Tag Archives: essay

Billy and Patty

By Jared St. Martin Brown

Back when I lived in Arizona, I used to go on a lot of solitary hikes and camping trips. It was my way of taking full advantage of my time in the desert. It fit right in to the narrative I had already created for myself years ago. As a young man, I was going to wander in the wilderness, sit in dry river beds and meditate, observe the way of the mule deer, climb mountains, and sing to God while freezing in my own sweat. I did all of that and more. I ran my hands over the petroglyphs on canyon walls, ate prickly pear, and followed every lizard and bark scorpion back to its home. When coyotes yelped at night, I was in the moment, and I wrote haikus about it. It was who I wanted to be then.  My spirit animal was Jack Kerouac.

Just about any weekend that wasn’t booked with work, college, or church was spent in the wilderness. I didn’t need a girlfriend then. I was dating Mother Earth. And if career and family never happened for me, I was going to be a beady-eyed prophet somewhere between John the Baptist and Japhy Ryder from The Dharma Bums. This is why I had no problem making myself scarce for a few days, when my housemates needed to be alone.

Josh and Joyce were husband and wife. Once upon a time, we were all single Air Force people. They met in base chapel Bible study, and were married soon after. At some point, they bought a house and I rented a room from them. This particular week, Josh was on his way home from Saudi Arabia, and he and Joyce were basically still newlyweds. I think in their first year of marriage, the USAF had let them spend a mere three months together, and not all in a row. So although they hadn’t asked me directly, I figured it was only right to give them some time to catch up, free from me, their crazy tenant.

“Tell Josh I said hi,” I told Joyce as I packed up my rusty old sports car full of camp gear and extra water. “I will be back in a couple three days. I don’t have class until Wednesday night.” Then I took off alone, straight into the hills from the backside of Surprise, AZ, speeding all the way. The destination was the forest of Oak Creek Canyon, about 160 miles away. I slowed down briefly for Wickenburg, and then it was back to full speed through Congress and Peeples Valley.

The car was my first ever. I had paid cash for it. It was a 1985 Nissan 300ZX, a fine car in its day, but now it was the year 2000 and I, being penniless, was behind on maintenance. I was doing around 90 miles per hour in the desert heat of June, and guess what happened. That’s right. A radiator hose exploded. There was a devilish cloud of steam and the window was painted with translucent green anti-freeze. A few seconds later, the engine stopped all by itself. That’s not a good feeling. I managed to roll the car up on to the shoulder, after a check under the hood, it was confirmed that I’d be walking.

Screenshot 2016-05-25 08.34.38

Photo: Google Maps, Street View: Click Here

I took a long look up and down the road, and thought, WWJD? What Would Jack Do? I pulled my camping gear out of the hatch back, threw it on and headed north. My plan was to hitchhike or walk to Wilhoit, which was still a ways off. One thing people from the east coast do not understand is just how wide open the spaces really still are in the west. Even here in West Virginia, if you break down, and you don’t have cell phone reception, the nearest town is only about 5 miles away in either direction. Some village is going to have a gas station with a phone you can use. Out west, though, you can still be truly far from civilization, and on some roads, you can go long time without seeing another car.

Several minutes later, one car passed by. It was a woman in a mini-van and she didn’t stop. I don’t blame her. It seemed like a full five minutes before the noise of her vehicle was out of range. It’s a lonely, anxious sound. As hers faded, another became audible. This one had muffler problems.

They stopped. Even Jack Kerouac didn’t have this luck. Picked up by the second car!

A white-bearded man stuck his head out of the passer window. “Holy shit! What happened, man?”

“Car broke down. The radiator hose blew up.”

“I’m a pretty decent mechanic. I’ll meet you back down at your car and we’ll get this taken care of.”

“Thanks, man!” I said, just as another car zipped between us, missing me by a foot or so.

The man leaned farther out the window. “Fuckin’ asshole! He almost hit you!” The woman in the driver’s seat added, “Some of these people are fuckin’ assholes.”

The two settled back into their car. It was a four door yellow Subaru of some kind with rust patches on the outside, and duct tape repairs on the inside. “My name’s Billy, and this is my wife Patty. See you down at your car.”

The two got out and helped me push my car a little further onto the shoulder, planting two wheels in a shallow ditch. “Billy can fix anything,” Patty said. And soon as Billy opened the hood, I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing.

“This hose right here is pretty common. We can probably get that at a gas station up the road. I need a Philips and a flathead.” Patty handed him all of that, and can of beer. “You want one?”

“No. In the hopes that I will be driving later, I don’t think I should drink.”

Billy laughed. “I understand.”
We got the hose off, and jump into the Subaru. I squeezed in next to giant white dog who was stretched across the back seat. “Get out of the way, Savannah!” Patty shouted, “Let him sit down!” The dog didn’t respond. “Just push her out of the way. She’s nice.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“Siberian husky. She just had puppies, too. They’re in the trunk.”

I could feel them squirming around through the seat cushion behind my back. A couple of them yelped when reclined, so I leaned forward instead.

Billy had noticed a stack of books in the passenger seat of my car. “What are studying?” I told him I wanted to be an English teacher. “English! That’s MY major, too!” In the course of that discussion, I mentioned the G.I. Bill, which was met with a resounding cry of joy, “And you’re a vet too, huh!” We had hit it off, but I got the feeling that Billy could hit it off with anyone. He was amazingly friendly; abnormal in his readiness to accept others. Patty was the same way.

We pulled in to the gravel lot of a convenience store in Wihoit. There was an old man sitting outside at a picnic table under what may have been the only real tree for miles. He was thin, gnarled old man with a beard even longer than Billy’s. He sat looking beat, staring at the ground. Patty said, “You go in with Jared. I’ll sit and talk to this old dude.”

The store had no hoses, but I picked up a jug of antifreeze just in case. Billy said to the cashier, “Hey Mike, this young veteran broke down out here. Where can we get a hose?”

“Gibbon’s down in Peeples Valley would have it.”

“Would he be open?”


Back outside we stood around and talked with Patty and the old man for a while. “My name’s Ted,” he said smiling. His mouth had about three teeth, all black. I wondered what a man like that could eat.

Normally, I would have been impatient to have a conversation under a tree with Ted, while my car was stuck in the desert. But today I didn’t care. From the time Billy had picked me up, I had this deep feeling that this was all organized by God. Or maybe, I was in Billy and Patty’s world now. And in their world, people like Ted matter. They had that in common with God.

Billy opened the trunk to put away the antifreeze, and insider were seven puppies, some brown, some white. Some were asleep on a piece of carpet. A couple were snuggled up in the mesh that held the back of the seat together. One was awake and walking around. “That’s Lobo.”

There was a box of pink Franzia wine in there. “How is that?” I asked.

“Great. Hold on.” Billy ran back into the store and came out with a large Styrofoam cup. He opened a cooler, which was also in the trunk, scooped out some crushed ice, then he filled it to the brim with wine. “Here. It’s just wine,” he said, meaning that I shouldn’t worry about driving, like I did before with the beer.

