The Barber Shop

Our local barber shop is run by a cheery woman named Pearl who knows everyone in town. She waves at them all as they walk past the big window where you sit to have your hair cut.

Pearl’s assistant is Ethel. Some months ago I noticed a Bible in an open cupboard at her end of the working shelf in front of the barber chairs. When the chance presented itself, I asked, “Are you interested in the Bible?”

That opened the sluices — a great fountain of delighted incredulity that a local duffer should pick up on a topic that does not commonly form the coinage of chat in the shop. Oh, yes! The Bible is the most interesting thing in the world! There’s so much in it!

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What had particularly flagged down her attention was all the business in Genesis about the Nephilim — sometimes translated “giants.” Who were these “sons of God” who “came in to” the daughters of men?

Certainly we have all been titillated by that exiguous reference. Ethel had on hand several further books that picked up on this strange tale and pursued it on to what used to be called “British Israelism.” The idea here is that the Anglo-Saxons are the Ten Lost Tribes. Ethel was very excited about it all. Perhaps we are among that lost Chosen! (I have only the sketchiest picture as to how widely this “Saxon” net is to be cast. Does it encompass all Teutons? Nordics? Aryans? Who?)

Presently she registered a certain diffidence, indicating with rolling eyes and bobbing head that she was not entirely comfortable with our going on about the topic in the shop.

The next time I was in the shop, there were only the two of us. When she discovered that I am a believing Catholic, the fountain opened again. Talk ranged from the Nephilim to the Lost Tribes to the apocalypse and the antichrist. She was agog that I seemed to know all about everything that she brought up.

Intermittently I’d ease in a hint about how the real point of the whole drama is the Incarnation of the Savior. I am not much of a Christian “witness,” however. I find refuge in C. S. Lewis’s remark, made in a letter to one of his correspondents who had asked him about this sort of effort: “Concerning putting one’s Christian point of view to doctors and other unpromising people . . . .” he began. I took the remark for my own ensign.

Ethel is always glad when I turn up, even though it is Pearl who cuts my hair. The note struck is very much that here we are — fellow Christian believers.

The whole business has set me to thinking about faith and its endless variations. Only God knows what constitutes faith. Curiosity about the Nephilim: surely it’s a start? Not everyone has sat at the feet of Bonaventure, St. Francis de Sales, or Pope Benedict XVI. Who knows what, finally, constitutes the faith that is asked of us mortals? A biblical scholar at Tubingen in the 19th century, for example, who knows his Hebrew and Greek, and whose busy task is to purge Sacred Scripture of any taint of the miraculous: Is his faith — what is left of it — received by the Most High as salvific? For him, the stories of creation, Red Sea, incarnation, and resurrection are fairy tales.

When is faith not faith? What, exactly, is the faith of your toothless, mumbling Balkan crone in a black babushka? I have a friend who has left the Protestant Fundamentalism of his youth, with all of its exultation in the great drama of incarnation, passion, and resurrection, to the view that the whole thing comes to nothing at all but (in his words) “spreading Shalom.” The Paschal Mystery is to be given a wide berth. Scriptural documents are untrustworthy anyway. He now wonders if there is a God at all.

Only God can assess this sort of thing. What interior struggles with honest doubt in a man, and what tincture of any culpable decision to jettison the Faith — such matters are reserved to the Divine Mercy to decide upon.

And what of good people clapping and sweating in dingy Sunday night chapels, innocent of the things that would appear essential to a Catholic visitor? Or, for that matter, what of Catholics who line up in a hangdog way for Communion and who, if you asked them about the Faith would say, “What?” Or the happy-Jack-squirrel folks who can quote volleys of Scripture but who seem never to have paused long enough to ask, “Who art Thou, Lord?” Or the centuries of those lonely Japanese who kept a lambent flame alive after the Portuguese missionaries were all slaughtered, and who seemed to have only the dimmest inklings as to what their residual set of observances meant?

Or what about oneself? Is there a rag of integrity in one’s profession?

That, alas, is the only question that will be asked of one at the Last Tribunal. It gives one pause.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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