The Key Story

We were the odd couple, long before the TV program of that name.  Dorm rooms at the small Bible college were assigned alphabetically so Bill V. roomed with Carl W.  Bill had it all: tall, solidly built, good looking, and a great personality.  At the end of freshman orientation, he was the most popular boy and the class vice-president.  If that was not enough, he had a white over blue Chevy Bel Aire 2 door with a 283 V8, and a girl friend at the nearby state university.  He wore his gifts lightly and gracefully – truly a great guy.  We were evangelical Christians who believed that we had been saved by grace from the wages of sin by our personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bill came into our room one evening from a date on the beach with a story of prayer and faith.  When he and his girl got into his car to return to their dorms, he discovered that he had lost his keys on the beach.  Bill knew exactly what to do.  He prayed fervently on his way back to the place where they had sat and talked.  He reached down and, in the dark, picked up his keys.

As a reward for his faith God directed Bill’s hand to those keys.  Bill marveled at the power of prayer to secure to his benefit the blessings of God and gave thanks to Him for interceding in his moment of need.  It was a wonderful story, a proof of Christianity, and a testament to his faith.

By now I had about 12 years of being taught that God would answer prayer and that miracles could and would be granted.  Why, in the immediacy of the moment, did these words pass through my mind: “well, so you found your keys?  What does God have to do with that?  He does not intercede in the small matter of lost keys.  The world does not work that way.”

At this critical moment I should have expressed joy at the power of Bill’s faith and prayer, and the beneficence of God rewarding that faith.  I did not.  I was skeptical.  I chose a mundane mechanical world rather than a miraculous meritorious world.  Why?

I have thought about this over the years and nearly 60 years later I tell my story this way:  Bill had it all, and what Bill was and had was what I did not have – the personality, the car, the girl.  He came into our room claiming that he was also Amadeus – beloved of God.

I chose skepticism to deny him that privilege, to resist his dominance and personal power.  My goal and motivation, not having to acknowledge another dimension of Bill’s superiority – his merit in the eye of God – was only possible by denying his claim of the intervention of God directing his hand to the keys.  My motivation was that I knew or feared that God would not do the same for me.

I was rather farther down the social scale than beta to his alpha but by the time of this story our relationship had developed its basic shape: he had all those gifts, but I wrote better essays and got better grades.  So when he claimed the further gift of Amadeus, I responded by claiming to know more than he did.  I grabbed the first best idea that occurred to me: ‘finding your keys was improbable but not a miracle’ and made it my truth set in opposition to his truth.

Those words passing through my mind simultaneously performed two different functions.  First, I wanted and needed to find Bill to be wrong.   Those words were tools of my motivation.  They performed a function; they did a job for me.  The words said that no miracle had occurred, that God had not intervened in the ordinary operation of the world.  Other people have found keys in unusual situations.  You might not have found your keys. That you did find them was a matter of luck rather than your being beloved of God. I removed Bill from the Clan of Amadeus and at the same time expressed my understanding of the way the world worked.  Same words, two different motives, functions, or jobs.

That might be an overly glib, pop psychology, ex post facto explanation of my reaction to Bill’s story but that’s OK.  Somehow, somewhy, something in Bill’s story provoked or threatened me and I countered by telling an alternative story that would negate his claim of God’s intervention.  “Naw, that’s not how the world works.”  I skepticated.[1]

I look back in time to find the when, where, why or how of my skepticism and, so far as I can recall, I was not taught it.  I was taught to have faith and to believe in miracles.  But there were precursors that I remember clearly.  I was 10 or 11 when I first read of flying saucers, UFO’s, George Adamski’s alien abductions, and Edgar Cayce’s readings.  Those stories were in books in the non-fiction side of the library.[2]  They should be true.  Books should be true unless they are telling fictional stories.  I checked them out, read them, and declared them to be nonsense.  Why would someone write nonsense in a nonfiction book?  I was puzzled by this.

About the same time, I discovered Analog Science Fiction.  John Campbell was at his height as editor of ASF and wrote hard science editorials which I read with as much delight as those wonderful stories of the future.  John began writing about psionics, the Hieronymus machine, and extra-sensory perception, and pressed his writers to base their stories on those ideas.  I thought all this psionics and ESP stuff was quite unlikely and wondered why would John Campbell write both hard science and nonsense?[3]  I was skeptical at a young age.

I was also credulous.  I had been taught that God would intervene in the world in answered prayer.  The request had to be acceptable to Him and made with full faith and intense fervency.  I believed that to be true.  I had faith, or thought I did.

