She may be seven, but my girl soaks up the truth in a room without even realizing it and only reveals her observations after dark or in private conversations with her brother.
“Some people think that God is just a tall tale.” The two of them, miss brown-eyed beauty and little take-over-the-world, were hunched over putting their shoes on by the front door. And I was wishing I had heard what precipitated this wise saying. I entered the conversation at this point and tried to sound learned, “Yes, that’s true. Some people do think that.”
“Well, I guess because people can’t see God.”
“But we can’t see Him either.”
I honestly cannot remember how I chose to respond to her statement, taken aback by her honesty. I know I tried not to squelch further questions but tried to be faithful. The moment trailed off into our morning routine, leaving her words suspended in the air like the mist that rises off the Blue Ridge Mountains outside our window.
Her adroit distillation of this common worldview has gotten me thinking. As I see it, there are two basic narratives at play in our planet, one with us at the center, having to cajole meaning out of stark reality; or one with a Creator at the center, infusing even our dark days with shards of light and opening our sight to a world beyond our physical view.
All around us, I am finding, are shadows of this narrative dissonance, especially in literature. When I picked up the book Skunked! by Jacqueline Kelly at my local library last fall, I had a simple purpose: to relish a read-aloud with my children. We did snuggle, cozy up and dig in. The togetherness was lovely. Their mounting anticipation at just what might happen when two orphaned skunks are tucked away by a dynamic sibling duo, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, was fun to witness and build up. But the story was hollow to me, bereft of the loveliness I was hoping for, the link-up to wonder the illustrations seemed to promise.
After processing my reaction to the book, I began to see it as an issue of worldview. For Callie, the heroine, her course was set by more than hot, Texas summers, a houseful of brothers and a grandfather-naturalist. The grandfather supplies Callie with Darwin’s Origin of Species in her inaugural adventure, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. This framework shapes the images around her into one epic battle for the survival of the fittest that carries over into even the lives of two abandoned skunks.
When Callie and her brother, Travis, surreptiously seek out the local vet’s advice on raising the smallest of the skunks, He tells them, “Do you think that’s a good idea? Nature doesn’t usually intend the runts to live.”
Despite the easy flow of the prose, tugging me along, this cold evaluation of nature with a capital N belied the narrative let-down of this perspective. When Nature’s only purpose is the survival of the fittest, even the wonders of adaptation become icy means to an end, keeping some versions of a bird alive at the expense of another. When God is only a “tall tale,” the tales you tell are diminished in their ability to produce wonder.
In contrast, Lucy Maud Mongomery’s character of Anne Shirley gives delightful renderings of the natural world, weighty with personal meaning and enjoyment, because she believes that the world around her is meant to be lovely. Full Stop. Nothing shows her deep love of nature quite as much as her penchant for naming it. Upon her arrival in Avonlea, she immediately heightens the grandeur of the landscape by bestowing on it titles fit for royalty: The Lake of Shining Waters, The White Way of Delight, Violet Vale. These names give the environment a touch of magic, a bold stroke of identity not called for in a world of no design or forethought.
Anne does not attempt to see in the intricate details of a butterfly’s wings the means to maintain one sub group over another, exulting in power differentials. She is free to dramatize the details with analogies and metaphors and hyperbole predicated on her community’s understanding that God made the world.
You simply cannot make a lush, sunrise pond scene sparkle if the background is rife with minute battles for supremacy. Not that these battles do not occur. Great Blue Herons nab fishy lunches with their knife-like beaks in God’s world too. But we God-fearers have the imaginative license to assume he did not intend it to be so. We can conjure a butterfly’s wings to be the beat of his heart, the letter of His love, the whisper of His name.
Both Kelly and Montgomery are excellent storytellers, weaving images of bygone days to the delight of many readers. But I am coming to believe the freedom to see beyond the apparent makes for more compelling literature. It takes what we already hope for the world, innately, and colors it a truth.
There is a song that my children love by the Americana kids’ band, The Okee Dokee Brothers, that has this line, “So, if you got a tale to tell, talk it tall and tell it well
Cuz this world is larger than life.”
It is true, we may not be able to see God, but our intuitive nudges, our inner ache for meaning, our glimpses of sunset splendor all push us toward something bigger than ourselves, something larger than the life within our view.
Oh, my budding philosopher, maybe the truth is that God is a taller tale than any of our imaginations can contain. In this larger than life story, we are surrounded by meaning, held by it. Together we are a part of an infinite narrative that makes our mundane spectacular.
Camille Pissarro (French, Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas 1830–1903 Paris)
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 820