Tag Archives: Yann Martel

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

The never-ending violence in the Middle East has taken on new dimensions in the past weeks and months. I wrote the essay below exactly a year ago, but the point is even more relevant now than it was then.

Icblog_d216e4f627-thumbc[1]’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first became aware of the book, as many people did, by being alerted on Facebook to a horrendous interview—“Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done??”—that Aslan was subjected to by Fox.com. The interviewer was unable to get past the apparently incomprehensible notion that a Muslim would be interested in or be qualified to write a book about Jesus. Despite Aslan’s excellent academic credentials as a comparative religions scholar, the Fox interviewer continually revealed her total inability to grasp what a comparative religion scholar does, as well as her regular confusion of facts with a severely limited world view and her general ignorance disguised as investigative journalism.

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

The interview went viral, and Dr. Aslan’s book shot to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, which it still sits. I, of course, am one of the reasons why his book shot to the top of the list, since I ordered it on Amazon as soon as I listened to his cringe-worthy interview on Fox. I even mentioned briefly on Facebook that I wish someone from Fox would interview me concerning “freelance Christianity,” so my blog could go through the stratosphere. ku-medium[1]One person commented that liberals might start standing in line to get interviewed by Fox, just to help their current project gain momentum among reasonable people.

Zealot is a thoroughly researched academic investigation of what current scholarship can tell us about Jesus, not as the Redeemer of the world, as Christians believe, nor as one of the greatest prophets of God, as Muslims believe, but as the first-century CE Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine. Aslan is an engaging and clear writer—something many academics are incapable of beingimagesCAEYQIP4—and has written a fascinating book that provides, even for those of us who think we know something about it, an illuminating perspective on not just Jesus the man, but on the turbulent political and religious times in which he lived and died. Not once in the entire book would I have been able to detect whether Aslan was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or something else. He makes his own personal religious pedigree clear in the five-page “Author’s Note” with which the book begins, pages that the Fox.com interviewer obviously never bothered to read.

It has been a very long time since the historical details of what the man Jesus was and was not have had any direct impact on my own faith commitments. I have evolved into believing that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts of a story, a manner of belief that has a far longer pedigree in human experience than the relatively recent idea, a product of the Scientific Revolution, that only verifiable facts can be considered as true. Accordingly, Aslan’s book is neither a confirmation of nor a challenge to my Christian faith. Actually, of far more interest to me than the book is the author’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of weeks before the Fox.com debacle.

Reza Aslan NPR interview

The book tells me that Aslan is a fellow academic, and the interview tells me that he is a brother in faith. that begin Zealot. Born in Iran into a nominally Muslim family, Aslan came to the United States at the age of twelve when his family fled Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. Three years later, he “found Jesus.” Following his sophomore year in high school, Aslan spent the summer at an evangelical imagesCAO1SD62Christian youth camp and heard “a remarkable story that would change my life forever . . . the greatest story ever told.” Not surprisingly, Aslan returned home from that summer with the same proselytizing energy that I remember also having when returning from such summer camps in my youth. His mother converted to Christianity, as did many of his friends. Problems arose in college, however, when as a religious studies major Aslan began to find that there is a huge gap between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history, between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, he discovered that in his estimation Jesus of Nazareth was a lot more interesting than the Jesus his religion had told him about. In the midst of cognitive dissonance, drifting away from the religious framework that had changed his life just a few years earlier, imagesCA25BMC1Aslan found himself full of doubt and anger.

Interestingly, it was two of his Jesuit professors at Santa Clara University, recognizing both Aslan’s scholarly promise and his deepening crisis of faith, who suggested that he reconsider Islam, the religion of his forefathers that he had never been seriously taught in his formative years. Aslan converted back to Islam, finding that it spoke to many of his deepest spiritual needs while avoiding a number of the conflicts with reason so central to Christianity. In response to the interviewer’s asking for examples of just what it was about Christianity he found so problematic, Aslan answered that

imagesCAU0LBPVThe problem with Christianity, what would ultimately push me away from it, is the notion of the Trinity, the notion of the Incarnation, the idea of Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God . . . It never made sense to me.

