Thursday, August 11, 2011

Freak Show: Crazy Things You Have to See to Believe

When I was a kid, we had some well-worn lime-green books that belonged to my dad when he was a kid.  The books contained all kinds of fun activities--mazes, word searches, and instructions how to make cartoon characters out of question marks.  

Best of all, they contained totally crazy, mysterious stories.  I learned about the lost colony of Roanoke and the mysterious word "Croatoan" carved into the tree.  I learned about pirates and pirate treasures.  And I learned about P.T. Barnum, the Feejee Mermaid, General Tom Thumb, and the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng.

Barnum traveled around Europe and the United States promoting hoaxes and "human curiosities."  The Feejee Mermaid, of course, was not a real mermaid.  As far as we know there are none, but that didn't stop people like Barnum from showing them at their curiosity shows.  This one was the head and torso of a baby monkey sewn to a fish and covered with paper-mache.  Apparently it was borrowed from a museum.  It can't have looked that good, but maybe the people who paid to see it just wanted to believe in mermaids.  

Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, was a dwarf, advertised as the "smallest human to ever walk the earth."  In reality, he started traveling with Barnum when he was only four years old.  I can't imagine what his parents were thinking.  On the other hand, conjoined twins Chang and Eng chose to earn a living traveling around the world and letting people stare at them.  When they earned enough money, they left the circus, bought a southern plantation, and married sisters.  

It's kind of sad, really.  I mean, people back then didn't look at Stratton as a real human, but as a freak.  And Chang and Eng?  Born in Siam, they are the original Siamese twins.  It's pretty remarkable that finally got to live a "normal" life.  

Freak shows are out of the mainstream today.  In fact, they're illegal in several states.  They're just not politically correct, and if parents sent their four-year-old off with an old man to be paraded across a stage because of a genetic anomaly, those parents and the promoter would probably be investigated for child abuse.  However, I'm not sure we've progressed all that far.  You've heard of midget wrestling and dwarf tossing.  I find these things terribly inappropriate, but at least the wrestlers and people getting tossed have agreed to it.  That's more than you can say for Stratton.  

We don't pay to gawk at conjoined twins anymore either.  On the other hand, I admit I've watched several documentaries about their lives.  I'm just curious.  

We tend to gravitate to the unusual, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to scare ourselves, sometimes to learn.  

And when we hear about crazy things you have to see to believe, like Feejee mermaids, we're skeptical.  But we want to believe and so we gasp in awe and suspend our disbelief.  When I was little, I wanted to believe in mermaid princesses and underground kingdoms.  I even purchased those sea monkeys advertised at the back of comic books.  I didn't think it was true, but I hoped that it might be.  I also wanted to believe that Mary Poppins could sweep in on an umbrella and float when she laughed.  And I wanted to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.  

I still want to read about pirate treasures and missing colonies and General Tom Thumb.  Those things actually have elements of truth, combined with mysteries and human stories that fascinate people.  Archaeologists and historians still study that lost colony at Roanake, incidentally, and I watched a documentary on that last summer.   They think they have an answer, but of course no one will ever know for sure what happened.  

I also want to believe that God can do crazy, totally freaky things like make cancer disappear or give sight to blind people.  I do believe God can do those things, actually.   I just tend to be a little skeptical because, well, I tend to be skeptical about a lot of things.  So I study miracles and ask questions.   I examine biblical precedent.  I talk to people and think about God's power and the possibilities.  And I pray.  But sometimes I feel like I treat God's miracles sort of like people used to treat "Freak Shows."  You hear about crazy, unusual things, and you just have to see them to believe them.  

The thing is, God doesn't do miracles just for the sake of doing miracles.  He's always got a reason.  And when we read about them in Scripture, there's a reason why the authors included those stories.  He wants us to study them and ask questions about them.  He wants us to think about what he's done and what he can do.  

It's worth going back and studying these some of these freaky stories.  Like the one about the floating axehead or the talking donkey.  (Now that would have made a pretty awesome exhibit for Barnum.)  

Over the next several weeks, I'll be looking at some of those freaky stories and asking what we can learn from those stories.  The more I learn about what God has done, how he's intervened in crazy unbelievable ways, the more courage I have to ask God to intervene in my own life or the lives of my friends.  

By the way, this idea totally original to me.  I have shamelessly borrowed the idea and the basic outlines from Newbreak Church's sermon series.   However, I think that if you're reading these blogs and listening to the sermons you'll hear some different things. Whenever I listen to the sermons, I come up with new ideas that go along with the messages and then take off in a new direction.  I think some of my ideas are worth writing about, and I hope you do too.

Thanks, Newbreak!

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