6.19.2014

A Beautiful Mess

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-p1aLeelk4dA/UZMMVutTmRI/AAAAAAAAAPU/Pl1Zg0b-qMo/s1600/crosstitch1.jpgI am a neat freak.  This extends not only to tidiness of physical spaces like home and office, but also to tidiness of narrative.  What do I mean by "tidiness of narrative"?  I think in grand narratives, and I want my narratives to be simple: this person was good, these people were bad, this movement was powerful, this movement failed. 

Historians cater to people like me.  John F. Kennedy was a great man.  Richard Nixon was a crook.  The Civil War was about slavery and the Union eventually won.  World War II was about freedom and the good guys won.  In our high school textbooks, everything is neat and tidy.  But history is anything but neat and tidy.  And historians are nothing but revisionists.

If you take the time to read good history books, you realize that every neat and tidy historical narrative you've learned is actually far more complex and immodest than you thought.  Sainted heroes reveal dark sides, moral progress does not advance in a straight line, and shameful transgressions abound. Consider three quintessentially American concepts: baseball, Manifest Destiny, and the Founding Fathers. 

I just finished John Thorn's "Baseball in the Garden of Eden," in which the true origins of baseball are explored.  Far from the purity of the baseball creation story that most of us are told as kids - that it was cleanly birthed by Abner Doubleday in the idyllic Elysian Fields - the national pastime came into being in a messy swirl of urban tumult, gambling, and greed. 

The outline of the 48 contiguous states is so familiar to us that it's not hard for us to think that we were destined to expand to its size.  Never mind that each acquisition and conquest was its own mini-drama, and much of it represented dubious if not outright atrocious behavior to racial minorities, whether relocated Native Americans, conquered Mexicans, or indentured Asians.

The Founding Fathers are so hallowed that facts about their fallibility fall off them, unable to stick to their exalted aura.  But this does our way of governance a disservice, for it makes us feel like gods created us and now us humans are mucking it up.  In fact, it was finite and flawed humans who recognized that their successors would also be finite and flawed humans and so created an extraordinary system of checks and balances to yet allow those same finite and flawed humans to rule in just ways.

I am an American and proud of my American-ness.  But that doesn't mean I have to buy into the neat and tidy narratives about America if they are patently false.  America - past, present, and future - can still be great even if it is flawed. 

Similarly, I am a Christian and proud of my Christian-ness.  And, if there was ever a faith that recognized that humanity is flawed and that yet beautiful things can emerge from it, my faith is it.  And yet we too often try to gloss over the messiness of our faith tradition and of our current strivings.  We want where we came from and where we are going to be one clean and unwavering march forward.  But it wasn't and it won't be. 

Furthermore, the Bible is a relatively short summary of a very long period of time, and yet it still sees fit to record many very messy situations. This tells me that God is interested in showing us how the mess fits into the plan.  Not that we make messes on purpose; goodness knows we have too many messes on our hands to feel we need to manufacture even more.  But that when we find ourselves in a mess - whether of our own making or not - we need not think God cannot redeem us or the situation. 

This is hard for me because I hate messes.  I hate messes in my kitchen, on my desk at work, and in my life narratives.  When life swirls and shifts and stutters and soils, I find myself on my heels, frustrated and embarrassed and nervous and despondent.  But life is messy, and messy can be hard, but messy can be beautiful too.  Would that I show enough faith to believe so.

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