Over And Over Again
Listen to “Over and Over Again” By Fred Smith
A favorite illustration was debunked last week. For years, I have used the image of the grain of sand in the oyster being the source of the pearl. It’s not true and I will miss it! Oysters and other mollusks thrive in the shallows and if a pearl were formed each time a grain of sand slipped through, pearls would not be the rare and prized gems they are today. Instead, because oysters feed by filtering through their gills as much as 50 gallons of water per day they are constantly cleaning their soft tissues of sand and other irritants by secreting a fluid that collects and disposes of particles. It is not impossible but extremely rare that a grain of sand ever becomes a pearl. But sometimes, just every so often, a truly aggressive and persistent irritant like a worm or parasite manages to bore through the shell and wedge itself deep within the organs and soft tissues of a mollusk. Only then does the oyster begin secreting that precious covering that can take up to forty years to produce a pearl. It is not what comes naturally in the front door that produces the seed of a pearl but only what has the resolve to puncture the shell and remain.
It was during a Mockingbird conference last weekend when I started thinking about oysters, artists, and pearls.
Mockingbird is that rare conference whose founder and director, David Zahl, decided to impress one essential message on the participants over and over again. They set about to persist and in time pierce the hard shell that had built up around young people who had been burned by the church. There is but one theme and they repeat it every year. “Behind our entire project lies the conviction that none of us ever move beyond our need to hear the basic good news of God’s Grace. In particular, none of us ever fully escape the gravitational pull of personal control (and anxiety) when it comes to life and how we live it. Hence the name “Mockingbird,” which refers to the curious characteristic of the bird itself: to repeat the message it has heard, over and over again. Our basic approach has not changed.”
During conferences, we are constantly sifting material. Some we keep while most are discharged right away. Others we intentionally store in a notebook or pad to use later ourselves as a small pearl of insight. In fact, many of us have become artists with pearls produced by others. We string together quotes and gems we have read or heard. We lean on their value and recognition either to impress an audience with how much we have filtered or because, unfortunately, we have yet to develop confidence in our own ideas. It is much easier to offer up an elegant string of acquired pearls than producing our own. Liberally quoting Buechner, Berry, and Brooks to make a point works but it is a short cut. We become curators of the creativity of others.
I went to school in a time that valued citations and footnotes – not so much original thought. If you have read any rabbinic literature you will see the same pattern. Everything is prefaced with “in the words of” and it is considered presumptuous to offer a new interpretation without the validation of others. I learned this the hard way (and in good conscience cannot recommend it) but over time figured out how to game the system. If I had something to say for which I did not have another source, I would make it up and create a footnote. Knowing the professor was far more likely to give credence to a “published” author than a student, I also knew the busy teaching assistant was not likely to check the source. Inventing authorities became a creative sport. Sort of reverse plagiarism.
I am encouraged by seeing a reversal of what I experienced in college. Audiences want to believe the speaker is doing more than stringing pearls. They are looking for, to borrow from the Gospel of Matthew, one who teaches as one who has authority and not as one of their scribes. My professors wanted scribes and this generation wants originality. My professors wanted strings of pearls produced by others but Mockingbird people value resources doing the harder work of creating. What I heard last weekend made me realize Mockingbird participants do not value prolific quotes and footnotes as much as they do someone speaking with the authority that comes from confidence and reflection.
Mockingbird in its own way is becoming a unique oyster. It will take time – maybe decades – but it is producing a pearl of great value by holding to the repetition of the message over and over again while not being distracted by other themes that come and go with the tides.
*Artwork is titled “The Preacher” by George Gittoes