Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lent 03: The Book of the Shepherd

I recently received The Book of the Shepherd by "The Scribe" as part of my participation in the Ooze's Viral Bloggers, so I'm going to make my review of it my Lenten confession of the day.

Given that it's likely scribes who were responsible for editing disparate oral traditions into the various cogent scriptures the major religions of the world currently adhere to, it's appropriate that The Book of the Shepherd has only "the Scribe" listed as its author (though a quick perusal of the copyright information will give you the author's real name). Imagine that someone saw it as their scholarly duty to take all those pithy emails you receive about peace, or love, or spirituality, the ones that often come with a Power Point presentation set to music, and felt that there was  need to amalgamate these into a single, coherent narrative. Now imagine that after they're done, due to the way in which the Internet acts as a disseminator of modern folklore, this book is well received as a book of spiritual guidance. Imagine they've packaged it in a nice little hardback with a cover graphic that makes the slipcase look like vintage leather binding, already letting the reader know that this book contains ancient wisdom (which in this era, email forwards from five years ago are). Imagine this, and you've imagined The Book of the Shepherd.

I like fables. I like parables. I love allegory. None of these are easy to write, contrary to popular opinion. The majority of short didactic narratives are either excessively heavy-handed or cloyingly sentimental. The Book of the Shepherd is the second. It's the result of a trickle-down from the pop-spirituality of the 80s and 90s into the mass-email forwards of the early twentieth century, made into one little book that feels old world, but is so ultimately new world that it fails at having the sort of authority other texts like it do.

Parables and fables work well when they're short. As either of these, The Book of the Shepherd fails by going on too long, giving too much character information. It starts to approach being a modern work of fiction, but because it's trying to hard to be didactic and teach us something, it never achieves the believability or relatability of character modern fiction requires. And we can't call it allegory, because the characters aren't symbolic in the way allegories demand. So I'm not sure what it is. What I do know is that I can't recommend it, for the same reason I wouldn't recommend The Celestine Prophecy.

When I was a minister, I was supposed to tell people to avoid reading The Celestine Prophecy because it was New Age. But that wasn't the reason I'd tell you to avoid reading it. I'd tell you to avoid reading The Celestine Prophecy for the same reason I'd tell you to avoid reading Left Behind or Atlas Shrugged: they're poorly written works of didactic fiction. The Book of the Shepherd is another. Most of the time, when an author tries to hard to tell me how to live, he sacrifices his chance to tell me a decent story in the process. There are exceptions to this, but they are few and far between.

Writers risk us missing their point when they work towards the sort of moral complexity and ambiguity a good story demands. The more simplified the moral strata, the less I can buy in. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains one of the best allegorical pieces of fiction because you can miss the Christian message. It can be appreciated simply as a great piece of children's fiction. I don't have to "get" something out of it to enjoy it. Writing like The Book of the Shepherd is only worth reading if I think it holds the keys to my spiritual well-being. Since its mostly just a collection of bumper-sticker spirituality, I'd recommend anyone interested in this sort of spiritual path to Google Scott Peck or Thomas Moore, read the wikipedia articles on them, and save yourself the bucks. 

I would like to add as a postscript that anyone referring to this book as a fairy tale has no clue what a fairy tale is. I will also recommend a few of my favorite allegories, parables, and fables that have a strong spiritual aspect to them:

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"Barrington Bunny" from The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images by Martin Bell
The Singer by Calvin Miller

On the subject of spiritual reading, I'll close by posting one of my favorite writings The Book of the Shepherd wishes it was in the tradition of: Walter Wangerin's "The Ragman":

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for.
    Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: "Rags!" Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
    "Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!"
"Now this is a wonder," I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
    I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn't disappointed.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
    The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.
   "Give me your rag," he said gently. "and I'll give you another."
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
    Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
    "This is a wonder," I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.
    "Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!"
    In a little while, when the sky showed gray behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
   Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
    "Give me your rag," he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, "and I'll give you mine."
    The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood -- his own!
    "Rags! Rags! I take old rags!" cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
    The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
    "Are you going to work?" he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: "Do you have a job?"
    "Are you crazy?" sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket -- flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
    "So," said the Ragman. "Give me your jacket, and I'll give you mine."
    So much quiet authority in his voice!
    The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman -- and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman's arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
    "Go to work," he said.
    After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
    And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider's legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.
    I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
    The little old Ragman -- he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did --but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
    Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope--because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
    I did not know--how could I know? -- that I slept through Friday and Saturday and its night too.
    But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
    Light--pure, hard, demanding light--slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
    Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: "Dress me."
    He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him.
    The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

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