Lying on a bed of nails: more on Johnny Cash, the prodigal son, and the truth of stories

Andrei Rabodzeenko, Prodigal Son, 2006

I have received a number of emails and Facebook messages and comments about my latest article at RD. I hope to reply to all of them in time. But I am still on the job hunt. Therefore these must suffice: This post and an expression of thanks to my interlocutors. Your feedback — both supportive and critical — is appreciated.

As an experienced teacher, I know that communication is a terribly tricky thing. The thoughts in a teacher’s mind and the thoughts in the students’ minds, tethered as they are by the narrow thread of language, never map one-to-one. The same goes for the written word. Learning to communicate effectively is a lifelong enterprise. I know this.

Still, I was shocked by the canyon of misunderstanding between my intentions and my readers’ reactions to my latest article at Religion Dispatches. This misunderstanding was profound, and was signaled not only by those who can be expected to react to a poke with a flamethrower, but to a number of intimates who know me and my writing, and even some who are sympathetic to my perspective.

Therefore the source of the confusion must lie with me. I accept that. So I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the most urgent question I’ve been asked: Do you really mean to say that atheists don’t like or understand stories?

No and yes. No, because as a friend of mine said to me, that would be like saying “Atheists don’t like or understand music.” And would be tantamount to saying that atheists are robots of some kind. So in the sense of understanding stories, or being really good at writing them, or at telling them, my answer is: No.

It doesn’t require a Christian or a religious person to understand stories. I would never say that, and I never have said that. As I implied in my original piece, telling stories is what human beings do. One of the more thoughtful responses to my article came from a certain Saul, a fellow who left religion and became an atheist because of the Philip Pullman series His Dark Materials. That story spoke to him and changed his life. Today he is a filmmaker and storyteller. I know a number of atheists personally, but Saul is the first to tell me that a story brought him to his perspective.

Yet it seems to me that there is a sense in which some scientifically-motivated atheists — not all atheists — may not approve of the way stories can be believed and acted upon (“Where’s the evidence?,” I can hear them asking). Our beliefs and actions work together. This is obvious. If I resist stepping off the roof of a 10-story building, that’s because I understand, in some way, that fact of nature we have come to call gravity.

But I may also, because of my knowledge of physics, happily lie on a bed of nails. I did this regularly in my physics professor days. It looked scary every time but I did it anyway because I know how force and pressure work. Because I believe the laws of physics say something true about the world.

And if I were to love someone who persecutes me, say, it would not be because I believe a law but because I believe in a story: The story that says that love is the way to live, even if love doesn’t win. That is the story of Jesus, who was in many ways the most spectacular loser of first-century Palestine. If I love it’s not because there’s some abstract principle floating around out there that says “love is the best policy.” That’s not even true (love’s not a policy).

If I love it’s because I have believed — radically — in the story that says I am loved by God in exactly the way Jesus loved, in exactly the way the prodigal’s father loved. If one can internalize this story (which I can’t, really, although I do try); if one really believes one is loved infinitely, then one’s life is transformed at its most fundamental level. Stories can drive this change like nothing else.

Like the act of lying on a bed of nails, the truths stories convey can seem wrong on the surface (“love those who persecute you”). When these truths are acted upon and lived out, the line between the story and our lived experience becomes thin, perhaps nonexistent. What’s the difference — really — between Jesus being whipped by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem in AD 33 and civil rights marchers being clubbed by police officers in Alabama in AD 1965?

So I’m not talking about stories as entertainment or stories as teaching tools or stories as morality plays or stories as deliverers of messages or even as analogies. I’m talking about stories merging seamlessly with life itself. I’m talking about lying down on a bed of nails not because you know the science but because you have faith in a story. I’m talking about betting one’s very life on the truth of a story (the Selma marchers did). That, to this Christian at least, is a fundamental religious impulse.

Again, there is perhaps nothing new here. It may be precisely the scientifically-motivated atheists who understand, in ways that many others don’t, how stories can be believed and lived out in this way. And perhaps that’s what makes them so nervous about religion — wasn’t 9/11 the result of believing in such stories? Weren’t the Inquisition, the Crusades, Jonestown, Harold Camping’s disastrous We Can Know campaign, Fred Phelps’s bigotry, and a hundred other examples, nothing but the sorry results of believing in stories in this radical way? Yes. They are. Which is exactly why it is so important to believe the right — that is, the true — stories. Because we’re all believing in some story or another.

(BTW, not all bad stories are religious. I could bring up the usual suspects like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin, but why look so far? What kind of story led the United States to perform mass murder on August 6, 1945? And again three days later? Not a religious one.)

Which brings me back to Johnny Cash, PZ Myers, and Jesus. Although Cash was a deeply religious man, most of his stories are not religious. And — here is where the essence of the misunderstanding came in, I think — it was my assumption all along that atheists love Cash’s stories as much as anyone else. That was almost my point. So I wanted to push it further and ask: In what sense, if any, are his stories true? Or do true and false even apply?

