I have a soft spot for the movie Cars. I know that when people rank Pixar movies, it generally ends up on the bottom; although, given that this is Pixar we’re talking about, their worst movie is still better than 90% of what’s out there. I like the plot, and I like the message, but besides that there is one simple moment early on that stands out to me. It’s when Mack is driving down the Interstate in the evening. I remember watching that in the theater, and I had this little sting of recognition.
Cause I grew up going on a road trip every summer, to visit family. In the evenings, as the sun is almost level with the ground, the light has this certain quality that makes the air itself shine like water, and it can be found nowhere else and at no other time. You never see it in movies or on television because of where they’re made. Hollywood is by the coast, and if things aren’t shot there, then they’re in mountains and/or cities. Nobody films the Great Plains, and certainly not on the Interstate. And thus only those who’ve lived there, who’ve driven through there, who’ve ridden the highways in the summer twilight know of that pale dusk shine.
When I saw that scene, I knew at once that I shared something with the artists who’d done the light.
A lot of times our entertainment is about places we’ve never been, people we’ve never met, things we’ve never seen. We like the new and the unusual. We like to be surprised. Here I am with all my fantasy and sci-fi, diving into bizarre new places with every book. And I’m used to watching TV and movies that have no relation to my own life. I’m not talking Star Trek, either: Leverage is about a gang of criminals-gone-good in modern-day Boston. Not a whole lot in common with my life, and I love it. But then there’s this moment, this scene, this person, this line that comes up and it strikes a chord. I know that place. I’ve been there, I’ve seen that. Whoever put that up there knows something I know, and understands.
There are themes that everyone shares, and subjects everyone knows. Run through the list of major emotions: love, anger, fear, joy, and the rest. We’ve all had parents. We all know about awkwardness, and lonliness, and frustration. We’re all passionate about something or someone. If you’ve seen the movie Babies, you know how a one-year-old in Namibia can be wearing the exact same expression as a one-year-old in Tokyo. Stories told around the world share archetypes because there are things we all share. We’ve all stood there, so we know.
But what if you haven’t stood there?
Ten years ago now, I witnessed a bunch of fellow choir members experience the ocean for the first time. Because North America is huge. If you’re born in the middle of it, it’s easy to live for twenty years and never see the coast. I remember one of the tenors speaking about it afterwards in tones of utter awe. He who had lived beneath the endless sky had never imagined the breadth of endless water. Until that moment, he had never stood there, and therefore not only had he not known, he couldn’t know.
It’s possible to imagine the ocean. It’s possible to create worlds you’ve never seen and pull yourself into them so far that when you relate it, it’s as if you’ve stood there. It takes a lot of effort. But if that world exists, and you can get there, why not go? Why not stand in that place? Why not learn for yourself, firsthand? And then you can speak with authority, because you’ve been there and you know.
There’s this band called Remedy Drive, and there’s this song on their album Daylight is Coming called “Get to Know You.” It’s not their best, but it’s point is solid. It says that you can read all you can about a thing (in this case, God himself), and study and research and all the rest, but until you have been in its presence, you are lacking. It applies to anything: you can be the foremost expert on pipe organs, but until you’ve played one, how can you know it? Until you’ve been to New York, how can you know it? Until you’ve been on I-80 at sunset, how can you know how the light is? All you have is second hand, and if it’s trustworthy it’s still incomplete. You have not stood there. You can’t know.
This isn’t about identity. A person can be a Chicagoan and not know Chicago. All they have to do is not be there much, physically or mentally. We can be a card-carrying member and not have a clue what membership means. By adoption, displacement, ignorance, or apathy, we can belong to something and not understand it. The first two are (probably) not our fault. The second two, not so much. Not if we have time.
But what if we believe in a thing, but it’s unknowable? What if we want to stand somewhere, and can’t? What if everything’s a mirror because we can’t see the image?
Well, everything’s an image, in a way. We’re cut off by the fact that we’re, y’know, finite and mortal. But we can get close. There are places, things, moments that are points of contact. I was a few years late to meet C.S. Lewis, but I can read his books and I can read the books that inspired him. I can go to where he lived, and see a little bit what he saw, maybe even talk to people who knew him. It’s not as close as I might like, but it is closer than hearsay. I can’t know, but I can imagine.
The God of Heaven and Earth is strange to us, but he made ways to meet him. I can’t point to any one as the one that will get the closest. But they fall in three categories, each one essential: Creation, which he made; Scripture, which he wrote; and Prayer/Meditation, where he speaks. Creation isn’t just science and nature, but people and fellowship as well. Scripture, all of it, is not only to be read but studied, chewed on, interrogated, and dug through. And Prayer? I’ve learned that there are days where I’ve got to say everything, and days where I just need to sit, and listen. What others have said and done about God can throw new light and understanding on these three things, but there are so many who use them to dance around the edges. We’re too quick to take the travelogue over the trip and the rumor over the news. We hear about oceans but never go and see. God meets us at these three points, and so often we don’t meet him back.
Someday we won’t need these three points. We won’t need the veil between us. The contact will be full and direct, we will stand where we’ve so far only read about and imagined and faintly glimpsed, and then we will truly know.
These three things are the points of contact for every believer. They are also the points of contact for anybody, anywhere, regardless of who and what they are, who want to understand. They are the reason that people from wildly different worlds can find kinship. They are the reason we can recognize moments in a drastically different life. They’ve read what I’ve read, and I’ve felt what they’ve felt, and we have all stood in the same place, and maybe, just a little bit, we have all begun to know.