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.


Jesse said...

Hey Uncle Bill, do you ever (have you ever) read Frederick Buechner? I just read today a sermon of his called "The Two Stories." Thought you might resonate with it, should you ever have opportunity to read it. I have it in a book called "Secrets in the Dark" - a worthwhile read all the way around. Anyway, keep up the great work!

Bill Elkington said...

Jesse, thank you for the encouragement! I don't think I've read that one, many of his others, and I'm particularly indebted to "Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale," which was a gift from your father and mother the year I became a Christian. I will definitely have to get that one, then.

Jesse said...

the telling the truth book was the book my dad gave me when I began serving as a youth pastor at the church. haven't been able to get it out of my head ever since. trying to get it into my heart too, of course. failing mostly, but not giving up!