a year of morning thanks
For most of my childhood, my mother insisted they were what we should be--those Jehovah's Witness guys in white shirts, black pants, and argyle socks, those zealots looking to convert America one block at a time. They were wrong, of course--that is, in theology; but they were right on the money in their enthusiasm. "We should be more like them," my mother used to say. After all, we were Christians, ourselves heirs to the divine imperitive of Christ's own last great words in the Great Commission. It was our duty to bring the good news, and what exactly were we doing?
Because they seemed to me to be paragons of righteousness, it never dawned on me that those model believers might be, well, human. I wouldn't have guessed that one or two of them might sneak a drink or light a smoke or make a move on one or more of the young things that may have showed up at the door when they came knocking. Such things never entered my mind, honestly. They were fools for Jesus, holy fools, and if I were only more of a fool myself I too would be out there pounding the pavement.
That perception explains my first reaction when reading a story by Bradford Tice, "Missionaries," in The Atlantic, and now again in the Best American Short Stories of 2008. If I were Mormon, I thought, I'd be really, really ticked, because the behavior of one of those straight-arrows in Tice's story is anything but--he smokes dope with a potential convert, makes love to a lusty young mark, and generally does whatever it takes to up his tally of converts--"the ends always justify the means," he says to his more pious sidekick. The story isn't fair to the millions of moral militants who happily spend years on missions. Tice isn't LDS either. If I were Mormon, I'd wonder how on earth the guy dared to pull himself into those precious Mormon undergarments.
It is a brutal story and maybe overplayed, I thought--and still do. But the way Tice ends the thing is perfectly wonderful and worth the price of admission (in the case of the story, at least, the ends do justify the means). What he does with all of that is shocking in its own way, very powerful. Whether or not "Missionaries" should be among the best American short stories of the year is debatable, but then any choice is, I'm sure.
But in that anthology, in the writer's notes, Bradford Tice says something that I have more trouble shaking than the story. I don't have the book here beside me right now, but the line goes like this: "One of the cheerless realities of organized eligion, in my secular opinion, is that often its spokespersons, the advocates of faith, end up seeming like used-car salesmen, while the truly devout go voiceless."
That line won't let me alone because it makes me wonder about the Great Commission--not whether or not it's true or valid or really a commission, but instead whether something got lost in the translation, something human jerry-rigged into a divine imperitive.
Don't know. What does it mean to "preach the gospel"?
I'm not so quick to judge as Tice is, but that simple line continues to haunt me because to me at least, it's asks a question I have not answered, at least for myself.
This morning I'm thankful for a story and a line that sticks with me, that makes me think.
You can read the Bradford Tice's "Missionaries" at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200708/bradford-tice-missionaries .