Archive for July, 2013

29
Jul
13

From eeuhnnh to (h)aha! — my sermon given at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church on 28 February 2013

The readings referred to in the context of this sermon can be found as follows:
1) The Statement on Wonder from “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker: http://www.bookrags.com/notes/tcp/QUO.html (Quote 22)
2) The “Flitcraft Story” from “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammet: http://fallingbeam.org/beam.htm
3) “Holmes and the Rose” from “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3251615-the-naval-treaty

I think we here to wonder, myself… I take this as something of a religious mantra – it could very well be the motto of many a Unitarian-Universalist church…
When Thom asked if I’d like to do a service this summer, and I began to think, my first instinct was to look to something in my Catholic background – “The Morning Offering,” a prayer Catholic boys and girls were encouraged to pray every morning – it spoke to many things I hold dear – a sense of duty, a sense of individual importance, a sense that each of us is needed in building the world we want. That is what I remembered of “The Morning Offering,” a sticker of which was affixed to the headboard of my bed all through my grammar school days. When I looked at the whole “Morning Offering,” though, I saw that more of that prayer dealt with praying for the Pope and helping the Pope advance his cause. Strange that I didn’t remember that, and I knew that I couldn’t address the “Morning Offering” without addressing that key component, a component to which I no longer adhere, and probably never fully did.
But then I began to think of how, in religious circles, I am sometimes prone to announce myself as follows – “Hello, I’m Bernard Norcott-Mahany, and I live for revelation.” And that got me thinking about The Color Purple and these statements about “wonder.” But though I think that book has profound things to say about religious experience, about the interconnectedness of things, and of the reciprocity of our relation to the world (to God in Alice Walker’s book), how God is always trying to please us, and how it pisses God off when we pass the color purple in a field and don’t notice, I realized that it too was not quite what I hoped to share. For that book is much more about humans and nature, and how man (not sure it’s meant generically here) has boxed God up – I know, it makes Alice Walker seem very much like a feminist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But I don’t spend most of my time contemplating nature, as valuable and rewarding as that is. Truth be told, I spend most of my time in books and movies, a lot of it in popular culture. And so, I thought, for my first service up front, I’d focus on that which captures a lot of my attention – narratives, stories, especially popular stories like mysteries. Having spent (some would suggest “wasted”) so much of my time on popular art forms, I began to wonder what the attraction of those forms might be for me, and how that might be a springboard for religious reflection. Well, one avenue I’d like to develop sometime is a focus on narrative itself. Especially in genre literature, the narrative drive is strong, and the conventions of the genre do a lot to create expectations – e.g. we expect Miss Marple to always be polite, but firm – we do not expect her to drink a quart of cheap rye, smoke a couple of packs of Luckies, or get beat up in some alley every adventure, but we do expect that of Sam Spade. But an examination of how narrative shapes us can be a topic for some other day.
A discussion of narrative was not exactly right, not this time. So when I knew Thom was going to ask me at a worship committee meeting what I was thinking about talking about I let my mind float free and see what my mind had to say — I found there was one thing stuck in my head which kept popping up — Flitcraft.
Why Flitcraft? Well, the first time I read The Maltese Falcon, back in college, I remember being struck by this story. And when I last read the entire novel maybe twenty years ago, what really struck me was how this story of Flitcraft is the one big thing in the novel (it’s a whole chapter) that is totally absent from the three films based on the novel. If you have seen the film versions, and not read the book, you were probably thinking as Fiske read it – I don’t remember this – good news, your memory is just fine – it’s not there. And you can see why they cut the story – it doesn’t advance the plot at all. It appears to be a big digression. And in popular American cinema, the one thing you don’t want is anything that seems static. So Flitcraft had to go.
Well, that’s the very thing that sets my wonder sensors wild – that’s when I hear my interior self utter that puzzled grunt that Tim Allen used to emit whenever something would go wrong on Home Improvement. And with Tim Taylor’s grunt, I now had the title for my sermon.
I love incongruous things – remember the Sesame Street segment where “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong” – when I watched Sesame Street with my daughter, she and I were all over that. I also love those things that are overlooked, that appear to be useless. And here, with the Flitcraft story, I had that incongruous story, and a section of the novel that could be excised, and which is the first thing to go in any abridgement. And in the brief section from “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” we have a similar moment in a Holmes story. I must admit that in the only surviving filmed version of this story, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, this incongruous bit is included. So, in this case, we have incongruity, but not excision.
And this has been a reading technique for me as long as I can remember. Read along and try to see stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. I used it in high school, especially in reading scripture – the scenes in Mark’s gospel where Jesus wants a fig, comes to a fig tree that has no fruit – he curses it, and later in the narrative, we see that fig tree all shriveled up. It shows Jesus’ power, I guess, but what’s up with zapping fig trees in connection with Jesus’ ministry?
So we get a sense of what catches my attention, what causes me to wonder (and I like to think I wonder a little every day), but where does the (h)aha come in? Well, aha is an exclamation of discovery, of revelation. Let’s look at the two readings in turn:
