Credible Faith

The Fancies of John and Mark

The tales of John, Mark, and Rome

Text Publication: December 2013

Author(s): Paul Larson

It is a lesson of Proverbs that what you own owns you. A high gate is erected to protect abundant wealth, but even its lofty tips cannot stop the thief from stealing away with the contentment of those who have no need to guard what others do not want. The pauper is thus more endowed than the wealthy. This does not stop him from peering above those walls in wistful longing for a life of luxury. The poor man ignores his own treasure in the desire for that of another. A rich man is beset by the worries of protecting that which even he himself does not often enjoy.

The situation was at least partially described in Mr. Twain's excellent story of two boys, a pauper and a prince, each of whom looked with longing at the other's place in life until a strange of turn of events reversed their roles. A boy unaccustomed to manners of monarchs is mistaken for a prince. A prince comfortable in the accoutrements of a court is unwittingly cast off for a commoner. Each comes to realize what experience often proves and otherwise astute men sometimes ignore. Satisfaction is not only the sum of one's situation in life. Each of the two boys was blind to, or maybe worse, dismissed, some of the riches of his former station.

The experience of two boys might teach a generation the rudiments of riches were there sufficient interest. But if the prince were to hold a banquet, inviting all and selecting those whose cuisine was fit for a king's table to attend, still there would be the chaotic clambering of kitchens in hopes of sharing the audience of a future king. What shall be made? Who knows the tastes of the prince? What pleasures await the best cooks! It is of course true that there is much to be done if a commoner gets to share a table with a future king only if his cooking is adequate to the taste of the Lord of the banquet. Who knows how delicate or refined might be the palate of a palace. If there is only one audience with royalty, a single audition to sit before succulence, it might seem somewhat foolish not to pass the time in unrelenting study of the finer aspects of cookery in hope that practice precipitates a perfection suitable to a king's table.

This is an uncertain business, and honesty must admit that even the more promising entrays of our masters of meals might seem like palid productions to the ever discerning taste of a courtly cuisinier. The prince offers a few a share in the resources of royalty, but imposes a tax on the peace of the home. Simple meals with thanks and thrift recede into uncertain hope and prodigal preparations of plates. The peasants yet look longingly over the tops of towering gates. The situation might change if the prince's foray into poverty elicited an esteem of his riches so high as to have them shared: Let it be known among the nervous cadre of common cooks that their spot at the table is assured, good food or bad, or even should they bring no food at all. With this, a sigh of relief might interrupt the slavish search to sift what might and might not be worthy of the king's table, leaving only the question what is to be done with freedom. A baker decides that he shall bring the simple bread and butter that the love in his home had made so delicious for years on end. Certain that her children have had the privilege of enjoying what the delicacy of the king's table would not allow, a mother brings her special soup that they so love. A craftsman knows not the first things of preparing a meal, but decides that the likes of carven figurines adorning his hearth might unjustly have never crossed the threshhold of a palace. And on it goes, until the banquet is as far more varied and meaningful to the guests (and the prince!) than it ever would have been without the royal missive.

The changed prince has changed more than his banquet, though. He has changed the kitchens of his guests. Gone is the gloom of fearful preparation for an audition with a monarch. There is laughter at the stoves. There are songs at the sinks. There audition is no more. There is only the banquet, and the bubbling bustle of excited anticipation. Only a single message, and joy conquers the spirit of an entire kingdom. The woodcutter will not hear the chef tell of an exclusive audience with a prince. All will be there, and not for their skills in cooking.

Mr. Twain's story is the product of imagination, but the same is true of its author. Mr. Twain created a prince, and a prince created Mr. Twain. Such at least is the opinion of St. John, who managed to think that all things, including our own Mr. Twain, were made through what John called the Word. Without the Word nothing was made that has been made. It is just as true of us as it is true of Twains' prince. Through the word, the prince and pauper made their way into the consciousness of English literature, and only by the Word do the creators of that literature exist. Even our postulated prince proclaiming the banquet open to all shows the power to call forth life from the abyss. The missing merriment emerges from nothing, and just by a simple decree.

The disappointment of our supposed banquet, and the failing of most modern literature, is that the world does not read our stories. With a word, we can create a king whose touch turns trees to gold, but the oak obstinately opts for leaves of green and bark of brown. Pages tell of flying horses and talking dogs, but the elfin hurdles of equestrian games and the excited babel of barking go on. It seems that the market for our books, the realm in which our imagination can make princes out of paupers and parleying partners from pets, is amongst ourselves. The world does not listen to us, but we do. This bodes ill for Mr. Twain and his audience. He could remedy the plight of a pauper by the turn of a story. The story of a real pauper turns nowhere. He is stuck. And so it is with much of the world's ills.

Such fatalism is not exclusive to our own time. In Saint John's story, the one whom he calls the Word is known by another name. Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the one about whom Moses and prophets wrote, exhorting him to come and see. On hearing that the man is from Nazareth, Nathanael asks, perhaps with some disdain, whether something good can from there. He recognizes that the dull disregard of destiny is undaunted by the hopes of hapless Nazarenes. Were it not for Philip's insistence, the story might have ended there. One man speaks of another, and others listen, but the world does not. Our imaginations move nothing but ourselves. Nathanael comes, however, and is struck by the same astonishment that must have been felt by Twain's commoners upon discovery that the boy whom they thought they knew was a prince. From among seemingly ill-suited inhabitants of a Galilean village there is a Son of God and King of Israel. With these two titles Nathanael fuses the imagination of Mr. Twain with the reality of our world. Mr. Twain has changed the world with a word. There is a prince among the poor.

