Story-Telling and Spell-Casting

I probably pay too much attention to the stickers people put on the backs of their cars.  I am naturally very quick to judge, and I love it when strangers help me get them totally pegged with adhesive indicators of their self-conscious hipster identity (the Apple brand logo; the yellow “equality” sign on the navy blue background) or of their pushy, shrill socio-political activism, be it progressive (CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE) or troglodytic (DEPLORABLES FOR TRUMP 2016).  I enjoy both the self-conferred badges of distance-running prowess (the 13.1 miles of the half marathon, the 26.2 of the whole, or some obnoxious, triple-digit ultra-marathon boast quantity) and the snide refutation of the “0.0” anti-exercise stickers.  I am just tickled by combinations of stickers and vehicles that defy parody, being more of a cliché than I could have imagined: my all-time favorite was the shiny new Escalade with the sparkling sequined license plate frame, the Jimmy Buffet “Margaritaville” and Disney Mickey-ears logos on the back window, the “Romney-Ryan ‘12” campaign sticker on the bumper—and, the crowning glory of the ensemble, the twin emblems of Brophy and Xavier College Prep schools, perhaps somewhat unfairly reputed as our town’s five-figure annual tuition amusement parks for the nominally-Catholic scions and daughters of money, privilege, and power, though phenomena such as the Cadillac SUV thus festooned certainly do little to change that reputation.

Once I saw a modest red pickup truck with a collection of immediately-recognizable logos displayed on the rear window: the Superman “S”, the Batman emblem, the Green Lantern’s symbol, and the Christian cross.  The message was clear: Jesus is one of my favorite comic book super-heroes.  

This is not as absurd as it might sound at first.  Through years of teaching classical Greek and Roman literature to high school students, I have come to suspect that the ancients primarily understood their gods and heroes such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and Achilles just as our culture views Spider-Man, Wolverine and the X-Men, Autobots and Decepticons, and the Jedi knights: as larger-than-life characters with extraordinary powers starring in their culture’s shared stock of action stories.  This is not to trivialize the religious mythology of the Greco-Roman pagans: rather, it is to think about our own comic-book superhero and space epic movies and their effects upon our imaginations with the seriousness that ought to be accorded them.  For there is no such thing as “mere” entertainment, especially not when it is the kind of thing that seizes and holds the imagination of tens of millions from childhood on.  

Stories matter.  We are narrative animals, story-telling creatures, and we imitate the narratives that we cherish and the larger-than-life characters that inhabit those tales.  The Greeks had their Iliad and their brooding, violent, beautiful Achilles—and thus centuries of ancient Hellenes grew up wanting to emulate him, none more dramatically and self-consciously so than the mercurial Alexander the Great, who destroyed far more than he built across the ancient near east, all the while sleeping with a copy of Homer under his pillow and frequently bewailing the fact that his century possessed no poet talented enough to write a worthy epic about his own life and deeds.  In the late 18th century, the German poet Goethe captured the imagination of an entire generation of European young men with his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romantic middle-class rebel who flings himself off a bridge rather than live without the woman he loves; contemporary newspaper  accounts paint a picture of a wave of suicides-by-drowning across the continent, with the victims/perpetrators young men of the middle class, and more than a few of their corpses pulled from the water and found with a waterlogged copy of Goethe’s novel in their coat pockets.  

We ought not to forget the maxim that faith cometh by hearing (Rom. 10:17), and that for the Christian faithful, with the exception of the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, and the first generation of believers who knew the Lord in the flesh, faith has first come to us as a story.  This is the primary sense of the Old English noun “spell”, as in “godspell”, as in gospel: it is a narrative, a history, a story, or a fable.  The American literary critic Harold Bloom, a self-confessed Kabbalistic-Jewish-Gnostic, probably puts the matter too strongly when he says that the principal religious traditions of the Western world consist in the worship of two literary characters, Yahweh and Jesus.  Blessed are those, like St. Thomas, who have seen God and who doubt Him no longer—the rest of us, the Lord’s extra blessings notwithstanding (Jn. 20:29), must find sufficient inspiration in the Good Story, in the gospel narratives about Him.  How do we come to know the saints?  We must hear their stories and learn who they are before we can turn to them for intercession.