Another way of asking this is: Are you willing to make Johnny Cash’s stories your own story? Are you willing to stake your life on the stories Cash tells? To lie on a bed of nails? Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t, but if you are, then you’re believing in his stories in the way I’m talking about. They are good stories. They are instructive, humorous, and true. As much as I love them, however, I myself am not willing to bet my life on Johnny Cash stories. This is not because they are qualitatively different than other good stories, but because they don’t go deep enough to contain life itself.

As for Myers’s story, it has no depth at all. It gives us no direction whatsoever for the living out of our lives. Which is why it’s a bad story.

But Jesus’ stories are different. They go deep and are worthy of a whole human life. And on my best days I am willing to try to live according to them. I am willing to make his story — and the stories he tells — my own story. On those days I am willing (in my own tiny ways) to lie down on a bed of nails — so to speak — because I believe in his story, and in his stories.

Referring to Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, I wrote,

If we are able to check our self-conscious impulses just long enough, might this story reach us as an echo of a hint of something really real? If not about God, then maybe about fathers and sons? On my best and most unironic days I think so.

The point I was trying to make (and again, I don’t think I made it well) is: Of course we can believe, in a sense, this story about fathers and sons. I can, atheists can, we all can. We all know fathers like this. (As one responder pointed out, this tale would fit nicely into a country-western song format.) But is it true? Is there anything about the world that conforms to this story more closely than a story in which the father rejects his repentant son? After all, we all know fathers like that too.

So, is there?

Beneath the cynicism that is my stock in trade, all the deadly cynicism I am trying so hard to shake, I think so. I think there is a great Love in this world, lurking just beneath all the pain and loss that I cannot understand.

And this from one who hates using uppercase letters to point out Significant Nouns.

The original article’s thesis is modest: Some scientifically-motivated atheists (like Myers) seem to be utterly tone-deaf to the way that our lives are themselves stories. And because of this, they are ignorant about the power of stories tell to tell truths (not lies) that so often confound discursive science. The recent lawsuit about the 9/11 cross is a case in which atheists, insisting that the cross was just a piece of rubble like any other, missed utterly the power of stories to inform, transform, and even to make our lives what they are. Or maybe they got it and hated it. Either way, they missed the truth of the stories, both of Jesus and of the 9/11 cross itself.

I don’t know if this helps any, or if it just confuses things more. But it’s what I have tonight.

Here’s to a new week.

Comment Pages

There are 6 Comments to "Lying on a bed of nails: more on Johnny Cash, the prodigal son, and the truth of stories"

  • Tom Harkins says:

    Paul, I think your explanation does help clarify things. I think most (not all) of the atheists who responded as negatively as they did oversimplified what you were saying. IMO, everyone acts according to a system of beliefs. Those beliefs may be “merely scientific,” in the limited sense of Carl Sagan’s, “The universe is all there ever was, is, or will be.” Or, they may include content suggesting “meaning” or “purpose” in life. I am not trying to say what you meant, necessarily, but it is somewhat questionable that “true atheists,” such as Sagan, who are entirely “materialistic,” have much of a basis to affirm “meaning and purpose.” Yet “good stories” call up in us such, at least, “longings” for such meaning and purpose, even it we cannot always put our finger on the “details” of what is evoked within us. “Good stories” call us to believe and act in ways that are inconsistent with mere “materialism.” And the question is whether atheists qua atheists have any “logical” basis to “make sense” of why stories give rise to such emotions and life-changing reactions on our part, given the strictly “chance” view of life that evolution, without any “divine” aspect, would suggest. So, do atheists believe in “stories” in the sense of things to base their lives upon? If they DO, then how do they JUSTIFY giving such credence to “stories” of the type you are speaking of (as opposed to movie mysteries or the like), and their “life-changing” impacts, given the “logical consequences” of a universe devoid of the “divine”?

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    • Brent White says:

      I agree with you, Tom. I guess PZ Myers hasn’t found this post yet? Too bad. The original post was hardly incomprehensible, but I understand why you clarified it. Makes perfect sense to me.

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  • David says:

    This post reminded me of the excellent Tim Burton movie “Big Fish” w/ Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney. His son struggles w/ his dad’s “hiding” behind stories of his life. Check it out and be ready to shed some Big Tears…..

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  • Hufe8 says:

    Very well written Paul. When I thought I was becoming an atheist, I suspect I would have acted very much like the many who responded to your last post before this clarification you made.

    But I understood what you meant in your last post. I think you were saying that people make these “stories” come true whether or not the amount of facts in them is a lot or a little. But I think we all tell stories even when we believe we are spouting facts. There is no way I can think of to get around how we speak because of the concepts and labels we add to objects. So stories get told no matter what.

    For example, the term evidence, it can mean just about anything to anybody. But unless people talk about what they mean when they say evidence, no one will get to the truth and since that truth(in terms of its definition) is a bit subjective whether talking about a person, group, culture a story gets told any way.

    Hope to see more from you Paul. Peace.

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  • [...] I have received a lot of feedback about that particular piece. Please look here for a little more: http://psnt.net/blog/2011/09/more-on-stories/. It may or may not clarify things, but it’s what I [...]

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