The conclusion will have to go farther than this. It was no relief to the commoners of our own imagination that they might have an audition with a king. It is a mistake to suppose that by itself the presence of royalty is a comfort. It is not, and the simple removal of an audition with the king proves it. Broaden a banquet to include only those whose cuisine can match the taste of the king, and the country is pocked with fear. The presence of a prince prognosticates the expulsion of the unworthy, even among the poor. But broaden his tastes to include anyone who wishes to come, and it is filled with joy. Joy and fear. An audition or a banquet. It is really the same as earthly riches. Store the bullion in banks, and the thief will be ever busy cooking up a worrisome batch of malfeasance. House riches in a palace, and the villain will offer to alleviate the worry of loss at the price of the gate being high. Reserve the seats round the table for the rulers of the refectory, and the homemaker frets in fear and the woodcutter despairs in inability. What you earn is what you can lack.

It is thus the more remarkable that, as with Twain's fancies, the previous postulation of a banquet for all steps into history. Nathanael's Son of God declares that he is the bread of life that gives life to the world, and that all who come to him he will never drive away. An eternal banquet with a prince. All are welcome. Imagination and reality intertwine. Nature may not take notice of our words, but the king of nature does. What power. We give no command. There is no need to enunciate a decree. Only the whimsies of a pen, and the potentate of planets accedes. The power is, of course, only temporary. Ours is the irony that mortal authors of immortal characters shall be mortified. But Twain has not gone alone. His was the power to create characters that, unlike himself, do not die. But it was also the power to make the immortal overlord of land and sea to become mortal. The prince of peace, as we may see, really did become a pauper.

But he became more than that. We have heard from St. John that the one whom he called the Word declared a banquet for all who come, but there was no mention of a menu. I am the living bread that came down from heaven, John's prince tells us. This flesh I give for the life of the world, and he who eats of it shall live forever. Perhaps there is no stranger reality than to find that the fare of a feast is the heavenly host himself. It was not without some basis that the ancients decried Christians for cannibalism. You eat the flesh of a man in your sacred assemblies. Oh yes, and we eat the flesh of a god too. That concept at least is understandable to the Romans. By force, Cronus ate his children to avoid his death. By consent, God lets his children eat him so they may live.

The Romans, then, are different than Mr. Twain. They imagined a father who kills offspring to live, but God does not oblige their imagination as he does with Mark Twain. The difference demands explanation. Perhaps heaven listens to Twain and not to Rome because the latter did not listen to heaven. Maybe Twain was the effect and not the cause. A father follows a son into the wild, but only because the father first helped to instill in him a love of nature. Paganini imitates the rhapsody of Liszt precisely because Liszt composed his variations on Paganini's theme. Proof of this conjecture awaits the reader at the end of Twain's story. To their shock, commoners whom the prince-turned-pauper met were to discover that he was always a prince, and he is restored to his rightful place in the royal court. So it is in the tale of John. We commoners are surprised to find that there is a prince in our midst. The Baptist in John's story testifies that he has seen among us the Son of God, the Son who says that he goes to his Father's house to prepare a place for his disciples. As with Twain, the prince returns home.

So does Twain's imagination inspire divine imitation. He enlists the heavenly troupe for his terrestrial tale. And we may see the reason why. The story of Cronus forever remained a myth because God is not like Cronus. The story of Twain shall always have a ring of reality because a prince did become a pauper. Mark and Rome are separated by this one fact. God deigned to dignify the imagination of Mr. Twain with reality because Mr. Twain paid God the complement of imitation. One favor in return for another. Paganini and Liszt. A Father and his adventurous son. The truth is not that Mark's fancies were the cause. They were the effect.

What separates Mark from Rome is the same thing that separates John from Mark. Mark and John agree that the king is united with his children in the end, but they disagree on a more important matter. John tells us of the Word through whom all was made. To all those received him and believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of natural descent, but of God. Strangers becomes sons. Not with Twain. His son retrieves the rights of royalty. Twain separates the son from the Father by a calamity of the kingdom. With John, the purpose of the kingdom sends the son away. Involuntary separation and a rightful heir. A willing mission and adopted sons.

The tales of John, Mark, and Rome. Only three of thousands. A perusal of untold tales would reveal what we have already seen. Neither nature nor its king heed many of our stories. But lest we despair of making plays and writing stories, there is, tucked away in the recesses of John's story, a clue to pushing our stories onto the stage of history. If Cronus shall always be found lounging in the fiction section of our stores, it is because God is so much different than we expected. The son in Twain's story was lost for years, but John's story tells us that his Father gives the son his sheep, adopted sons which shall never be lost. The Romans made sacrifices to placate the gods and save themselves. The God of John sacrificed himself to save us. We may wonder at the difference, why one author's imagination could call heaven to do its will where the fancies of multitudes failed, but the answer is already before us. John tells us as much. I am a disciple who testifies to these things, he says, and to that is added: we know that his testimony is true. It turns out that John's imagination is not superior to the others, because, it is not merely imagination. It is testimony. It is imitation.

So we may see difference between the fancies of Mark and John, and between Mark and Rome. Imagination meets reality when our fancies draw close to the truth about God and ourselves. Mark tells of an imaginary king, but John remembers a real one. Mark cannot reclaim the rights of a noble, because, unlike his prince, he was of common birth. John can claim a royal inheritance, because, with that birth, the son of the real king adopted him. Mark's prince becomes a pauper by misfortune. John's prince becomes one by intent. The restoration of Mark's prince will not feed the hungers or restore the life of the paupers he knew. The flesh of John's prince will give life to the world. The lesson in all this is, should we desire that our plays and stories make their way into the immortal records of history, is that we have but one task. It is the task of imitation. And that of course is a lesson that goes far beyond the tales we write and the fancies we entertain. It extends even to our own lives. If anyone keeps my word, John's Word tells us, he shall never taste death. Imitation is the key to the permanent engraving of our stories in history. The same is true of ourselves.

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