Charlotte is an odd place. A nice place, but an odd place. It is, primarily, a place that has grown and is growing so fast, that it doesn’t have a sense of itself. Boston, New York — these are cities that know who they are. Charlotte, not so much. It can’t quite reconcile it’s bigness with it’s smallness. And right now, it’s the second-fastest growing city in the U.S. So there’s a mixture of North and South, rural and urban, old and new is not fully blended, like the batter that makes good biscuits, or muffins.
The Seanachai this week is a story of something that actually happened to me. In addition, I think it’s a true story. And it’s the kind of story that feels like it could only happen here.
About year ago, I was the one to take my son to daycare every morning. We lived on the NorthEastern corner of town, and the shortest route from house to daycare meant that he and I drove past the Charlotte Motor Speedway and concomitant Drag Way every morning. (For those who are wondered, I did take some pains to structure that sentence so I would get to say ’concomitant dragway’)
The speedway is only used a few times a year and most of the time, it seems like an abandoned hippodrome of the Nascarian empire. There is, a mile or so down the road, a mall (for what mainstream public gathering can exist in the United States without shoppertainment and chain restaurants?) and some gas stations, the inevitable starbucks, wal-mart, etc.
Soulless as this space was and is, the majority of the year it was quite nice. Because it was never crowded. It was built to withstand the flood, and I am the kind of person who prefers to live in the ebb. The quiet and the empty spaces of things, so I can read a book, entertain a thought, write a line.
It made it easy for me to stop in a coffee shop and find a seat or a power outlet. I could sit and write and be the only person writing. It gave me the feeling of being the only writer for miles around, which, perhaps I was. And, if you think about it, for a writer that is a great virtue in a place — freedom from distraction.
So it was, in my solitude, that I once stopped to fill my car at a massive gas station, mostly empty, at about 9 o’clock in the morning. From the other side of the parking lot, a man hailed me. He did not appear to be a panhandler. He wore a suit, and carried a bible. “Ah, I thought, a salesman.”
But he was pleasant enough. He told me that he was a Minister, and he had set aside this month to encourage people to read their Bibles. I explained to him that I often read from the bible — which is true. Whatever stance you may take on religion, if you choose not to read the bible, you are choosing to be ignorant.
You see as this minister and I stood, an empty outlet mall to our left, an empty Wal-Mart to our right, a temporarily abandoned speedway in front of us — we were, bathed in the twilight of Western Civilization. And that civilization rests firmly on the Book. The old testament is central to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. All three of these religions worship the exactly same God. The One God who made a covenant with Abraham. The Jews, and after them the Christians, believe that they are the children of Issac. The Muslims believe that they are descended from Abraham’s first, outcast son, Ishmael.
You might think that these stories are silly myths — but let me assure, myths are never silly. They are always scary. Just listen to this one.
God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars, but his wife Sarah is barren. When Sarah turns 75, she decides that the thing to do was to offer her “handmaiden” Hagar to Abraham, so that he might begat a child with her.
Abraham hops to, please no jokes about eying the maid, and Hagar has a son. They name the child Ishmael which means “God has Harkened” basically, the Lord has fulfilled his promise of a child.
Then, through a miracle, a 99 year old Abraham impregnates a 90 year old Sarah. And she gives birth to a son, Issac. And after that, well, gets Old Testament. Let’s pick it up at Genesis 21:10
10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.
11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.
12 And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
But wait, it gets worse. Hagar runs out of water. And she puts Ishmael under a shrub and says
“Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”
God causes a spring to come up and save them — but, and let’s think about this — How pissed would you be if you were Ishmael. If your Dad did that to you and your Mom? That hurt wouldn’t go away. Would you be angry, violent, ready to get even? Would you be touchy and have an inferiority complex? Would you kill somebody who drew a cartoon about you?
See that’s the thing about these stories. Believe they are the literal word of God or not — these stories read us better than we read them.
That’s why, I think, it inappropriate to call oneself educated and not have read the bible, deeply and thoughtfully. People who have believed these stories with all their hearts have shaped the world.
But even more than that, the English language has been forever and irrevocably shaped by the language of the King James Bible. If you want to be a writer of any depth or power, with any command whatsoever of the English language, you have to read Shakespeare and you have to read the bible.
Here’s an example. This is Matthew 11:28
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
And here is The New Colossus. It the sonnet that is engraved in bronze and mounted in the Statue of Liberty.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For me, the beginning of it is a little washed out. It’s an allusion to the Colossus of Rhodes. Even though I get the inside joke, and I think it’s appropriate for a poem about a statue, it just bugs me.
But the part with the heat, the part that everybody quotes, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” in it you can here the echo of Matthew.
Also from Matthew is this phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This phrase can be found in three gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Here are the words Abraham Lincoln chose for his speech to secure his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
The words of the Bible echo throughout history. To go to the wellspring, I think, gives you more command over them.
Here are a few more examples.
“Apple of my eye” Deuteronomy 2:10, Zechariah 2:8
“By the skin of our teeth” Job 19:20
“Don’t cast your pearls before swine” Matthew 7:6
“Drop in the bucket” Isaiah 40:15
“Eat, drink, and be merry” Ecclesiastes 8:15
“Eye for an eye” Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21 Matthew 5:38
“Hammer swords into plowshares” Isaiah 2:4
“He gave up the ghost” Luke 23:46
“He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” John 8:7
“Handwriting on the wall” Daniel 5:5
“How are the mighty fallen” 1 Samuel 1:19-27
“Many are called, but few are chosen” Matthew 22:14
“My brother’s keeper” Genesis 4:9
“No peace for the wicked” Isaiah 48:22, Isaiah 57:21
“Out of the mouths of babes” Psalm 8:2
“Pride goes before a fall” Proverbs 16:19
“The truth shall make you free” John 8:32
“There’s nothing new under the sun” Ecclesiastes 1:9
So when the Gas Station preacher asked me if I read my Bible, all of this was behind my answer. And out of true curiosity, and with no malice, I asked him what his favorite book of the Bible was. He said, “Genesis, because he liked learning about where we came from.”
Oh boy. One of those guys.
Of course, he turned the question back around on me. And I told him that my favorite book of the Bible was Job. Because it deals with what I think is the essential spiritual question — how to do you believe in what is good and true, even when everything goes wrong.
If you are not familiar with the story of Job, let me sum up. Job is an upright, god-fearing man. The Devil goes to God says, well, of course he’s upright and god-fearing — look at him. He’s rich, he’s successful, his children are healthy — let me take that away from him and he will forsake you in a heartbeat. In fact he will blame you. God says, quite cruelly, you got a bet, do your worst to Job.
So, to settle the bet, they wreck Job’s life. In the third paragraph. It is so awful, it reads like a joke.
13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house,
19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
— and you escaped to tell me? No, it killed me to and he falls over dead.
After this happens, Job’s wife says — cause evidently, they allowed her to survive to torment him, — she says, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”
But he does not. But at one point he does tell his friends, “For my sighing cometh before I eat, and my roarings are poured out like the waters. 3:25 For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me. 3:26 I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.
Guh. Why do bad things happen to good people, indeed.
I explained all of this as the pump filled my tank with gas. And when I was done, the gas station preacher stood there with a kind of dumbfounded look on his face. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give him the kind of response he was looking for.
I shook his hand and wished him well. But as I drove away from that chance encounter, the perfect words to describe how I felt leapt to mind. It is fitting that they were from the bible.
Matthew 15:14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”