06 April 2007

Understanding is a Virtue Hard to Come By

When I was a child I had a 45 player in a red case my father built for me. The record-player died at some point, and my father gave me an FM receiver to replace it. Now in those days FM was unheard of, a sort of cultural wasteland inhabited by religious fanatics, right-wing politicians, and aficionados of obscure music. My station--the one I listened to--played "classical" music. Symphonies, operas, and sometimes jazz. My favorite program was a request show that ran every weeknight from midnight to six in the morning and was called something like "Music out of the Night." "It's midnight here in the City of Roses and lights are going out one by one as a busy populace lays aside the cares of the day and welcomes the stillness of the night." Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony, electronica from the Columbia-Princeton synthesizer project, Bach played as written on the instruments the music was actually composed for. Amazing stuff. All kinds of music.

While KPFM was wall-to-wall music most of the time, Sunday was the exception. In the morning came some sort of horrible religious program, or rather several of them in a row, and at ten at night it went off the air for routine maintenance, something I was very familiar with as my father did the same thing for another station. That's when I started tuning across the dial looking for whatever was on.

There were only two FM stations on those bleak Sunday nights, and both were religious. I ended up listening to all sorts of crazy people. One of them was Billy Graham, whose program sent me into hysterical laughter, especially his ritualistic ending, "May the Lord bless you--real good." The fake folksiness of that fatuity fascinated me, as did Garner Ted Armstrong's determined denial of the real world. But mostly I listened to evangelists more obscure and less coherent than these characters.

One night that sticks in my mind--a Sunday night I assume, though at this point anything is possible, memory being what it is--I was listening to this one character on the radio. I don't remember his name, or the name of his show, or his denomination, or much of anything else about him of that sort. He had a kind of Prairie Home Companion feel about him that I enjoyed, often telling stories of this strange backwoods place he'd grown up in, I think in the mountains of Kentucky. Whatever the name of the town was it appeared to have been inhabited entirely by quaint colorful icons of Americana, all of whom read the Bible and played checkers at the local store. Or something like that.

Anyway, it seems that they used to have Bible discussions around the checkerboard, in which particular passages would be thrown out for general comment. There was one fellow there, an old pastor, who sat in the shadows listening, but never contributing. Everybody else was voluble in his opinion, expressing himself at great length and supporting his claims with other passages from scripture, and no doubt those quaint country metaphors we've come to expect from backwoodsy places. On one occasion the discussion became quite heated. Opinions were flying back and forth like barn swallows on a cold October morning. Finally one guy turned to the old pastor and asked him, "Sir, how do you understand this passage?" The old pastor slowly drew himself up to his full height and then said, "Son, I don't understand the Bible. I believe it."

That was it. That was the punchline of this particular story. We should be like the old pastor, believing the Bible without understanding it. In striving to understand something, it seems, we inevitably twist and bend the text to our own preconceptions. Only by avoiding the pitfall of understanding scripture could we embrace its truth and really believe it.

Now this guy may have been making some profound theological point, or expounding a bold paradox, or whatever. I don't know. What I got out of it was more like These radio evangelists have all got a screw or two loose. And some more than others.

Belief without understanding. Yes, "The more people know about what is happening," observed Chinese sage Lao Tse, "the harder it is to control them." Of course it figures that Lao Tse felt the government's job was to keep the people in the dark and feed them bullshit. Ruling class propaganda. Wouldn't the pastor's job be so much simpler if only people didn't question him about all this old gibberish written, as the Reverend Me used to say, by a bunch of babbling barbarians two or three thousand years ago. Believe the bible, stay in school, respect your teachers, even though they be turkeys. Know what to kiss, and when. Remember that two wrongs don't make a right, but three do. What I tell you three times is true.

Okay, I may be veering a bit here, but the question jumps out at me--how in hell can you believe something you don't understand? First comes understanding, and only then can you know whether something is believable or not. Right?

Or maybe not. When you're trying to believe the impossible, maybe understanding does get in the way of belief. Like the White Queen says, it takes practice. If you can believe six impossible things before breakfast, then who knows what you can manage to believe after lunch. It's the perfect training for a nation of dupes; though maybe not so great for a nation of informed citizens in a democracy.

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