On Tobit, bird poo, and silliness
A couple of years ago I was locking up at St George Tombland when a gentleman shouted “Wait a second!” from the street. I thought there must have been something quite serious indeed to make an Englishman forget to say please, so I opened the gate I had just closed and said, “Can I help you?”
He pushed past me onto the porch and said over his shoulder, “I want to look at the church.” The absence of a second please – not to mention that he was using a declarative form of speech when I really felt an interrogative was called for – did not sit well with me, nor did the fact that I had skipped breakfast and was desperate to get home and eat something. But I smiled through gritted teeth and followed him into the church. “Is this Catholic?” he asked, looking around. I never know how to answer this question. Some people say “No,” presuming that the asker obviously means Roman Catholic. Some people make a distinction between catholic with a small-C and Catholic with a big-C, but I never make this distinction because it's a big-C in The Book of Common Prayer and I feel one really shouldn't argue with The Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes I say something like “Well, as catholic means universal I can say that yes, we are catholic – or strive to be” but I sensed from his brusque manner and unwillingness to say please that maybe he was the kind of person who would not find that particular gem illuminating. So I just answered “Church of England,” which wasn't really an answer to his question at all. “You look Catholic,” he said. Did he mean the church building, or did he mean me, personally? I wasn't quite sure, and was formulating what I hoped would be a witty retort when he said, “Well, it's all silly anyway, isn't it? The Bible, I mean. Do you really believe that nonsense about Adam and Eve? That's silly.”
“I believe that the story of Adam and Eve was given to convey the truth that God created humankind in his image.” I said. “So you don't believe in evolution?” he asked. “Of course I do. One does not exclude the other.” My stomach growled and I hoped he would hear it as some sort of divine confirmation of my words, like the rumbling of Sinai. He gave me a slight “humph” and began walking around the church. Though his back was to me I could sense him rolling his eyes. He seemed most interested in the windows, which I would have thought for the most part are devoid of Biblical silliness, but he seemed to judge all of them – even poor King Edmund – silly indeed. We arrived at the north aisle and he looked up at two rather small windows that are high on the wall and frequently missed due to their position. “What are those about?” “They're Flemish. Seventeenth century, I think,” I responded, which wasn't really an answer to his question at all. “Clearly. But what do they depict?” he said, looking up with a squint. “A couple of scenes from the Book of Tobit,” I replied, hoping he would go no further. He went further. “Tobit? I've never heard of it. Are you sure that's in the Bible? What's it about?” What to say about the Book of Tobit to a man who felt that even tried-and-true, more standard Bible stories were silly? I considered saying something about it being a classic journey tale which touched upon themes of religious identity, healing, and God's providence. Maybe these more sweeping statements would seem somehow less silly and get him to move on so that I could get home and have a Hobnob to calm my reverberating paunch. But I only considered it. Because then I thought, You think the story of Adam and Eve is silly? Just wait. And so I paraphrased the Book of Tobit : “There's this guy named Tobit who went blind because a bird pooed in his eyes. There's also this woman named Sarah who has a demon named Asmodeus who is in love with her and who kills off her seven husbands, one right after another. Tobit remembers that he's left some money somewhere and his son Tobias goes to get it. With his dog. And the angel Raphael. Except Tobias doesn't know it's the angel Raphael, he thinks it's some guy named Azariah. Tobias almost loses his foot to a fish, but Azariah/Raphael tells him to keep some of the bits of the fish, which – of course – he does. On the journey Tobias meets Sarah, falls in love, and decides to marry her even though she doesn't have the best track record, what with seven dead husbands and all. Azariah tells Tobias to burn some of the fish guts and Asmodeus can't stand the smell so the demon skedaddles. (The starry-eyed lovers don't seem to notice the smell of burning fish guts - ahhh young love!) Azariah takes off after Asmodeus – but as Raphael now, not Azariah – and eventually binds him. Everyone is happy that the demon has gone, especially Sarah's parents who – having lived through their daughter's rather rocky marital record – had already dug a grave for Tobias and were glad not to have to use it. A happy ending ensues with the demon bested, Tobias and Sarah happily married, and Tobit getting his money back. And – in the best news since Sarah managed not to kill husband number eight – Tobias and those handy fish guts come to the rescue once again and Tobit gets his sight back after an application where that poo had once done its dastardly work.”
I finished, bracing myself for the eye-rolling, head-shaking, incredulity which was certain to follow. The man looked at me and smiled. “What happened to the dog?” he asked. We both burst out laughing, a loud, joyful sound which reverberated above and around us and sounded to me like a somewhat silly song of angels. I accompanied him out of the church feeling very much like he was an old friend, which struck me at first as a rather silly sentiment, given that I had never met him before and didn't even know his name. And it was a little silly. But then maybe so too is the abundant grace offered us by a God of stories, of bird poo, disguised angels, fish guts, and empty graves.