Why Did the Chicken Cross the Caribbean?

This summer, I joined a team of educators to offer a series of workshops in Les Cayes, Haiti, for day-school educators.  Our assigned topic: integrating faith and learning.  I teach in a college that was worldviewing well before other CCCU schools were using the term at all.  We were teaching worldview in the classroom way back when Kuhn was talking about paradigms in the laboratory.  So, I confess I thought that this teaching junket would be challenging but doable. 

What we didn’t count on was the chicken. 

I’ve been to Haiti twice before, so I should have known to be on the lookout.  We certainly were on the runways.  My first flight into Haiti, there were cows and chickens scuttling across the landing strip.  We heard the co-pilot shouting, “Pull up!  Pull up!”—a set of commands not calculated to put the passengers at ease.  We soon learned to look out for chicken at every dinnertime.  Whenever we felt uncertain about the provenance of the dinner meats, we assured each other, “Hey, it’s great.  It tastes just like chicken.”  And then, there was the chicken who showed up in church.  One summer, in the middle of a pastoral training seminar, a rather disdainful hen walked into our building, bobbing and pecking, stiff-legging it across the front of the auditorium.  Her attitude was clear: utter avian disdain for all proceedings.  The implication seemed to be that we should stop all this pick-a-little-talk-a-little business on and consider the chickens of the air who do not toil or spin lectures on long, hot afternoons, and yet their Father in heaven cares for them.  

But this year, the chicken that interrupted our talk was not Haitian at all.  It was decidedly North American. 

You probably know that worldview instruction sets itself against all forms of reductionism.  In the classroom, such reductionism might look like whittling history down to the memorization of dates.  In the laboratory, scientific reductionism might reduce complex organisms to chemical elements.  In an English class, this might involve reducing a poem to the sum of its poetic devices.  And so on and so forth.  In a creational order that bespeaks Christ’s competence to keep all things cohering, reductionism is a bad practice.

To illustrate the dangers of such reductionism, I told a story to my new Haitian colleagues that used a device I remember seeing as a boy in a Laura Ingalls tale.  I’ll tell it and draw it for you now.

Once upon a time, there was a fish pond.

 

 Just south of the pond, lived two fisherman in as many tents.

 

Every day, they went to the pond to go fishing.  Eventually, they wore permanent paths in the dirt.

 

  A little west of the pond lived another fisherman in a little hut.

  And he, too, went fishing every day, pulling a wagon behind him to carry all the fish he’d catch.

 

 

 

Well, as sometimes happens in these situations, the three fishermen over-fished the pond, and, in desperation, all the fish jumped out of the pond.

 

 

 

 

Startled by this, the fishermen all yelled at once, which drew the attention of one of the fisher wives.  She stuck her nose out of the hut to see what was going on.

 

 By the time, I’d finished drawing the beak on that Cubist chicken, my translator was slapping his desk in glee.  And the educators all across the room, despite their habitually serious countenances, were smiling and, in some cases, even laughing.  The point seemed to have gotten through: if you focus on the parts of the tale, you miss the big bird.   You can, in James Tunstead Burtchaell’s phrase, work so hard to keep the point of it all, that you end up keeping the point and losing the all.

Which is precisely what I did myself when I made the ensuing critical mistake.  Perhaps I felt over-confident in my teaching prowess.  Perhaps I was delighting too much in the intercultural communicability of my metaphor. Perhaps I underestimated the layers of cultural difference in the room.  Whatever the case, I did what I so often do when I feel comfortable: I made a joke.  It was the kind of dumb thing I’m sure I say a thousand thousand times in a Trinity semester.  In a light, skittering, ironic tone, I said, “Just make sure you put that chicken in your notes.”  But I had forgotten about the translator.  In an instant, he returned to his dutiful, serious, often monotonal delivery and told them all to draw the bird in their notebooks.  These educators shifted abruptly into artistic action.  Suddenly, forty, compliant Haitians began carving my badly sketched chicken in their workbooks.  One fellow—a seasoned administrator the thong of whose sandal I should not be worthy to tie—raised his hand from the back of the room and asked gently if it were all right if he drew not just two fishermen’s tents, but five.  I stood silent, stymied. 

(Cut to worldview instructor’s baffled look, head cocked, jaw slightly agape.)

I am reminded of that scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye says, As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”  One of his quibbling friends asks, “Where does the book say that?”  And Tevye storms out, “Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken.” 

By trying to say something somewhere about a chicken, I’m afraid I baffled my Haitian friends.  They didn’t write much in their conference notebooks, but, by gum, they all copied down that bloody chicken.  For now anyway, I’m pretty sure that in the Christian day schools of southern Haiti, you’d find a small, kindly, slightly bemused group of teachers who say the same thing of the worldview concept that we fast-food loving Americans too often say of Haitian meats.  It tastes a lot like chicken.

 

 

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