Monday, April 30, 2012
Swatting the Monkey
“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.
I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.
Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”
And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”
You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane, and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood. It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth. I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.
And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read. The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.
Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?
One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.
It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.
The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.
It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened: Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.
What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.
Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.
What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?
Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.