Invitation to a Greater Story
Rejecting our cultures' false narratives
In the middle of September, I spent a week at a resort in Orlando with my family, visiting Disney, the Kennedy Space Center, the beach, and so on. At the end of the week, the price I paid for the indulgence was an hour listening to salesmen attempt to sell me and my husband a time share at the resort. We rejected two men in succession, followed by a third. By this point, I began to steam. Their sayings stretched thin, and I was doubting their insistence that they were not going to beat me over the head with a hammer, that they were merely trying to offer me a package that fit my lifestyle. They tied the number one cause of death in America—heart disease—to stress and implied the cure would be more vacations. They told stories about those who had died and regretted not having enough vacations. They brought out pseudo neuroscience about how memories of vacation lasted longer than our daily memories. But the moment where I nearly exploded was when the twenty-two-year-old divorced father who was newly engaged to a different woman, sporting an open-button floral shirt accused me of lying to myself that vacations were not my priority. “I don’t lie,” I retorted through gritted teeth and thought uncharitably, Who is more likely a liar in this conversation?
Coursing through my heart were the examples of Mark Studdock in the objective room of N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) or of Charles Wallace, Meg, and Calvin before the director of Camazotz. These salespeople were like the mendacious underlings of those systems, functioning according to a false narrative, in which the good life depends on more weeks at a resort. For these programmed Un-Manned folks, they were selling me happiness. They were ensuring that I could face death, knowing I had spent as much time as possible at the spa or the arcade. We were at odds with these salesmen because we live and move and have our being within a completely oppositional narrative to the one that they assume. We are fish aware of the water that gives us life, and they are fish trying to climb the shore, not realizing they cannot breathe on land.
I rejected their sales pitches because I reject that story. My husband tried to impress upon the young man that we believe a meaningful life should be lived in the day to day, should be for other people, and should be about giving more than receiving. We routinely spend time with family, and we spend much of each day enjoying hikes, bike riding, cooking together and so on. The salesman could not comprehend: he merely altered his rhetorical strategy to employ words such as “fulfillment” and “spirituality.” It was deceptive, and I pitied him. If only he could hear the invitation to a greater story.
What I’ve been reading
In hopes of countering the false narratives that are the default mode of advertising, mass media, etc; I’ve been reading these books:
Missionaries (Klay 2020): This novel took me months to get through because I kept picking it up and putting it down—not because it failed to hold my attention! Rather, the gruesome reality of war, the carnage we inflict on one another, the ways we dehumanize bodies terrified me. Klay does not write nihilistically about the landscape of war; yet, like Vonnegut, he refuses to romanticize heroism. He shows the business of war, the question of ethics, the working out of virtue in the worst of circumstances. Somehow, he continues to point upwards to a source of grace and meaning. Read Jenn Frey’s review or my interview with Klay after I read his National Book Award winning story collection Redeployment.
The Trees (Everett 2021): Why I read The Trees at the same time as Missionaries is a mystery. The satire is as gruesome but with less light. I would recommend the experience of the novel: it inverts mass lynching in America into a white experience set in 2018. Best moment is when Donald Trump hides under the oval office desk and gets the vice president’s gum stuck in his hair. I hope that anecdote is enough to recommend it.
The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (Leclercq 1961): Leclercq had me at “holy imagination” (the subject of my upcoming book, March 2022). I first discovered the book in Chris Perrin’s (CEO for Classical Academic Press) Recommended Reading List. In his explication of monastic reading practices, Leclerq distinguishes the scholastic (study) from the monastic (charity) culture and shows how the latter is motivated by the love of God. Imagine how that would alter the way we cultivate learning in our schools!
Endless Life: poems of the mystics (Cairns 2007): I read a poem every night before bed. This collection was recommended to me by Heidi White. Cairns has transfigured mystics’ devotions into poems! The opening poem from the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” tells one how to read: slowly, thoroughly, tasting each word’s trouble. I want to memorize many of these poems, so they become the songs that repeat in my heart.
Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (Kass 2021): Kass begins his book by asking how we might learn more from the Bible if we read it with the assumption that every word mattered. He notes the first word, “Shemoth” meaning Names, as key to the text in the way that Homer’s first words point to the meaning of The Illiad or The Odyssey. Perhaps we should be reading better to know books better.
The Green Ember (Smith 2014): I’m late to this children’s series, but my kids and I are in love with this first book. I met the author at the Redeemed Imagination event in Colorado this past September, and he generously sent us the books—along with glorious swag! This is Lord of the Rings with a more explicit Beatrix Potter influence.
On Nov 5-7, I’ll be speaking at the Good News Conference in Orlando following Bishop Barron, Fr. Mike Schmitz, Sr. Josephine Garrett and many other devoted Catholics. (I’m geeking out because I listen to Fr. Schmitz Bible in a Year every day. The weekend would only get better if I could convince the Bishop to a duel at Harry Potter world).
On Nov 11-13, Center for Ethics and Culture hosts their annual Fall Conference at the University of Notre Dame. I’ll be on a panel with James Matthew Wilson, Joshua Hren, and the legendary Christopher Beha (I don’t even want to talk on this one; I just want to listen!).