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A Yankee Notebook

April 14, 2014


MONTPELIER, VT – Last Sunday in church, we read, as has been our custom for several decades now, the so-called Passion of Christ: the story of the last few days of Jesus’ earthly life, from the palm-strewn entry into Jerusalem to his trials and death by crucifixion. Members of the the congregation assumed various speaking roles in the drama, with everybody chiming in vehemently when Pilate asks them what they want him to do with the disruptive itinerant preacher and healer.

It’s been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told”; and whether you’re a believer or not, you’ve got to admit it’s got all the elements: character, setting, tension, conflict, crisis, resolution, and a fatal, but hopeful denouement. It’s unlikely its writers, or the compilers who put together the Bible as we know it today, had any idea how many interpretations of the story would become part of popular culture, or how many millions would be banked by the interpreters. Mel Gibson milked it, in my opinion, with two hours of unremitting gore in “The Passion of the Christ.” Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” was far superior.

The Old Testament is a more fertile field for casts-of-thousands moviemakers of the Cecil B. De Mille persuasion: “The way to make a film is to begin with an earthquake and work up to a climax.” Russell Crowe, for example, has just released his interpretation of the Noah story, and I read that we have another “Exodus” coming soon, as well. The problem with most of them is that the human drama and inner conflicts tend to be subordinated to the epic scenes of calamity, and the message – if any – is lost. Except, for me, on one notable occasion: I’d borrowed my father’s car and taken a girl to a drive-in theater, with the usual expectations. But I’d neglected to check what was playing, and all evening had a bearded Charlton Heston as Moses, thundering prohibitions through the windshield. I considered my own drama that evening far more exciting than his.

As a descendant of Calvinist preachers, I’ve been listening to sermons for over seventy years, and consider myself a bit of an aficionado of the genre. I generally watch the congregation rather than the speaker, and have noticed during those years – I know I’ve mentioned this before – that when the preacher is “preaching,” almost everyone in the crowd or group of listeners deploys a sort of nictitating membrane, like dozing chickens. They appear to be awake – attentive even, some of them – but they aren’t really listening. When, however, the preacher launches into a story, everyone, from the youngest child capable of speech to the oldest parishioner capable of audition, is wide awake. There’s got to be a message in there somewhere.

Unfortunately, some can tell ‘em and some can’t. We had a priest once who’d been advised by his homiletics mentor that he needed to include some stories in his deliveries. So he started, disastrously, with the children’s sermon. Seated companionably with the kiddies on the chancel steps, he began, “It seems that once there was a rabbit named Peter...”

“Lord, help him!” I prayed, almost aloud. But the Lord did not, and the kids began to fidget.

Probably the best storyteller I’ve ever known was an elderly Adirondack guide named Bill. During the annual spring work weeks before the arrival of the summer people at the Ausable Lakes, there was a lot of time, especially after supper, to listen to the old guys swap stories and argue obscure points of carpentry. Bill had a consummate gift for including little details that drew you ineluctably in. When he and Franklin Wright (dubbed Wilbur for obvious reasons) had caught a very angry sow bear in a culvert trap one night, he told Wilbur to straddle the end of the culvert and lift the grated gate. When the bear ran out between Wilbur’s legs, he said, he’d shoot it. Without thinking – cerebration wasn’t his strong suit – Wilbur assumed the position and prepared to lift the gate. Just then, Bill said, the bear took hold of the gate with her front paws, “and those long claws kind of hooked over the rebar. Wilbur looked down at ‘em, about a foot from his face. His eyes got like saucers, and he jumped back. ‘Judas, you go to Hell!’ he hollered, and then he looked at me to see if I was serious.” It must have been a good story; I’ve remembered it almost 60 years.

People sometimes ask me, so I’ve often wondered if there’s any such thing as an absolutely true story. I doubt it. No matter how much the teller sticks to the facts he knows, he invariably puts a little English on the ball by the specific words he uses. In addition, the hearer in his turn interprets the delivery according to his interests. It’s rather like baseball: The pitcher is obliged to pretend to get the ball into the strike zone, and the batter responds to what he perceives. The umpire, too, in spite of the electronic devices that now show where the ball actually was when it crossed the plate, responds to what he perceives. Which leads to some of the most colorful moments in the game. Like a story that recited only facts, the game would be dead without the ump.

It would be easy to lament the decline in long-distance reading among our young people. College professors routinely lament that few of their students have read any of the classical canon, and reflect that deficit in their writing. They’re quite right to be concerned; could the United States, do you suppose, muster today a congress of elected solons well enough educated, disciplined, and unbeholden to produce anything approaching the genius of our Constitution?

Barry Lopez, in his beautifully illustrated book, Crow and Weasel, reminds us that our stories tell us, as well as others, who we are, what we value, and even what we despise. We must therefore cherish them. “If stories come to you,” he writes, “care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed...” I can hardly imagine a greater pleasure.

Photo by Willem lange