Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: May 2015 (page 2 of 2)

Living Buddha, Living Christ

Living Buddha, Living Christ is the title of a book written in 1995 by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a world-wide following as a voice for peace. Very early in the book, he says that his “path to discovering Jesus as one of my spiritual ancestors was not easy.” Nobody should be surprised to find that the reason for this difficulty was the aggressive  and sometimes violent treatment of Buddhists by Christians in their attempt to “spread the gospel” in Vietnam.

Thay (Teacher, which is what his friends and students call Thich Nhat Hanh) says, “It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity.” These people, he says, “have made me feel that Lord Jesus is still here with us.”

I wonder how many of us can say something very similar to this. I  certainly can. I am able to believe in God only because of knowing people who embody Christ. I created quite a stir a year ago, near the end of a four-year study of Old and New Testaments, church history, and theology, by saying flatly, “Nothing good has ever come out of theology.” I had come to believe that theology, as it has been practiced by every religion that I’m aware of, has led to division and violence within religious communities. I’m not ignoring the fact that theology has the potential to lead people to do loving, compassionate things, as would the study of Matt 25 or James 2. But the history of the church is in large part the history of powerful men and groups of men (and usually only men) using theology to alienate, exile, and do violence against men (and women) who disagreed with their reading of the Bible.

As Thay says, it can be harder to have an honest and loving dialogue within one’s own religious community/tradition than with a different community/tradition. I confess that this is one of my own biggest struggles–to love, accept, and listen deeply to those in the Christian community who are at the other end of the spectrum from me. As a very liberal/progressive believer, I fall easily into the trap of dismissing very conservative believers (which most of the people from my early life are) as simply heartless and legalistic and narrow minded. I said this was a confession, didn’t I? But Thay says, “By respecting the differences within our own church and seeing how these differences enrich one another, we are more open to appreciating the richness and diversity of other traditions.” In other words, I may not be able to truly appreciate Buddhism if I cannot appreciate and value Christian conservatism.

I think this is where I say to conservatives, “Forgive me for not listening deeply and not opening my mind to consider what you have to say.” There. We have all heard that confession is good for the soul, so my soul is a little better now. Thank you.

I’m going to continue to share from my responses to Thay’s beautiful book. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to re-post any of these discussions.

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The Dead

This morning I read again the final paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” a story about a melancholy Irish professor, who thinks his marriage is one thing and finds that it is really something else. It is a story about the disillusionment of romantic fantasies. “The Dead” is one of Joyce’s best-known stories, the final story in his first collection, Dubliners. It has been one of my favorite stories for many years because of its celebration of friendship around a banquet table, both the joy and the pain, because of its wonderful variety of characters, and especially because of its beautiful language.

At the end of the story, the main character, Gabriel, sits in the dark in a hotel room, his wife asleep on the bed. He has just learned of his wife’s heartbreak when she was a young woman at the death of a young man named Michael Furey.

Here’s the paragraph: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly throughout the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

We are all Gabriel, believing we are one thing and occasionally coming face to face with the reality that we are not that thing at all, that we have created for/of ourselves a fiction we can live with but that cannot last. Afterwards, when we know ourselves better, we are better able to know others and to live a compassionate life.

After Dubliners, Joyce published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, both of which I love and taught at the university, and then he finished his fiction writing with Finnegans Wake. These last three works were significant events in the development of the complex Modernist style, but in the earlier Dubliners he used traditional story-telling technique and rich, layered language to reveal the vulnerable and quixotic hearts of human beings in everyday lives. It is one of those works that makes my wiring crackle when I read it.

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Religion in the Ozarks

The Ozark Mountains have a long history of deeply conservative religious expression. Robert K. Gilmore, in Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions, describes the people of the Ozark Mountains as “predominantly Bible-believing, traditional Protestants” who were “strongly aware of the presence in their midst of the ever-zealous devil and were equally zealous in their efforts to rid themselves of him” (68). Drinking, shows, cards, dancing, and the fiddle (nicknamed the Devil’s Music Box) were all proscribed as “evidences of the ‘old gentleman’s’ (Satan’s) efforts to corrupt” weak human beings. Long sermons, annual two-week nightly revivals, and camp meetings–held in the early days in brush arbors and later in large tents–were all standard fare for the religious.

I grew up in the heart of this ethos in a small congregation of the southern Church of Christ, which was, in those days, an exclusive fundamentalist denomination. My early memories of that community and the people in it are sweet. The adults were mostly simple working class people and farmers–like old Brother Hubbard, a farmer and an elder, with my father, in the church, and whose wife taught elementary school. When she died, Sister Hubbard, because I too had made education my profession, left me a packet of her teaching materials in hopes that I would find them useful. And Brother Ballard, another of the elders who, like my father, worked as a railway mail clerk, kept a Model T pickup truck and drove it in all the local parades. And Sister Davis, who searched the scriptures earnestly, seeking the truth, whose heart was broken by what she found there.

On warm summer nights we played hide-and-seek after the services while the grown-ups talked among the circling moths in the lights of the porch, the men smoking and the women bouncing babies on their shoulders. The world was secure and circumscribed.

I am a recovering Fundamentalist, just as my grandfather was a recovering alcoholic. I seek, day by day, the source of love and peace and strength. I am often surprised at the places it may be found.

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