One of the small memories of my senior year at Baylor is sitting talking to a friend in the Student Union Building as people walked by. Those who recognized us would inevitably ask, “How are you?” as they passed. My friend looked at me and said, “No one really wants to wait for the answer. Watch.” And she proceeded to toss funny and even tragic answers as they tossed their drive-by question and, as long as she smiled, not one of them heard a word she said.
I thought of that afternoon this evening because I am grateful for friends who ask how I am with the expectation I will feel free to answer honestly. I was lucky enough to get asked twice — once by Claudia and once by Leon, both at Cocoa Cinnamon. My answer to both was something along the lines of “Life is good and weighty. These days are heavy and important.” Lent has been hard to carry this year to the point that I have dropped several days in my writing discipline. The weight comes from the season, for life’s circumstances, and from trying to figure out what lies on beyond Easter.
One of the other voices I heard in my afternoon travels was that of Chinua Achebe, the noted Nigerian writer who died last week. In his memory, Terry Gross played a Fresh Air interview from 1988, which centered around his novel Anthills of the Savannah. Thanks to NPR, I was able to find the transcript of what I heard as I drove.
GROSS: One of the characters in your new novel says that writers shouldn’t stop at documenting social problems. They should give prescriptions. And another character, who is a writer, says in response: Writers don’t give prescriptions. They give headaches. Is that how you feel, too?
ACHEBE: Yes. Yes. I think that’s one of the few instances in the novel where you can identify what the characters are saying with the way I feel. And that comes from the pressure which is mounting on us, on…
GROSS: On writers?
ACHEBE: …creative writers, yes – especially in post-colonial areas of the world – to tell their people what they should do to be saved and to tell them not in the way that great stories have told, but in specific detail, almost ideological ways. And I think it is the duty of artists to resist. This is why the artist and the poet in the novel is resisting, and, of course, exaggerating, because this is part of the whole business of teaching. The whole business of prophecy is, in fact, to exaggerate. And so when he says it’s my duty to give headaches, you know, this fixes it in the mind, which is why we use extreme images like that.
Though I didn’t remember the exchange word for word, what I heard was him speaking of the poet, the novelist, the teacher, and the prophet as if they were one and the same, or at least inextricably linked. And out loud in the car I said, “Yes.”
This morning I learned from Garrison Keillor that today is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. One of my favorite of her quotes is, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Both writers were describing the trajectory of Holy Week, if not all that we call faith: a life lived in disquietude, in creative tension, in the cacophony of community, in the revolution that is the Resurrection. This week is about Jesus walking through the injustice and betrayal and humiliation and pain and blowing right through the tomb to come out on the other side a brighter shade of grace than anyone could have imagined. This week has less to do with the paying off of some strange cosmic debt than it does nothing but love gets the last word.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Here’s where the metaphor breaks down.
Poets, writers, prophets, and teachers, for the most part are solo gigs. They create by themselves; they offer their individual work. They may unite a following, or incite a revolution, but they are keep to themselves. The headache of faith is we are called to make great art of this life together. We are called to incite, to listen, to engage, to tear down, to build up — together. The only way anyone is going to know the truth that nothing can separate any of us from the love of God is if we are out there loving the hell out of everyone.
Everyone. From Fred Phelps to the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. From the Supreme Court Justices to the members of Congress. (The biggest stretch for me, perhaps.) From the greed-driven on Wall Street to the hungry folks down on the corner. From those who are like us to those who are not.
Everyone. Achebe’s words remind me I think of God as much more of an artist than an accountant (with apologies to any accountants out there). The theories of the atonement that talk about Jesus’s death being required, as though God has to balance some kind of ledger in blood have never resonated for me. But our God of awesome whimsy, of grandeur and generosity, of color and splash and serious subversiveness, came as a kid and grew up, told stories that weren’t readily understandable, hung out with the undesirables even as he ate with the rich folks, and painted Palestine with love and grace and healing like nobody’s business.
The layers of Lent lie heavy because we are being called to come to life again this week as we march through death once more. We march through death every week. But this week we remind ourselves in ways we often forget that death is not the last word. What kills us and divides us and damages us does not tell the whole story. Yet if we lose sight of our calling as poets and prophets, the art and oddness stop here.
the weight of these sad times we must obey
speak what we feel not what we ought to say
(King Lear, V, 3:17)
Rise up, poets, and follow.