Friday, June 03, 2005

Bush, Buffy, and the Bible

You know the joke: "'Mixed emotions' is watching your mother-in-law go over the cliff in your brand-new Cadillac." And even though I trust that you, like me, have never wished harm on your mate's mom, you understand the humor.

My definition of "mixed emotions" would be: being President Bush's speech-writer.

I like President Bush. He seems to be a good man. However, I just can't agree with my fellow Bush-supporters who think he's a great speaker. In fact, I think he's quite a poor speaker.

He garbles words. He mangles diction. Phrases that should be thundered are instead raced through without emphasis, like a TNIV paraphraser whisking past Deuteronomy 4:2 or Ecclesiastes 5:4b. Instead, minor words are hit hard, big words are ricocheted, and syLAbles receive odd emPHAses.

I can honestly and easily imagine that, if I were his speech-writer, I might eventually take a pass on actually watching his speeches. An evening of checkbook-balancing might be less painful than watching brother Bush bloody that golden prose I'd spent hours polishing and perfecting.

On the other hand, I'm sure writers are sometimes thrilled to see what others do with their language.

For instance, take the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Of course, you'd never imagine that an unapologetically knuckle-dragging FundaDispieCalvinist like me to watch such a show. And I'm not saying I do. No sir. Nor that I own all seven seasons on DVD. But... but maybe I know people who have watched it. Yeah, that's the ticket.

At any rate, that show had some very clever writing, and some terrific actors -- er, I'm told. In particular, Alyson Hannigan, who played Willow, embodied her role and brought the character to life. She could take simple lines and make them sing and dance.

For instance, in the episode The Puppet Show, the gang figures out that a person was apparently not murdered by a monster, but by a human being. They find that even creepier.

Overwhelmed by the implications, with great animation Willow says, "It could be anyone! It could be me!" Then when everyone looks at her, in a flash of emotions she visibly deflates, sort of pouts, and says, "It's not, though." Just three words, but it's what she puts into them that is so fun, and funny.

Or I think of four words that Ian McKellan's Gandalf chokes out, in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has offered him the Ring, repeatedly, insistently. McKellan, than whom I cannot easily imagine a better Gandalf, physically backs away as Frodo pursues him, holding out the cursed thing. Then all the character's internal struggle with the allurement of the One Ring is distilled and expressed in those four words: "Don't... tempt me, Frodo!"

I can easily imagine watching my words taken up by and brought to life by a McKellan or a Hannigan, and thinking, "Wow. I didn't know I was such a good writer." Or, on the other hand, I can imagine hearing that good man, President Bush, bringing howling death to my words, and sighing, "Wow. I didn't know I was such a bad writer."

"Yes," you explode, your patience at an end, "...and what possible connection can that have with the Bible?"

It makes me think of the way we often read the Bible in public.

Now, we Christians say we think that these are the very words of God Himself, breathed forth by Him and fully expressing His mind and heart to us (2 Timothy 3:15-17). There is nothing like the Bible. It is sui generis, in a class all its own.

We know that the words are living and full of power (Hebrews 4:12), they are eternal (Psalm 119:89), they are like a fire and a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29). They have moved and molded history itself, on a national scale, as well as on a personal scale. We find them sweet (Psalm 19:10), and they give joy to our very hearts (v. 8). We treasure them above all things (Psalm 19:10).

So you would think our public readings of the Word would be heartfelt, vibrant, dynamic, ebullient. You'd think it would lift us out of ourselves, and bring forth our deepest feelings and emphases.

Well, evidently it doesn't.

Some readers sound like funeral directors... or their customers. I think of one brother who reads over the radio. Somber, somnolent, even somnambulent. Certainly not soulful.

Or I recall a brother I saw years ago. I came to be sure that, each time he read the Word in public, it was the first time he'd seen the passage. (By contrast, I see the good brothers in our church poring over the passages in advance, making sure they've got a good grip on what they're about to read.)

Others affect unnaturally "holy" tones, so that narratives and dialogues and expostulations lose all heart and vigor. (Example: if you can read Galatians 1:1-10 without raising your voice, you're doing it wrong!)

Think of the original settings of these majestic passages. Can you imagine Isaiah preaching the contents of the fortieth chapter in an oh-well, ho-hum voice? No. Or the broken-hearted laments of Jeremiah? Or the thunderings of Ezekiel, or the expostulations of Malachi?

If we were to anthropopathize God excessively, could we imagine Him being pleased with the lifeless, bloodless, peremptory jobs we often do of reading His words? Or might He even wince, and cringe, and wonder why He'd even taken the trouble?

We'd not think much of a man who stood up to preach, and acted as if he'd never seen his notes before, or treated them as if they were hieroglyphics, their meaning a bafflement to him.

We who read the Word -- whether on the radio, to our church, or to our families -- should give no less heart, nor thought, to our readings. It's the Word of God. Shouldn't we read it that way?


Libbie said...

Buffy, eh? Deep, resonant themes explored with insight, pathos and wit.

Or so I'm told..

DJP said...

Hurtling, often without notice and with equal conviction, from a moment of touching emotion, to a stunning reversal; from laughter to a gasp and then tears. All with sparklingly fresh dialogue, and irreverent contempt for standard TV cliches.

Um... anyway, that's the word on the street.


Gummby said...

This was a good post. Sorry I missed it the first time around.

Kirk Williams said...

I also missed it the first time around as I am quite new to the blogosphere, but I feel like you have an excellent handle on the topic of "reading". You didn't happen to actually have enjoyed your college English and speech classes... DID YOU (in a highly accusing, dramatic tone)?!

Anonymous said...

Yea verily! This is why every church should have "Heston Reads the Scripture" on CD/DVD readily on hand for every service. When your Deacon of the month begins to drone on and on during the reading of the passion scenes, you simply voice over with Chuck, and people are riveted as they try to figure out how brother Johnson has become such a fascinating orator...
Even his wife will sit straight as she trys to figure out if his lips are really moving in sync with what she is hearing...

ORDER now $199.95 today only !!!


Theophilus said...

Somber, somnolent, even somnambulent

-- (Sorry I'm late to the party) Great turn of phrase.

related: I've heard a pastor once say that there ought to be a special place in hell reserved for people who preach boring sermons, because they defame both God, and His Word. Neither of these are boring.

I'm pretty sure it was tongue-in-cheek. Mostly.

Theophilus said...

"Hell" was supposed to have an "H" not an "h"