of oppression. Of oppressing the people. With their many rules, laws really. Their standard of perfection.

I’m wondering about our current priestly class and about whether they are also oppressive. I don’t know. I know some pretty gentle and gracious and smart and kindly pastors and ministers and priests. So it’s hard to think of them as oppressive, really. They don’t exhibit the style of the first century Israel priests.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve run across a number who do quite obviously resemble the first century Israel priests, but I don’t associate with that group very much. I hang around people who are more generous, more encouraging, more affirming, and more loving than I perceive their first century counterparts to have been. By about a mile. Maybe a million miles.

But just as oppression may not be obvious for oppressor nations, one over the other, or oppressor continents, one over the other, maybe it makes sense to ask the question as to whether our priestly class today uses their privilege oppressively. I bring up the question. I don’t have the answer.

Well I do have an attempt at an answer, but I don’t feel confident in it. I think there are ideas that get hold of all of us, ideas that have something apparently right in them but that are wrong. Ideas about God and our relation to him.

I have written extensively in this blog about the idea of Christlikeness—the idea that we should all be like Christ. I find this idea and this task oppressive. I don’t know about you, but I don’t measure up very well. I stand Christ up so that I can see him, and then I look in the mirror.

And what I find there is a great disparity. A great contrast. A contrast that is so great that it is depressing. Because it is impossible. There is no way to come out of that experience—for me—without feeling like I should just walk away.

Like I should give up. Go do something else. Because this task is something I cannot do.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Story, Indeed?

But of course, one is blessed and challenged by a particular story. One’s own particular story. As that story intersects and interpenetrates and morphs into and out of all the other stories that are proximate to one’s own. A story that is informed by many distant ones that books and plays and art and movies and videos and lives and conversations and relationships bring home.

A story that at every moment of one’s life, one is writing, revising, rewriting, remembering, interpreting, mulling, considering, reconsidering, piecing together, imagining both retroactively and proactively, sorting out, making sense of, repudiating, embracing, rebelling against, reconciling oneself to, asking forgiveness for, asking guidance concerning, and pretending is something it isn’t. One is the most active participant in the making and remaking and discovering and rediscovering and obfuscating and denying of what one’s story actually is.

I’m reminded of Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner’s terrible wonderful novel of the South. A novel that is about story-making in the context of certain destructive and dominant ideas in the 18th and 19th and 20th century American South. And it is about story-discovering on the part of multiple narrators who are all participants in the larger story of a self-destructive family that does have certain resemblances to King David’s family. Hence, the novel’s title. I’m reminded of this particular novel because it is a favorite of a fellow who I had lunch with today.

It is a commonplace in many churches today to talk about story. About stories in the Bible. About one’s particular story. And it is usual to talk about one’s particular Christian story as one’s “testimony.” I find this way of thinking and talking odd on several counts.

First, I find it odd that one’s story and one’s testimony are conflated. Are made out to be one thing, when in fact they are not. One’s story is an ongoing thing. It is much larger than the several selected and related events that one recounts publicly to connect one to the Christian story of love, forgiveness, and resurrection.

Second, I find that testimony is a story of a particular kind—a story that gathers its meanings around the courtroom metaphor. In other words, the metaphorical context is judgment, not marriage or resurrection or celebrating or the rescuing of the lost. And this is not consistent with the metaphors Jesus likes to use with the sinners and common people to whom he ministers by acting out and telling his stories.

Third, we do know that story-making is complex. Much more complex than the testimonies that we use to entertain ourselves and one another. We live inside many stories, and the authors of these larger stories are multitudes. We are characters in hundreds, thousands, perhaps many billions of stories simultaneously. We are the intersections of history, the eternal now, and the future, each of us. Each of us relates one another to one another through time and timelessness.

Fourth, we are spirit vessels and our lives are the expression of spirit, the out-working of spiritual matters. And our stories, to the extent they represent our spirit-selves truly, employ an infinite palate of metaphor. Of trope and figure. Because everywhere they go they are informed by the Manifold, the Infinite, the Mystery of God.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What Story, Then?

One wonders what story, then? One wonders that if we shouldn’t live inside the story of judgment, the story of condemnation, the story of punishment, what should we do? What can we do? I mean, isn’t this the story in which the rest of humanity is living? Isn’t this the story that the rest of humanity puts on each morning with their clothes? Is not the jurisprudence system required for orderly living? Isn’t civilization dependent on the judgment paradigm being one of the dominant modes or themes of its citizens’ lives?

