Thursday, December 23, 2004


A barber's tale

When I woke up this morning, to unseasonably warm and rainy weather, I decided to have breakfast at Starbucks, where (I confess) I like to sit in the window and watch the passers-by. True, it is no different from countless other windows. It is located in an unremarkable shopping strip -- a grocery store, a liquor store, a barber shop (complete with the candy-striped lamp), a flower shop, a clothing store, all in a row. Perched in my chair, I look out at the parking spaces and watch the customers rush into the orange glow, hurrying to wait in line for their triple-shot lattes and no-foam caramel macchiatos. Their movements are so mysteriously patterned, predictable even though they are not predetermined. Each person follows a finite set of paths -- from the cars to the coffee, from the cars to the coffee, from the cars to the coffee. If each person held a flashlight, and I took a series of photographs, the composite picture would probably show a few thick streaks of light, winding their way out of the rain and into the store.

I see a barber step out onto the covered sidewalk, two doors down. He is pushing a customer in a wheelchair. They follow a direct line from the shop to the customer's car, but in a leisurely sort of way, casually chatting like old friends. Instead of following the sidewalk down to the ramp directly in front of my window, the barber pushes the chair straight over the curb. I swear I distinctly see the seated man clap his hands with glee, as though they have just popped a wheelie.

The barber carefully pushes the chair to the far side of the lot, unhurried, unconcerned by the rain. He helps the man into his car. He puts the chair into the back. He waves and walks back to his shop.

I suppose it was an "ordinary" act of kindness, if there is such a thing. In context, it seemed so un-ordinary. In this ordinary space, with people beating their ordered paths to their ordinary place, these men were like free radicals, uncontrolled by the invisible patterns behind the other people's orbits. Imagine my time-series photo again. Wouldn't the barber's light be an immediately identifiable ray? A lone vector across the bands of light that curved across the lot? Okay, maybe I simply had not had enough coffee yet, but ... that barber's path struck me with the force of a shooting star -- surprising, sudden, and irreproducibly strange.

The birth stories in the Christian gospels are also arrestingly strange. With a few carefully made brushstrokes, the tellers of the stories evoke an entire world of regularity and routine. Though ancient, it is like our world. It has its own patterned movements, its familiar human geography, its ordinary people carving out their grooves in space and time. The crowds file onto the roads on their way to be registered. The lodgers walk from their stables to their inns, the same way shoppers now walk from parking lots to stores. The shepherds make their habituated rounds -- around the sheep again, around the sheep again, around the sheep again. And then, into these mechanical routines, the stories introduce their own free radicals. New vectors shoot across the world's quotidian paths. A couple moves in reverse from an inn to a stable. Shepherds decide to take a road trip. Some wealthy travelers walk backwards along the trade routes that normally run from the West to the East. And then there's the story's most memorable body in motion -- that star.

Although the birth narratives occupy a relatively small place within the narrative sweep of the gospels, they are majestic introductions to a biography that is filled with strange movements. We too easily forget that the stories early Christians told about Jesus were exceedingly strange and subversive. They portray an ordinary figure (not a barber, but a carpenter) who is always popping wheelies over the curbs of social practice, the conventions that say, "Walk here, not there. Park between the lines. No stopping in the fire zone. No loitering. Do not enter. No vacancy." In one story not long after the stories of his birth, we find him staying behind in the temple instead of walking where he was supposed to, along with everyone else. There he is allowing a prostitute to enter the dining room. There he is retracing his steps to talk with a beggar that his friends have tried to shut up. There he is saying that the children could come up to him. There he is walking up to lepers. In other words, there he is in the places that would look in my time-series photographs like pools of darkness -- the negative spaces outlined by normal, pedestrian streaks of light. When he gathered behind him a crowd of followers, and began filling those negative spaces with more and more streaks of light, the authorities -- Builders of Roads, Pavers of Sidewalks, Policemen of the Ordinary Paths -- could not help but see these free radicals as threats to their atomized and cellular social order.

At Christmas, Christian stories are always in danger of becoming familiar, normal, routine. When that happens, their real edge, their real threat to society-as-usual, is blunted. Edginess has to be manufactured by complaints about political correctness. I'm hearing that many evangelical Christians in America have been making a hubbub about their right to say "Merry Christmas" whenever they want to whomever they want, to perform pageants and live nativity scenes in public schools. Has it come to this? Christians drawing the line in the sand over routines -- the choreographies of Christmas?

To my mind, the real power of the earliest stories about Jesus is in their utter defiance of routine. Their message is that individual compassion is more important than social choreography. If all the world is a stage, and most of our movements on it are blocked out by habit, then what an entrance this actor made! The stage was marked all over with spots of electrical tape, places where the script said he was supposed to stand. Yet he disregarded the stage directions, for the sake of extraordinary "ordinary" acts of kindness. That's what it really means for faith to intervene in public space.

The best way to honor such a story, it seems to me, is not just by walking the same old easy route -- by angrily shouting "Merry Christmas" as if these words alone suffice to tell the story. To some Christians, that might seem like an act of resistance, but it's actually the path of least resistance, the verbal equivalent of walking from one's car into Starbucks. The more radical kind of thing would be to do the practical equivalent what the barber did. Help someone who needs help across a rainy parking lot. And pop a wheelie every now and then just to make him clap for joy like a child.

This post was revised at 3:45 P.M.

Collective Improvisation:
I think this current "Christmas Protest" is another version of "putting the Christ back in Christmas". After all this is a Christian country, other faiths are allowed to practise some pretty strange beliefs; why can't they try to learn about beliefs different from theirs? They might learn something to help them fit in better, feel more comfortable in the US.
Miguel Mena 

Posted by Miguel Mena

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/23/2004 04:06:00 PM : Permalink  

Miguel, I don't think that you got the message. I won't argue with you about whether this is a Christian country or whether there can be such a thing as a Christian country. The question Caleb poses to us is how can we be followers of Jesus in a country such as this. Surely, it isn't by loudly asserting the authority of our religion. That only competes with other loud claims. Jesus calls us to extra-ordinary acts of compassion and outside the box deeds of faithfulness. This is beautifully done, Caleb. 

Posted by Ralph Luker

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/23/2004 08:57:00 PM : Permalink  

Ralph, thanks for putting succinctly what it took me much longer to say.

Miguel, I disagree that this is a "Christian country," unless all you mean is that many self-described Christians live here.

In that case, I think the best way for Christians who live here (or anywhere) to communicate their beliefs is by trying to live a life of meekness, humility, and love, not by having other people's children act out their beliefs on stages in school cafeterias.

And "Christmas Protests," at least as they have been voiced by the people at Fox News, are unlikely to make anyone "feel more comfortable." 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/23/2004 09:31:00 PM : Permalink  

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