T. S Eliot’s amazing poem The Waste Land has found me twice in the last few days.
First, let me confess. I love the poem and I am moved by the poem, but I am far from understanding it. Still, it keeps coming after me. The first touch was at school, reading Robert Cormier’s novel, The Chocolate War, in which Jerry Renault, the young protagonist, tapes a poster in his locker that borrows a line he attributes to Eliot’s poem (I have since learned it is from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock):
Do I dare disturb the universe?
Jerry is trying to figure out his place in the universe, as well as working to discern whether the point is to stay under the radar or to make choices that offer a chance for more than one might reasonably expect out of life. I made mock ups of the poster, as it is described in the book, and handed them out to the class when we got to the chapter where it is mentioned. They looked as confused as I feel trying to make sense of Eliot’s Latin and German. I have more time with them.
The second instance was in my reading this afternoon of Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, which was a gift from my friend, Sonya. Part of what I liked about Gordon’s connection to the poem was that it grew out of a confusion of her own.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” These words from Eliot’s Waste Land involved me in an interesting misreading that went on for several decades. I had habitually misread the plural “ruins” as the singuar “ruin.” I was shocked to find out what I had done, and not pleased with Eliot’s words: I preferred my own invention. I had interpreted the line to mean that the words were a preservation against personal ruin. But “ruins” suggests a public spectacle – like the Parthenon or the Acropolis – and what would be the point of shoring fragments against these colossal wrecks? Such an act becomes an act of witness rather than of self-preservation.
Gordon and Eliot know what Jerry is beginning to learn: when we disturb the universe we set things in motion we can neither predict nor control. Life is less cause-and-effect, in any sort of direct sense, and more of a Ray-Bradury-butterfly effect: who knows what comes of the choices we make other than every little move matters. I wrote a few words in the margin next to the last sentence of the paragraph as quickly as they came to me:
This is the watershed of Christianity in America.
At the risk of sounding too self-congratulatory, I think I may be on to something. Between pitches for the pledge drive this afternoon, I listened to some government official talk about the rising terror threats aimed at our nation. I don’t doubt that there are people in the world who want to do us harm and I also don’t doubt that cranking up the Fear Making Machine is good politics as the midterm elections draw near. Regardless of who is doing the mongering, the call to fear is the call to self-preservation: we must do what it takes to (God, I hate this phrase) “secure the Homeland.” Give up rights. Take away rights. Damn the torpedoes and the consequences. Forget talking softly and get something bigger than a big stick. The bottom line quickly becomes utilitarian, mercenary, and cynical. If self-preservation is our core value, the circle of those we can trust will only grow smaller, whether we’re talking about our country or our Church.
Till I read Gordon’s words, I had never thought of bearing witness as the opposite of self-preservation. When I saw the word “witness” in its context, I thought of the organization, Witness.org, which sums up its mission in the slogan, “See it. Film it. Change it.” For the last twenty years, they have been giving cameras to people in parts of the world no one sees so they can tell their stories in hopes, not of self-preservation, but of radical change.
Jesus kind of change. Gordon, again:
The radical challenge of Jesus: perhaps everything we think in order to know ourselves as comfortable citizens of a predictable world is wrong.
Much of the conversation in American Christianity has to do with how we save the church, or how we change the church. The conversation may be well intentioned yet it is a conversation centered in self-preservation. We want to keep our doors open. We want to be at the center of things. We want to be culturally significant. We talk a lot about correcting the universe, but not so much about disturbing it.
When we come to church, we come looking for comfort, for hymns we love, not for disquietude. I love being a part of a community of faith where often is heard an encouraging word, and I wonder if we would do well to hang one of Jerry’s posters behind the Communion table to remind us that life is about as predictable as the God who breathed it into us and that our mission has nothing to do with being God’s Gatekeepers and everything to do with going out into the highways and byways and bring everyone who is hungry to dinner.
But there’s more.
I’m not trying to be a travel agent for a guilt trip here. I’m trying to voice my own disquietude born of my reading today, which means I have to go back to Gordon one more time. She is responding to the parable of the Prodigal Son, particularly the encounter between the father and the older brother, in which the father says,
“Everything I have is yours.” The good boy is not left bereft. But what has been lost has been found. What is acknowledged here, what is given the greatest weight, is the terrible blow of loss. The loss has seemed final, and then: reprieve. Resurrection. A new chance. A rebirth whose wage is celebration. “We had to celebrate and rejoice.” had to: an injunction, a duty. The duty of celebration.
And the story ends here. With an assertion of the rightness of celebration. The propriety of joy.
When we, as American Christians, read the parables we would do well to cast ourselves as the older brother, the rich man walking past the beggar, the jealous workers, and any other part that describes those who see themselves as the dutiful and the deserving. Everyone of the parables sounds the same disturbing note: we are called to live generous and joyful lives.
And trust God will take care of us all.