Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 27) transports me to the last installment (I’m sad to say) of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series of books centering on the hag of the hills, the good witch of the chalk, Tiffany Aching. I’ll go out on a literary limb here and say that when it comes to allegorical tales of good versus evil, I’d stack the world Pratchett has created up with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world any day, especially when listened to on CD, read with such brilliant accents by Tony Robinson. In this last book, I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany has once again found things going awry and out of balance in the countryside world of the chalk where she tends sheep and makes cheeses and haggles, i.e., tends to the everyday needs of the sick and old and foolish. There’s troubling news of domestic abuse, impending mob violence – which she calls the “rough” music, and growing fear and paranoia concerning the role of the witches, the kind of thing that has led to the burning and stoning of her kind in past eras. The evil force behind it all is personified in this book as The Cunning Man, who has awakened and emerged in the community with a voice that spreads poison into the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Everywhere there is an opening, that is, for as the book tells us, poison goes where poison’s welcome. Not to spoil the ending (even though we know by now to have faith that there’s always a good ending in these stories), suffice it to say that Tiffany will have to contend with the Cunning Man, and will make use of the her home turf to do it, literally, as she employs the autumn fires, the annual controlled burning of the harvested fields, as her weapon against the poisonous force of evil. She has to maintain her resolve about the need to destroy him, or more precisely, to take away his power, repeating the mantra: There will be no mercy, no redemption. She speaks to the evil force, acknowledging her familiarity with him: You are what whispered in Petty’s ear before he beat up his daughter. You are the first blast of the rough music. You look over the shoulder of the man as he picks up the first stone, and although I think you are part of us all, and we will never be rid of you, we can certainly make your life hell. Which is essentially what she does, with the help of her friends the Wee Free Men, aka the Nac Mac Feegles, who strike the match and ignite the stubble and wave their kilts to get the fire going.
The Prophet Isaiah was, like Tiffany Aching, quite familiar with the agrarian world of his day, using the metaphors of field and vineyard to describe God’s covenant community. Isaiah pictures God, like all good farmers, tending carefully to the field, and whenever the seasons of fruitfulness pass and the fields become filled with stubble and briars and thorns, God uses a control burn to restore it to fertility. We know from the foresters as well as the farmers that a good fire brings health to the field and forest floor; it’s nature’s way of clearing debris and undergrowth and enriching the soil. I can’t help but hear a soundtrack to this passage whenever I read it, from my dad’s collection of 78 records, with the Chuck Wagon Gang harmonizing across the baritone’s lead: He will set your fields on fire. . . Whenever the thorn bushes of the world’s violence and hate and greed get entangled in the vineyard, reducing the grapevines of grace and love and peace to stubble, it’s time for that controlled burn, for the field to be restored so it can once again be free to bear good fruit.
I like Terry Pratchett’s work, even more than C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Rowling, in part because it’s so much funnier. In the midst of the sometimes tragic and frightening drama of good versus evil, we have Rob Anybody and the Wee Free Men reminding us that we tend to take ourselves too seriously. We often speak with extreme gravity and argue with extreme confidence over things like the final judgment and the ultimate battle between good and evil, as if we know such things with firsthand knowledge, when in fact it’s all a matter of faith, as the writer of Hebrews tells us. By faith, we speculate in the assurance of what we hope to be true, while the evidence is unseen. In the meantime, literally in the mean time, we do our battle in one way or the other against the poison of the world, against the cunning man’s voice that starts the rough music, that provokes father to beat daughter, that stirs up suspicion and creates paranoia and dissension. And we can smile through it all when we realize that we have our own version of Rob Anybody, the chalk’s Big Man, in the person of Jesus, always looking after us, striking the match and igniting the tinder to set our fields on fire, defeating the poison and making life hell for the cunning voices of violence and greed, for which there is no redemption, no redeeming value. The epilogue always has us getting back to our business of producing fruit, making cheese, and tending to the ordinary “haggling” of day to day care for the sick and the old and the foolish.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.