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Friday, August 10, 2018

Looking For Answers? Fables, Storybooks, And Tall Tales Have Them All

“We’re coming to the end of the line”, said Pastor Phillips.  “Can you see the station?  There, in the distance, just around the bend.  A small country building, red wood painted like a barn, weathervane on the top.  It’s a whistle stop some days, too few passengers to get on or off; but not today.  It’s your stop, Harry.  Although it continues to Fairmont, Bellows, and Oakville – nice places, not so remote as here but familiar and ordinary just the same where people making a living, go to church, walk to school, cook dinner – you get off here.”

Pastor Phillips liked to weave his own parables.  He had found the stories of the Samaritan woman, the mustard seed, and the Pharisee and the tax collector too abstruse for his liking; and more to the point for the liking of his congregation.  His congregants needed something more relevant, more culturally syncopated; and in a word, more simple. He found that the more he span his homilies, the more came to mind.  From the pulpit or in the sacristy he could see that his stories resonated. 

He was of course much more at home with references of the past – the parable he was telling to Harry Loans, he admitted, took inspiration from Our Town,  Yet it was far from unacknowledged borrowing or plagiarism, for Phillips had grown up in the Midwest in an era which would be familiar to Wilder. His father had been a grocer, and his grandfather had owned the dry goods store.  There had been no preachers in the family, but young Harry Phillips had had the talent and the inspiration; and was asked by his own pastor to read from the Gospels and even to give his own, short, ‘Tales of Goodness’, homilies he had written himself.  Later, feeling a calling, left for seminary in the East, apprenticed at small churches in Easton and Lewisburg before being appointed pastor of his own congregation in Elkton.

Image result for images wilder our town

“Are you ready to get off the train, Harry”? asked Pastor Phillips, looking at the troubled man sitting across from him and taking his hand.  “Are you ready to meet Jesus? He’s waiting for you, sitting in the park by the fountain.”

The man fidgeted.  This was not what he expected when he had sought counsel from Pastor Phillips.  He should have known better, of course, after so many homely stories on Sunday morning; but he was nearing both the end of his life and the end of his rope. He had made no sense of anything let alone answer any existential questions; but there it was – the end of the tunnel, life soon to be extinguished, and only scary prospects ahead.  When he tried to make all this real,he was as predictable as Pastor Phillips; but whereas the preacher turned to Thornton Wilder’s Americana, Harry deliberately thought of Durer, Dore, and Blake, and conjured up their images of death, Hell, and the Apocalypse.  He needed a jump start to end his crisis, not a smooth carriage ride. 

Image result for images dore apocalypse

Yet, Phillips seemed to be a good man whose heart was in the right place, interested in counselling and compassion rather than hellfire, prayer, and brimstone; so Harry thought that he might find a way to move the pastor away from fable and parable and help him face facts.  The end of his life could only be years, not decades away, and the time for reckoning was now or never. For better or worse, the pastor was the best he could do.

No matter how bluntly Harry put his questions about meaning and the void, the pastor answered only by analogy, familiar reference, and fable.  “Remember Prentice Barker?”, the pastor asked.  Harry shook his head. “Of course you do”, Phillips went on, “he was a lawyer on Arch Street, defended the best and the worst.  Put New Brighton on the legal map.  A man of principle, rectitude, and honor.  One day, a client came into his office…”

The pastor continued and wove an interesting, familiar, but hopelessly oblique and elliptical story of crime and punishment, realization, and local epiphany.  He had gotten no nearer the point of Harry’s existential questions than the man in the moon.  He had told moral tales for so long that he could never get down to ecclesiastical brass tacks.   Of course Jesus never did either and taught by suggestion.  The closest he got to theological clarity was “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and “Man shall not live by bread alone”, leaving the listener to sort out meaning and purpose. 

Pastor Phillips had always been drawn to metaphor and ignored the black and white injunctions of the Old Testament which could have made his case more definitive.  Harry and not a few other fellow congregants, persuaded that Old rather than New were more relevant for today, would have far preferred a ‘Do This, Do That’ lesson in righteousness than one meandering through Wilder country.

To be fair, Wilder’s vision in Our Town was a very bleak and frightening one; and had Pastor Phillips  turned to the final act when all those who have died look down upon the people of Grover’s Corners and inconsolably regret their past lives – he would have given a brusque wake-up call to all the spiritually timid.  Wilder, of course, was more secular than spiritual,  and in fact was lamenting human ignorance and temporality more than faithlessness; but the message was there loud and clear.  The time for preparation is not at the moment before death, but well before.
“How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-string:in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls…” (Faulkner, As I Lay Dying)
Image result for images faulkner as i lay dying

Nevertheless, Phillips insisted on rambling on, and Harry found no way of refocus from the pastor’s storybook; but on the other hand Wilder, Faulkner, and Phillips might be right.  Perhaps in questions of existential uncertainty for which there can never be answers, A Child’s Book Of Biblical Tales is precisely the proper text.  Perhaps the reason why Phillips was so loved and admired by his congregation was exactly because of his fairy tales, his lack of horrific accounts of fire and brimstone or warnings about eternal loss, regret, and  emptiness. 

In the whole exegetical affair it was Harry who was the malcontent, the outlier, and the unbeliever who insisted on reality when everyone else knew there was no such thing.  Life was indeed harsh and unrewarding; but the hopes of something sweet (“….just beyond the station, over there, see the Taylors’ rose trellises and peonies? There by the pasture…”) was good enough. There was no need for understanding the mystery of the Trinity or deciphering the parables.  Paradisaical myth was good enough.

Harry’s Jewish friends were less kind.   That kind of treacle had no more relevance to spiritual maturity and readiness than Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  The Law, the Book, and the lessons of Moses, Abraham, and Jacob – as hard as they might be to swallow – were the only ones to be consulted, not the librettos, fables, and friendly homilies of Pastor Phillips.   Wake up, pay attention, and get serious if you want to figure out what’s what, said Abe Feldman.

None of this was helpful; and if Harry learned anything from his sessions with Pastor Phillips, Abe Feldman, and ‘The Great American Experience’ it was that the answer to what’s what cannot be taught or even learned for that matter.  Better to find an modus operandi that kept bad thoughts away than struggle to find meaning, relevance, and purpose.  Tolstoy tried his whole life, to figure things out; but finally, exhausted and unsatisfied, gave up.  If billions of people had believed, he said, then there just might be something to it.

Image result for images tolstoy a confession

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