Valuing what our critics say, however hard it may be

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I bought my wife a color Nook for her birthday. She really loves it.

A Nook is like a Kindle. If both those words have no meaning for you, let me help. They're electronic devices on which you can read books. You can download a whole bunch of older books on these gizmos for free and you can buy newer titles that come right up on the screen. The bottom line is: With a Nook (or a Kindle), you need never buy or borrow a book again that you have to hold in your hands and turn the pages.

Well, I like to turn the pages. For years, I have depended on my wife to read a novel she's bought or borrowed, then pass it onto me for me to read. But none of us in our home is allowed to touch her Nook. The Nook has become a sacred object. It is the "third rail" of our home. Just like Social Security. You know, touch it and you die.

Ergo, for the first time in many years, I must scrounge for my own discretionary reading. Lately, in my solitary search for material I've come across the short stories of Mark Twain. I've been reading stories such as "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and "The Mysterious Stranger," the latter of which was published six years after Twain's death in 1910.

Twain led an eclectic life. He fell into writing after working as a steamboat pilot and unsuccessfully trying out silver mining with his older brother. He produced millions of words in books, short stories, magazine articles and newspaper opinion pieces. He became a celebrated humorist and popular speaker. He was also notoriously poor with money and went bankrupt later in life. His wife predeceased him and so did two of his three children. All of this plus the necessity of writing near the end of his life in order to pay bills (he was usually in debt to someone), led to increasing dissatisfaction. Part of Twain's end-of-life bitterness was unleashed on the organized church. Here is a small sample of the great writer's vitriol from his posthumously published autobiography: "Ours is a terrible religion."

My religious denomination is divided into conferences and further subdivided into districts. Here in Missouri one of our districts is the Mark Twain District. Interesting to name a church district after a celebrity who, at the close of his days, had little good to say about the church. Twain, however, is proof positive that we should always try to listen to the critics -- even if their words make bile rise in our throats and give us headaches. There is usually something of a kernel of truth in their litany of complaint worth hearing.

Twain, in his last published short story, wrote some good words about what he called the "moral sense" of human beings. The old riverman wrote that humans alone have "the faculty that enables us to distinguish between good and evil ... the one thing that lifts [him] above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to Immortality."

As I read Twain's words it reminded me of a scene from the 1960 motion picture "Inherit the Wind." Actor Spencer Tracy played Henry Drummond, the wily defense attorney and religious agnostic who asks, "What other benefit have [human beings] but the ability to think? The horse is stronger and swifter, the butterfly is more beautiful, even the simple sponge is more durable!"

Yes, our critics can have words worth hearing -- if you can swallow your bile and defeat the headache that often accompanies their speech.

Excuse me, now. Mr. Twain is calling and I must get back to turning the pages.

A meaningful Holy Week to you all.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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