If civilization depends on the jurisprudence story—and the institutions and power assertion and social contract that allows these—for the enforcement of its orderliness, its safety, its predictability, its promise of happiness, then what does this imply about civilization’s interest in the Kingdom of God? Aren’t the Kingdom of Judgment and the Kingdom of God at odds with one another? Isn’t the conflict between these in our own minds and in our behavior at the heart of the Christian Drama? At the heart of the choice we are daily asked to make as Christians?

Doesn’t Jesus ask us to choose our story? Do you want to live in the world and affirm the world of worldly ideas, beliefs, expectations, and moral choices? Or do you want to live in the world of heaven and affirm the world of heavenly ideas, beliefs, expectations, and moral choices? Do you want God’s order or the world’s order? Do you want God’s justice or the world’s justice?

Do you want to be the bringer of the good news or the bad news? Do you want to be an agent of change or the status quo? Do you want to reveal heaven or more of the same sorry, sad world? Do you want to look for and save the lost, or do you want to leave the lost to their own devices?

Sin through Jesus’s eyes is what we all do most of the time because of the story we choose to live inside. We choose condemnation and punishment for the transgressions of others, not suspension of consequences and forgiveness.

Oh, we say to ourselves and one another, civilization would break down. We need to protect ourselves from the scoundrels. From the thieves and the rapists and the murderers. From the liars and the cheats. From the charlatans and the confidence men.

And so are we protected? Does our story of jurisprudence protect us? Does it, for example, keep people from doing evil? I don’t know. It seems like there is a lot of evil in the world, even though there is a lot of jurisprudence.

Have you been following the presidential debates? And the ads? The campaign speeches and sound bytes? I have, a little. And what I see and hear are people who believe that lying and fraudulent misrepresentation are okay. These are people who want our confidence. Who want our votes. And this is openly done. It is repeatedly done.

When the fact-checkers come on after one of these speeches or these debates—the next day, usually—we discover that both of them have told dozens of lies. Are fraudulently distorting many, many facts. Their ads do the same.

What should we do? Will jurisprudence help us here? Should we put both candidates and all their handlers in jail for lying to us? Lying to us over and over. And pretending they are telling the truth? Smiling at us like a couple of power-mad idiots through it all?

These people are competing to be the most powerful person on the planet. And here they are. In front of us. The most common dissemblers. The vilest liars and cheats. Trying to picture themselves as devoted family men. As devoted public servants. As patriotic. As honest. As straight-talkers. As men we can depend on to lead us wisely, virtuously. As men we can rely on to do the right thing.

Why are they lying so unashamedly? So transparently? So repeatedly? Is it because they can? Is it because there is no judicial restraint? No legal consequence?

That is of course how the world works. If it isn’t illegal, it’s okay. It’s fair game. By definition, if it isn’t illegal, we may do it. And it must be good enough.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Trope, Trope, Trope

I can’t keep them straight. Tropes, figures, dreams, metaphors, stories, films, parables, proverbs, morals, aphorisms, similes, visions, simulacrums, analogs, avatars, paradigms, frameworks, plays, playacting, actors, agents, dramas, songs, singing, narratives, narratology, music, opera, musical scores, novels, poems, dance, painting, sculpture, symphonies, and so forth.

We are always making. We are always creating something to stand for the thing. For the idea. For the feeling. For the gesture. For the movement. For the change. For the sensibility. For the experience. For the opening onto understanding.

To stand apart from the living so that we can get some. Oh, I don’t know. Get some hope. Some faith. Some sense. Of what it is. What it may possibly be. Or mean. And how we may fit in. How we may fit it. How we may become someone who has a place in this possibility that is not us. But that is us.

And what I sometimes think is that words were given to us as the separateness. The God-made instrument for our setting up of these structures. These twice-made transformations. That we might get some distance from the rest of what the world is and we are. So that we might possibly know a bit about the original Making. The original Being. The original Knowing. And the consequent Living.

And the eventual Judgment. I’ve been writing about judgment. I’ve been writing about jurisprudence as a metaphor for Judgment. Something that does not belong to us. Something that is not ours to do. Something that is a metaphor or a trope or a figure for what. Well. May happen to us.

But it is not something for Jesus to do either. Even he is not charged with this. Not yet. Someday. But not yet.

God himself has not given himself this gesture. This possibility. This ability. This charge. This right. This responsibility. This authority. Not yet. So why would we? Why would we look for this? Why would we ever accept this? Why would we ever believe this is something we would be permitted? Allowed? Granted? Asked? Commanded? Why would we ever believe we have any business with this? Why would we ever believe we would not be struck down if we were to do this?

