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What would the 2023 equivalent of a “message in a bottle” or time capsule be? The question comes to mind because last week, I turned 75, midway between “three score and ten” and 80, which seems to mark “old age” nowadays. And that prompted a crazy thought: I should take stock, try to capture this moment so that down the road, someone from a “present” quite different from ours would be able to get the flavor of it, as if via time-travel.
But where to start? With events considered “newsworthy” just now? With Trump and Biden, “Pride,” the war in Ukraine, and the endless chatter about AI? Or should I start on an entirely different scale, not merely “local” but personal? I could record a week’s worth of walks with Wendy in the neighborhoods near us here in Wheaton, Illinois, about 25 miles west of Chicago.
There are incessant demands on our attention from multiple directions, and ranging from the vast to the intimate—hence in part the appeal of what purport to be definitive accounts of “our time” (the unceasing blather about “modernity,” for instance). Notice how these accounts have much in common with End Times discourse deplored by sophisticates. Don’t parrot them. Resist. Mock. Ignore.
It is salutary to consider, now and then, the ways in which our fellow believers—starting with the very first generation of Christians—have jumped to false conclusions about the imminence of Christ’s return and much else besides. We could be nearing the End of History, but maybe not. “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” That caution applies, by implication, to much more than strict chronologies. And yes, of course, it is possible to twist such legitimate caution into an excuse to avoid dealing (for instance) with a clear and present evil, especially when forthright action on our part could be very costly for us!
I remember when I first learned about early Christians who sought to compress the four Gospels into one harmonized narrative. How did they have the effrontery to do that? What possessed them? Later, though, I began to understand. They were disturbed by the messiness. They wanted to tidy up. In different and quite various ways, Christians over the centuries have continued to do that.
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with the writers Daniel W. Taylor and Diane Glancy (both of whom I admire greatly). At one point, we discussed Diane's book Island of the Innocent, a Consideration of the Book of Job—a collection of poems and prose that dramatizes and contemporizes Job's story. Diane said something that has often popped into my head since then:
I’m amazed how often, when I’m writing [about] serious issues, I find myself chuckling about one of the peculiar or particular incidents. . . . Maybe it was because I put a flamingo in [Job’s] yard and picked up a name, Coots Ranch Road, when I was driving up highway 287 toward Amarillo and saw the sign, which I copied down, and when I was writing about Job’s daughters who were killed in the windstorm at their brother’s house (which breaks the heart of Job and his wife)—Behold, Job’s children lived down Coots Ranch Road. I wanted to contemporize the story of Job. I kept thinking, I’m going too far, but I kept going nonetheless.
There was something merry in writing about Job, between the lines of the stuffy part where his friends are arguing with him about suffering (how can we hold back?). There is the uncovering of fundamental questions. Can faith and reason co-exist? Can humor and suffering? Yes, they could. Yes, they can.
This makes me think of the sublime messiness of four Gospels instead of just one. It suggests the uncontainable Reality that we too often try to condense, to make manageable. Diane asks, “Who can read, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ without smiling? Job has just taken three chapters to cover his accomplishments. Now God takes four.”
Yes! I’d want my message in a bottle, written for people completely unknown to me in settings I couldn’t imagine, to have the same spirit that Diane expresses so well. Even the “mundane” happenings of a single day exceed our grasp (see Joyce’s Ulysses), let alone the span of a lifetime.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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