“Well no kidding!” I thought as I listened to the interview. If the Trinity and the Incarnation are the only parts of Christianity that didn’t make sense to you, you weren’t trying! What about the Virgin birth and Resurrection (just for starters)? One of my favorite exercises in class is at an appropriate point in the semester to ask students to brainstorm and create a list of those aspects of Christian belief that make no rational sense. It doesn’t take very long—the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin birth and Resurrection are just the beginning. I’ve heard and read all of this before, particularly from academics; some version of “I was a Christian (or fill in the blank) in my youth, but when I became an adult and realized that it didn’t make reasonable sense, I stopped believing.” In a case such as Aslan’s, it would have been perfectly reasonable to become an atheist or an agnostic. Neither one of those choices would present the slightest obstacle to being a fine scholar of religious studies.

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

imagesCAO2E9CLThe God that I intimately and deeply desired in my heart was a being of divine unity, a being that encompassed all of creation. And that’s how Islam talked about God . . . in the Sufi tradition, God is all of creation, His very substance is existence . . . everything that exists exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God . . .  without separation between Creator and creation.

Of course, it could be argued that many Christians and Jews also believe exactly this. But in my estimation it doesn’t matter. Aslan is my brother in faith despite having rejected Christianity for Islam, because deep down he continues to share with me a foundational desire and belief, one that is far more important than which religion one espouses. Toward the end of the NPR interview, Aslan expresses this desire.

TitleHeader[1]If you believe our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it is only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. This is the ineffable experience of faith.

Each of has to make a decision concerning what to do about the big questions when reason and objective facts run out. And this decision always involves a leap of faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Some choose to deny the existence of anything transcendent, but even this requires faith. imagesCA139MTRAs a character in a novel I read earlier this summer says “atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.” For others, religions provide an arena within which to develop languages and practices that speak of the human encounter with the divine. Happy leaping!

Tell Me a Big Story

A retreat at a Benedictine hermitage means the opportunity to plug into the daily cycle of psalms and prayers that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years. I learned five years ago as I experienced this daily cycle for the first time that something deep in me resonates with its rhythms. One June morning last summer, at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur bright and early at 5:30 Vigils, Psalm 5 began as a cry for someone, anyone, to listen.

6888193861_dd1dc9ea4c_z[1]To my words give ear, O Lord,

give heed to my groaning.

Attend to the sound of my cries,

my King and my God.

As so often with the psalms, the psalmist has a story to tell and insists that it be heard. And so it goes with all of us; the stories that define and shape us, that clothe the bare facts of our lives in fancy dress, are only the sound of one hand clapping unless there is someone to receive the story on the other end.

erie_pa[1]My early story was enriched by the presence of all four grandparents during my formative years. Visiting my paternal grandparents was always an event that took several days of careful and intense planning. We lived in northeastern Vermont; they lived on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, still in the house that my father grew up in. It was an almost six hundred mile trip, with the first two hundred on narrow two-lane roads before finally hitting the New York Thruway headed west, 550px-Clean-Refrigerator-Coils-Step-2[1]so some serious entertainment planning on my brother’s and my part and food packing on my mother’s part for the trip was always in order. My grandfather worked for General Electric, wrapping the coils in the back of old-time refrigerators by hand around a mold. He had forearms like popeye[1]Popeye—one of his favorite parlor tricks was to bet someone that he could make them close their hand just by squeezing their wrist in his vice-like grip. He never lost the bet.

