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Zombies (4): The Modern Identity Crisis

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If we think of our collective identity as a fence that encloses “what we are.”  It separates us from “what we are not.”  And the monster threatens or attacks this boundary at the places where it is the weakest–at the points where there is some doubt as to who we really are.  Monsters are a product of a crisis of identity.

The shear number of zombie movies and television indicates that there must be a lot of anxiety regarding our collective identity.

The popularity of zombies narratives indicate a cultural identity crisis. Who are we? What is the Modern identity?Click To Tweet

Who are we? What is the Modern Identity?

Many writers and thinkers have described our collective identity as “modern.” Modern, not in the sense of keeping current, but in the more philosophical sense of holding to the beliefs of Modernism.

The ideas found in Modernism originated about 300 years ago and they spread until they became the dominant way of understanding the world and the self in the West.

The main characteristics of the modern identity are:
  • The Modern identity is secular.  By secular I mean that the modern self believes there is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life. In other words, the modern self lives life in the absence of anything supernatural: in a strictly natural world.
  • The Modern self is also individualistic rather than communal; she is independent and doesn’t feel as much obligation to others as our pre-modern ancestors did.
  • The Modern self is also autonomous and often says things that mean, “Your not the boss of me!”
  • The Modern self believes in clear boundaries between categories like mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public and private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief and objective/subjective.
  • The Modern self believes in progress. Modernity has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs. Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
  • The Modern self is a “buffered self.”  Philosopher Charles Taylor further clarifies the Modern identity as a “buffered self.” All of the characteristics of the modern self work together to insulate the self. Because it is secular, it is insulated from anything supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons); because it is individualistic and autonomous, it is isolated from others. And because it has such faith the subject/object dichotomy, it is separated from the physical world around it.

Modern Identity Crisis

As a modern monster, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of the modern person.  What does the modern identity fear?

Given the events of the last century, the faith that we Moderns have placed in Reason, Science and Technology has been shaken. Why?

  • Two World Wars,
  • one Great Depression,
  • the Nuclear Arms Race,
  • environmental degradation,
  • and AIDS.

These are just the highlights of the many things that caused us to wonder, even fear, that Reason, Science and Technology are not all they are cracked up to be.

This sort of uncertainty unsettles identity. So modern folks like us have been asking some tough questions:

  • Science and Technology gave us the computer, but didn’t it also figured out the A-bomb and drone warfare?
  • Am I the boss of technology, or is it the boss of me?
  • Will science be able to solve climate change?
  • Technology helped us to catch a lot more fish, but what do we do when there are no fish?
  • Will I truly be happy if I have a nice place in the Hamptons?
  • Are we really better off than Laura Ingles Wilder?

The modern identity is in doubt, and when our collective identity is uncertain, the monsters attack. And they always attack at the weak points.

Zombies: an Embodiment of our Identity Crisis

How zombies are the embodiment of the Modern identity crisis is the subject of many of the posts that follow.  But we can start by saying that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead takes zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consistent with the cultural texture of secular modernity.

For this reason, it is called the first Modern zombie film.

We are no longer entirely Modern, but the uncertainty created by the shift from Modernism to whatever it is we are now, is one of the reasons for the zombie invasion of that began in 1968.

Next Zombie post: They Ain’t Got No Soul

Zombies (3): The Brief History of the Zombie

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Before it was our monster, the zombie was an African and a Caribbean monster.

As it moved from place to place it changes because the identity it challenged was a different identity. (Read “A New Kind of Monster”).

The zombie has two basic characteristics: it is a reanimated corpse of one person (this disqualifies Frankenstein’s monster) and it lacks free will (Pulliam [in Icons of Horror] 724).

It differs from the other monsters found in western fictional narratives because it is a relative newcomer, arriving onto the scene only in the last hundred years or so. Furthermore, the zombie is a new world monster. Unlike ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and other monsters transmitted to American culture through the medium of European fiction, the zombie went directly from folklore to the movie screen and skipped the literary phase of most European monsters.