I laugh at myself over this now. The young me had a moral dilemma at that moment. Would it hurt my witness as a Christian to drink this wine now? All of the old folks in my old church growing up would have said “yes.” I came from a community where alcohol was always a sin, even though Jesus has been called “the best wine maker in Galilee.” Should I take the wine? Will it destroy my witness? The question was absurd, because I wasn’t ministering to Billy. He was ministering to me. He was the Good Samaritan. Not me. And he wanted to give me a cup of wine.

With gratitude, I took it and nothing had ever tasted so good. The Arizona sun has a way of making cold liquid especially delicious. Sometimes it’s so hot that cool water tastes sweeter than a chocolate milkshake. It was just what I needed. Finally, I loosened up and began to converse freely. They had treated me like an old friend from the very beginning, but it was only now that I meeting them with same warmth. I was moving past my fear of strangers, my pride, and my long list of social hang ups. Certainly, the wine helped, but I was just caught up in noticing how open and accepting these people were. I got a little choked up even then to think that Jesus was this friendly and helpful.

I wouldn’t have figured Billy for a Christian- he cursed, he dipped Skoal, he smoked, and he was drinking beer non-stop- but he was more of a Christian than most Christians. I would imagine Christ having more in common with Billy than with me at the time. If I’d seen Billy and Patty broken down somewhere, would I have stopped?

We headed to Peeples Valley, about 15 miles south, talking about dogs and military life. I told him about my housemates’ basset hounds who’d just had nine puppies, and they were the same age as Savannah’s. Billy said, he was going to keep all the puppies and turn them into a dog sled team up in Alaska. That was the first time I had ever heard the word “Iditarod.”

Billy also said he was an airborne infantryman during Vietnam, but he never saw combat because he came in right at the end of the war. I explained that I had a National Service medal from the Persian Gulf War for the same reason. I was still in basic when the war ended. He said I should join the American Legion, and that it was a very helpful organization to him, mostly because they’ll give you $20 cash, no questions asked, if you’re in a jam.

Patty, Billy, and the dogs were from Washington State, but they travel around now from place to place. They sort of lived in their car or at campsites. They were staying at one right now on a road Indian Run. “Is it hard to live like that?”

“Sometimes,” said Billy, “But not harder than living in Phoenix and commuting to the office everyday.” If it had been anyone else, I would have guessed that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. But not this guy. He wasn’t the type.

We came to Peeples Valley, but we didn’t see Gibbon’s Gas Station. There was only the MountainAire Mini-Mart where I had bought many a bottle of root beer in the past. No hoses. “Well, let’s go to the next place,” Billy said.

We drove 5 more miles to Yarnell to find that everything had already closed. We knocked on the door of a house next to a mechanic’s garage hoping he was home, but he wasn’t. We were about to just head back to my car empty handed when Patty saw a sign for the American Legion Post 79. She yelled, “Score!”

Screenshot 2016-05-25 08.32.57

Photo: Google Maps, Street View: Click Here

I had no idea why that was good, but I soon found out. There were cars parked all around the place, so it was full. Something was going on. Billy and Patty marched right in. The inside was like a bar, and there were a couple dozen people in their fifties and sixties playing cars, and smoking. Billy boldly circulated through the room telling everyone that, “This young veteran needs a radiator hose.”

One woman went out to her truck and came back with two radiator hoses. One was just like mine but a couple inches longer. “God bless you! That’ll work,” said Billy. I thanked the woman and her husband, and offered to pay, but they wouldn’t have it. They told me come to an American Legion dinner one day.

My friends were just as excited as I was. We piled in the car and headed back. As we passed the MountainAire, I asked Billy if I could fill up his tank. Shyly, he said he’d rather have the money.

Back at my car, Billy got another beer and went to work. At some point, a State Trooper or a County Sherriff’s Deputy (I don’t remember which) pulled up next to us, rolled down the widow and said, “What’s going on here? Is everything okay?” I could see that Billy was nervous, so I answered, “Yeh, we got it, sir. These guys are helping me fix my car.” The officer, no kidding, scowled, forced a half-grin and slowly drove on.

After a half hour of struggling in the evening heat, we got the new hose on and filled the radiator. “If this don’t work,” he said, ”we’ll try something else. That’s how you have to do things.”

The car started. Patty and Billy followed me to the general store in Wilhoit, just to make sure it was all okay. They parked under that shade tree, and I parked by the store. There was an outdoor faucet, and as we washed the grease and dirt off our hands, I noticed the scrapes and abrasions on Billy’s. Some were fresh from working on my car. Others were older scabs. I gave him some Neosporin and my last $20 bill. I would have given him all my money, but I only had $20 cash. I had a bank card, though. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m out of beer,” he said.

“Well come on.” In the store, Billy tried to pick out the cheapest six-pack of crap beer, but I talked him into the twelve-pack of what he liked most. So he got Budwiezer. He cracked one open, and leaned against his car in the shade outside. He was so appreciative of the little things I’d just given him, but I kept reminding him that I’d be stuck in the middle of the desert if it wasn’t for him and Patty. A tow truck on a Sunday evening would have been crazy expensive, and I don’t know if there is a hotel in Wilhoit. Billy gave all the credit to his wife for finding the American Legion and the woman who had given me the hose. It was as if he didn’t expect anything back for helping me. He considered the beer a bonus.

“Well if we didn’t get your car fixed, we were just going to invite you to stay at our camp site,” said Patty.

“We have fun. I like to howl at the moon once in a while,” said Billy.

“You can still camp with us anyway,” added Patty.

“I think he wants to be alone. He wants to read and camp alone. That’s why he left the city.” I was amazed that Billy understood that with no explanation from me.

We stood talking a while longer. They said I reminded them of their son David- same age, same build, same beard, same disposition. He liked the orange shirt I was wearing, and said he would trade me a piece of petrified wood for it. I was happy to make the trade, even though it was one of my Burrito Brothers Flying Youth Camp shirts, which have sentimental value. I would have given him anything at that point.

An old Mexican man, a cowboy from Wilhoit, came over and offered to buy a puppy. Billy declined even though he could easily get $100 or $200 for a dog. “They’re a team. My dogsled team for Alaska.” They spoke in Spanish for while, with Billy explaining all of the places he’d been to in Mexico. “Shit!” said the old man, switching to English. “But you no want to sell dog?”

“You can’t sell a dog,” Billy replied politely.

I don’t remember how much longer I stayed around. Enough to notice that Billy and Patty looked angelic in that Kerouacian way. Gray, wrinkled and weathered, they were earthy in appearance but ethereal in manner.

We parted on the best of terms. Billy said, “Me and Patty say that something good always happens on our last beer. And when I was helping you fix your car, that was my last beer. Something good did happen.”