Grandma was loving and had a great sense of humor, but also was noisy and abrupt, sort of like my Dad, and was a horrible cook. I don’t remember any item of food—meat, vegetable, fruit or starch—that my grandmother could not reduce to tasteless pulp after what seemed like endless hours sweating and complaining in the kitchen. But she sure could dish up ice cream.IMG_0853[1] Her signature dessert, usually served in the early evening in front of some mindless thing on television, was to open a half-gallon carton of vanilla ice cream, cut it in quarters with a knife so large that my brother and I were warned upon pain of serious comeuppance (one of her favorite words) to stay away from it, then serve a quarter to each person in the room with so much chocolate sauce and so many peanuts slathered on top that one would forget that it was vanilla ice cream underneath. This, of course, was before healthy eating habits were invented. A dessert designed to make one forget the less-than-palatable meal that preceded it.

The Erie homestead was nothing special, just old with creepy and creaky bedrooms upstairs. My other grandparents’ home in the Finger Lakes region of southern New York State was far more interesting and “homey,” probably because that set of grandparents was more touchy-feely and grandparently than my Dad’s folks. But the fun of going to Erie was not the house—the fun wasn’t really even my grandparents. hqdefault[1]What made Erie a favored point of destination was that my grandfather, in addition to being a blue-collar factory laborer, was also a “city farmer.” Stretched behind their house on a busy road in what served as suburbia in the early 1960s was two acres of land upon which my grandfather ran a small farm, complete with a barn, horse, cow, chickens, tons of barn cats, an outhouse, a huge vegetable garden, a dozen long rows of grape vines, and a lower field where hay always seemed to be growing unnoticed. My other grandfather was the real farmer who made a living growing fields of potatoes, but my gentleman farmer grandfather in Erie is the man of the soil I remember most clearly. When I take delight in digging around in the flower beds, pruning bushes, watering things and watching them grow, I am channeling my Grandpa Morgan.

imagesCA0SKN5LIn addition to their farm animal menagerie, my grandparents had a dog named King. King died of old age before I was ten years old, but if he actually looked like my memory picture of him, he was probably a collie/shepherd mix of some sort.lassie-face[1] We had two dogs at home, a collie named Lassie and Rex our German Shepherd; if they had ever mated (which they didn’t)germanshepherd_kearney[1], their offspring might have looked something like King. King could do two things that neither of my dogs could do. To begin with, King was the first dog I ever met who would chase a ball and bring it back to you over and over again until your arm got too tired to throw any more. At home, if you threw a ball for Lassie to chase she would look at you with a “You’re kidding, right?” sort of look as she laid down, and a ball thrown in Rex’s direction would most likely bounce off his head.dog_chase_ball[1] I thought King must be a genius with his ball retrieval abilities and should be on the Ed Sullivan show; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that ball retrieval is a normal dog activity and that my dogs at home were just strange.

King’s other trick was vocal in nature. My grandfather or my Dad would say “Tell me a big story, King, tell me a big story!” in a certain tone of voice and King would immediately raise his snout heavenward and start howling up a storm.cartoon-dog-howling[1] The story King told was sad and full of pathos, dramatic and primal, with the mournful tones of his wolf ancestors. But King was selective about who he would tell stories to. Only my grandfather or Dad would do. In response to such requests from my grandmother, my mother, my brother, me, or any of my aunts and uncles who lived in the area, King would stare in mute silence. King’s stories were meant only for the chosen few, those who knew how to ask properly.

Our best and most important stories should be, and usually are, saved for the ears of those who deserve it. Because woven into every story worth the telling is the intended listener. A story is far more than a linear reporting of facts; by fashioning facts into a narrative the storyteller reveals a great deal about who he or she is as well as about what he or she considers to be of ultimate importance. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,Yann Martel holding Life of Pi[1] in response to a demand for nothing but the facts about what has happened, Pi responds that “a story always has an element of invention in it. . . . Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon the world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” Yes it does. And by sending his cries and groans heavenward, the psalmist is weaving a fascinating character into his story—a God who listens. This is the hope of the believer, that there is not only something greater than meKNorris1[1], but something that knows me better than I know myself, that listens, and promises a response. Sound like a fictional character, someone from mythology? I hope so, because as Kathleen Norris writes, a myth is a story that you know is true the first time you hear it. By including God in my story, I create a space in which God can show up.