Columns » Bob Lancaster

18-inch pastorals


Out driving the other Sunday and came upon a pretty scene of cattle grazing in winter pasture. Couldn't account for the sudden feeling of pleasure and well-being. Thought about it a while and decided it must have been primal. Many generations of cave man are layered into this flesh and bone, and lots of guys who used up their lives chasing grub must have been gratified to find themselves wheeling unexpectedly into the presence of those hundred great docile repositories of walking sirloin. As if to say, Me and mine may never have to go hungry again. That bucolic scene was just outside the community that I don't imagine was named for the boy I used to play dominoes with, but maybe for his father, a burgher, or his grandpa, a pioneer. Something else I saw there, a block-letter message on the roadside markee in front of a country church: "Extreme times demand deep faith." Pulled over and scribbled it down for later leisurely expatiating upon. I could almost hear the lokes gathered around the potbelly at the gro.-sta. yonder, looking out at the message-board, saying, "Amen to that," and "Boy, the preach hit the nail on the head with that one." But it sounded fishy to me, the more so the more I mulled it. Made me feel like those God Sez billboards do, putting the stupidest, tritest words into the mind and mouth of God Almighty, maybe the lowest form of blasphemy. I went looking for the parson to lodge my objection. First question: "What is this 'deep faith' bushwa?" One assumes it intends to distinguish genuine real-McCoy faith from the everyday wash-and-wear variety. But citing "deep" faith suggests that the stuff is quantifiable: if there's deep faith, there must be mid-level faith, and shallow faith, and microthin like they coat razor blades with. But you know and I know and the American Guild of Theological Obfuscators knows that faith doesn't answer to bottom finders or pica poles. It doesn't come in degrees of depth, or in any other kind of degrees. It's one of those absolutes, like uniqueness, that you either have or you don't. And you don't need a lot of it; just a soupcon is plenty - an amount so scant that a mustard seed would hold it, as somebody who had more of it than any of the rest of us once said. It's not only immeasurable but elusive. Its common metaphor is a rock, but it's not a rock you can stand on or lean on with confidence. If it's a rock, it's one made of quicksilver, that squirts away when you try to grab hold of it, that you might fall or lean right through. It's not the member of the trio that endureth all things and believeth all things and all that nice stuff. It's the unreliable one, elusive, seldom there when you need it, so fickle that its exemplar and personification, when his own time became extreme, looked for it in despair and couldn't find it. He died longing for its consolation. Give him the lecture about "deep faith" for "extreme times." Wave that sign in his face. Almost as annoying as the "deep faith" is the part about "extreme times," with its implication that these are some of them. As a rule I don't pick nits with sloganeers. They. may not have truth on their side, but they usually have catchy, and you can't argue with clever. You can only grin and go on about your daddy's business, leaving the high mysteries at these scoundrels' mercy. But this time, I don't know, I felt somehow called upon. Like Savonarola or the author of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Dipwad Faux-Religious Platitudes. So here it is: These are not extreme times, bro. They aren't hard times, or parlous times, as the oldtimers used to say. They aren't the times that try men's souls. It doesn't happen in extreme times that your year's top news story is about the grand teton of a young singer bad in need of some pub peeking out to say a quick halftime howdy on national football TV. They can be aggravating times, but pretty cushy overall. No step for a stepper. Certainly not demanding of "deep faith" unless that's signboard euphemism or code cover for "Bring on the fish bait, the ecdysiast, the good nickel cigars." One time Leo Tolstoy said of a contemporary, "What a great writer he might have been if he had not lived in an age of universal frivolousness." He should have seen this age. The Heroic Age of P. Diddy, the Golden Age of "It's Hot in Here…Why Don't You Take Your Clothes Off?" Incidentally this church calling for deep faith to negotiate these extreme times isn't the one storied parochially for its indoor track, gym, pool and other latter-day subs for what the elders called crosses to bear. That one's on back down the road a ways. Same make, same regs for the gate pass, of course. Not big ones on the Matthew 19:21. ***** One of my writing coaches, reviewing the foregoing, fingers me for creeping sesquipedalianism, a journalistic misdemeanor that literally means using words a foot and a half long. "You and that pompous feller at the 'Crat and the little boy that invented supercalifragiwhatever to save his aching nose," he said. I entered a plea of not guilty on grounds of occasional unavoidability, citing this example: Both of those churches aforementioned are of the fundamentalistic persuasion. How do you boil that mouthful down to something Anglo-Saxon short and sweet? You could call them nuts, I guess, but I'm pretty sure you'd regret it if you did. Also, one of their pet peeves - or maybe it's one of their favorite things, I can't remember - is something called pre-millennial dispensationalism, and what am I supposed to do with that? Coach suggested putting it in my pipe and smoking it, knowing full well that I haven't had a single draw of tobacco in 19 years, 11 months, and four days.

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