Saturday, August 27, 2011

the story comes before God

When I was a kid, my mother once succumbed to my pleas and took me to see one of the adoring war movies that were popular before and just after World War II. This one was a submarine version. I wasn't old enough to know that the good guys were bound to win, so it was full of suspense and danger and derring-do. But about halfway through the movie, my mother whispered to me that she was leaving. I could stay, but she had seen enough. She knew what was going to happen. "You see that young man?" she said of one of the characters. "In a while, a torpedo is going to fall on him and he's going to die." Since she had not seen the movie, I thought her prediction was preposterous. I was therefore doubly astounded when, after my mother had left with instructions to come straight home after the movie, the torpedo fell on the sweet young man and, sure enough, he died. How had she known that? The best I could do was write it off to the child's notion that "grown-ups, and especially moms, know everything."

Last night, I got my son to take me into the no-parking-spots-available-on-Friday-nights downtown that attracts a lot of out-of-towners on weekends. I wanted to see a movie advertised by a local Buddhist center. The movie, "Travelers and Magicians," was by the same Tibetan monk who made "The Cup," a movie I had liked a lot. The center was showing the movie for free and I went partly to see the movie, but also to rub shoulders and get a feel for the center. I don't make a habit of going to Buddhist centers.

I made my donation at the door to a very airy, very clean, very prosperously-beige environment. There were several people in a lounge area who were welcoming and friendly. One woman showed me around -- the kitchen, the closet, the meditation hall -- and we talked pleasantly. The meditation hall had been set up to show the movie on a large TV screen. The altar had been  modestly hidden behind a rice-paper screen. There was water and unsalted popcorn.

After a couple of obligatory introductions that included obligatory references to Buddhist ways of thinking, the movie began. I love being taken to faraway places with faraway costumes and even subtitles. Take me, I'm yours. And there I was in a lovely faraway place with a story that contained the overwrought kernels of Buddhist teaching ... transiency, attachment, know-the-ground-under-your-feet, suffering ... blah, blah, blah. The characters were mildly interesting, but not as interesting as they had been in "The Cup." I wanted to be swept up, I was primed to be swept up, and, about halfway through the movie, I realized that none of it really interested me very much -- not the center, not the collective interest in Buddhism, not the movie ... I didn't begrudge it to anyone, but it simply didn't interest me.

Back on the sidewalk waiting for my son to pick me up, I could hear someone playing a fiddle in the warm night air. Now that did interest and delight me.

The Jewish author, Chaim Potok, wrote a number of Jewish-themed books ("The Chosen" and "My Name is Asher Lev" come to mind) that were marvels of balance. Each contained strong threads of Judaism, but each remembered the cardinal rule of spiritual-life writing: The story comes first, the spiritual stuff comes second. This is easy to say, but very difficult to do for anyone concerned with spiritual endeavor. Spiritual endeavor is so beloved and so powerful that it's easy to go off on some theological tangent, not least because the reader needs to understand at least some of the tenets, the reasoning and faith that underpins thoughts, words and deeds in the story.

But the story comes first. The story has to come before God ... whatever god it happens to be. And this is the reason that so many 'spiritual' books are so bad ... sappy, gluey, prating, excusing their pure boringness with high-minded eclesiastical diversions.

The story. The story is god.

The story.

Probably it's just my bias, but I think it is unavoidable for authors to tell stories about spiritual life. Listeners and readers swoon for stories, even as they imagine they might swoon for God. But God, by whatever name, is too boring, too out of reach, too much like drinking whiskey straight ... add a little water. Theology and holy posturing is not very interesting in the end. Stories, on the other hand, are like swimming in chocolate milk ... and the God, by whatever name, soaks in bit by bit.

Bit by bit, without ever a mention of God, God soaks in. Christians say, I believe, that it is through our activities that we come to know God; that there is no knowing God face to face, so we can only see God in our walk-around lives. This is probably true, but it is less true when the church inserts itself between the walking-around and the one walking around.

Good stories are better than good gods, I think.

Listen to the fiddle music.

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