Don’t Rubber Duckie My Religion

Watching the Oscars on your birthday is the worst thing you can do. You are sitting there in your yoga pants eating chocolate when it occurs to you that you are roughly the same age as Natalie Portman, and you feel like a slacker loser because you haven’t made a film based upon the work of Alan Moore. Bad birthday television.

I love the Oscars, especially when Billy Crystal hosts. I like the glam, the gossip and the suspense. I marveled at how skeletal Angelina Jolie looked, at the trend to wear colorless dresses, at how Michelle Williams has transformed since I wrote her off as a “forgettable blonde” back when Dawson’s Creek aired, and at how George Clooney has replaced Jack Nicholson as the go-to reaction shot in the first row.

Really, my favorite part of the Oscars is the tribute to everyone who has died in the past year. Jane Russell was an amazing actress, and I didn’t even realize she had passed. I’d forgotten Liz Taylor had passed. But the one that got me was remembering Sidney Lumet had died last year.

The director of such great films as 12 Angry Men, he wrote a book called Making Movies that I read years ago, and it really stuck with me. Aside from all the fascinating insights into acting, directing and filmmaking, Lumet gave me insight into the art of storytelling. One of his pet peeves soon became one of mine. It’s called rubber duckie-ing. It’s a lazy way of explaining the why of a story, character or event. Here’s a simple example:

When Bob was a small child someone took his rubber duckie away from him. That is why he is an ax murderer today.

Pretty stupid huh? I make spotting rubber duckies in stories a sport. I mock them mercilessly. It’s not much of a hobby, but it’s what I’ve got.

Some of my favorite stories completely lack even a whiff of a rubber duckie. Cormac McCarthy has become one of my favorite writers for this reason. He doesn’t explain why his characters are the way they are. They simply are. He just lets them be. And it’s marvelous.

Modern storytelling places a lot of emphasis on backstory, on reasons why things came into being, and on rubber duckies. We want to know why, but what keeps us fascinated is not knowing.

In McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men we never know why Chigurh is the way he is. He is simply a force of malevolent chaos, unrelenting, and he fascinates us. So much of Wolverine’s past is shrouded in mystery, and it’s partly that mystery that makes him such a popular and enduring character. In post apocalyptic books like The Road and A Canticle for Leibowitz, the details of the apocalypse and even the pre-apocalyptic world are never revealed.

Thinking about Sidney Lumet this morning, I find myself thinking about theology and the quest to understand the spiritual realms. The grand mysteries we so often treat like riddles to be solved. While I’m hardly going to abandon my interest in gaining a deeper understanding of my faith and the spiritual world, I also know I want wisdom more than details. I want understanding more than answers.

I don’t want to lose the mystery. I don’t want to strip the essence of my faith bare down to it’s cogs and gears. I don’t want to discover the man behind the curtain. I don’t want to be satisfied with an answer that works just to have an answer. I don’t want my faith to fall victim to bad storytelling or soulless theology.

I don’t want to rubber duckie my religion.

An answer that works, that ties the loose ends together, that is pat and neat, isn’t necessarily a good answer. It’s good to remember that.

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