Have you seen the elephant?

No, I have not lost one.

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No! That’s not an elephant!

I recently heard someone saying that children these days do not seem to show as much awe and wonder at the marvelous creatures that they see in the zoo as ‘we’ did.  I am not sure who ‘we’ included, but never mind.

I can think of two reasons why this remark may contain some truth.

  1. Children these days do not want to show too much ‘awe and wonder’ at anything as it is not cool, so they say.
  2. Children have seen lots of wildlife documentaries and are better prepared than some previous generations for the sight of amazing animals.

At one time, most adults, let alone children, would not have seen foreign animals in the flesh.  At best they might have seen a picture in a book or a painting in a gallery.

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No, that’s not one either!

During the American Civil War there was an expression ‘To See the Elephant’, meaning to experience a battle.  The point of the metaphor was that anyone who had not been in a battle could not know what it was like.  No description did it justice.  [Sorry if you are a War Poet or even a War Correspondent: I did not invent the expression!]  In the same way, if you had never seen an elephant, no description quite conveyed what one was like, but once you had seen one you knew.

Thinking of this, I can understand the difficulty people have when trying to talk about a religious experience.  Their descriptions either make it sound banal, or seem so bizarre as to be incredible.  That is because God is not like us.  He is different.  All you can do is to try to liken him to something else.  Nothing quite works.  That is why the Bible is full of imagery.  Much of it contradictory.  The writers were struggling to convey something they had experienced that was like nothing else.

I may be wrong, but the people I am most willing to believe concerning their religious experiences are those who have greatest difficulty in describing them.  Those who sound too glib make me suspicious.

There is a similar problem for us authors.  We want our writing to be credible.  We want readers to be able to relate to our characters.  Yet we want to make the reader feel something extraordinary is happening, or else the story seems too mundane.  Great writers manage to bridge the gap.  They use words to convey the unusual, perhaps the near-incredible, in a way that readers can understand and relate to.

Am I a great writer?  Wait and see.  I know I have a challenge.

 

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