Ted was still there in the parking lot, and when I was about to drive away, he asked me for a ride. “Just to the top of the hill,” he said, “The cops are always giving me trouble.” As we were leaving, the policeman from before pulled in to the General Store, and looked over to see me shirtless, in my beat up 300ZX, with Ted in the passenger seat. I wondered what he thought.

Well, I made it to Oak Creek Canyon that evening. I’d gone up there to pray, to meditate, to listen to God. After all of this happened my ears were wide open. When I looked at a Bible, the words seem to glow, as if the Spirit was reading them to my heart. I learned a lot those couple nights in the woods. Some things you might expect: God’s sovereignty, Christ’s favor toward the poor… But I learned something unexpected too: I am meant to be with people. I need Billy. I need Patty. I need Ted. I need my housemates, Josh and Joyce. I need my Bible study leader, Zetty. I need my sisters. I need my friend, Jim. I am not meant to be Jack Kerouac or John the Baptist. I am not meant to be a monk or a Desert Father. My place is with people.

And when I’m with them, may the Spirit of the Lord work in me and bless them, the way it did to me through old Billy.

When I got home days later, I told this story to my housemates. Josh asked, “Do you think Billy and Patty were angels?”

I said, “Well, if they were, they were the cussing, snuff rubbing, drinking and driving kind.” But now that I think about it, though, the answer is “Yes.”

Scan 15

Oak Creek Canyon, AZ- Photo JSMB


Tagged , , , ,

Parable of the Wedding Night

By Jared St. Martin Brown

Every once in a while, I live through a parable.

It was my best friend’s wedding night. Albani and I had the awkward and intimate honor of going ahead of the bride and groom to light candles around their apartment. We had to create that magic, romantic atmosphere, and then get out before our friends arrived. We flew up three flights of stairs, lifted by the wonderful, simple wedding we’d just seen. The whole thing seemed like beautiful fiction: my best friend was marrying her best friend, and they would live right next door to us. And the wedding reception was a perfect party of close friends from around our small town, full of the kind of goodwill you can’t normally expect from a wedding. Everyone was happy to be alive and together. Easy joy. It was how you might imagine your first night in heaven.

I still remember the creaky steps and banisters of that old place. It was an attic apartment in one of the old Clarksburg houses, so everything was made of century-old solid oak. Box of matches in hand, we barged through the door. It was never locked because it was made of old-fashioned plate glass, and useless against intruders anyway. Down the hall we ran stopping to light a couple candles in the bedroom and kitchen. At the end of the hall was the ‘great-room’ of the place, the attic of the giant old house, where everything was made of hardwood and ornate in a way that only the wealthy can afford these days. To give you the idea, we referred to it as a “Hobbit Hole” because it looked so much like Bilbo’s home in the films. We always figured this had been a servant’s quarters in the early days of the house, supposing the family who’d built it could afford a live-in maid. As we drew closer to the room, we realized we were not alone in the house.

A pair of dirty work boots hung over the edge of the Victorian style couch. Someone was asleep, face down, and smelled like booze. Albani saw him before I did. “Jared it’s Dan.”

“What? Dan?” I shook his shoulder, and he started to stir. I barely recognized him without his glasses, but it was him. I panicked. My newlywed friends were going to come through the door any minute, and here was Dan crashed out drunk on the couch in their apartment. “Dan, you can’t sleep here tonight. You gotta get going!”

“What’s going on, man?” he said. He was pretty unsure of who I was. I didn’t know him very well. He was much closer to the groom.

“Dan, you know Jim? He got married today.”

“Old Jimmy? Old Jimmy got married? Tell him I said congratulations.”

“No, Dan. Jim’s coming here, right now… with his new wife. This is their house.” I picked up his glasses and his trucker hat from the floor. “Dan you can’t stay. They will be here in maybe five minutes.”

“Oh okay. I’m sorry. Tell Jimmy congratulations.”

Jim and Dan were pretty good friends. They were co-workers at the Mission. Jim had been working there as a Men’s Dorm Manager. Dan was one of the guys who had been a resident in the past, which means he’d been on the streets but had joined the program and had gotten cleaned up. At some point a paying position opened and they gave it to Dan. He was such a nice guy with an endearing personality and a good work ethic. Jim was quite fond of him. This is why he became especially worried when Dan, after years of being sober was about to make the long journey back to his old neighborhood in another town. Jim knew that sometimes old friends, old environments can restart old patterns. Sure enough, Dan fell off the wagon, quit showing up to work, and had basically disappeared. We were all concerned, but no one more than Jim.

“Dan, you walked here, right?” I said urgently. “You have to go the warm room at the Mission or something. They will be here any time now.”

Dan mumbled something. I don’t remember what it was. Slowly he staggered down the dark hallway, and somehow made his way down those creaky stairs without falling.

I didn’t have time to think about whether I’d done the right thing. That would all hit me later. For now I just knew that the most important thing was preparing for the bride and groom to come home. Soon enough they did… and they were just as elated as I’d hoped. Spirits were so high that I decided not to tell them that I’d just thrown someone out of their house. We bid them goodnight and shut the door behind us.

Right about the time I got to my car, a terrible thought overtook me. “Albani, I didn’t tell Jim what happened. Dan was really drunk. What if he comes back?” A minute later I was knocking on the door.

“What’s up?” Jim said.

“Jim… I didn’t want Lauren to know… but Dan was here. We found him drunk asleep on your couch… Just ten minutes ago. I want you know, because I don’t know where he went. You have to listen for someone trying to get in your door.”

Jim thanked me. I could tell he was frustrated. He loved Dan, but I knew he wanted to protect his wife and give her the happy wedding day she deserved. I went home that night, hoping for the best… That the newlyweds would be at peace, and that Dan would get to the Mission Warm Room safely. I don’t remember if I looked for him out on the street.

Dan didn’t come back that night, and I don’t know where he ended up. It was heavy on my heart. About a day or two later, I noticed the similarity between that experience and a couple parables of Jesus. The first was the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22. The royal father of the groom prepared a feast, but after having his invitations met with hostility by everyone on his original guest list, he opened the doors to anyone who would come, “good or evil.” The banquet hall was finally full, but one person at the party was not dressed in wedding clothes. The father of the groom ordered the servants to ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

Until this happened, the parable had always seemed like pure allegory to me. I realize that people are thrown out of parties all the time, but the abrupt judgment against the fellow who hadn’t come dressed seemed too contrived. Jesus was just making a point, right? However, my expulsion of Dan into the night was pretty quick. I had just done it without giving too much thought.

The second parable also involves a wedding. People call it the Parable of the Ten Virgins and it’s in Matthew 25. A group of young women, sort of like bridesmaids, were supposed to be ready for the return of the groom, and being ready meant having a lamp in case he arrived at night. The guy was taking his sweet time, and all the virgins fell asleep. Suddenly, he shows up at midnight ready for his bride. Five of the virgins had brought lamp oil, but the other five had not. They didn’t even think to buy it until the wedding was upon them. Turns out, it was already too late. By the time they found some oil, they were shut out of the wedding feast. The five with oil were inside, probably sitting with the wedding party at that table that gets to eat cake first. In fact, the bridegroom claimed not to know them.