I’m thinking of the woman caught in adultery. Who is brought to Jesus. To God. To the son of Man. Who suspends judgment. Who suspends punishment. Who brings grace to the woman and to those who would stone her. Thank God. Who refuses to Judge. Who refuses to allow others to Judge.

No matter Paul. Set Paul aside for the moment. Listen to Jesus. Judgment is not his. It is not now. And it is never ours. Listen. Do not judge, lest you be judged at the appointed time. Do not seek this. Do not ever look for the opportunity. Because this. Of all things. Is certainly perdition. Is certainly torment and destruction. Is certainly hell both here and hereafter. Listen to Jesus. This is not tangential. This is not optional. This is central. He is quite clear on this point. Let us all. Everyone of us. Move on from here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

More Jury Duty

And then there’s my hero, Pat. My wife. Who has jury duty on the same day I do. Tells the judge during questioning that. Well. Having no people of color called for jury duty is just plain unfair and wrong. It’s just not right. She tells the judge that the jury duty process should include making sure that there are people of color called when a defendant is a person of color.

“People are going to be biased,” she says. “They may not want to think of themselves that way, but they are.”

The prosecutor wants to know more. He wants to know what she means. So she tells him. She tells him that many white people are biased. They can’t help it. And because of this, she’d be biased in the other direction. She’d be an advocate for the defendant in the jury room. She will stick up for him on principle. Because there is no one of color to stick up for him. To argue for his side in the jury room.

“Do you mean you won’t look at the evidence impartially?” the prosecutor wants to know.

“Of course, not,” she says. “I just told you that because of what you have done here. Because you have an all-white jury. I’ll be forced to look at the evidence differently. I’ll be forced to be his advocate in the jury room.”

And so the prosecutor moves to eliminate her for cause. And so the judge agrees and sends her packing. Sends her into outer darkness for being partial to the defendant.

So I’m left along with the others. The other defectives trying to demonstrate that we can be impartial. That we can detect the truth and nothing but the truth. That we can be fair. That we will weigh all the evidence equally. With equanimity and prudence. With high-mindedness and pristine attitudes that have been unaffected by history or by conviction. So to say.

But I think what has happened is that I’ve become contaminated. Contaminated with my wife. With my wife’s partiality cooties. I think in the mind of the prosecutor I’m already in the defendant’s corner.

But also, come to think of it, I’m contaminated in his mind because I’ve asked him questions about some inane line of questioning he was on. Because I didn’t know what he meant by “hesitancy.” Because I simply didn’t go along with the inanity.

“Hesitancy,” he kept saying, “doesn’t mean that you can’t be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Just because the evidence that is presented makes you hesitate, you shouldn’t believe that this should keep you from finding a verdict of guilty.”

And so as I question him about what “hesitancy” means, he seems to become even more inarticulate. A number of people look up, with a look on their faces that seems to say, “I don’t understand that either.” A woman at the break thanks me for speaking up, because she doesn’t understand what his “hesitancy” is all about. And why the others were pretending to understand. Why the others were answering his questions about this as though they understood.

“Do you mean the evidence may not be valid or persuasive?” I asked the prosecutor. “If this is what you mean, this would be normal. This is why they have juries, to weigh and test the evidence. Evidence that may be flawed. This is why the jury process is called the deliberative process.”

Bottom line, I’m not chosen either. I’m not cast into outer darkness, but in the end, the outcome’s just the same. I’m not admitted to the heaven of jurisprudence. To the privilege of judging my fellow man.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Jury Duty

First time here. I’m a jury selection process virgin. So I look around. Open my eyes and ears wider than usual. Some very heavy women, one of whom sits next to me, shoving me to the opposite edge of my chair and breathing like Darth Vader so that the whole room can listen with expectation to the details of each breath. A few heavy men. A kid who works at a fast food joint. An accountant. A truck driver. A couple of teachers. A construction project manager. A buyer. A young man with no teeth in front whose father was convicted of sexually abusing the young man’s sisters. The son of a detective in another county. A former elementary school principal. A woman whose friend was murdered some years ago.

Nine men and one woman own among them about 45 handguns and shotguns and rifles. Useful for recreation. For hunting and target shooting reasons, they say. This is out of a universe of 25 possible jurors. You could outfit a pretty effective terror cell with hardware like that, I’m thinking.

