To gain greater awareness one must acknowledge the possibility that their current awareness is incomplete. People who believe they have complete awareness are consigned to live inside a pathetic tautology. These people are interesting to watch. Sadly, all you can do is watch; there is no way to help.
My Uncle George, who made his living as a freelance writer, used to exhort me to read the Bible from cover to cover. I found this odd because his contempt for organized religion was open and seething. When I was sixteen I finally thought to ask why I should bother to read the Bible if it wasn’t a pathway to salvation. "Oh right," Uncle George reflected, "well, you should appreciate the quality of writing, because it’s truly stunning. Especially the New Testament." After a pause he continued. "Did you know that, of all the books ever published, the Bible has the highest percentage of one syllable words?"
I didn’t know that. I still don’t because, other than my uncle’s swift pronouncement, I’ve never heard this factoid again. I understood his point, though: the Bible’s message was linguistically simple and easily accessible, even though early religious leaders used its message to advance political goals.
Today’s political leaders still rely on the power of the Bible, and with good reason. Polls show
that 60% percent of voters prefer candidates who believe in God. And
many voters think that the Bible is the literal word of God. I thought
about the Bible’s importance in politics as I watched this fairly recent YouTube video. Rick Klau said
(weeks ago) that Mike Huckabee’s response made him a lock for the
Republican nomination, and the recent Iowa caucus results lend support
to Rick’s prediction. I agree that Huckabee handled the question
adeptly, but I was baffled at the notion that religion is such a
bellweather in contemporary American politics. Huckabee’s rise makes
me dwell on the importance of the Bible in modern society. This, in
turn, reminded me that I’d failed to follow through on my uncle’s
suggestion. So I’ve resolved to actually read the Bible –to experience
its literary and spiritual majesty directly, bypassing the venal
filters of politicians and evangelical TV ministers.
I’m less interested in the quality of writing or the literal
veracity of the Bible, and more curious about the transcendent
message. Ideally, understanding the eternal mysteries of existence
shouldn’t hinge on the word-symbols that have been translated through
many languages and many generations. I don’t believe the Bible needs
to be literally true in order to convey important messages. And I’m
glad I can draw my own conclusions about the Bible without having to
convince others that my conclusions are ‘right,’ or widely acceptable.
Is it possible to find spiritual meaning in the Bible without
external guidance? Or without believing that every word is literally
true? I guess I’ll find out.
As for mixing the religion and politics, I’m not in favor of that.
And I doubt my allegiance will shift from Obama to Huckabee anytime
soon. I like Huckabee, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him as the
President, and I’m definitely glad he wasn’t the governor of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina happened.
It would seem that when religion intrudes into interpretation of
insurance policies things have gotten out of hand. But that’s just my
opinion. No doubt the polling numbers offer a more enlightened view.
Hemingway’s advice to aspiring writers was characteristically brief: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." I’d like to to follow this advice, but I have a lot of preparation to do first.
I don’t know many true things and so I don’t have a lot of material to work with. I know a lot of untrue things, and even more things that I treat as true without really thinking about it. For example, the other day my brother sneezed and I said "God bless you." In the silence that followed I had time to reflect on why I said this. I don’t particularly understand what God is, and I don’t have any idea why a blessing is so important after one sneezes. I seem to remember some myth about the soul being briefly in peril after a sneeze, and an offer of God’s blessing has some beneficial effect. Or so it was believed.
But I don’t believe that, and so I resolved not to say "God bless
you" whenever someone sneezes. But it seems impolite not to say
something. And that something will have to be a short unobtrusive
comment. I decided not to spend too much time agonizing over this, and
made snap decision to simply say "Bless you." It has religious
overtones, but so what? At least I’d be saying something in a
purposeful way instead of offering an automatic incantation.
