Tag Archives: parables

Creating Afterlife

Once upon a time I wrote a book on commuting. It never got beyond my laptop, but I often wonder if it was simply premature. Some stories from public transit can be quite amusing. A few weeks ago I posted on how a woman spoke up after our bus missed it’s turn off the highway and made us all late for work that day. No matter what you think of developers and speculators, one thing we can say for certain is they lack imagination. If you’ve driven this stretch of highway 22 you know that the exits look very much alike. Early in my commuting days a young woman took the empty seat next to me on the way home and asked where we were. “I miss my stop because they all look alike to me,” she explained. She had a point.

So one morning last week I was in my usual seat, reading along, when the driver—new to our route—missed his turn off the highway. The same woman (for we are mostly regulars at this forsaken hour of the morning; if this doesn’t ring a bell search this blog for “commuting”) said, “No need to turn back, they have another bus coming.” I was pleasantly surprised at the learning that had taken place since the last time. I am, however, old enough to remember Greyhound commercials and their slogan, “Take the bus and leave the driving to us.” I also thought of those passengers waiting like evangelicals for the second coming for a bus that would never show up. Our gain in time was their loss. Such are the dynamics of life in a universe not built on the principle of fairness.

The bus can be a microcosm of the moral universe. Evangelists, for example, believe all people must have the opportunity to catch this express bus to Heaven. The bus that comes after the express makes more stops, somewhat like Catholic Purgatory, increasing the suffering for a while, but ultimately making the goal. Missing the bus completely are the Hell-bound for which some claim we must turn back while others insist we press on; there will be another bus. In this case, the same passenger insisted that we help those left behind just a few weeks ago. This led to lengthening of her own stay in Purgatory, so when it happened again she decided those waiting were simply too hard to reach. Or maybe she’d come to believe in predestination. Perhaps it was on some ancient bus that ideas of the afterlife emerged. Experience teaches that much depends on factors beyond your personal control.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

394px-Flock_of_sheep

Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.

Backyard Wisdom

From where I was sitting, the robin appeared to be asleep. It was an overcast and chilly spring morning, so I had to admit that I was a little envious. Our back yard is divided from the neighboring landlord’s property by a kind of picket fence with square-topped stanchions every ten feet or so. The robin was sleeping on the stanchion closest to an old maple tree. A wiggle of movement caught my eye. Further down the fence, maybe seven or eight pickets back, sat an impatient gray squirrel. It was sitting up on its haunches, and flashing its bushy tail in an obvious attempt to draw attention to itself. The robin sat, implacable. The squirrel looked around like a nervous commuter who will be late for work. It hoped a picket or two closer. Up on its haunches, looked around, jiggled its tail. Still the robin sat. The squirrel turned toward the maple tree and reared back, preparing to jump. It was too far. The squirrel turned back to look at the bird. The robin, flapping its wings a time or two, hopped into the air and landed on a picket two further down beyond the stanchion. The squirrel climbed onto the now vacant spot and leapt into the tree. The robin flew back to its original post.

This little exchange brought home to me once again the intelligence of animals. I don’t know what was going through the minds of these two different species, but they obviously both wanted to be at the same place at the same time. Perhaps some moral imperative passed in unspoken form between them. The squirrel needed to be close enough to make the leap into the tree, and the robin was clearly comfortable where it was sitting. Something had to give. I don’t know if robins peck on squirrels when nobody’s looking, but the rodent, larger than the bird, was obviously cautious. In the end, a compromise was reached and each ended up where they wanted to be.

More than a show of intelligence, I also saw this as a parable. I imagined how differently it might have worked out if the robin were a Christian and the squirrel a Muslim. Would there be any giving way? Any acknowledgement of the need of the other? A few wing flaps, a little leap to the left, and the squirrel found its sanctuary. The robin simply returned to where it was. They both wanted the same sacred space. They didn’t raise voices or argue—the whole exchange was terribly polite. Behavioral biologists often suggest that we can learn much by watching animals. As I watched what must have been only a minor incident in the backyard world of robins and squirrels, I felt as if two of the great teachers of our many religions were enacting a parable for humankind. If only we would pay attention.

IMG_0675

Dusty Flowers

V. C. Andrews was a name familiar to me from skulking around used bookstores where tons of over-printed, read-only-once books line the shelves. I had seen Flowers in the Attic on many shelves since the 1980s, but supposing it to be a romance title, I showed no interest. As Borders was closing, however, I noticed a copy of the novel on the horror shelf and couldn’t fight the curiosity any longer. I guess it might have been building, subtly, for three decades. My wife was surprised to see it in my stack, but I professed my lack of knowledge and began reading it.

Horror is a strange genre of writing. It is defined in various ways, but I have found that authors deal with their own fears with a variety of strategies. After thirty years I need not worry about spoilers, so I can say that the concept of a parent destroying her own children is about the scariest scenario imaginable. What makes the story of interest here, however, is the treatment of the Bible in the story. After the premature death of their father the Dollanganger children are secreted away in an unused upstairs wing and attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion. While the hidden foe is really their mother, Andrews introduces the grandmother as the Bible-quoting, intolerant, prejudiced symbol of oppression. Quick with the rod and completely unforgiving, she goes to bed each night reading her Bible and she insists the children do the same. When she finds an excuse, however, the children are lashed for being wicked.

Interestingly, it is the mother who is never shown quoting the Bible. Towards the end of the story the children recognize that while she is evil, the grandmother would not directly commit murder. The mother who has tasted the intoxicating liquor of wealth, however, knows that even her own children cannot stand in the way of her inheritance. The adults in the story are twisted—some by religion, some by greed. The questions raised by children, like all of us innocent of our own existence, merely ask where the love has gone. Religion without love is Hell, as the pictures selected for the children’s prison by the grandmother clearly show. Worse than Hell, however, is the blinding love of money.

We are all flowers in the attic of an uncaring world. Some find comfort in the power of wealth while others resort to religion. Many try to combine the two. At the end, those who are truly noble are those who survive without either.