Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Note From Class: Pilgrimage to Parnassus

Dear Friends,

In Green Hills there is a bookstore named Parnassus Books. You should visit it some time. Each book is hand-chosen by the store owners, and they invite authors to come and read aloud from their books. Parnassus has style.

Parnassus also has several owners. One of them acts as store spokesperson, the nerdy-famous author Anne Patchette.

Patchette wasn't always well known or successful. "My first stories and novels," she said, "were no more capable of supporting me than my dog." But success did eventually find her. And it is a good thing, because it is near impossible to start a bookstore (or any other business) without money.

As spokesperson, Patchette does interviews about her work and the bookstore. And, being a writer, she is often asked about writing. Here is something she said about writing a novel:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. . . . This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

This is a bold confession! Here is Anne Patchette, successful writer, disappointed with words. As she said, for all their usefulness, words can't communicate the "piercing color" of imagination. Words pin ideas to a page. They "run over a butterfly with an SUV." It sounds painful.

So why do writers do this? How can they bear seeing their beautiful ideas killed dead by words over and over again? Why do they do it?

I mention Patchette's writer’s frustration to recall again our trouble with words. We must use them, but they are only tools. And though a beautiful tool—for language is beautiful—they are no match for the real. But they are all we have.

In my last post, I talked about how this poses a problem for god talk. If Patchette can’t trust language not to kill her imagination, how can we use language to talk about God? If God is "of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature" like Patchette's imagination, then isn’t it wrongheaded to do god talk at all? Wouldn’t we be running over a butterfly with an SUV? And what about people who do this for a living? Are they butterfly murderers every one?

Let me ask one more question--a new question: Is it morally wrong to use words to talk about God? I mean, there is a word for taking a tool and setting it up between you and God. That word is idolatry.

Do we use words like some use gold or stone or wood and make a god out of them and pray to that god?

Yikes! god talk may be not only silly but dangerous!

Idolatry is a big topic in the Bible. Read it and you run into idolatry a lot. For example, right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol." (Exodus 20:4).

Or, (and this is one of my favorites) we hear the prophet Isaiah /eye-ZAY-uh/ openly making fun of idolaters. Put on your best "I'm making fun of you" voice and read this:

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.

He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.

He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.

Some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" (Isaiah 44:13-19)

Isaiah's sarcasm always makes me laugh—though I doubt his hearers thought he was funny.

Yet are we them? Instead of wood, do we build gods of words? Do we make a god out of our ideas of what God should be like? Do we project our ideas onto the clouds and "bow down”?

I think we certainly can do that. Yes, we human beings can make idols of anything, including from the ideas in our heads. As the Swiss pastor John Calvin said, "The human heart is an idol factory."

So what are we to do, we creatures of words? Can we talk of God or to God? Should we? Can we pray and be sure we are praying not to our imagination-god but to the living One? Can we pray "Our Father"?

I'm afraid we've worked ourselves into a tiny, dark box with no holes here, all alone with ourselves.