Surprised by Truth
By Marvin Payne
From my journal, 23 September 1984″
On a warm day in Chile [cultural exchange a year earlier] we sat on the bank of the wide Bo-Bo River with our gracious hosts. In a nearby bowery, a family of poor peasants labored over a hot fire preparing our dinner. As we waited, our hosts asked me for a song. I was well-dressed for a country excursion, the visiting dignitary, trained and experienced as a performer. I took my fine instrument from its tweed case and performed. Then they served us, and after a few moments called an old woman out of the smoky bowery. She wiped her rough hands on her skirt and picked up a battered old guitar that I’m sure never saw the inside of a case. She shook back her greying hair, smiled gently, showing that many teeth were gone, strummed a few chords, and, standing there in simple elegance, began to sing. I’ve never heard singing like that. It sounded like a chicken being mechanically de-boned while still alive.
Now that’s not how you expected that story to end, is it? That’s because of the too many times you have heard the poem “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” read in church. It’s a wonderful poem, but no matter how much you batter an old violin, it will never quite be an onion ring.
Now that’s not how you expected that sentence to end, is it? That’s because you approached the word “batter” with certain assumptions about its meaning. Put on a skullcap with a piece of cardboard sticking laterally and pull up some funny calf-length pants over a pair of socks and gaiters, slip your feet into some soft shoes with tiny steel stilts and “batter” will mean yet something else.
Earlier, you expected that earth-worn sister of the soil in Chile to make a whole ‘nuther music, a music unpretentious and pithy and poignant and pure that would chasten, humble, and refine the smarty-pants pro from the urbane profane North. That’s the way Hollywood would write it, when they’re not on strike. Or whoever wrote the violin poem, who is not on strike, but dead. The “sudden awareness of incongruence” between your expectation and, in this instance, the truth, is what made you laugh most of your brains out back there. (I did, can you tell?)
(Don’t reach for the dustpan – you can handily negotiate the remainder of this column with whatever you have left. If you didn’t laugh out any portion of your brains at all back there, you have so much the advantage in the world to come. The thing is, with all your brains intact, you might find the remainder of this column puerile. ((“Puerile” is a derivative of the Latin “puer,” meaning “boy.” You will not, with even more brains than usual, find the remainder of this column “puellile,” because girls (((“puellae”))) have always been assumed to be better columnists than boys, even in ancient Rome.* In the remainder of this column, as we challenge many of the assumptions that bend our expectations of how the world should be, we may not get around to that one. Sorry.)) )
((*See my column on the ghostwriting genius of Meridian Editor Kathy Kidd.))
One of the most refreshing, if unsettling, experiences we can have in life is to be “surprised by truth.” I put that in quotations because it makes it more important, like in the billboard that says “Bill’s Plumbing, the ‘ (It’s ironic that in illustrating the functions of the quotation mark I am compelled by our assumptions of what is correct in language usage to substitute an apostrophe for quotation marks ((they are always plural)), but we are a people who understands and even preaches the virtue of work by proxy – in fact, as I told a temple worker about thirty-five years ago, when the Provo Temple was filled with plastic flowers ((well, not exactly “filled” – I mean, there was still room for people and pews and stuff)), I found it ironic ((that word again)) that there, in a place where the living serve as proxies for the dead, we should find dead flowers serving as proxy for the living – effectively, though) Best’ Plumbing in American Fork (I seem to remember another sign out on State Street saying “Welcome to American Fork, the Hub of the American Fork Area,” but no quotations, probably because who in the world would say such a thing, and, if they did, who would dare quote them?) or in how a missionary associate of mine was named Reo “J” Criddle.
One of the most satisfying movies I ever watched was “Tender Mercies.” (I don’t even know why that’s in quotation marks – Wait, wait, it’s a quotation from scripture! Yes! So why is “Sweeney Todd” in quotations? We’ll address this in a later column. Much later.) The writer, Horton Foote, ended scene after scene in the most surprising way, always different than we expected. He ended each scene the way it would have ended in real life – he ended each scene with the truth. We had assumed that, with a full budget and with Robert Duval and Tess Harper, he would end the scenes dramatically, conflictually, resolvely, eloquently. The surprise, and satisfaction, was the sudden revelation that the truth was more eloquent than the artifice we had come to expect. (At the end of each scene, upon asking myself “Wait, what’s wrong with that ending?” I knew the answer was “Oh, yeah, what’s wrong with it is that it’s right!” The scary part was that I knew I’d have written it the Hollywood way, with all wrong endings.
