The Moral of the Story

For Christmas, Dan got me a book that I’d been salivating over for awhile, waiting patiently for my turn to come on the library’s hold list. David Sedaris’ latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is a very different type of book than his typical humorous memoirs. This book is a collection of short stories, fiction, with animals as the protagonists.

It’s funny in dark ways, much like the rest of his writing. It’s like fairy tales for slightly disturbed grown ups.

What I find interesting about this book is that it flagrantly delivers morals, in a post modern age where moralistic writing is very gauche.

Most fairy tales contain a moral. Don’t get greedy. Don’t leave your home, ever. Don’t trust anyone. Things like that.

So it’s surprising that a writer that typically embraces a thoroughly postmodern worldview would choose a genre that’s so preachy. (It sounds like an oxymoron to write postmodern morals.) In his other writing, Sedaris embraces the anti-establishment, do your own thing, make fun of religion attitudes that dominate our culture.

It seems slightly hypocritical to at once lambaste those promote a particular belief system (he goes after the positive thinking folks, such as those who embrace The Secret, in one story) and then preach your own values.

In an interview for NPR, Sedaris fervently denied that these stories were fables because they didn’t have a moral (though he might be willing to concede a few). That’s one way to seem less hypocritical, but he’s succumbed to the same delusion that a theme and a moral are so different.

As an English instructor, I use one of the many textbooks that boldly proclaim that a theme and a moral are not the same thing. But on the other hand, the texts say a theme is something that can be stated as a universal truth and applied outside the context of the story. That sounds like a moral to me. But if you’re anti-religion, the term moral sounds bad, too preachy, too limiting. And post-modern folks don’t like universal truths that are very…well, universal.

I’ve also read that a theme is far more complex than a moral. And this is only true if you believe a moral only deals with what is right and wrong, black and white. Morality is extremely concerned with grey areas. What do you think rabbi’s and pastors do for a living, but sift through the grey areas?

Morality is far more complex than the post modern world believes. They think they’ve got the final say in complexity, in their anti-Truth, open ended belief systems. But morality, at least in the Christian sense, finds messes and attempts to reconcile them with a righteous God. When faced with a standard that is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnicient, fullly man, fully God, just, and merciful God, how much more complex can you get? Only simpletons and those who misunderstand God’s complexity reduce morals to right and wrong, black and white.

To be truly moral, to conduct oneself rightly in relationship to God, one must humbly concede the complexity and, yes, impossibility of morality, and turn to the only person who lived a truly moral life. His name was Jesus. And at once he makes morality simple, because its end is Him. But he also makes it complex, because morality is far too complicated and impossible to comprehend without him.

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