"But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars."
The first time I remember being awed by a story, I was very little, maybe 3 or 4, watching Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments,"at that time already an old movie, on TV. I still make a point to watch at least part of that film every year to this day, but back then, the campy pleasure of watching the marathon scenery chewing competition between Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner was years away. That film, and the powerful mythological themes it presented, washed over me like a wave.
I was raised a Catholic. A religion of powerful stories and icons. I recall the fear and awe of the massive crucifix behind the altar of my boyhood church, with all its monochromatic gore and courage in the face of suffering. I recall once noticing the shimmering waves rising from a heating vent in front of a statue of St. Joseph and mistaking them for the Holy Spirit.
From the beginning, I believed in something. I just didn't know what it was exactly.
I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars came out. The real first one, the uncorrected version wherein Han Solo shot first. The one we are now asked to call Episode IV despite the leaden weight we feel in our stomachs from knowing better.
Ten years old is right in the wheel-house for imprinting wonder and awe on a child. Seeing Star Wars at 10 made an impression that was both indelible and indomitable. From that point on, going to the movies was an exercise of diminishing returns. That's not to say that future movies couldn't be better films, but there could never again be a first impression like that for me. I was totally unprepared for Star Wars, as was everyone else who saw it at that time. If being awestruck can be compared to sex, then you can't lose your virginity twice.
My strongest memories of childhood therefore are all of similar feelings of awe, aroused or inspired by stories - in books, film, or tradition - of things greater than what was within easy reach. "Roots" was a multi-night, multi-hour cultural event back in the 70's when there were only a few channels to watch. John Amos held the baby Kunta Kinte up to the stars of the night sky and said "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself." That's the only detail I remember from the whole mini-series. The only line I can quote from memory. All I needed to hear.
The "Lord of the Rings" was a 1,500 page epic which I read for the first time around age 11. There are many moments of awesome in this story. But the one I remember the most, the one that can still close off my throat until my eyes water when I talk about it out loud, is the moment in "The Fellowship..." when all the great heroes of the world are arguing over what to do with the ring. Whether they are greedy for it or fearful of it, the mightiest are all at a loss, powerless, useless... until little Frodo offers up quietly below the din, "I will take it." Only Gandalf hears, and his heart breaks at the courage of the only one who could be up to the task, the meekest among them, taking the imaginable burden for himself, alone. This is the man behind the altar again.
As I got older, I began to find that adulthood's assault on wonder created a less illumined world than the world of my childhood, and held few satisfactory answers to the same questions I kept asking it. While the words of many prophets rang true much of the time, organized religion seemed like a increasingly hollow pursuit all the time, and I eventually lost interest in it. This might sound odd, but despite my enormous interest in what it purported to offer, religion never seemed as true to me as that feeling, that glorious swelling in the chest that came when Luke Skywalker switched off his targeting computer. I still feel it to this day, even when I'm merely watching "A New Hope" on cable with its new, non-threatening Jabba the Hut and the castrated Han Solo.
By the time I was a young adult, therefore, I was lost. From what I understood, religion was "the way, the truth, and the life." Which was terrible news because I had run the numbers on it and, for me anyway, it just didn't add up. There was only one way religion could create that feeling in me. And that was if, as it was for Frodo, the man behind the altar could be me. Unfortunately, in the religion I was raised on anyway, he could not. Or I could not. You and I can mimic his behavior, and it is officially recommended that we do so or face dire consequences, but in the end, it would only be mimicry. Jesus was the only Son. You and I are merely creatures.
I wanted religion to work for me. And it certainly wasn't for lack of trying, but I didn't feel it. And Star Wars, of course, was just a movie. It was not a philosophy you could live your life by.
Then, as an adult, I began to find evidence of the thing I was looking for. First, it came in the form of a lesson I learned when I was teaching a creative writing class to high school juniors. We had read all the material in the book of short stories we were using, but there was still a lot of time left before summer. I put it to the class then. What do you want to read? The year before, when this group were sophomores, I was their English teacher and we had read "The Grapes of Wrath." So I was delighted that they liked that experience so much they asked for more Steinbeck. Together we chose "East of Eden," in part because I had never read the book either.
So we read the book for the first time together. A fun and challenging experience for me because I didn't get to think it over or plan anything out in advance. This turned out to be a defining moment for my life. A blessing, and an epiphany.
When God spoke this word in the Old Testament, did he give us a command, a promise, or a choice? A word of warning before you read on. Answer this question in one of those ways, and you become Frodo, Luke Skywalker, and the brother or sister of the man on the cross.
"East of Eden" is a story about an American family. It is also obviously analogous with a story from the Bible. Genesis 4, to be specific. In this chapter, Adam, Eve, and therefore the human race have been banished from the Garden and gone to live in the land of Nod, somewhere to the East of Eden.
Somewhere in the middle of his book, Steinbeck answered every question I ever asked. Or at least the important ones. This is the part of Genesis where Cain complains that Jehovah seems to favor his brother Abel over him, a story that ends badly, as you may recall, for Abel. In the following passages from "East of Eden," two wise patriachical figures have returned to an old conversation about this section of Genesis 4 they had begun years earlier...
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”Skipping ahead Lee reveals his discovery - that the original Hebrew word “Timshel” did not mean "Thou Shalt" (a promise) as one version says, or "Do Thou” (a command) as another version says... but rather it means “Thou Mayest.” The conversation continues...
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”
The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers