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Family Faith: A source of grace

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

By Pat McDonough

Can we ever say enough about Susan Boyle?

In her 1995 audition on the Star Search-ish British show “My Kind of People,” host Michael Barrymore mocked Susan mercilessly while she sang “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Susan never got past the humiliating meeting with Barrymore. For many people that would have been enough, but 14 years later, the unkempt, unemployed church volunteer walked on the stage of “Britain’s Got Talent” and stood calmly while the audience began snickering behind the snicker-happy Simon Cowell.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, would suggest that Susan’s audience expressed intuitive repulsion, a gut reaction to a woman who arrived for an audition without the expected glitz and glamour of most entertainers. Intuitive repulsion was developed as a survival skill when primitive man, similar to animals, needed to know in a millisecond if they were facing a friend or foe. Last month, as in her first audition, it was clear that Susan Boyle was not among friends when she walked on stage. And yet, within seconds of sharing her gift, she was everybody’s friend.

What can we learn from this woman, and what can we learn about ourselves through this simple Scot, source of grace? Some of the very same lessons we’ve gleaned from the Gospels, perhaps.

Cynicism surrounded Jesus. He appeared ordinary in every way, or at least scholars seem to suggest that if there was something extraordinary about His appearance, the authors of Scripture would have taken note, as they did in describing the speech impediment of Moses or the short stature of Zacchaeus. It would seem that Jesus probably didn’t meet the expectations of those who eventually came to see Him as a brilliant rabbi, a compassionate healer, and — least of all — the long-awaited Messiah.

The cynicism that met Susan Boyle isn’t merely a symptom of modern society. It always has been part of the human condition, a trait that has at times protected us by helping categorize a person or event using as little cognitive energy as possible so that we are able to gain some control over our universe and survive its randomness.

So what was it about Susan that swayed the masses and melted the heart of a mocking crowd? Was it the sound of her voice delivering the powerful lyrics “I Dreamed a Dream”?

Neuropsychologists suggest that it was the swift surge of dopamine that swelled the surprised brains of viewers. The jeering ceased, and jaws dropped, as I’m sure they did 2,000 years ago when Jesus revealed the mystery of a man who reached beyond common expectation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that impacts behavior, cognition, motivation and reward. Dopamine neurons transmit predicted responses to our environment, but when an unexpected reward is experienced, the brain runneth over with dopamine and pure pleasure.

The Gospel is chock full of dopamine rushes, because Jesus surprises all the time. In this Easter season, I am struck, as I am every year, by the post-resurrection appearances. Nowhere was the risen Lord recognized at first glance, not at the tomb, not on the road to Emmaus, not even in the upper room where He stood within arm’s length of Thomas and invited him to touch His wounds.

What is it about our humanity that fails to recognize the extraordinary at first glance? Why do we  greet the unfamiliar with cynicism rather than openness to new possibility? Scientists say its an evolutionary survival strategy. Poets, perhaps, assign the difficulty to the human heart, while theologians might cast our behavior in the same direction as original sin and the human condition that prevented Adam and Eve from comprehending the glory of paradise and their relationship to the Creator.

With all the sophistication of the third millennium, our responses remain pretty primitive.

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, another case of heaven surprising earth. The readings recount the confusion around Babel, the smoke and thunder that met Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Joel’s prophesies of surprises that awaited the sons and daughters of our Creator, and finally, the unexpected power of the Holy Spirit that stunned the disciples and those who looked on.

Our God is full of surprises and His creation, complete with the capacity for awe and wonder, just one of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit. Susan Boyle is, at least for me, a source of grace, an example of courage and fortitude, a humble woman who brought forth in the world a new understanding of our humanity —  accompanied, perhaps, by a drop of wisdom. 

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