When I read, I read as a writer. The result is that I rarely finish books.
Bad writing makes me want to gouge out my eyes with an unusually sharp semicolon. Good writing makes me feel guilty about all those unfinished projects that were supposed to have hit the New York Times bestsellers list by now.
In the arts, there’s a fine line between inspiration and jealousy. A sublime word choice or elegant turn of phrase hits my gut with the competitive subtlety of a double-dog-dare. The moment ethereal prose interrupts an otherwise mundane paperback, I hear the voice of Mohammed Ali beckoning me to the ring.
This inconvenient habit struck while revisiting C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I read, then reread, a segment that, in relatively few words, painted a vivid and engaging portrait of Lewis’ childhood in his father’s country home. The passage began:
I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books…
Who knew C.S. Lewis could talk like Mohammed Ali?
That’s right, these were fighting words — a challenge to my honor as a wielder of the pen. Thus, I set to work, crafting my counterattack.
The result? A slightly plagiaristic treatment (the polite word is homage) of my own childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have channeled Lewis (to the degree my talents permit) while giving the narrative a more contemporary spin. It’s derivative, it’s pretentious, it’s bogged down with heavy-handed moralizing, and you might hate me when it’s over. But your hatred will only fuel my urge to compose more catastrophes. Thus it begins:
I am a product of old suburbia; of damp basements and musty attics; of the sound of passing trains; of summers riding bicycles and winters huddled on heat vents; of family strolls on leaf-strewn sidewalks along soot-blackened walls; of epic action figure battles waged across bedposts, creaky stairwells, and my mother’s antique sewing machine. Also, of endless television.
There was the 8-inch black and white on the dresser. The color set in the living room. The faux wood cable box that gave us access to a world beyond the 13 channels on the dial. A glorious invention called a VCR that helped me memorize every line from our illegally taped copy of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And then of course, the secondhand color TV we kept upstairs for the Nintendo. Ever and always, a TV was on. I remember the Saturday morning cartoon lineup; PB&J lunch dates with Mr. Rogers; Nickelodeon summers; GI Joe before school; Disney and Voltron after school; The Family Channel while mom made dinner; the 6 o’clock news after dinner; Bill Cosby with a big bowl of popcorn before bed; adult sitcoms for the babysitters; the holiday specials we were allowed to stay up late for; the Sunday morning Three Stooges reruns. And then once a week: mom, dad, my sister, my two brothers and I would pack into the station wagon and go to church to do an extraordinary thing: read a book.
Not just any book. A very old book. A book written by men who didn’t have television sets and had probably never imagined one. A book written to audiences who were largely illiterate. A book written in ages past when books as we know them did not exist; when letters were painstakingly dictated on tablets or scrolls owned only by the rich. A book that arose from a society of farmers and animal herders who seemed more like the butt of a Jeff Foxworthy joke than the ancestors of Stephen Spielberg.
To my memory, I never thought poorly of the people in that book on account of their limitations. My sharpest criticism was that they were, at least on occasion, boring. I also remember that I protested going to church, because I hated my uncomfortable Sunday shoes and I harbored bitter feelings toward a certain strict children’s church teacher (whether or not she deserved it). The point to be made, though, is that I grew up reading Moses and the Apostles, and I held them in as high regard as any living adult authority.
But what did ancient middle-eastern fishermen have to offer to a child of the television age? An NBC executive might answer “very little.” But those Bible lessons stuck with me. When altar calls were given, I bowed my head and silently asked Jesus into my heart…several thousand times. At home, I kept my baby sister awake at night singing Sunday school songs. And from my living room couch, I eagerly watched the Gospel story unfold through the stylized lens of Japanese animation (yes, there was TV for Christians too. You didn’t think we were literally living in the stone age?).
But strip away the Japanese robots and time-traveling houses from the plot, and what did the Gospel have for me? The Jesus who walked ancient Jerusalem knew nothing of microwave ovens or combustible engines, but his story was not old-fashioned. The villains he faced were the villains I faced; the questions he answered (or cryptically declined to answer) were the questions my generation still asks today. “Who am I?” “Why am I here” “Does my life matter?” “Is there real justice or goodness or redemption?” Against these philosophical mysteries that no human machination had yet solved, the Gospel gave me God on a cross. Against the cold, dark, empty cosmos of the modern existentialist, it gave me Creation centered on an axis carved from a lone Judean tree and wrapped in flesh and blood. It gave me grace and mercy bursting at the speed of light and washing over all. All sin. All fear. All death.
A God who gave his life – and gave it for his enemies. A story unlike any other. A revelation that toppled the old religions and old social orders and forever changed our world. It’s not a stretch to say the Gospel paradigm, no less so than any scientific discovery, has touched everything. Christ’s DNA is all around us, whether in his intentional image bearers or as a diluted, mutated, even self-loathing residue in the recesses of the human genome. We abhor violence because Jesus brought peace. We offer our necks for death because he brought the sword. We hate slavery because Jesus freed all men for eternal life. We shrink in horror from human sacrifice (or even animal sacrifice) because justice has already been satisfied. We lift up the poor and we humble the mighty because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. We are forgiven because he forgave; mystified because he cloaked his truth in riddles.
The Jesus I encountered in the Gospel was no mere country shepherd. He was not a clever magician, a displaced king or a foolhardy insurrectionist. He was, and is, something greater. He amazes us, comforts us, terrifies us. He unites the lion and the lamb, yet turns brother against brother. He softens our conscience, yet hardens those who suppress his unbearable truth.
When our HDTVs go black and our stereos short-circuit and our gadgets lose their luster, God is whispering, “Look up.” A star has risen in the east, and the tremors of his passing have shaken the heavenly hosts from their spheres and ruptured hell’s gate. The way is set. The battle lines drawn. The eternal banquet prepared.
Who needs television?