A few minutes later, my brother sneezed again. "God bless you" I
said reflexively before I had time to think. Geez, how lame. I knew
that finding truth was elusive. Looks like dispensing with poor habits
of thought is hard too. But, that’s what I’ll have to do first if I
want to write true sentences. Don’t wait around because this could
My son, Knute, is one of those kids that people dream about having. He’s 6′ 1” now and casts a long shadow, but I remember when he was pulling himself to an upright position in his playpen. I also remember that shortly after that he pulled himself over the rail and started crawling around the house. He didn’t understand the whole ‘barrier’ concept. And he never will.
When he was about three he was diagnosed with a hearing impairment. It was mild at first but in the next few years it got worse until finally he was completely deaf. He had a lot of speech therapy and he learned to read lips. He was really smart and he could figure things out in unusual ways. So he stayed in regular school, even though a lot of people thought that maybe he should go to a school for deaf kids. He made lots of friends in school and did well. He loved sports and was good at pretty much everything. He never got angry, except for one time in fifth grade when his mother was called in to see the principal. She was told by the stern administrator that Knute had jumped on one of the kids and punched him in the face. The principal said that he wasn’t going to punish him, though. His mom asked why not? "Because the other kid was hitting him and taunting him and deserved to get hit back," he said. That may be one of the few times that he ever got angry. Even when he played sports, where he was very competitive, he was never overly aggressive.
Knute loved to follow sports, especially the Saints. When he was about seven years old we were eating at a pizza restaurant and talking about great moments in Saints history. I told him that my dad took me to every Saints home game and I had been at the game where Tom Dempsey kicked the record 63 yard field goal. He asked me a lot of questions about the field goal, and, as my mind drifted to the past, my eyes wandered over to the large hearing aids behind his ears. I realized at that moment that Knute and Tom Dempsey had something in common: they were both handicapped. Dempsey had been born with a club foot and wore a special shoe on his kicking foot.
I told my son that Dempsey’s feat had been even more special because "he was handicapped." Knute looked up at me with his trademark look of focused curiosity and asked "what’s a handicap?"
I didn’t really know how to answer that question, and as I thought about what I could say I kept staring at his hearing aids. Finally, I said: "Well a handicap is something that makes it harder for you to do something that’s easier for other people to do." I added, "if you can’t see that’s called blindness and that’s one kind of handicap." He looked at me knowing I had more to say so I continued: "And if you can’t hear that’s called deafness and that’s another kind of handicap."
His eyes brightened and it seemed like something registered with him. "My friend Shelby thinks I’m deaf," he said. "Oh really," I said with a rising tone in my voice. "Yeah," he said matter-of-factly, "but that’s just because I say ‘what’ a lot."
I realized at that moment that my son had no idea what a handicap was. And it turns out he never would. How foolish of me to try to explain it to him.
When I was a teenager the Miami airport was like that place near the Berlin wall where the prisoner exchanges took place. You know the image: a bedraggled figure walks alone in the moonlight across an imaginary line that represents the transition from one legal jurisdiction to another. Depending on which direction the prisoner is walking the line can also represent freedom or oppression. But either way, the prisoner walks alone. As a kid, that’s what I liked most about Miami.
I’d heard that a lot of drugs were smuggled through Miami, so whenever I was in the Customs area I’d try to find the likely suspects. I never could because, of course, the whole point of being a smuggler is to be inconspicuous. Except for the fact that I was too young I’d have been a great smuggler, mostly because I had great rapport with airport officials. Invariably, as I approached the U.S. Customs agent, with his crisp white shirt, he’d look me straight in the eye and say “welcome back to the United States, son.” His voice was filled with pride, and it made me feel proud too.
A lot of times he would ask why I’d been in Panama for so long. Then I’d have to explain that I lived there with my mother. Right away he’d understand that meant that my parents were divorced. The Customs guys were sharp; you didn’t have to explain things to them in laborious detail. “Okay son, just give the card to that man over there and you can be on your way,” and our eyes would linger for a sparkle of time. As I walked away I was glad for that human connection, even if it was with someone that had only met for about 30 seconds. It was moments like those that made me wish I could live in the Miami airport forever.