Again, we have someone not ready for the wedding. Jesus finishes the story with “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

So that night with Dan, I had played the servant in a wedding parable of my own. I threw someone out into the street and I shut the door on him. Why? The wedding night was upon us, and he wasn’t ready to be part of it.

If you know anything about Christianity, you’ve figured out that the bridegroom in those parables is Jesus returning for his bride, the church. He tells us that no one knows when that will be. It comes “like a thief in the night,” unexpectedly. Jesus says, even he himself doesn’t know the day. Only the Father knows. So what counts as not being ready?

A legalistic person will assume that Dan wasn’t ready because he was drunk, and being drunk is a sin. No. In fact, I think being drunk on the Day of the Lord won’t count against you. If things get as bad as they’re supposed to, a lot of people will turn to drinking. I imagine Christians world-wide will be caught in various embarrassing circumstances. In the two parables, the outcasts were unready in the same way. The wedding clothes and the lamp oil represent the same thing: The grace of Jesus. The only way to be prepared is accept Jesus’s work on the cross, to believe in his death and resurrection. No amount of being righteous can make that happen. Being sober at the time counts for nothing in that regard. Why didn’t the bridegroom know the five virgins? They weren’t filled with his Spirit prior to his arrival. They had no oil in their lamps, and therefore no light. Remember the spiritual, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning…” Why didn’t the kingly father like the wedding guest? He hadn’t put on the salvation of Jesus, which is sometimes referred to as “spotless” garments in songs or as “fine linen bright and pure” (Revelation 19:8). Again and again, Jesus illustrates that grace is all you have. It’s the only way to prepare.

Dan just wasn’t ready because the day had caught him unexpectedly. He was oblivious to the preparations and wedding plans that had occupied most of us for the weeks prior. Really, Dan could have crashed out drunk on Jim’s couch any night prior to the wedding. Like I said, Jim loved Dan, and he was worried about him. Any night prior he could have helped him. But the wedding night- that was the end of Jim’s bachelor days. He had a bride, and he couldn’t drop everything and go like he used to.

That’s the part that sticks in my mind. When Jesus comes for his bride, the time to get ready is over. We can’t change clothes, we can’t buy oil, we can’t get in.

The good news for Dan is that it was just an earthly wedding, and not the big one for all of the church. The darkness I’d had thrown him into wasn’t Hell. It was just Clarksburg. And Dan himself, even though he struggles with addiction, is a believer. Part of why he’d come to the Mission in the first place was to find help. He wanted to be sober, but as any recovering alcoholic knows, the struggle is never over. So even though Dan and I had played our roles that night, both of us have what we need to come to the real wedding. We’re the church, the bride of Christ. And both of us have time (at least a little) to learn to “keep watch.”

Sometimes, when I picture the Wedding of the Lamb from Revelation 19, I see myself hanging out Dan, Jim, Albani, and Lauren. We’re dressed in fine linen and having a drink.


Photo: Arthur Netsvetaev CC

Tagged ,

Grace- The One Thing About Christianity Christians Are Afraid to Believe


an autumn journey to the rock

If you ask a Christian what he believes, he’ll say, “I believe in Jesus.”  Usually, that answer is an abbreviated version of “I believe that I am saved from condemnation by Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it’s through him that I have fellowship with my Creator, the LORD, who is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian God.”  Sure, there is a bit more to it, but that’s basically what the average Christian believes.  Do you want a little more?  The idea is that Jesus, the Son of God, rescued all humankind who were separated from God because of our sin.  God is Holy, and sinful creatures cannot abide with holiness, so they cannot abide with God.  And since God is life, then sinful creatures must die, instead.  (You’ve heard preachers say “The wages of sin is death”?  That’s what that means.) Yes, death is the only choice for the sinful being… UNLESS something else dies and takes the sin down with it.  That’s what sacrifice was all about.  And if a perfect person volunteers to take on that death, it’d be good enough for all the sins of all the people of all of the world.   Who is perfect?  Jesus the Son of God.  He was the atonement.  The triumphant part of that story is that Jesus didn’t stay dead.  After he paid for all sins, he was resurrected.  So the sins went down with death, but the person, Jesus, came back sin free.  Death and sin were conquered all at once, and hope for eternal life was restored.  And IF we accept all of this (the term is “believe and receive”) we are considered to be “dead to sin”, and “born again” like Jesus.  Jesus is alive and his grace applies to all who accept it, past, present, and future.

Yes, that is what the average Christian believes.  You can see how heavily it relies upon the work of Jesus the Christ.  Hence the term “Christian,” meaning “Christ-like.”  And just about any Christian, when pressed with the standard questions like “How do you know, you’re going to heaven?”, they are going to say something resembling the classic Sunday School response, “Because, I believe in Jesus.”

And really, it’s not a bad answer. Saying, “Because Jesus!” may seem vague and oversimplified, but it does get to the point of what Christianity is all about: a reliance upon Jesus.

I’d say it’s all pretty simple EXCEPT for one thing… If you look closely, many Christians do not live as if any of this is true.  Don’t get me wrong.  Christians believe it… basically.  They just have some serious trouble internalizing the deepest part of the story.

I’m not talking about the supernatural elements of the story.  The average Christian is more than willing to accept and admit belief in what the non-religious person might consider the “crazy” stuff:  The existence of God, the amazing attributes of God, the fact that God by his holiness sets the standard of what good is, the fact that God created two people who sinned against him, the fact that all people are the offspring of those first sinners and therefore inherit sin and the sinful nature, the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, and the fact that people can have eternal life. Hardly any Christian has any trouble with any of that.  From the virgin birth, to walking on water, to raising the dead, to the resurrection… most Christians do believe it.

What they really have trouble accepting, is that ALL we have to do is believe in Jesus.  Yeh! Many Christians have trouble accepting their own Sunday School answer.  “All I have to do is accept the grace of Jesus, and that’s it?  That just seems too easy…  WAY TOO EASY.”  It does seem that way, and it scares people.

Tagged , , , ,


I am an English teacher.  I love my job, so it comes up often in conversations with people I have just met.  Invariably, someone will say, “English teacher, eh?  Oh no.  I’ll try to watch my grammar around you.”  In those moments, I feel a pang in my heart, for there begins a quake of guilt and embarrassment which ripples through my soul awakening both pity and frustration alike. Clutching my chest, like Fred Sanford calling for his deceased Elizabeth, I grimace and respond, “There is no need to watch what you say.  Only a complete jerk would stop a good conversation to correct someone’s English.”  Depending on the type of company, I may use a harsher word than “jerk.”  My frustration lies with the fact that just such a jerk must have attacked this poor individual in the past, and as a result, he is now afraid to express himself, as valid as his points and ideas may be, in front of anyone else who may know a thing or two about the language. Unfortunately, these conversation-killing “grammar-correcting” jerks are everywhere.  There seems to be one in every social setting, and the haughtiest among them proudly refer to themselves as “Grammar-Nazis.”