So what stories fill our minds and the minds of our children?  Let me be the first to confess that I am failing utterly as a Christian parent to ensure that the narratives of our faith occupy adequate real estate in the mental landscapes of my sons and daughters.  Sacred history is full of powerful stories that should have pride of place in the minds of the young, yet I have allowed the power of Indiana Jones, Batman, and Star Wars to claim not just equal space, but to squeeze tales of the patriarchs and saints to the uttermost margins in my sons’ and daughters’ shared stock of stories.  My kids participate in Mass, seem serious about their daily prayers, speak with at least some degree of comfort about their faith, regularly go to confession, and more than a handful of times they have busted my chops for being lukewarm, lazy, or lackluster in my practice of religion.  And yet I feel they are under the spell of other stories entirely.  When my 7-year old draws or dresses up, it’s Batman or the Flash whom he imitates and iconizes.  It might as well be versatile Odysseus (as Homer often calls him) or swift-footed Achilles, superheroes of a different generation.  

We should admit a certain weakness in the face of the overwhelming power of entertainment culture.  One single Indiana Jones film, with gobs of action and harrowing stunts, witty dialogue, iconic smirking heroes, one-dimensional villains, and of course the unforgettable soundtrack, makes a much stronger impression upon the imagination than, say, coloring the exact same Jesus and Mary pictures in the parish CCD class as you did last year, or listening to Sunday scriptural pericopes read from the pulpit without context and with the kind of flat, not-calling-attention-to-itself declamation that is appropriate to the celebration of the Mass, in which the scriptures are read for liturgical reasons, not dramatic-narrative ones.  I don’t know about you, but we have a fair number of books on the kiddie shelves at home that belong to the genre of lame retellings of Bible stories, with kitschy-bad illustrations and, all too often, the crudest doggerel rhyme that you could imagine (“A man was sick and couldn’t walk / But he wanted to hear Jesus talk. / His friends carried him on a mat / To the house where Jesus was at”).  These unfortunate items seem in my experience to have the opposite of the effect intended: they make the great stories of the faith seem shabby, especially when compared to films with a John Williams musical score.  

I will admit to one particular success I stumbled upon by accident in making some small piece of our sacred Heilsgeschichte come to life for my children. One Sunday afternoon, somehow the name of the Patriarch Joseph came up in conversation with one of my older ones who was familiar with the story. One of the younger ones asked, “Who is Joseph?” So while I have never been much of a storyteller—give me a book to read aloud for the kids, and as long as it’s not in doggerel rhyme, I can make something of it—I started to tell the tale of the Technicolor Dreamcoat coat of many colors, about Reuben and the jealous brothers, about the blood smeared on the coat, the lie and the grieving old father, the boy abandoned in the dry well…and as I continued, I realized both that telling the tale was getting easier, and that I was going to have a difficult time coming to a natural stopping point with this story. I had to go on, and the children were not unwilling to listen.

I started to add details of my own invention: thus, Potiphar became a thin, haggard, sun-baked, world-weary older man with lifeless eyes; his wife, a corpulent, bored woman whose heavy jewelry clanked and rattled as she moved on the couch where she reclined all day, and who capriciously treated the servants as objects of sport, berating the maids for their microscopic shortcomings and throwing dishes of unsatisfactory figs at the kitchen-boys.  I invented tales of the slave Joseph’s organizational acumen: how he established a new system for inventorying the household’s supplies of grain and oil, how he discovered that Potiphar’s steward had been diverting a few amphorae of wine for himself every time he had the cellar restocked.  As I got closer to the part about Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph, I realized I was going to have to come up with something age-appropriate in a hurry, and so I sketched a scene inspired by the Muppets’ Miss Piggy in one of her comically amorous moments, coming on strong and squealy at a timid little Kermit, and turning wrathful when rebuffed (“All right, Hebrew Joe.  Have it your way!”).  We made it all the way to the big reveal in the end, where I made Pharaoh’s right-hand-man Joseph reveal himself by speaking ancestral Hebrew to his father Jacob.  The kids seemed to be spell-bound throughout, and for once, I felt as if I had succeeded in making one of the stories of sacred history powerful and memorable.  For at least one afternoon, Joseph had pushed Anakin and Indy and Bruce Wayne out of the picture.  

To date, I have failed to follow up on this small success.  I have not yet assayed any colorful oral retellings of the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, of Jacob and Esau, of David and Solomon; under no circumstances will I venture into the New Testament, for I am certain that my style of storytelling, which tends towards irony and dark comedy, is a form completely incompatible with the content of the Lord’s life and ministry.  (I am confident, though, that I could fashion a believable Zacchaeus, Pilate, or pre-Damascene St. Paul. I picture the latter not unlike the menacing, bald, bespectacled Nazi Toth from Raiders of the Lost Ark; somehow, the infamous face-melting scene and the Road to Damascus need to be connected.) 

I did once hazard a dinner-table account of St Peter’s rooftop vision in Acts 10, the tarp with the unclean animals and the voice instructing him to kill and eat; the punchline may have been something like “YESSSSSSS!  BACON!”   That would make a good car sticker, and it could also count as an expression of religious belief.

Andrew EllisonDisplay