First, the Flitcraft story – when I read this story, I wonder – why is Sam Spade telling Brigid O’Shaughnessy this story? It does not advance the plot, nor does it help in Spade’s investigation. Spade doesn’t tell it to somehow put her at ease, nor does it seem some sort of test – Hammett tells us that she was puzzled as to why Spade was telling her this story, and she politely listens to see if she might learn something about why he was telling her this story. She doesn’t. Why does Hammett include this digression? I don’t have a sure answer here either, but I know that Hammett himself had a case when he worked for Pinkerton rather like the story about Flitcraft. I imagine that there was something about Hammett’s case that he could not let go of – it somehow, strange as it was, kept popping up in Hammett’s mind. It was not something, perhaps, that Hammett could craft into a free-standing story such as he told of the Continental Op. But something in him seemed to need to share the story, and so we have Spade here, strangely confessional, telling this story to his client. What can we do with the story? What does it tell us?
Well, it offers a particular world view – the idea of a world governed only by chance. More importantly, perhaps, it also tells us that we need some order or structure in our lives, and that, habit, and narrative too I would add, can create for ourselves a comfortable rut, but a rut nonetheless. One day, Flitcraft is shocked out of his complacency and routine, and he breaks with his structured life, but only to go back to it years later. We have a famous novel all about that – Babbit by Sinclair Lewis. Flitcraft’s story tells of a world of chance, but also of a world of habit, and there is very little of human freedom.
But we have more – we have a statement by Spade of delight in this story. Something in him loves this story and loves telling it – as he says, “This is the thing I really liked…” And I think we are perhaps (mis)led to think that it is only the moral he affixes – “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling,” as the entire reason for Spade’s fondness. But there’s something else there which sticks for me – Spade makes a point of saying that Mrs. Flitcraft did not get the story, that she found it stupid, but we get the sense that Spade did get it, and that, for an instant, he and Flitcraft shared a moment, and I wonder if it might be that moment shared that was a moment of revelation for Spade, and why the story stayed with him. Ultimately, Spade does not adopt Flitcraft’s solution. He is a man of action, where Flitcraft is a man of routine. Spade is more of an existentialist than a fatalist. In the senseless world, we can ourselves create ourselves and we create meaning in our lives. In the novel’s (and at least two of the film versions’) conclusion (sorry for potential spoilers here, but you should have at least seen one of the movies), we have Spade trying to explain to Brigid why he’s going to hand her over to the cops, even though he may be in love with her. Spade frames it as follows: “I’ll try to explain. I don’t know if it’ll do any good.” And then he delivers his now famous lines that characterize the PI code – “when a man’s partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it.”
Spade does here what Flitcraft did with his wife – he tries to explain, but just as Flitcraft’s wife never got it, we get the sense that Brigid doesn’t get it, and we know that Effie Perrine, Spade’s secretary, doesn’t get it. In the novel, Effie confronts Sam the next day and asks him, “Sam, how could you?” to which Spade replies, “Sweetheart, your Sam is a detective.” So Spade may believe that we live in a world of chance, one where blind luck is the dominant force in the universe, but he also believes that he must take part in defining himself, in making for himself a code to live by.
Now, in the Doyle story – wow! It’s a Victorian story, so I know we cannot have Watson do a spit take when Holmes breaks out into his reverie over the moss rose. But in my mind, whenever I play this scene, I imagine Watson has just taken a bite from a biscuit, and a swig of tea, and “thar he blows!” This is not unique in the Holmes canon, where Holmes, the ultimate rationalist, adopts a theistic view, but this is the first time of only two or three that he does so, and is so striking that Watson, in his understated way, makes it clear (as if he had to) that this is unusual. And this brief digression is also something easily dispensed with – it does not advance the storyline at all. Holmes gets the culprits, saves the woman’s fiancé from prison, just as he helps other clients in the other stories, by using reason and the powers of deduction.
It’s not that the woman here is more sympathetic than other damsels in distress that Holmes helps, but does not try to comfort (that’s smooth-talking Watson’s department) them. Here he goes out of his way to comfort a woman, and to do it by invoking divine favor on the human community, a statement that seems quite at odds with the daily experience of the majority of Londoners in the Victorian Era. It may be that Doyle himself was going through something of a religious reverie at the time he wrote this story, and felt compelled to include it, even where it is so out of keeping with Holmes’ usual manner that Watson is shocked, and the Naval Department clerk, Phelps, is depressed.
What gets my attention here is that we have something that doesn’t quite fit, but my own reason for loving this digression (beyond my love of digressions) is twofold. First, though I do not believe in a personal God, I do believe that life is good, and that there is something blessed about existence with all its wonder. It was that aspect of the piece that led me to include it among the readings at my wedding to Carla. But, for me, this little aside says so much more. Holmes slips up here in placing the goodness in Providence. For he holds up a moss rose, and roses are not just wildflowers – they are cultivated, planted by people and tended by them. And so the goodness of life is not simply given from without – we play a part in developing that goodness. In the Holmes stories, we see that in the relationship between Holmes and Watson – they are not soul mates, but people who have to work at sustaining their friendship.
So we have some idea of where I see wonder, and I invite you to look on the world and see wonder too. And, in these unlikely selections, we have some idea of a conclusion or revelation therefrom as I see it. But, you may remember that my title had an (h) before the aha! In thinking of the H in hallelujah, which, for me is silent, I thought I’d add an extra h – silent, but present. If we voice that h, we get haha, and perhaps the joy that comes from wonder and revelation. That’s part of it, but I think that silent “h” has more to offer. For much as I love revelation and live for it, I realize that revelation is always but a glimpse into the greater mystery. It is when I find myself saying “aha!” when I think, “By George! I think I’ve got it” that I run the risk of slipping up. And if I’m sure I’ve got it, then somewhere I can imagine the wonderful world chuckling softly at my folly.