                The label is fitting in a number of ways.  The ubiquitous Grammar-Nazi gets a sort of Aryan feeling of superiority out of goose-stepping all over slang, colloquialisms, erroneously conjugated verbs, misplaced modifiers, clumsily placed prepositions, adjectives used as adverbs, mispronounced words, and split infinitives.  When the Grammar-Nazi is most successful, he commits conversational genocide by capturing the topic at hand and sending it off to a concentration camp so the entire focus of the discussion can be turned toward his waving red flag of language skills.  You’ve seen this happen before:  In the normal course of conversation, in the flow of improvised ideas, someone will slip up and the Grammar-Nazi will swoop in and completely blitzkrieg all further communication by embarrassing the offending individual.  The worst Grammar-Nazis tend to follow the attack by insulting the victim’s upbringing or education (“Is that how they talk down there in Texas?”).  The conversation fully invaded, the Grammar-Nazi looms over his victim looking as smug as can be… like Colonel Klink adjusting his monocle. 

                My biggest problem with the Grammar-Nazi is not his tendency to disrupt friendly conversation.  It’s his desire to feign mastery of the language.  There is, however, plenty that the Grammar-Nazi does not know:  Does any Grammar-Nazi fully appreciate the versatility, and mutability of the language?  Is the Grammar-Nazi aware that English is an untamable chimera of a language that was born out of so many others, and that it continues to absorb into itself any foreign word or idea it wants to keep?  Is the Grammar-Nazi aware that English cannot conform to the rules of Latin or any other language?  Does the Grammar-Nazi know that the power of English is in its diversity rather than its ostensible purity?  I would guess the answer is “no,” because while the Grammar-Nazi is marching around on patrol, the real masters of the language are running, like Jesse Owens, in circles all around him.  Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Allen Ginsberg, William Shakespeare, and even Bob Dylan created some of our most enduring ideas, and they did it in language that perhaps no Grammar-Nazi would tolerate.

                As an English teacher, I get no pleasure out of showing off my language skills at the expense of someone else.  There is a time and place for proofreading or for refining one’s speaking skills, and it’s not during friendly communication.  I think it’s time for the Grammar-Nazi to retire his arm band, pick up a book from the “burn pile” and read with liberated eyes… and after a few days of that, maybe he’ll be ready to participate in a conversation without trying to rid the world of language that doesn’t meet his personal standard.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: If the reader is concerned about the shamelessness with which I took advantage of the Nazi metaphor in the second and third paragraph, I would redirect the reader to worry more about the two TV sit-com allusions instead.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Historically Accurate


(a footnote to the “Fiction” discussion)

Every once in a while, I hear a smug college student complain that a film wasn’t “historically accurate.”  Now, how in the world is any movie going to be historically accurate?  It can never be.  Such a criticism is pseudointellectual at best, and, at its worst, is an attempt to feign profound knowledge of the historical period in question.  The critic doesn’t have to know much about anything to brand a movie “historically inaccurate.”  In fact, he is safe if he doesn’t know anything at all.  Saying that a movie was full of anachronisms or misrepresentations, even as a bluff, is sure to pay off because no movie is historically accurate, and here is why:

The Script
The screenwriter knows the basics of an event or of a period.  She knows the famous personalities and the outcomes of their actions.  She knows the cultural contexts (the social conventions, the fashions, and the dialect) of the time… but as for what the characters actually said to one another, all of that has to be made up.  We don’t know what Josephine said to Napoleon in those private moments.  We don’t even really know what they said in public.  Here in our century, we are in no position, even, to determine which public comments are real and which are just legend.  Have you ever heard a witty anecdote starring Winston Churchill?  I’ve heard a few, and I’d like to believe he said those things.  It’d prove his wit as sharp as that of Oscar Wilde or Voltaire.  But who can confirm Churchill’s ostensible comments to a lady at the dinner?  Who’s to say there was a lady?  Who’s to say there was a dinner party?  Perhaps the stories are only legend (but they would sure help to liven up a screenplay).

The Actors
The process of inventing the past does not end with the creation of the script.  The actors too, must study, imagine, and construct their characters.  Inevitably, they add many of their own personality traits to the character- a cast of the eyes, a coy giggle, a fiery wince- and form hybrids of our favorite Hollywood celebrities with our favorite historical figures.  That wasn’t Queen Elizabeth you just saw;  It was Queen Elizabeth and Cate Blanchett blended together through interpretation, direction, and artistic desire.

The Costumes, Hair, and Makeup
Chances are the director has done more research than anybody.  Or at least he has assembled a team of consultants to keep an eye on the details.  I don’t know what you call these people (historical continuity directors maybe?) but I’m sure they exist.  The director must use every resource available to ensure that costumes, set, props, and human behavior are consistent with the historical world of the film.  Even so, anachronisms are bound to creep in somewhere.  Have you noticed that the characters in a movie set in medieval Europe have the hairstyles of whichever decade of the past century the movie was filmed?  It rarely fails.  The costumes can be perfect to the period, but if the movie was filmed in the 1980’s the men will have those spikey half-mullets (like MacGuyver or Sting).  If the movie was filmed in the 1990’s the men will have those parted-down-the-middle bowl cuts (like the bass player of a grunge band) and soap opera stubble beards.  I suppose filmmakers know their audiences wouldn’t tolerate the look of real medieval hair, which is simple helmet hair (although it looks cool on Demetri Martin).  They must also think that audiences would not tolerate the sight of any female character without modern makeup.  I hope those looking for historical accuracy are not too distracted when they see a medieval peasant girl wearing lipstick and eye shadow.

If by some miracle films avoid the standard anachronisms, they are still likely to create some odd impossibilities.  I recently watched a film starring my favorite actress, Scarlett Johansson, called The Girl With The Pearl Earring.  I have plenty of good things to say about the film, but I must admit I was stupefied when I realized that, although the film was set in Amsterdam, all of the characters were speaking with British accents.  Now this would not be strange with an all British cast, but Scarlett is American.  Why are American actors, who are pretending to be Dutch, speaking with British accents?  After thinking about this for a while, I realized that, with a British director and a predominately British cast, it must have been easier to ask Scarlett to be British, too.  This makes sense for a film, but it doesn’t help to make the film “realistic.”  Movies, in general, find themselves having to overcome such problems all the time.  In some Cold War era films, the Russians speak to each other in Russian and we read the subtitles.  In others, the Russians speak to each other in English, but with Russian accents.  Anytime you see this, rest assured the movie isn’t historically accurate.  At no point did two Russian officers, on a Russian submarine, speak to each other in English.  In the case of both the Dutch and the Russians, it is obvious that the filmmakers have chosen to tell the story in a way that is entertaining to the audience, rather than stick to some arid perception of what really happened.

