This post first appeared at The Master’s Artist.
How much does culture – American culture – influence Christianity as practiced in the United States? It’s a fair question, and the answer is likely “a lot more than we realize.” The idea is that Christianity is supposed be salt and light in the culture, but we know from the New Testament and from the history of the church that it too often works the other way.
Benjamin Myers is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. His first book of poems, Elegy for Trains, was published in 2010, and received the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. His poems have been published in such journals as The Chiron Review and Christianity and Literature, and included in several anthologies.
Elegy for Trains is a fine collection, with poems ranging thematically from Shakespeare to seasons, from the writing process to Psalms and Revelations. But Myers also considers this “faith and culture question, and he does so in an interesting poem entitled “Jonah and Pinocchio:”
swimming each an inch
below the surface of my eight-year-old
mind that confused me,
left me standing before the Sunday School class
mute in my corduroy pants,
hair as stiff and slicked as the oil-spill
collected in the rushes along the beach,
trying to remember
what God sent a marionette
to Nineveh and whether the message
was “repent” or “always tell the truth.”
I wasn’t here that often,
and they were waiting
for me to retell the story of the prophet,
but I kept adding donkey ears,
a growing nose,
a blue fairy where there ought to be a storm.
Then the little room itself
rolled around me
like a stomach. The window
on the far wall became a blowhole
through which I was given a vision:
trees in an upward avalanche of green,
each spring leaf like a bird in sudden flight
after the long skin and bones of winter.
And who’s to say I wasn’t right,
that the point of the story might not be
that after this life’s long childhood of wood,
I could awake some clear, cold morning
where the waves wash over the sand
to find I have become a real boy.
Pinocchio – the story of the puppet boy who, through a series of adventures and misadventures, eventually becomes a real boy, first appeared in story form in 1883. But it was Walt Disney who transformed the story into an American cultural icon, with the famous admonition to always tell the truth or your nose will grow.
There is a whale in the story – Monstro, who devours Pinocchio’s father Geppetto. The whale plays a critical role in the climax of the story, when Pinocchio becomes a real boy.
Benjamin Myers rather playfully takes one whale story – Monstro in Pinocchio – and confuses it as a child would confuse it. Asked to tell the story of Jonah and the whale, the child in Myers’ poem conflates the whale of Jonah with the whale of Pinocchio. God sends a marionette to Nineveh, with a message to repent or to tell the truth; the child isn’t sure.
But he plunges onward, “…adding donkey ears/ a growing nose / a blue fairy.” The room becomes the interior of the whale (Pinocchio’s whale), and the child has a vision of “trees in an upward avalanche of green, / each spring leaf like a bird in sudden flight / after the long skin and bones of winter.”
He digs his hole deeper and deeper (you can almost feel the child squirming). And then, right at the end, he realizes that, if they’re not the same story, they actually may have the same outcome. The child speaker of the poem realizes that, like Pinocchio, he may one day become a real boy.
One way to consider the poem, and the boy’s dilemma, is to see his required recitation in the context of both whales – both stories – competing for the telling. He means to tell the faith story, the Jonah story, but it’s the cultural story, the Pinocchio story, that (mostly) comes out. And yet nothing is actually lost, because in this long childhood of wood, the real boy may well emerge.
Culture can be used redemptively, too.
Illustration by Enrico Mazzanti, the first illustrator of Le avventure di Pinocchio (1883).