Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Birds

Someone passed along this meme today, and my immediate reaction was: Try? Try?  There is no 'try'!  Of course, Yoda was in general as full of shit as any Christian teacher.  But certainly this now-proverbial stricture would apply far more to an omnipotent being than to a mere human.  Once again, believers change their claims about their god as expediency requires.

I also remembered an infamous story the notorious right-wing radio commentator Paul Harvey used to tell every Christmas.  Though it is commonly ascribed to Harvey himself, I'm not sure he claimed to have written it.  Back in the 1980s, when I was doing a lot of research on Christianity, I found the same story in Louis Cassel's Christian Primer (Doubleday, 1964), and even there it felt like folklore Cassel was passing along rather than something he'd come up with himself.

But that's just by the way.  Here's the story:
The Man and the Birds by Paul Harvey
The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, warm…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – Adeste Fidelis – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.
And he sank to his knees in the snow.
As a fable of the Incarnation, this tale makes no sense whatever.  For one thing, Yahweh had no need to 'become a bird' to communicate with his creations: he had his prophets (human beings through whom he spoke), his heavenly messengers (the word "angel" comes from a Greek word meaning "messenger"), and for that matter the Bible depicts him addressing people directly as a voice from heaven.  For that matter, Jesus only reached a tiny proportion of humanity while he was, as Christians put it, 'in the flesh': the message of his deity was spread by more human intermediaries.  There's no language barrier between Yahweh and us; the variety of human languages is his own doing in the first place, but should be no impediment to an omniscient omnipotent being.  The New Testament is not all that clear on why Yahweh supposedly took human form, but nothing I can recall suggests anything like this tale as a reason or motive.  The reason popularly given, that Jesus came to earth to die for us and take away our sins, isn't particularly plausible, since if Yahweh wanted to save us from the Hell he himself created, he could have arranged to do so in many other ways.  There's no necessity in the Incarnation, only Yahweh's whim.

Which brings up another flaw in the story: the man is a creature himself, his relation to the birds is not that of creator.  He might even have been rebelling against Yahweh's will in trying to save the birds, none of whom could suffer or die without Yahweh's knowledge and intention. The birds were in danger, not because he wanted or chose for them to be (as is the case with Yahweh), but for reasons unconnected to his will.  His inability to communicate with the birds, however frustrating, couldn't possibly mirror any incapacity of Yahweh's.

I wonder how many unbelievers really reject Christianity -- not "religion" or even belief in a god, since this story is about a doctrine specific to Christianity -- for the reason the man in the story does.  I suppose it's possible that there are people for whom the Incarnation is their sticking point, but I've never heard of any.  It never has been an objection of mine.  Long before I thought about Christian doctrine, I'd read Greek and Roman mythology, which is full of sons of gods, and demigods; as a matter of principle or narrative plausibility it made perfect sense to me.  I suspect that it's a factor in Cassel / Harvey's story not because it's a real issue for anyone, but because it makes a nice frame for a sentimental fable: it's an effect of the story, not a cause of unbelief.  And if unbelievers are unmoved by the tale, that's an indication of their stiff-necked refusal to believe, not of any weakness in the story. 

While looking for the text of the fable online, I stumbled on this revision of the story with a more accurate ending.  Certainly no one telling such a story should be allowed to overlook this dimension of Christian faith and the "loving Heavenly Father" it worships.  (The comments, alas, show that unbelievers are not morally superior to believers in their views of humanity.)

Believers get impatient if you don't immediately fall on your knees in the snow when they tell you stories like this.  (Hey, it worked for Paul Harvey!)  They'll tell you that you should only believe if it makes sense to you, but when it doesn't, they just demand that you have faith.  Faith in what?