Tuesday, April 13, 2010

'Secular Parables"

The phrase, I think, is from the renowned 20th century theologian Karl Barth. The impulse for this message came from reading Joan Didion's short essay "On Morality" published in a book collection titled Eight Modern Essays, 6th edition, edited by William Smart, which I purchased to help me in my work as a college writing center tutor. Thus far I have read through most of the essays by George Orwell and am now reading through those written by Joan Didion.

Didion is a brilliant writer whose depth of consciousness reflects a capacity with words and experience in giving picture to the seemingly most uncommon banalaties and conceits of the human imagination which, if not unparalleled, would be very difficult to match in drawing the reader in to seeing some ineffable reality as the author has encountered it herself.

The example below is one she makes in passing, but speaks volumes for what it implies for those with ears that are willing to hear from another voice than that of Didion's many poignant secular odes.

"Across the road at the Faith Community Church a couple of dozen old people, come here [southern California] to live in trailers and die in the sun, are holding a prayer sing. I cannot hear them and do not want to, [but]...if I were to hear those dying voices, those Midwestern voices drawn to this lunar country for some unimaginable atavistic rites, rock of ages cleft for me, I think I would lose my own reason.

A number of things stand out, one of them being the hymn, Rock of Ages as a secular trophe in movies or literature portraying Christians in less than flattering ways. What also stands out is the unstated prejudice in Didion's off-handed remarks on the motivation of those gathered together in seeking the Lord's support and guidance in the "twilight" years of their lives. To be sure, this is an example of Didion's early writing and years before she had written what perhaps was her most poignant book, A Year of Magical Thinking, describing her experience of mourning following the death of her husband. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4956088).

In my depiction of her passing comments I do not intend to create a caricature, but I do not want her "self-evident" observations to go by without remark. To be sure I cannot even begin to know what those trailer park residents were experiencing or anything about their lives, but I do sense that they may have experienced something that I and countless millions do and have done through the eons when sifted through the ineffable presence of the spirit of God, "My soul finds rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him, he alone is my rock and salvation, he is my fortress, I will never be shaken....Trust in him at all times O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge" (Psalm 62: 1-2, 7-8.

Surely, we need writers of the same caliber as Didion and Orwell who can communicate something of the depth, complexity, beauty, poignancy, and pain embedded in our collective faith journeys as displayed in the powerful secular parables of such brilliant essayists as George Orwell and Joan Didion.

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