Unintended messages

July 18, 2011

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which
includes Keim's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine
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Century.

Those of us who no longer live in oral cultures may have
lost respect for storytelling as a vehicle of moral authority. Just give us the
facts, ma'am. We're data people, and we like it in writing. For us the
parabolic arts may be fine entertainment, but they're an unnecessarily messy
way of getting at the truth.

Yet all language can really do is tell stories. Words are
the silk with which we spin out endless patterns of meaning--penultimate
absolutes. The power of a good story may transcend the intentions of even the
storyteller.

When I was a kid I heard Bishop
John Steiner preach about a time when he went with his dad to town to get some supplies at the hardware, and the man behind the counter
gave them each a glass of homemade dandelion wine. At 11:30 on Sunday morning
our beloved bishop was describing in vivid detail the sensation of that liquid
flowing like fiery silk down his throat and warming organs he didn't know he
had.

In the sanctuary the sound of
growling stomachs rose to a low rumble. I felt my tongue go limp, and I lifted
my eyes to the pulpit. Brother Steiner went on to describe the evil power of
that insidious ecstasy--and his firm conviction that had he ever allowed
another drop to pass his lips he would have ended up in the gutters of Kansas
City.

As I listened, I could not
imagine one thing I wanted more than a sip of that homemade dandelion wine. The
feeling stayed with me through the closing hymn and the doxology, and it
lingered as I stumbled out of church, back into the real world. I had learned
something about the spirituality of the body. (This story comes from my piece
"When Love Sits Down to the Banquet" in the Spring
2002 issue
of the journal Vision.)

Pastor Steiner's story was intended to protect us from the
temptations of sin, and I did take that message to heart (sort of). But the
truth it conveyed lay dormant in me until the inherent dualism of my
theological roots finally gave way to something nonreductive: the physicalism
of that homemade dandelion wine.