Out of Africa

The zombie came to America, specifically the Caribbean, from Africa with the slaves.  In Africa, the zombie was an external spirit that was feared because it was capable of sliding into a human body and taking it over.  Traditional African religions saw spirits as inhabiting all things in the natural world.  Human identity was understood against these objects and animals in which these spirits dwelled.  True to its function, the African zombie challenges this distinction between human and not human.  When this external spirit indwells the human, does the human lose its humanity?  This was the place where identity was uncertain for some African societies, so this is the place where the zombie attacked.

The Move to Haiti

The zombie changed as it moved from its native African context to Haiti. In the Caribbean context of “long-standing conflicts that have arisen from imperialism, oppression, and slavery” (Bishop 32), the slave culture formed the idea of the zombie as being an unwilling servant of a malevolent sorcerer.  In this manifestation, the zombie represents “the way in which slavery stripped someone of personhood” (Warner 357).  Slavery was the threat to human identity, so the zombie took on a form that embodied this threat.

Coming to America

The zombie underwent still more changes when it migrated to America.

In the early twentieth century, the zombie entered American culture from the travel literature of William B. Seabrook. After living in Haiti for two years, Seabrook wrote his a first-person account of voodoo rituals in his book called The Magic Island (1929).

This book seems to have been the inspiration for the film White Zombie (1932).  Set in Haiti, this film links zombies to colonial anxieties.  A white sorcerer controls the minds of peasants and his former enemies to create a labor force to work in his sugar mill and amass a fortune. White Zombie is representative of early zombie films that deal with a blend of voodoo, hypnotism, and scientific experimentation.

The zombies of these films “act as cultural metaphors for enslavement” for the “monsters” in these movies “are not even the zombies but rather the sinister priest or master pulling their strings” (Bishop 19). The voodoo sorcerer robs the individuals of their autonomy and turns them into mindless servants.

In these early zombie films, as in Haitian folklore, the zombie depicts “the human subject as nothing more than an object” (131), an instrument to be used and abused by a diabolical master.  The zombie was terrifying to this particular audience because it struck at the boundaries of identity where it was weakest.

The zombies of early cinema didn’t differ a lot from the zombie of Haitian folklore because the audiences experienced a similar threat to their identity.  The rapid industrialization or the early 20th century objectifies the individual in much the same way as did slavery.

Objectification of the Self

It was this objectification of the self that resonated with American movie audiences.

The source of this fear of objectification was produced by the assembly-line economy that spread across America.  Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success.   The human beings in the new economy began to feel as if they were mere raw materials or tools for industrial projects.

The zombies in these early films show this dehumanization–the reduction of humans to the level of a cog in a machine.  Zombies are humans turned into objects.  The representation of the zombie as an empty body–emptied of selfhood–shambled across the screens of America until 1968, when, at the hands of George Romero, it changed to embody a new set of cultural anxieties.  This zombie will be the subject of analysis in this series of posts about this most modern of monsters.

These changes through time and context bear out Kearney’s assertion that as “ideas of self-identity change so do our ideas of what menaces this identity” (Strangers 4).

Our monsters change because we change.

Next Zombie post: The Modern Identity Crisis

 

Zombies (2): The Zombie Apocalypse

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The word apocalypse is often equated with downed power lines, collapsed buildings and the looting of electronics stores (which doesn’t make much sense given the downed power lines). Add a huge herd of zombies to the mayhem and you have the zombie apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.” So, the “zombie apocalypse” literally means “that which zombies reveal.”

Astute zombie fans already suspect that zombies are trying to tell us something. The problem is getting past all that moaning and grabbing and biting in order to hear what they are saying.

Zombies are monsters, and so in order to understand what they are revealing specifically, one must understand the function of monsters in general.

Narrative Monsters

Monsters are created and defined by the stories they inhabit. They attack or threaten a group of people. This group of people is defended or protected by a hero. Together with the villain, the hero and the monster express and reinforce the identity of a group of a group of people.

All groups have an identity–a way they think of themselves as a people, and it’s very important. The hero possesses the qualities that the people value. Those viewing, listening to or reading the story can say the hero is “us”–the best of us.

But identity is a tricky thing. It’s as if it are based on shifting sand. Our group identity is often in flux and we become uncertain. This is where monsters come in.  Monsters appear when we are uncertain.

