My kids have been binge watching a show on Netflix called Stranger Things. If there are strange things, I guess it stands to reason that there are even stranger things. Coming to the end of the year, people tend to put into context the year that has been. And so there are lists. Lists of the most popular, the most notorious, the most newsworthy, best and the worst, and the most strange.
The strangest thing I saw all year was a swat-style takedown that I still have no explanation for except to note that I was there to see it unfold up close and personal. It happened like this. There is a little out of the way hamlet close by where I am working, a small town setting that features a picturesque stream, singing birds and swans grazing up and down. It is a bucolic place to find a bit of rest in the middle of a busy day. Sometimes I go over there and lay in the grass and read a book or just watch the clouds roll by. It is the little town that time forgot. Looking at the dirt roads and quaint homes you might think you were in the last century. You could lose yourself there.
That might be the problem, just who is trying to disappear in such a prosaic and innocent-looking little hamlet. It seems I found out the hard way. One day taking my noonday break, I drove down into the valley. Meandering down the road into the town, I rode past seven black identical SUV’s, motors running and windows darkened. As I approached the corner, the motorcade swooped in behind me. My arm hair stood up straight. I went to the end of the cul du sac and turned around to go back the other way. As I approached the mysterious formation, the car doors opened simultaneously and men in black swat vests armed with automatic weapons sprang out, along with some large German Shepherd dogs. In that split second, a man came running out of a residence and in a flash the dogs had him down on the ground and the men in black were putting him in cuffs. I stopped, unsure what to do. One man waved me forward. “Would you like to go by?” he asked. “Yes”, I nodded, staring at his automatic weapon. “Have a good day sir”, he said, smiling. As quickly as they had moved in, the black SUV’s dispersed and disappeared like ghosts. I checked the paper the next day to see what it was I had witnessed. Drugs? Gang take-down? National security? I still don’t know. Whatever it was is a mystery to me, except to say that it was the strangest thing I had witnessed all year.
When I was a kid there was a comic strip in the papers called Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Like a traveling circus side show, the strip featured a weekly round up of the strange and arcane from all corners of the globe. From shrunken heads to scientific anomalies, the strip was intended to entertain and impress. All of this may no longer be noteworthy in the days of internet and the global village. We now can imbibe on as much spectacle as we can handle. I know because my kids binge watch the most ridiculous of spectacles on YouTube, and it seems everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame. There are even challenges where people do really dumb things for attention, like snuffing large amounts of cinnamon, things not to be recommended or copied. All for the sake of spectacle. Strange things, and even stranger things.
There is a reason for that, spectacle can get you noticed. It can be good business. The Burlington indie band Walk Off The Earth was first noticed on YouTube when they posted a funky video where five hippies all played a song as a group effort, using only one instrument. It wasn’t the music that was noticed, but the quirky methology. They got 175 million views in four months, and from that, fame and fortune. Strange, can get you noticed.
There is also if you dig, some strange and ancient travel literature. The first travel literature was intended for armchair travellers who needed bit of whimsy and wonder, things that were outside the pervue of their everyday boring lives. People wanted to know about what travellers saw in the far corners of the globe. They wanted to hear about the drop off at the edge of the world, where sailers saw cannibals, strange animals never seen before, dragons and sea creatures. You can see such imagery decorating the earliest cartography. The stories may have been somewhat whimsical, as the writers catered to the need for the arcane. Sir John Mandeville for example, wrote a travel journal in the fourteenth century, as he walked through the Holy Land. Everything he saw, he perceived as signs and wonders from the pages of Bible stories. What we know now to be the great pyramids of Giza for example, he explained as the grain store houses from the well-known story of Joseph.
The Bible is of course, fantastic literature in every sense, before it is anything else. It is a history journal, a spelling primer, food for meditation, and also wondrous and epic stories. Reading the Bible can be good entertainment for those who have not an inkling of religious sentiment. There is war, sex, blood and violence enough to make Shakespeare blush. Like the takedown I witnessed, it might also convince you that there is another world altogether hidden in plain sight, that you only catch in glimpses. If you pass on stories from that world, people may smile, especially those who prefer to believe that reality only and ever reflects what you can reliably touch, smell, hear, taste and see. Do not bring up the word mystery with these people because they will scoff in your face.
In its pages we find prophets and sages who saw a mysterious wheel shining in the sky, cherubim and seraphim, monsters like the Behemoth and the Leviathan. There are giants, angels, and a valley of dry bones which came to life again. There is fire from Heaven, and the likes of Methuselah, who lived to be almost a thousand years old. There is the story of a flood which destroyed the earth. There is also visions of things to come. There are stories that are as a burning coal to your tongue, and stories which are a balm to your soul. There is even a story of a former prostitute named Mary Magdalene who saw a man she thought was the Gardener but realized instead that it was the one they had laid in his grave just the day before.
The Bible can make for some strange arguments. Dating back to the Scopes Monkey trials of 1925, some have cast their lot with those scientific materialists who insist that everything in life must be literal. They have no imagination for epic poetry, saga, allegory or metaphor. Because of this they have no vision for larger truths that are best communicated by way of these literary gambits. The Bible tells the truth about our relationship with these mysteries. It tells us about the transience of human life with all the weapons in its arsenal. It is inspirational literature at the highest level because its co-author (God) is a little hard to pin down. He only shows his face when he wants to, and then says, “he who has ears, let him hear”. Those attuned to his voice, we call prophets and sages. Still, for those who like the arcane, the inexplicable and the other worldly, the Bible can flat-out beat science fiction any day.
Behold I shew you a mystery. It could be that truth is stranger than fiction. There be dragons, and even a happy ending. Show me some strange things, and I will show you yet, even stranger things than you ever imagined.