Movies, in general, have to tell stories.  An unhindered attempt at 100% historical accuracy would have to sacrifice storytelling.  Compare a day in the real world to a day in story world:  In the real world dialogue rarely flows in such a way that would help a third party observer understand all of the important events in a day- there are numerous digressions, interruptions, avoidances, and long silences.  Every conversation in movie world is designed to show us more about the plot and the characters.  In the real world, people are hard to read- they have complicated pasts, complex emotions, and they don’t always know how to show what’s in their hearts and minds.  In movie world, where everyone is played by an actor, we find that people are much easier to understand.  Actors tell the story through everything they have- eyes, face, body, vocal inflection, pace, etc.  A good actor tells the story of his character clearly.  Without being overt, he informs us of emotion, motivation, and a number of other details in the shortness of a scene.  In this way, the major character and plot developments are compressed into minutes, instead of hours, days, or months.  Much of the entertainment value of movies comes from the intentional efforts of actors and screenwriters to tell the story.  If we were to capture a true historical event, in its entirety, on film, dialogue and all, without any of the advantages of intentional storytelling provided by screenwriters and actors, chances are we’d find it very confusing and very boring.  Is this what sticklers for historical accuracy want?

If “historically accurate” means flawless attention to detail, realistic human behavior, perfect execution of language and dialect, and freedom from all anachronism, then such a thing can never be achieved.  With this in mind, critics (amateur and professional) are bound to keep making the accusation that a film was “historically inaccurate” because they know full well that they are going to be right.  It’s one of the easiest, and safest criticisms a person can make.

Tagged , , , , ,


All writing is fiction.  Even nonfiction.  Your diary, your blog, your high school history text, your newspaper, your genealogy, your insurance claim… all fiction.  Your obituary will be fiction.  I don’t mean to say that we lie.  We do tell the truth.  Some of us, in fact, go to great lengths to tell the truth.  Some of us fight, argue, and sue anyone who says we are not telling the truth.  And still we write fiction.

I know some readers will grimace at that first paragraph and begin to brace themselves for a worn-out postmodern argument on objective truth.  This essay, however, is not about truth, but about the way we attempt to represent it.  My notions are neither postmodern, nor anti-Enlightenment (and not Romantic).  Maybe they are post-postmodern, or post-post-postmodern.  Or Medieval.  Whatever they are, they are fiction.

Truth most certainly exists.  In any given situation, something did happen.  The human mind, however, has proven itself barely capable of observing what happened, or at least of recording it in a way that reflects the intricacy of even the simplest event.  Even with the presence of multiple referees, a dozen cameras, and the technology of instant replay, the validity of a touchdown catch in a football game could be debated forever.  You could blame this on our senses, or on the filter of personal agenda, or both, but all reports on a singular event are likely to contain unique or conflicting details… even when no one is lying. Consider the following examples.

The Wedding Album
I once attended a friend’s wedding.  It was a second marriage for both the bride and the groom.  It was among the most heart-warming of weddings I’ve attended.  During the reception, a slideshow began depicting the lives of the bride and groom in parallel.  First you’d see a few baby pictures of the bride, and then a few of the groom.  The slide show took us through childhood, high school, young-adulthood, even through the birth and growth of the bride’s children, then through the groom’s.  The idea, of course, was that the bride and groom, through all of life’s experiences, must have always been meant to be together.  There was one thing missing from slide show, though.  There was no sign whatsoever of the bride’s first husband, with whom she had her (now adult) children, nor of the groom’s first wife with whom he had raised his kids.  The slide show creator took care to show both the bride and the groom with their respective family pets, but were these more important that the decades spent with the previous spouses?  Why wasn’t the ex-husband present in even the background of those photos showing his own daughter.  Well, we all know why.  No wedding planner is going to risk offending his or her customers with something as disruptive as a picture of an “ex.”
I have another friend who is a wedding photographer, and he told me that he always gets a list of taboos from his customers before photographing the wedding.  He wants to know “who not to photograph together, and stuff like that.”  Apparently, he had some trouble in the past for including someone’s unpopular Uncle Doug in too many of the bride’s photos.

Most people accept photographs as truth.  But apparently, even in the process of documenting events through photography, there is sometimes a conscious effort to begin fictionalizing things.  And even when the first filter fails, you can delete, crop, or edit until you get things just right.
I often wonder if the writer’s memory works like this, cutting what happened down to manageable, acceptable bits aimed at getting a desired response from the reader.  If this is the case, even a nonfiction memoir will contain a number of fictional elements.

The History Textbook
Everybody knows the opening line of Braveheart: “…History is written by those who have hanged heroes.”  That’s not a bad way to put it.  It does, however, mislead us to think that everyone who puts a spin on a historical event has some wicked agenda.  Unfortunately, even the most honest and unbiased historians are bound to screw up the story of humankind here and there.  Even the most well-informed are powerless to accurately reconstruct the vastness of all that’s happened.

Sometimes I read the first-century historian Josephus.  His accounts of Jewish history, written from the center of Rome at the center of time, are exciting.  He describes events, or details of events that, like anyone who has no first-hand knowledge of something, must have been drawn from sources found in research.  So what were his sources?  I picture him in libraries in Rome piecing together the story of the world and of his people.  I picture him talking with rabbis, priests, or other leaders, gleaning all he can from well-kept oral tradition.  I see him in long conversations with either of the two Roman Emperors he had befriended, the topic turning occasionally to ancient wars.  Then I wonder how many of Josephus’s sources are now lost.  The libraries are gone now.  The people are dead.  In the case of some events, only Josephus’s tome remains to tell the tale.  His book does more to serve as a reminder of what must be lost.  And how much of our human history must have been lost, or was never even written down in the first place?  What works of ancient Greece are now gone?   We have seven full plays by Sophocles, but a couple dozen others survive only in fragments. (Imagine if we only had seven of Shakespeare’s plays, and none of his sonnets!) What historical texts have gone the way of those plays?   And what did the Egyptians know that we don’t?  Or the Babylonians?  Or the Ethiopians? Or the Minoans?  Or countless forgotten tribes of the world whose names are now unknown to us?  Is it unfair to think that some of the greatest human stories will never be told again?

We don’t even know what we don’t know.  Perhaps more has been lost than preserved.  And yet, when a historian on a television documentary speaks, it’s with such confidence, such authority, as if the entire story is fully known.  It is not known.  And the historian’s confidence comes only from the assurance that he knows more about the event than anyone alive today (which may actually be very little depending on the topic).

The history textbook writers must complete a strange chore.  They must draw from a staggeringly tall pile of historical events, deeming those chosen as “more important” than those left behind.  Then they must simplify them into short chapters that will hold the attention of students, all the while ignoring the fact that our view of history may have gigantic blind spots.  The result is basically a fictional tale of direct cause and effect, characters and motives, heroes and villains and all.  It’s a fictional tale based on truth, and categorized as “non-fiction” or “reference.”  Yet we all know, somewhere deep within our hearts, that it isn’t the whole story, or even enough of it to be called truth.   We all know that, in the past, some textbook teams have failed- How many of us, after flipping through an old dusty American History textbook, had to ask “Where is the Native American story?” or “Where is black history?” or “Where are the women?”  Obviously, the whole story had not been told.  So are today’s textbooks the complete and accurate story of humankind?  The test is this: Pick up a history text, hold it out in front of you, and say “This is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  You won’t be able to.