Think of our cultural identity as a fence.  On the inside of the fence is what we are–it’s the group of embodied ideas that form the “us.”   Outside of the fence is what we are not–it’s the group of embodied ideas that form the “not us.”  The fence is high and strong when we are clear about who we are, when our identity is strong.  But when we have doubts, when the fence is weakened at specific points, that’s where monsters come in.  They attack the fence between the “us” and the “not us” at the very places where we are not sure of who we are.

Monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are.

–Richard Kearney Strangers, Gods and Monsters

This is why monsters, even as they threaten to destroy us, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.  Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen. As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.

The Zombie Monster

The zombies keep coming and coming. Movie after movie is made and they still keep coming. Zombies are insistent. They are trying to tell us our identity is in crisis. And we are meant to ask why.Click To Tweet

The fact that there are so many movies, books and TV shows about the zombie apocalypse tells us that our identity is in doubt,  And it tells us exactly where.

The zombie is the modern monster. It attacks the modern identity, because the modern identity is in flux and we are uncertain of who we are. They challenge how we think of ourselves and they suggest that we may need to consider adjusting our self conceptions.

When the hero kills the monster, the collective identity is secured, perhaps with a few alterations, but stability is achieved.  But zombies have not been defeated as yet. They keep coming and coming. Movie after movie is made and they keep coming.  Zombies are insistent.  Our identity is in crisis.  And we are meant to ask why.

This is what zombies reveal to us; this is the zombie apocalypse.

Next Zombie Post: The Brief History of the Zombie

Zombies (1): A Whole New Kind of Monster

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The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time.  In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241).

Isn’t it strange that both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster?

Zombies never caught on . . .until now

Zombies sure have caught on lately.  The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Over four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math)

So why the popularity of zombies now and not before?

The short answer is that monsters show up when our identity is under is threatened.  Not our individual identity, but our collective identity.  The form the monster takes has everything to do with what our collective identity is, and where it is vulnerable.  The popularity of the most recent addition to the monster pantheon, the zombie, suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity. Consequently, we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying some attention to our monster, the zombie.

George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity.  What is this modern identity?

The zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is, therefore, a monster for our time.Click To Tweet

The Modern Identity

This is a complex question, but at its most basic, the Modern identity is materialistic.

Our society made the turn toward materialism over a century ago.  Materialism in the philosophical sense is the idea reality is composed of matter.  Only matter.  Everything, including thought, feeling, mind, consciousness and will, can be explained in physical terms.

In other words, there is no spiritual reality, no transcendent — no God or gods, angels, demons; no objective Good, Truth, or Beauty, no universal meaning or human purpose.

This is what Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he voiced this idea through the madman in The Gay Science (1882) declaring the death of God. This idea didn’t immediately percolate down to the popular level of our culture.  It was beginning to be felt in the 1960s.

The implications of materialism are one of the key features of the Dead in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.Click To Tweet

My thesis is that the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is, therefore, a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: Zombies (2): The Apocalypse 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

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No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practice anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.

This from Mark Rogers, “Why we must keep religion out of politics” The Belfast Telegraph–Opinion/Letter

Where does this idea come from? The idea that religious expression must be confined to the church like other ideas are to be kept in the bedroom.

Enlightenment Roots

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Immanuel Kant

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along.

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

 

Little Miss Sunshine

Little miss

They are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven-year-old Olive has, by default, qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

The movie is redemptive, but some Christian viewers would find this movie offensive.

That’s an Awful Movie

(SPOILER ALERT)

One of the characters is homosexual, but most Christians would be able to get past this,  The grandfather would be a little more difficult to excuse; he uses heroin and advises his grandson to have sex with as many women as he can.  It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven-year-old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper.

Some might ask, “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative.  If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up and declared to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot of true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits.

I recently wrote a post about using the term “Implication” instead of “Application” when determining our response to Bible stories.  We can interact with any story, including a movie, with the principles of Implication.

Implication

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” or “moral” is but one.

The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”

The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it conveys–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.

Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide each family member from the others. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family, and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Entwined into Little Miss Sunshine

Which of these dreams do you share?  Everyone has a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in this life. This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is a long way from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture of a previous husband sitting on the entry table in the opening scene shows that Cheryl is divorced.  Her family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will remain silent until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost his boyfriend and reputation. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting Olive into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

When I become entwined into this story, I feel the needs and longings of these characters as my own.  I feel the partial meeting of these needs as the family comes together in the crisis.

