The Wilderness Society

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All revival begins with narrative. Narrative offers the way through the wilderness of just about everything from a political campaign to organizational and individual challenge.

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is shedding the familiar skin of Senate leader for the role of the war-tested man from Russell, Kan. This has its immediate risks, but, trailing, Dole is reaching back to his life story to help define his campaign. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, his past more open to attack, is attempting to create a new persona, a new story about himself, through the very acts of governing.

It is critical to evaluate properly the stories we tell about about ourselves and others. To tell a wrong story about someone or to alter or deny a history is an aggressive act. Politics can be reduced to the battle to control the story. Whose history shall possess the society?

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Recently I've been researching the theme of wilderness and cultural renewal. The thesis with which this column began was put to me by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner at the end of a three-hour conversation. "All spiritual revival begins with narrative," Mr. Kushner said. Next month Kushner, the leader of a Sudbury, Mass., congregation, will publish a new book, "Invisible Lines of Connection" (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vt.). It is a memoir in which the stories Kushner tells about himself, his family, and others, although of seemingly ordinary consequence, are shown to have deeper significance and linkage to "one great, luminous organism."

Kushner begins his narrative with a humorous anecdote about the prospect of encountering bears while camping in Montana: "You can walk where things are predictable - or you can enter the wilderness. Without the wilderness, there can be neither reverence nor revelation."

Max Oelschlaeger writes in his recent book "The Idea of Wilderness" (Yale University Press) about exploring "a forbidden place ... that civilized people have long attempted to repress - that is, the wilderness within the human soul and without, in that living profusion that envelops all creation." He reviews the broad expanse of the cultural views of nature, including the burgeoning American republic in which the "wilderness was viewed almost exclusively as a natural resource to be exploited." The invading culture simply could not comprehend the native Indian's sense of a living land.

I also asked Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl what Paul was up to during his long stay in the desert ("Arabia") after his "calling" in Damascus and before heading to Jerusalem to meet with the new Christian movement's leaders. "We don't know," Stendahl replied. "He has never told us." Stendahl likens the gap in the Pauline narrative to the void in narrative detail of the 31 years preceding Jesus' public ministry.

"Three times subsequently Paul went into the wilderness to pray and fast, to really have it out with the Lord over his physical handicap," Stendahl continued. Paul argued that his infirmity, thought to be seizures, hindered his ability to carry out his mission. He apologized in his letters for not being able to travel as he would have wanted. Paul appeared to lose the argument. But we can ask what literature would have been denied the new Christian world if Paul had prevailed in his personal wilderness struggle and had been free to travel at will.

We are, I would argue, a wilderness society, no matter how civilized and technologized or how shrunken the primitive nature preserve. Each morning's news, beyond our doorstep or within, is new history. It is the grist of new narrative, new story. No matter how difficult, the wilderness is where we work out what we are becoming.

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