In her popular song, recording artist Joan Osbourne croons, “What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us/ Just a stranger on the bus/ Trying to make his way home.” At first hearing, one might consider this just another shocking, blasphemous tune meant to appeal to a rebellious youth culture. And maybe that was how it was meant. And then again, maybe there’s a deeper meaning implied.
Hmm, God as slob on the bus. The catchy melody stuck in my head, its words rolling around in my mind like colorful laundry in the spin cycle in a clothes washer. Curiously I was reminded of another image: Jewish legends and folklore describe the random reappearances of Elijah, the biblical prophet, over subsequent centuries and millennia. He is described as playing the role as a heavenly emissary sent to the more modern world to bring justice. Generally in the guise of a beggar, he punishes the miserly rich, rewards the generous, and provides wisdom to the faithful.
Hmm, prophet as beggar, God as slob on the bus. But there are so many slobs and so many beggars. If one were to search for the right one to discover divine inspiration, how would he discover the true incarnation of wisdom.
And then I recall a puzzling literary analogy that has haunted me for decades: J. D. Salinger in his book Franny and Zooey describes the nervous breakdown/spiritual upheaval of the protagonist Franny, an aspiring actress. The story culminates in her finding solace by a memory from her childhood. Her brother Zooey reminds her how as child prodigies on a radio quiz show, their wise, older brother Seymour convinced them of the need to dress their best on stage even if it was only radio. Zooey recounts:
“..and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them. I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady…This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and—I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”
Then Zooey provides the apocalyptic conclusion:
“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret…There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady… There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? …Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
Fat lady as Christ! Christ as fat lady, hmm. And the kicker that Zooey relates: There isn’t anyone who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Slob on the bus, mysterious beggar, wretched fat lady–chaotic images or is there some commonality here?
The fantastical tales of Kabbalah describe a creation story where a pure vessel of Godliness catastrophically shatters and shards of holiness rain down upon the baser elements of creation. There the holy shards become lodged in the primordial soup which subsequently forms all being as we know it. The story goes that that the shards or sparks of divinity come to exist in all matter, in all life, in all persons—the wise, the just, the believers, the ethical, and yes, even in the wretches, the beggars, and the slobs.
If one finds significance in this legend, this myth, does it not then make sense to search for meaning or sacredness not in some singular hero but instead imbued in everyone that we encounter? I believe that we can learn tremendous lessons by realizing that every person carries and is capable of transmitting the wisdom of these Godly sparks. The sparks’ emanations are to be found in human voices and actions. Divinity percolates through the tales of beliefs and dreams of all persons. We have the ability to hear, see, feel these in our interactions with others–with family members, with our friends, and even with strangers just like the slob on the bus, the beggar on the street corner, the fat lady in the audience. I believe that all we need to do is truly look and listen.