What’s True in Little Miss Sunshine?

If this way of experiencing narrative truth in a story isn’t good enough for you, there are plenty of “Application” truths here as well.  If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught Olive the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness, we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community, we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness, and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for our good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Share Your Fries

Untitled picture

Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.  I really wanted to hit Reply.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!”

I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m in Africa when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance, the number of tax dollars going to these deadbeats would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.  The reality is that most of the people on assistance are very willing to work and do.

I wanted to tell a story:

My French Fries: A Parable

Once upon a time, there were three children. They were in the back seat of the car.  They cheered as the driver, their father, turned into the McDonald’s drive-through.  He passed two large fries to each of the older children and told them to share with the youngest child who, he knew, would only eat only a few.

The youngest asked for a fry.  Then asked again.  The pleaded.  Then wailed.

The older child reluctantly surrendered two, the second oldest, only one.  They were very reluctant to share their fries.

The father was angry with the older children.

I’m sure you are angry with them too.

They forgot the fries weren’t theirs.

They forgot behave appropriately given the Grace they received.

You Won the Lottery

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

All the stuff you have is not because you worked so hard for it.  Although I don’t doubt you worked hard; you have what you have because you were lucky enough to be born here.

Share your fries.

Application or Implication

 

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”

I love Larry Norman’s critique of the propensity to seek some moral in every Bible story.  His song, “Moses in the Wilderness” after tracing the exploits of Moses, ends with the ridiculous injunction, “Never borrow money needlessly.”

I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application.”  This is the part of the sermon when the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.

By the way some preachers talk about the application, one might get the impression that this is the most important part of the message, but as a congregant, we usually feel that it will be hard to live out the application.  Not only because Biblical standards of holiness are always out of our reach.

The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between our desire to respond to the text, and the word “application.”  The word suggests a  very modern, non-Biblical approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association with the word application, I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my model race cars.  To apply means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work, he does the applying, and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story, let alone scripture, for it makes of the Bible a box of Band-Aids.  A metal box filled with varied useful objects that can be extracted by the skilfull hands of a skillful and equipped expert.  I’m thinking of my mother who, with deft and nailed fingers. was able to extract the appropriate Band-Aid from deep in the box.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the Band-Aid, between me and the Bible’s text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that can be pulled out and used.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  We use the derogatory word didactic to describe stories that are.

Good stories don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.  Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

Sermon Writing: Stories don't stick to us, they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.Click To Tweet

The Good Samaritan

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him but walked past.  A Samaritan, hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

So much for application.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story as a participant.

The clarity of a sermon's APPLICATION is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral. #SermonApplication #SermonWriting #Application #ImplicationClick To Tweet

I can enter the story of the Good Samaritan at several points.

  • I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.
  • But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers
  • or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction.  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.
  • I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.

In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

A further problem with the term application is that it favours a self-centered understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.

The Implication of the story of The Good Samaritan

But to read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do, is to miss the point.  This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

To read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do is to miss the point. This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.Click To Tweet

If the story is about me, then I end up feeling guilty because I am a crappy Good Samaritan.  I’m a priest or a Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.

The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.

When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

When you read the story of The Good Samaritan, do you feel guilty or grateful? Click To Tweet

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implication–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of the Bible’s stories.

Have you ever experienced a powerful, unaccountable feeling of Joy?

I took this picture in Renne, France.

This feeling of Joy fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was a sunny summer afternoon.  I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I think it was Joy.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.

C. S. Lewis was Surprised by Joy

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

What do encounters with Joy mean?

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

  • Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)
  • Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)
  • Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of Joy in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

If they are, oh, I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

 

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Have you ever been told that an issue of “faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself?”

Where did this idea come from? The idea that life is divided between public and private spheres?

The Roots of Dualism

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed. Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief. Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion. God was understood to be the creator but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law. Correlative to the division between God and His Creation was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Immanuel Kant

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood. This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment. The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason. This view of is the essence of the modern worldview and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles. All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles. He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason. For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief (or history, tradition, body, etc.).   It wasn’t very long before religion was thought to be its opposite.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism. It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere. The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason. If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (This false dichotomy, and others, is the point of this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

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