My response to Bill’s key story brought both motives – faith and skepticism – to front and center.  I needed to know more than he did and in the heat of the moment I chose skepticism as the tool to deny his claim of a miracle.  I should have rejoiced at this proof of the power of faith and prayer and a confirmation, a proof, of the TRUTH of Christianity.  Instead I chose a mundane rather than a miraculous world.  In that moment skepticism trumped years of training in credulity.  I learned that I did not have faith.  I had placed my foot on the slippery path to atheism.[4]

Bill told a story of a lost key and the intercession of God in the mundane world.  What are these stories, these collocations of words, where do they come from, and what do they do?

I have some ideas about stories.  They are functional, that is, they perform a job, they are useful. But true?  They are more functional than truthional.  Some fiction mystery stories use the phrase cherché la femme to find the motivation behind the crime.  To understand stories, I should cherché la motif.

In my previous essay I wrote “…my mind operates with a variety of motivations that may be in operation at the same time, may not be consistent and may be in conflict.  Motivations may have different intensities that may change over time.  One may trigger or inhibit another.”  My mind may, and does have, motivational dissonances.[5]

I reach back to my first essay and find this: “my essays are an exploration of ‘who am I’?  How do I construct my mental and emotional world?  How does my life experience transliterate into words?  I write as self-revelation, as archaeology of my mind to create meaning via words.”  I will carry this motivation forward with me.

Afterword

I visited Bill at his parent’s home in the summer of 1963 but lost track of him after that.  I heard through the grapevine that he became an anesthesiologist.  I still admire him.

I enjoyed hard science fiction and had no problem with interstellar empires made possible by faster than light drives and populated with aliens.  But I gagged on ESP and psionics.  I think that the difference was that hard SF was known to be impossible but the impossible made the stories possible.  I enjoyed every adventure.  I could be, in the immediacy of the story, a ray gunning hero or a robot miner on an asteroid or anything in between.  The words extracted me from the mundane and invited me into the fantastic and miraculous.[6]

ESP was presented as a reality.  John claimed that H. sapiens possessed those mental abilities, or at least some adepts did.  J. B. Rhine at Duke University investigated parapsychology and John Campbell presented it and other abilities as factual.  I thought “unuggh, no way, doesn’t happen, and doesn’t make SF stories any better.”  My BS detector ran overtime while reading John’s editorials on ESP.

John Campbell has been described as “…intellectually overwhelming…” and he liked “…exotic and weird…” subjects.[7]   John was an early enthusiast of Dianetics but later abandoned it.  Despite being unusually intelligent he apparently lacked an active and effective BS detector in some areas.  His was a mind of an interesting temper.

And last but not least: science fiction is a literary style in which deus ex machina is the modus vivendi.  In hard SF the miraculous is in the machine.  In psionics and ESP the miraculous is in our minds.  In Christianity the miraculous is in an invisible agent with human-like motivations.  The difference is that science fiction is presented as a good story – have fun reading it.  Christianity is presented as TRUTH.

We like adventure stories.  They take us out of our quotidian world, a world of which we are bored and tired.  For a while we can be a hero.  We also like miraculous stories.  We merit the benefit of a miracle.  We have a much more complex relationship with truth stories.  That is the subject of the next essay.

I repeat one idea: that a collocation of words, a story, may simultaneously be a tool for a motivation and a well-considered statement about the way the world works.  Motivation may be cryptic so I must search it out, uncovering it to daylight, flensing and dissecting it, and studying its anatomy. Cherché la motif – always.

[1] I am not shy about creating neologisms.  I needed to convert “I was skeptical” to active voice and I rather like the new word.

[2] I had been granted the use of the adult side of the library.

[3] I still wonder at his belief in psionics and ESP and his earlier belief in Dianetics.  A powerfully intelligent but credulous and certitudinous mind.

[4] I will tell that story in a stand-alone essay, that is, it will have its own category and will not appear in the Blog category.  But don’t hold your breath for that, there are other essays to write first.

[5] Cognitive dissonance is a useful concept and I simply borrowed dissonance from it to compress the motivation paragraph into one expressive phrase.

[6] Maybe civilization has reduced or nearly eliminated adventure and this loss is keenly felt by some.  It occurs to me that perhaps some computer games provide a heroic adventure much like that of Sci Fi.  Things to think and read about.  Joseph Campbell and his study of myth would be a good source.

[7] James Mahaffey in his book Atomic Adventures p. xxiii.