Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Meds for English majors


Secret sins
“You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Psalm 90:8

I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as “junior high-ish.” While he can't be excluded from American literature, he rides along on the canon like an elegant barnacle. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a study in unremitting madness, or, simply, as some critics have often claimed, “an elaborate way to say ‘boo’”? I don’t know.

“The Tell-tale Heart” may well be his most famous yarn. A delusional man-servant murders his boss and covers the crime perfectly, but he's so wretchedly haunted by what he’s done that he confesses, as a means by which to end the horrifying echo of the old man’s heart in his demented mind.

Remove the 17th century details from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and you’ve got the same story. Set it in 19th century Russia, and title it Crime and Punishment. Tell the story in apartheid South Africa, and you have To Late the Phalarope. I’m sure I’m missing a dozen or more cousins. Same story—right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Years ago, I judged a junior high forensics contest in which kids gave memorized readings; one of them did “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The performer did well but scared no one. Mostly, he got giggles. Nobody used Hawthorne or Dostoevsky; but if someone had, I’m betting no one would have giggled. That’s why I can’t help but think there is something somewhat “junior high” about Poe.

Just as there is something somewhat junior high about a verse like this one—at least, in the way an idea like this has been manipulated by believers throughout history. “Beware—your secret sins will find you out.”

Fear has always been an effective motivator. Somewhere I read that adolescent boys have fleshy sexual fancies about dozen times per hour, on average. I don’t doubt it. I was such a character once myself. Tell a junior high boy that Jesus knows his secret sins, and you’ll get his attention.

But some of us aren't too steamy, or don't carry much of a criminal record—and I’m not bragging. My tepid testimony wouldn’t inspire anyone around a campfire, certainly not a TV producer. The burden of my sins would be filed under “Spirit,” not “Flesh.” From Hollywood’s perspective, that’s not going to sell tickets. Bring on Poe.

And yet this verse is scary—especially if I think about it in a, well, fleshy way. To be buck naked before God almighty doesn't feel pleasant. To imagine him seeing me, inside and out, 24/7, makes my ample guilt bleed. I’m not haunted by the heartbeat of my latest, sorry victim, but when I imagine myself splayed before the God of love, I can feel my pride unfashonably exposed. After all, I know where numero uno ranks in my daily to-do list.

And that scares me. Which it should. And I’m long, long past junior high.

Historically, the sins of the spirit have always been considered deeper and more vile than the sins of the flesh, probably because they’re just not front-page material.

Most of us don't care to read that kind of story, maybe because, like me, it’s my own.

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