I'm the MC at my church's weekly Alpha course, which means that every week I have to come up with a joke to fulfill the course's commitment to humor (ALPHA is an acronym; L = Laughter) and to build a sense of community by creating shared memories for all the participants. Usually, I don't mind telling you, the jokes are lame--the kind of jokes you've been e-mailed a million times by the same person, the kind of jokes that you can tell in church without blushing. I've compensated for the default lameness of the Alpha humor at my disposal by searching for an overarching theme, by which we chuckle and chortle our way through the eleven week course.
This time around, quite by accident, a potential theme revealed itself: the dancing bear. In my absence my pastor showed a video in which the viewer is instructed to count the number of times four people in white shirts pass a basketball between them, without confusing the "white shirt" team with the four people in black shirts doing the same thing. Halfway through the video a question pops onto the screen: "Did you notice the dancing bear?" Rewind and suddenly everyone sees a bear moonwalk onscreen, turn to the camera, bust a few moves, then moonwalk off screen. Hilarity ensues.
Because as every pastor knows, the best jokes don't just make you laugh but make you think, our pastor drew a lesson from the experience: there's more going on in our midst than we can see. Can I get an Amen?
My pastor's video bought me a week but presented me with a dilemma: what possible theme could be contained within a video about a dancing bear? I bless Google, which directed me to a video taken in a national park; a bear scratched its back against a tree, while some plucky film editor inserted a soundtrack. Two minutes of the incredible raving bear became my humor for week two.
Ah, but what now? Now I'm committed. I bless Youtube, where I found a scene from the late great Muppet Show in which Gopher and Fozzy perform the song "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear." I remember it like it was yesterday. Week three--check.
Now I was backed into a corner, however; where does an MC go after Fozzy Bear? Nowhere, it turns out, so I was forced to retire the theme of the dancing bear in the fourth week. Fozzy gave me my out, as he failingly attempted to sing, to Rolph the Dog's accompaniment, "I've Got Rhythm." Hilarious.
I explained to my audience that I could not sustain the dancing bear theme because bears don't really dance. The notion of a dancing bear is anthropomorphic: we'd assigned the human cultural trait of dancing to the peculiar activity of a nonhuman entity (the bear) to normalize it for ourselves. Anthropomorphisms allow us to set aside the occasional "Why?" question that threatens to distract us from the more important questions of the story we find ourselves in.
In the case of the dancing bear, the more important question is, "Is this funny?" The anthropomorphism makes it so; otherwise it's just a bear doing what bears do. Anthropomorphisms are often applied to God as well, not in order to strip God of his Otherness but so that we can move on to the more important question of the moment: Adam and Eve hear the sound of God "strolling in the garden in the evening breeze" in Genesis 3 and we're tempted to ask, "Does God have legs? I thought God was everywhere? How does Someone who's omnipresent stroll through something?" We're not given time to dwell on that question because that's not the story. The story is the question of why Adam and Eve, and why now the rest of us, hide from God, and what happens to us when we do.
I'm currently reading the ethically troubling and brilliantly written Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The book explores the diet, industry and economy of food in contemporary culture, suggesting that our eating habits are potentially ruinous not only to our health but to our culture and to our planet. This guy knows his stuff and he's thrown himself into his thesis, going so far as to slaughter his own chickens and forage his own meals in order to pull back the pristine curtain that guards us from the harsh realities of our diet.
I noticed along the way that Pollan anthropomorphizes the notion of natural selection. The most recent example in my reading (page 289) is modest and subtle, but it's there nonetheless: "The fact that we humans are indeed omnivorous is deeply inscribed in our bodies, which natural selection has equipped to handle a remarkably wide-ranging diet." The abstract natural selection is given willfulness, intentionality, creativity in this sentence. I'm reminded of the 139th Psalm, acknowledging to God that
"you shaped me first inside, then out,
you formed me in my mother's womb. . . .
All the stages of my life were spread out before you,
the days of my life all prepared
before I'd even lived one day."
The thing about anthropomorphisms is that they're essentially lies in service to a greater truth:
* The moonwalking bear wasn't real; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity dressed up in a bear suit to ask, "What aren't we seeing in our midst?"
* The raving bear wasn't really dancing; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity set the bear's natural behavior to music to ask, "Is there beauty and delight in the world that we're not privy to?"
* Fozzy Bear didn't really have rhythm; a human being with intelligence, willfulness and creativity shoved his or her hand up Fozzy's hindquarters and directed his steps in order to make us laugh.
I don't intend here to contest the notion of natural selection, but I think it's worth noting that we describe the process in ways that presume intelligence, willfulness and creativity. We're left to figure out the larger question such an anthropomorphism allows us to ask: "Why are we what we are? And how then shall we live?"