The Newspaper
Out of all written records, newspapers seem as if they’d be the most reliable.  The daily local news is not meant to be a catalogue of every event, but only of those events thought to be newsworthy.  If it’s unusual, unexpected, different, unprecedented, prominent, interesting, or if affects the daily lives of its readers, it is probably newsworthy.   A reporter hits the streets as soon as the word comes in, and makes her way to the scene of the newsworthy event.  She gathers the facts, heads to home base and types up the story, using only the words she needs.  There is no room for poetry, metaphor, philosophy, or speculation.  What the reader gets is pure nonfiction.  “Just the facts, ma’am.”  Right?

Well, even if the reporter is the best in the business, there are just too many weak links in the paper chain that connects the reader to the newsworthy event.  The first is the reporter herself.  At the scene of the event, the reporter must rely upon her senses to gather information, but eyes and ears have a point of view.  I hate to hear someone swear by his own senses, “I know what I saw!”  Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.  I once broke up a fight between a man and a woman because I believed the man was about to become violent.  From my perspective the woman had backed the guy against the wall, and with her pink-nailed finger in his face, was spitting a barrage of creative curses upon his chest.  I had no doubt that he deserved the tirade, but I saw in his eyes the look of a hillbilly about to go wild.  I thought it best to break up the fight.  Later, when I reported the incident to a manager, he just happened to have caught it all on the security cameras.  As we reviewed the tape, I was embarrassed to find that the fight looked nothing like the incident I had reported.  The woman was standing about a foot away from the man, and although she was pointing at him, her finger wasn’t in his face at all.   Also, they were about two feet away from the wall I thought I’d seen her push him against.  The fictionalized elements of my report were clear to me then.  I have to concede that my eyes (or my mind) were fooled, perhaps, by the emotions of the moment.  Or maybe I, in general, do not perceive things with clarity.

Am I alone in my distortion?  Does everyone but me, have the ability to document accurately everything that happens around them?  I doubt it.  At the scene of a car accident, there are many versions of the story.  People who say “there are two sides to every story” are grossly unaware of the complexity of a moment.  After the accident you’ll find each driver, each passenger, and each bystander prepared to tell a version of the story, and it’s unlikely that any of them were really looking at the exact spot in which the accident happened.  The person who caused the accident doesn’t know what happened- if he’d been looking, he wouldn’t have crashed.  The other driver doesn’t know either- if he’d seen it coming, he may have tried to avoid it.  The bystanders, on the sidewalk or in nearby cars and buildings, only turned their heads upon hearing the screech of the tires or the bang of glass on metal on plastic- their observance was caught in the same tricky spaces of peripheral vision that fool us to think we saw something move even in a still, quiet room.  The poor police officer who arrives at this scene has to gather what happened from a number of excited and unreliable sources.  He may draw more of his report from the evidence on the cars themselves than from the people who were on the scene.  It boggles my mind that an insurance company might do its investigations through a series of photographs taken by the people involved in the accident.  We haven’t even begun to consider the idea that one or both of the drivers might have a motive to lie about the details.  Even if all parties involved do their best to tell the truth, the chance of the story being distorted, exaggerated, or even downplayed are quite high.  Think of how different personality types may perceive, process, and describe the accident differently:  How might the testimonies of a teenage stoner kid, a middle-aged security guard, or a ninety-nine year old senior citizen differ?  Think of how personal mood may cause people to perceive, process, and describe the accident differently:  How might the testimonies of a man on his way to a golf game, or a woman in a van full of quarreling toddlers differ?  Think, then of how even education or language skills may cause people to describe an event differently: How might the testimonies differ between a middle-school girl (bottom of her class), a sixty-year-old prison psychologist, and a twenty-year-old beat poet?

Sometimes I feel that a news reporter finds herself in these dubious situations several times a day.  A busy city has its fair share of fatal accidents, violent crimes, and fires each week.  How will she, with the pressure of deadlines, and the limitations of human perception, ever get through the entire week without reporting something that wasn’t fully accurate?  The best she can hope to do is write a story that no one can prove is false.

Before the story hits the newsstand it has to go through the editor.  Sometimes referred to as “gatekeepers,” editors have the task of deciding, out of all of that day’s events, what will be in the newspaper.  Some days this is easy: disasters, visits from world leaders, and wars are big news days.  Other days, when not much is happening, you see things like “Mother Pig Adopts Kitten” at the bottom of the front page.  Either way, the gatekeeper is allowing some events to be elevated to mass public awareness, while leaving others behind.  His choices, of course, are motivated by everything from personal integrity, to pride in his profession, to the need to sell more newspapers.    We all know this.  How often have you heard criticism that something is “underreported by the media” or has been exaggerated into a “media frenzy”?  The gatekeeper effect might not seem like a big deal, but consider that years from now, when researchers want to know more about something that happened in our time, they look to newspapers.  Perhaps all they will know about your town, on this day, is what they find in archived periodicals.  Will they see the paper as an infallible authoritative document?  No.  They will view our papers the way we view the nonfiction documents of the past.  They will see that we reported and recorded our world through our cultural influences, our social constructs, and our limited perspective.  And they of course, will be judging us through theirs.  Contrary to the popular proverb, hindsight is not 20/20, but it is good at recognizing lacks of understanding by past generations.  As hard as we try, our newspapers will be recognized as fiction.

The Genealogy
Genealogies should be straight-forward nonfiction, but you only have to go back a few generations to find that documentation stops.  Many people tend to fill in the gaps with some prominent names.  Most people who take a lot of pride in family heritage will claim a famous ancestor somewhere in the line (Alexander the Great seems popular for some reason).  People are eager to claim famous pioneers, inventors, kings, civil rights heroes, artists, or Native American leaders.  No one ever claims the villains.  Take World War II, for example: Most people are proud to share that they have a grandparent who fought in the war on the American or British side, or who was a Holocaust survivor.  But no one ever says “My grandpa was a Nazi.”  Where are all of the Nazi descendants?  They can’t have just disappeared.  Similarly, we seldom stop to think that in the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan had millions of members.  I’m not saying they all had white hoods and torches, but what percentage of American men were enrolled on paper?  It is likely that many young people today could claim to have had a family member in the Klan, but who would want to?  Somewhere out there, someone is walking around not saying “My great grandfather was in the KKK,” and not saying “My great great grandfather owned slaves,” but they are saying “My great great great great great grandfather was at the Boston Tea Party and fought in the American Revolution.”

This is my point.  Genealogies seem to be less about truth or record keeping, and more about supporting personal myth.  It’s very encouraging to think that you have royal, genius, or artistic strands to your DNA, but personal myth is personal fiction.