It’s a criminal trial. It isn’t murder, but it’s close. A crime involving a gun. The use of a gun. The defendant—a young black man in white shirt and tie. A man in custody. A man whose shackles around his ankles are not visible beneath the table from where we’re sitting. The only black man in a white room. A room with maybe 45 white people in it, and we’re in the Midwest. So it’s a very white room. All of us present to consider his case. And one another’s qualifications to judge. To sit in judgment of one another first. Then him. Of this young black man. Whether we like it or not.

Judgment is critical here, which the prosecutor makes plain. “Are you comfortable judging?” he wants to know. “That is what you will have to do. If you are selected for the jury.”

“Are you comfortable sitting in judgment of someone else? Of this man over here, for example?”

We all sit here thinking. Eyes open. Wondering if this guy really does understand what he’s asking. Wondering whether this guy reads books at all, has read the Bible at all, thinks about the various meanings of a question like this. Hears the various meanings of a question like this as he utters it. The various contexts of a question like this, beyond the particular context he has in mind.

Context One: This particular trial, which the prosecutor clearly has in mind. Context Two: Any criminal or civil proceeding. Context Three: Our lives outside of the purely judicial context. Context Four: Eternity. For example.

I want to say something like, “You vile creature! Are you comfortable judging someone else? Is your conscience clear and clean as a newborn’s? Are you untroubled by your job? By what happens to the miserable souls of the accused when you succeed? Do you experience an untroubled sleep? What price does justice exact, do you imagine?” But I don’t. I hum quietly to myself, under Darth Vader’s breathing.

The prosecutor talks a lot about the standard of proof in a criminal trial: “Convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” he says. “Not convinced beyond all doubt.

“Do you understand the difference?” he wants to know. “Does anyone have difficulty understanding the difference?”

I want to raise my hand, but I don’t. It isn’t worth it. This is another existential question. Another eternal question. Another question over which one could make a career in philosophy, for example. In linguistics. In poetry. In prose fiction. I want to debate this with him. It deserves a thoroughgoing analysis. A far-ranging discussion. But we are not in a classroom, I’m thinking. We are not in my living-room. This isn’t a discussion group. We are not so much interested in getting at an answer to this question.

No, we are much more interested in finishing up by 4:30 this afternoon. Much more interested in getting our list whittled down to 12 plus an alternate. Much more interested in weeding out the obviously incompetent. The racists. The cop haters. The slavish cop lovers. The people who are too busy to take this seriously. The people who don’t understand that the current theory of criminal jurisprudence in this country is that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The people who have trouble with arithmetic tests involving single-digit numbers.

First things first. So when he asks the question and makes a gesture that puts “convinced beyond all doubt” physically above “convinced beyond all reasonable doubt” in space—one hand about belly high and the other hand well over head high—none of us raises his or her hand and says, “Yes. I have difficulty. Please explain the difference. Gesturing doesn’t cut it. Stop your inane gesturing. Give us the criteria. Give us the infallible tests.”

None of us says anything like this. No. We look at him like a bunch of idiots. A bunch of parishioners. A bunch of students hoping we don’t flunk. A bunch of dopy pilgrims. Hoping that we are not publicly humiliated by a guy. Well. A guy who…. Oh, I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t say anything.

I don’t know. I get the impression that in this particular little world. This little artificial reality we’ve all agreed to buy into here. That if we are ejected from this process, we are defective. Morally or intellectually defective. And I think we’ve agreed that if this were to happen to us, it would be similar to being exiled to outer darkness. Similar to being sentenced to hell. Oh, maybe not by God, but by somebody who is delegated God-like power here. In this simulacrum of the actual world.

So, what are we, I’m wondering. What are we in this pretend little analogical world in which the judge is given God-like power and in which the attorneys for the prosecution and defense sit at the right and left hands of God? A trumped-up little world in which that black man over there waits also to be judged by all this heavenly whiteness?

Maybe we are the candidate humans trying to be Christ-like. Trying to appear fair and even-handed. Peaceful, forgiving people. Trying to rise above the profanity of our larger lives. People working for a seat in heaven by the avoidance of sin. The avoidance of the appearance of fault or imperfection or sin or defect. No, we aren’t racist, we insist. No, we have nothing but unmitigated love and respect for the police and black people and people of color and all people everywhere.

We are always fair and balanced. We have no prejudices or weaknesses of mind or spirit. No, we have no difficulty understanding improbable distinctions. Impossible direction. No, we are tabula rasae. Clean of mind and spirit. No, we haven’t ever dreamt about putting a bullet into the temple of an enemy. A rich man. A person with privilege or power. Someone like you, for example. Or wittingly imagined it, either. Not us. Not me. No. Not anyone here.