Friday, October 19, 2007

Reversing roles

I'm not usually narcissistic to the point of taking a photo of myself... with such a preponderance of green hues (the fault of my bathroom lighting) that you might imagine me as a political candidate for an ecological party. To appreciate the trivial anecdote I'm about to relate, you need to imagine me as I was this morning, attired in dusty working clothes, in the process of demolishing my woodshed with a sledgehammer. I stopped for a moment to contemplate the big pile of firewood that my neighbor Gérard Magnat delivered yesterday afternoon.

Up until now, I would have simply tossed the pieces of wood into the adjacent shed, and then stacked them up. But, since I've decided to do away with the woodshed, the task has become more difficult. I have to move all that firewood up into the empty corner of the house. It didn't take me long to decide that the best approach, rather than moving the wood manually in a wheelbarrow, is to wait until my Honda transporter is repaired, some time next week. While these thoughts were going through my mind, Sophia started to bark, and I noticed that an automobile had stopped down below my house. A young man and a woman, carrying briefcases, wandered up the road towards me.

Me: "What brings you up here on this lovely sunny morning?"

Visitor: "We were hoping that you might have a moment to talk with us about the word of God."

Me: "Sure. What faith are you?"

Visitor: "Jehovah's Witnesses."

Me: "That's interesting. I have a lot of ideas about God and Jehovah's Witnesses. Please step over here into the sunshine, because my explanations are lengthy and rather complex. Now, where can I start?"

The two visitors were a little perplexed by my directorial manners, but they stood there silently and listened obediently to my monologue, which lasted for about half an hour. And I talked non-step, with enthusiasm, as if I were a preacher, except that my sermon was an attack upon religion, and a plea for the values of science and atheism. From time to time, the fellow would interrupt me politely, to ask a question. Each time, I would reply calmly, but inevitably in the sense of demonstrating that his questions were uninformed, indeed idiotic. Insofar as my visitors had come to preach to me, we were faced with a delightful case of reversed roles.

Our encounter ended on an amusing note. One of the minor details in my explanations concerned the name of their religious organization. I had drawn their attention to the fact that, as any student of Hebrew knows, the e-o-a vocalization of the Tetragrammaton, as in their silly term "Jehovah", could not possibly be correct, and that a more plausible solution was an a-e vocalization as in the two-syllable pronunciation "Yahveh". Well, this suggestion seemed to trouble them greatly. Funnily, they didn't react upon hearing a pure atheist such as me declaring that the "God delusion" (to borrow the title of the excellent book by Richard Dawkins) was an absurd human invention that did not correspond to cosmic reality. But they were visibly disturbed at the idea that there might be something wrong with the name of their particular branch of Christianity.

Visitor: "Let me ask you a final question. You're familiar with the name John."

Me: "It's my second given name."

Visitor: "You surely don't mind that the French say Jean for John. The Italians say Giovanni, the Greeks say Yannis, the Israelis say something else, and so on. Well, why don't you agree that Jehovah is simply another way of pronouncing Yahveh?"

Me: "I agree with you one-hundred percent. Historically, except for devout Jews, the terms Yahveh and Jehovah have ended up designating, in a perfectly equivalent manner, the mysterious concept of the Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew bible. But, if we agree on that point, then why don't you accept a majority decision and suggest to your superiors that they change the name of your organization to Yahveh's Witnesses?"

They laughed as if I just had just cracked a huge joke, and turned to leave, wishing me well with my task of moving the stack of wood.

Retrospectively, I can say that I surprised even myself (let alone, I suppose, my visitors) by the ease with which I was able to produce such a lengthy impromptu discourse in French, spontaneously and effortlessly, while remaining perfectly calm and friendly, like a polite clergyman. What I'm trying to say is that the amazingly smooth and continuous style in which my lesson unfolded suggests that it probably wasn't as spontaneous as I might have imagined. In other words, my brain is no doubt working constantly, unconsciously, on this kind of discourse. Unbeknown to me, the rhetoric of my Sermon on Mount Gamone had almost certainly been thought out and fine-tuned in advance. If God existed, I would be inclined to agree that He seems to act in mysterious ways.

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