I suppose epiphanies are not meant to be calculated or predictable. They happen unexpectedly, when attention is scarce and apathy or carelessness roams freely in the heart, mind, and body.
They happen when you’re mentally humming the incomparable “Samus Finds an Item” Fanfare…
….in your head and Dr. Bonner is about to unleash a Screw Attack of his own.
An event happened to me that day, and I’ve never forgotten it. It started with a simple, seemingly innocuous question to my elder:
“So, Dr. Bonner, I was readin’ in The Grapes of Wrath how bad things got during the Depression. I know it caused a lot of poverty for so many people. Can you tell me of how things were for you and your family? Did it get really hard to live? Did the New Deal and TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) help y’all out a lot?”
Dr. Bonner adjusted himself, leaned forward, furrowed his brow, pursed his lips, and looked at me intently.
“Son, we were po’ [poor] before the Depression. We was po’ during the Depression. And we were po’ after the Depression. Maybe things happened that way for some white folks, but not for us.”
I was sixteen and dumb. I was sixteen and a nerd. I was sixteen, but my sensitive, sentimental side–how you’ve helped and harmed me!–opened me up to the magnitude of Dr. Bonner’s statement. His statement imploded my approach to Steinbeck and the Great Depression. His statement destroyed my existential Varia Suit, Charge Beam, Speed Boots, and Morph Ball.
In the words of Mortal Kombat: Flawless Victory.
Immediately, I knew his words went beyond The Grapes of Wrath. However, it wasn’t ’til my PhD program that I was finally able to submerge myself in the fathomless depths of the spiritual energy unleashed by Dr. Bonner.
Dr. Bonner told me to “Stay Woke” before that became a thing.
But at sixteen, I didn’t understand that certain things are not to meant be grasped by us. We are meant to be grasped by certain things . Luckily, I wasn’t so self-absorbed that I couldn’t be shaken out of my distraction.
My distraction while driving and my inability to consider or remember other narratives blinded me to other aspects of the Great Depression. No matter how illustrious The Grapes of Wrath was and remains, it could not and did not capture the entire spectrum during that period of American history… Because there were those who were already depressed before, during, and after the Great Depression, including white folks.
(Remember, Doctor Bonner said that “some white folks” were helped—not all.There were some white and black folks who stayed poor and were not helped by the New Deal, yet black folks were disproportionately affected by poverty.)
My elder has since long passed, but his salient, gruff words endure unto this very moment. The ancestors speak, y’all. Listen!
After years of meditation and critical reflection on this mundane moment–that opened up the extraordinary yet throttled me back to the mundane–I learned something about idols.
The first thing I learned was that many idols–like metroids–start small. They start from distraction. They start when our gaze is focused on trying to make it out of first gear, when we wonder if getting home will be as troublesome as making it to our destination, and when the important things of life become secondary to cartridges and six button controllers. Distraction can lead us to ignore conversations, experiences, narratives, and epistemologies (the way we come to know and how we experience the world) that differ from ours. Distractions can make us forget what we already knew. Distractions keep us from realizing that we have made something ultimate to us. And ultimacy places us in the realm of spirituality. The things we ultimately value shape our daily interactions with and perceptions of both the mundane and extraordinary.
However, was it really only distraction that made me forget something I already knew?
The second thing I learned is that idolatry can also occur when ultimate value is based upon the rejection of complexity. The value I placed in Steinbeck’s prose allowed the novel to become, for a moment, an ironclad narrative that escaped the interplay and recognition of contingency and necessity; race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; space and time, the mundane and extraordinary… Steinbeck didn’t intend for the story to be used that way, but the reader often has just as much if not more power than the author and the book when it comes to meaning-making.
In essence, I tried to force Dr. Bonner in my singular narrative. And that narrative, borne of distraction and fueled by a disregard of complexity, became idolatrous and colonizing. I claimed Dr. Bonner for Steinbeck.
This point is not simply confined to theology. Any perspective can become idolatrous and tyrannical, even when unintended. Any perspective can seek to become what Jon Sobrino calls “theologal” or ultimate. Whether one believes in God or not, we do find ourselves trying to figure out what is ultimate to us. But no matter how ironclad and pristine in logic and appearance–our narratives, performances, theologies, politics, and scientific inquiries–including this blog and my ramblings–are still piecemeal. “Piecemeal” doesn’t mean “invalid” or “completely relative” or an unassailable “part” of an “absolute” whole.
When I drove home after my interview with Dr. Bonner, I only choked out once. However, my mind was filled with new thoughts, and suddenly shifting gears did not seem so grand of a problem. There were larger problems out there, and I was slowly awakening to them. Steinbeck helped me see them, but he was not enough. Dr. Bonner helped me see them, but I soon realized I couldn’t stop with him, nor did Dr. Bonner want me to stop with him…
It was going to be an infinite struggle to not turn good (and horrible) stories into idols.
Faith, Hope, and Love… And Screw Attacks…
© 2012-2016 The Sci-Fi Theologian