The Bible
Much has been argued one way or the other about the Bible’s authenticity and relevance.  Very much.  The discussion has gone on for centuries, which tells us that a lot is at stake for all parties involved.  The advantage of proving or disproving any certain aspect of the Bible is obvious.  It’s also very difficult to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on the Bible (informed or otherwise).  To some it is “mythology” (in the “fairy-tale” sense of the word), to others it is the “infallible word of God,” and to others it is something else entirely.  So, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?
The first mistake most make in forming an opinion on the Bible is classifying it through generalization.  Some label it a historical document that is meant to be taken literally, yet, parts of it contain just as much figurative language as any other piece of enduring literature.  Some label it poetry, a work of art open to infinite interpretations, yet parts of the Bible are pure prose, unadorned and as dry as can be.  Some label it as a list of rules and guidelines for ethical living, yet parts of it are passionate, sensual, and clearly unfit for a typical Sunday School class.  Still others label it as an inspirational text meant to help you get through the day “if that’s what works for you,” yet the Bible is notorious for challenging shallow sentimentality.   For the purposes of my argument, the Bible is what it is.  My focus is deciding whether or not the Bible, among the oldest literary traditions, trusted by millions as an authority, can find itself free of the weaknesses that make other works fall short of truth.
There are, in fact, two things embedded in the Bible that, if true, cause the book to rise above the criticism I have applied to the writings previously discussed.  The first comes from a portion held sacred by Christians (the New Testament), and the second comes from a part held sacred by nearly every monotheistic thinker (the Old Testament, or the Tanakh).

When, in the book of 2nd Timothy, the apostle Paul (a Pharisee converted to radical Christianity in its earliest days) claims “all scripture is God-breathed,” he may have very well been addressing the inevitable concern that human beings struggle with perceiving and recording even simple truth.  The natural retort is to say that most religious leaders like to give their teachings authority by saying they come from a higher power.  That is often the case.  But Paul’s claim was made not to defend his own writing (which he wouldn’t have considered scripture at the time), but to show the value in using Jewish Holy Scriptures for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”  His claim was not a defense at all, but a recommendation to his disciple to trust Moses, David, Isaiah, and others as a guide in seeking the ways of God.  If Paul is right, much of my thesis has been disabled when applied to the Bible.  The human elements that cause most writing to fall into fiction have been reinforced by involvement from a being with infinite awareness and understanding.  If the scriptures are “God-breathed” then they are superhuman.

Also, if Moses’s writings are, as Paul claims, from the breath of God, there is within them a second fixed-point of truth.  In Exodus, Moses asks the being beyond the burning bush to identify itself so that he may tell the Jewish slaves in Egypt who sends him.  The answer is the famous “YHWH” which is pronounced “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” in human language.  It is not just mysterious for its lack of vowels- its meaning is one of the most fascinating of any word in any language: “I AM THAT I AM.”  The word seems to carry with it a connection to each of the many aspects of the Judeo-Christian God.  “I AM THAT I AM” implies that God always is (past, present, and future; simultaneous, eternal, infinite; transcendent of time).  It implies that God is incomparable (He is who He is, so who is like him?).  It implies that He is his own authority.  It implies that God is self-sufficient, self-sustaining (His power comes from himself).  It implies He is uncreated (He just is; he never began and thus can never end).  It’s easy to see why the name of God was considered holy. “Holy” is a word often misunderstood and, therefore, misused.  In its most basic form it means “set apart” (special, unlike anything else).  Recognizing the holiness of the name, most translators to English use the all-capital term LORD as a symbol for YHWH, so as not to risk trespassing upon it with human connotation (imagine if the name were used as much as the word “holy” or “love”).  Indeed, there is something about that name given to Moses, that seems to anchor his books in the otherworldliness of a divine source.  There is something in “I AM THAT I AM” that is unusually complete, and therefore free of the erroneous perceptions that inform most human records.  If an all-knowing, eternal being has breathed the words of the scriptures then there is within them truth.  Maybe that’s why it’s called the “Holy Bible.”

Certainly the reader must ask, “How does one account for the differences between the Gospels?  If anything exemplifies the points you’ve made about journalism and historical research it is those.”  Indeed, the four Gospel present four different perspectives, and, thus, four explanations of events in the ministry of Jesus.  Scholars have tried hard to synch up the four texts, creating a chart that every Sunday School student knows: “The Harmony of the Gospels.”  For me, the answer lies not in focusing hard on the similarities of the Gospels, but in the differences.  I enjoy the natural questions posed by examining sibling passages.  In Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” for instance, Jesus’s list of beatitudes looks like a list of enigmatic proverbs, arranged to show the difference between human perspective and God’s perspective.  In Luke’s, the wording and arrangement of the beatitudes seem to emphasize the equalizing nature of God’s grace (or justice).  After reading both, one must ask “Why are they different?  Why include both?”  The authenticity of the Gospels is found in these questions.  They are different because they are true.  If Matthew and Luke had used exactly the same wording, I would conclude that the whole thing had been fabricated.  Contemporary scholars question even the authorship of books like Matthew and Luke (Who was Matthew really?  Did he exist?  Did he know Jesus or just his disciples?  Did he ghostwrite?  Did he use the Gospel of Mark as a source?).  Whoever the authors were, the differences in storytelling show, first, that something did, in fact, happen (or at least that many people think it did), and, second, there was no attempt to coordinate conspiracy amongst the authors.  Conspiracies are more consistent.  If I were a judge, I’d be suspicious if two different witnesses used similar wording in their testimonies.  It would show they had met to coordinate the story.

Let us also keep in mind that writers of the scriptures didn’t know they were making the Bible (although they may have been aware that they were exhaling the breath of the God).  The canon of scriptures was decided upon later by other early Christians.  Their decision to keep four uniquely different texts as a record of Jesus’s ministry shows they must have been confident that a singular truth existed between them.  And it shows, again, a lack of conspiracy.  Had they not been people of integrity, they would have edited the four stories into oblivion… or synthesized them into one, so that future generations would not have to use their own heads to “harmonize” the Gospels.  The existence of the four placed in juxtaposition, illuminates truth.  It’s anti-fiction.  Think of how keeping them as four is different from the work typically done by researches and writers, where many sources of information are combined into one story.

As I said before, all writing is fiction, even this… Which puts me in the predicament of having to call into question everything I’ve said… or will say.  Certainly, my words are created out of observations made through my limited, flawed senses, and filtered through my incomplete education, my shifting emotions, and my few-decades experiences.  The salvation of fiction is that sometimes it contains nonfiction and, possibly, truth.  Mark Twain’s novels and Walt Whitman’s poetry are windows to many of the realities of nineteenth century America.  Chaucer’s wild tales contain samples of life in Medieval Europe.  So many fictional works contain such threads, and the great task of readers is to unravel them.  And, why are they hidden?  Because most writers do not mean to put them there.

The predicament is a good one, though.  I would rather be looking for the truth in fiction, than the flaws in nonfiction.

Tagged , , , , ,