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The Charlotte Observer

Telling the American Story

Mark Twain Saw The Need To Look Beyond The Imperial Robes

Mike Warner

I have a weakness for the intersection between our living and our believing, which draws me to religious news. I find a compelling message in these stories, and an even more compelling one in our telling of these stories.

For example, we recently learned that 30 percent of our Republican presidential candidates don't believe in evolution. The "story" solidified their credentials as Christian rightists. The "telling" calls into question whether they immunize their children, and rely on prayer when the brakes on their cars need an overhaul.

In Kentucky, a creation museum just opened, explaining how dinosaurs lived as vegans in the Garden of Eden. Its story hails the museum as "a wonderful alternative to the evolutionary natural history museums that are turning countless minds against the gospel of Christ and the authority of the Scripture." The telling makes me wonder if one of the exhibits will offer an alternative theory to the notion that the sun rises in the east.

Falwell v. Hitchens

This friction was especially apparent a month ago, when in the same week the Rev. Jerry Falwell died and Christopher Hitchens' book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" sat atop the New York Times bestseller list. While Falwell and Hitchens live in different intellectual cul-de-sacs, they share the characteristic of stifled imaginations.

Falwell's story presented us with a muscular Christianity that derived as much from U.S. foreign policy as from the Gospels. Robert Lipsyte, former sportswriter for the New York Times, notes that Falwell made a direct connection between the gridiron and God: Falwell "hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national [football] championship, thus informing the nation that `the Christians are here, we're not meek and we're not going to fall down in front of you. We're here to stay.' "

The telling: blessed are the linebackers, for they shall inherit the earth.

Tirade of a tyrant prince

Hitchens, the atheist, proclaims his faith through a list of the accomplishments of reason and science, noble accomplishments that justify the imposition of his atheocratic story. His ad hominem attacks on Gandhi and Martin Luther King give us a hint of the tone of his realm. His story is that of a philosopher king, but his telling is the tirade of a tyrant prince.

Their stories called me to Mark Twain, our first great debunker of royal and scriptural story, who excelled in revealing the truth in the telling. He picked up on a literary tradition that had grown from the Declaration of Independence through Emerson and the Gettysburg Address; a tradition that suggested individuals were smart enough to make intelligent decisions, both public and private.


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Twain wrote about a people who might run their own country, without king or pope. A radical thought then and perhaps more radical today. In light of our contemporary national story, it may be appropriate to review Chapter 14 of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

In this scene, Twain dares to put real people into the American Experiment in a way that was unprecedented in our literature.

Huck and Jim get to talking about kings. Jim knows of Solomon, and argues that, contrary to received wisdom -- the story -- Solomon is demonstrably not the wisest of men. First, he's got too many wives -- only a fool would want to live with that much "blim-blammin' " all the time. Second, only the village idiot would settle a dispute over a child by cutting the child in half, when even the most perfunctory wandering around the neighborhood would uncover whose child it was. Third, Solomon has no sense of real value. A man with one or two children won't be wasteful of children; a man with 5 million children can't be trusted to reach a sound judgment regarding the value of a single child.

Knocking aside the king

Within the space of six paragraphs, Twain's slave character sees through the story to the telling. Twain describes a serf who knocks the king from his throne, undermines arguments for inherited privilege and questions the inerrancy of the Bible. All the while making you laugh so hard you may not notice the revolutionary American scene in front of you.

Neither Hitchens nor Falwell can grasp either this depth or this nuance (I won't even touch on their joylessness). They both mirror two poverties of our age: a fatal failure of imagination and a national ethic of passive subservience to the monarchy's story.

Faulkner argued that "Mark Twain is all of our grandfather," but when we don't show the courage or the curiosity to look past the clothing of the emperor's story -- cakewalk, claims of a bankrupt Social Security, Medicare "reform", enhanced interrogation techniques -- we have renounced our grandfather's proud legacy.

The telling of the emperor's story doesn't only explain the storyteller; it exposes the audience that accepts the story. I don't know that Mark Twain would recognize that audience.

Mike Warner ( works at Davidson College.

© 2007 The Charlotte Observer

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