I have to cite, as well, the stunning moment in “Galaxy Quest” when the ship’s self-destruct mechanism timer stops at 00:01 for no reason other than the ineluctable constraints of truth. All self-destruct timers stop at 00:01. It’s the truth about self-destruct timers. We may assume they won’t, but they always will.
So what assumptions are we challenging, here, anyway? Well, it’s a religious magazine, so let’s challenge some deep-seated religious assumptions. Like, newly sustained Presidents of the Church don’t wiggle their ears in General Conference. But all the brethren who attended the General Priesthood Session of the most recent conference (heartfelt and compassionate vicarious apologies to those who attended via audio feed only) were “surprised by truth” when he did – maybe an inch, even.
(SIsters, this is kind of tough luck on you. Many of you have wondered what “especially for priesthood holders” ((Do I hear the “ka-ching!” of a strong commercial opportunity in this phrase?)) things happen in the Priesthood Sessions of General Conference, or, as we priesthood holders say, in the PS of GC. The brethren in your families typically guard this knowledge jealously, often insisting that during the post-session ice cream outing they forgot it. So you seethe with (in?) curiosity. Then, a few weeks later when the conference Ensign comes in the mail, you read all the talks and say “Hey, I know this stuff. This is the kind of stuff I read in the Ensign.” What you don’t know, of course, is the degree to which the talks from that particular session have been edited. Plain and precious things. I can’t say anymore, or I’d have to kill you.)
I loved this conference. Elder Holland shattered the assumptions of the entire Christian world as though the shattering of the assumptions of the entire Christian world was going out of style. I write “as though” (in quotations because I’m quoting myself – see previous sentence) because in the conference before this one he already shattered the assumptions of the entire Christian world (different assumptions) as though the shattering of the assumptions of the entire Christian world was going out of style – which it obviously isn’t. Because they (we, everybody) have too many assumptions for us to allow shattering them to go out of style. I proceed, then, stylishly.
Sometimes “the way things really are” (in quotations because I’m quoting Elder N. A. Maxwell) are surprisingly eloquent because they’re less than what we expected, in terms of drama, or volume, or revolutionary significance. Sometimes they are more.
We know that the boy Joseph went to the grove expecting a sure answer. But what was the question? Wasn’t it “Where shall I go to church next Sunday, and the Sundays thereafter?” Wouldn’t a still, small whisper of “the one on Palmyra Avenue and Elm” have profoundly fulfilled his highest expectations? Would “surprised” be an apt word to capture how he did battle with the Prince of Darkness, conversed with the Creator of the Universe, and heard the Father of Light speak his name?
I honestly don’t know what folks are talking about when they say “the calm assurance of the Spirit.” Every time the Holy Ghost has touched me, the stirrings and whooshings have been anything but calm. And almost always assumption-shattering. And always a surprise. (Someday I will receive a calm assurance from the Spirit, and it will be, of course, a surprise.)
I loved this conference, the first to broadcast with real-time translation into Apache. When it came to a close, I thought “I don’t want this day to end, in any language.” So, in the spirit of matching works to faith, I didn’t end it. I had an audio-novel production deadline hanging over me, very much like a cow caked in what appeared very much like, oh, shall we say, “mire” (a religious book, mind you – Joseph Smith loses a lot of his leg bone in it – it’s “Pre-Restoration” – thank you, President Uchtdorf, for providing me with a German accent I could use as the wise and kindly retired clergyman seeker of truth – thank you, Sister Tanner, for the vulnerable, yet nurturing and strong timbre of the vulnerable, yet nurturing and strong heroine) and so I disappeared into the studio downstairs and emerged again an hour before Family Home Evening was to have started, had I been functional, which is a word I can’t even pronounce after a 27-hour recording session. (That was yesterday – I have napped.) The sacred and happy day never having ended, I can still hear the Tabernacle Choir (is Mack Wilberg the best thing ever to happen to the Tabernacle Choir, or what? I was deeply thrilled to sustain the Prophet, his astoundingly good and real Counselors, and the Director of the Tabernacle Choir!) in my head.
At least, I think that’s what I hear in my head. It’s nnice. Prity. It”s a lidttle blurrrry. Mmaybe if I keeeeepp tttttyping, the mmmmmmmusic willbeccccccccome ccleeeeeeeeeearer, s I, um, wearrrrrrrrouttfmmmy, oh, fffingersinthe servvvicciccccccccccc ooooooooffdd mmmmmmyh fffellllllllifiiiooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwww sssaainnnnnnadtsszxzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…………………..
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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