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The Liturgy of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer and the Offering

Prayers of Intercession/Pastoral Prayer

In the dialogue of Sunday worship, the people continue to speak in this section. The Pastoral Prayer is a continuation of our response to God’s word.

This prayer is primarily intercessory.   In it, we petition God for the needs within the church, the universal church, and the world.

This was the killer for me as a kid.   It was “the long prayer,” and for some reason, I could not be fortified with a peppermint as I had been for the sermon.  It was interminable because there was a lot of need in our particular church, but this prayer’s scope was global.  It was long but learned a lot about reality from the Pastoral Prayer even when I was very young.

What I learned from the Pastoral Prayer
Seven things I learned from 'Pastoral Prayer.' Or 'the long prayer' as I called it. It was interminable, but its lessons have stuck with me. Click To Tweet
  • We can speak to God about all of our needs.
  • God is big.  My father was the pastor, and he was talking to God whom he addressed as “father.”  He talked to God like he was big.  When I was a kid, my father was big too–so to hear my father speak to God this way was revealing.  He prayed like God could really do something for the missionaries in Africa or the victims of flooding in China.  All my father prayers started, and still do, with praising God for who he is.
  • God is Father.  My father talked to God with familiarity and sincerity as well as respect.  This paradox was not lost on me as a young child.  I learned that God is big, but he is also good.  A heavenly father.
  • God cares.  He cares about this person who had this ailment, and that family who has lost someone.  He cares about the people in the world who didn’t have clean water or food.  He cares about the missionaries who are bringing good news.
  • I learned that he wasn’t just the God of people in my church, and not just the God of Christians, but of everybody.  We prayed for our town and about the leaders of the country, and for the leaders of other countries.  That they would be wise and that they would be obedient.
  • I also learned that God could do something about these things we were praying about.  My father prayed with expectation.  But I also learned that the prayer wasn’t some kind of a magic trick.  The prayer wasn’t valuable for its utility–there was something else going on.  That prayer was, in large part, for the sake of the one who prays.
  • At some point, I figured out that I could send my own small requests to God during the Pastoral Prayer.  My father had opened the conduit, as it were, so I figured I could still fire up some requests alongside his.

There are more things that I learned, but the important thing is that I learned them because they were repeated every week.  They have stuck with me for many decades now, because of the repetition.

My current church always prayers for another local church, and a missionary.  I love this ritual it shapes us.  we come to know, among other things, that the Body of Christ involves other congregations and denominations in this town.  These other churches are not in competition with us but are all trying to achieve the same thing–the learning and spreading of the Good News.

Offertory Prayer and the Offering

We continue in our response to the Word with the offering.

The offertory prayer is a regular reminder that God has blessed us richly.  All that we have comes from him.  He gives the gifts through which we love our neighbours.

Giving is both a sacred duty and a “joy.”

These terms seem contradictory, but they are not–when you fully understand that God has given you everything, and everything you have belongs to God, giving is quite easy.  When you think that what is your’s is your’s, cheerful giving is impossible.

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy. Click To Tweet

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy.  The joy that comes from understanding that all we have belongs to God and are to be used for his purposes.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (6): Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

Order of Worship (4) The Creed

pixagod / Pixabay

The dialogue continues.  God contributed most to the conversation in the Proclamation section of the liturgy.  In this section, we do most of the talking as we respond to the Word and the Grace we received from our Father’s hand.

Song or Hymn of Response

The song we sing after the sermon is not just a song.  At least it shouldn’t be.  It should be a song that articulates musically and poetically, the appropriate response to God’s Word and Grace.  Which song we sing depends on the sermon, for the service is a unified whole.

In some churches, a great deal of thought goes into the choice of this song.  The content of the lyrics is a significant determiner.  Some churches just sing one of the ten songs that we’ve been singing for the last few months.  What the song says doesn’t matter as much as the feelings the song generates.

The concern here is the dialogue of worship.  God says something, presumably significant–let’s say today’s sermon was about “Gracious Giving”–and our response is, “Glorious Day.”  It’s nice to have conversations each Christmas with dear Aunt Martha, they are beautiful and relational, but because of their lack of coherence, they don’t really go anywhere.  In this analogy, we are dear Aunt Martha.

The Apostles’ Creed

Although many proclaim it, there is no such thing as a “No Creed But Christ” church.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it.  The problem here is that culture tends to influence the formation of this creed.  Either way, you will be a “creedal” church.  And your creed will be reinforced with ritual.

I suggest that we might as well adopt the traditional creeds of the Christian tradition.  The Apostle’s Creed is the one that reviews the foundational doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

The Apostle’s Creed affirms

  • the Trinity,
  • the historical facts of the gospel,
  • the person and work of the Holy Spirit,
  • the existence of a “holy” universal church,
  • the communion of saints,
  • the forgiveness of sins,
  • the resurrection,
  • and life everlasting.

This creed is not infallible, but it is based on the Bible within a long tradition.  It is old, and in this, there is some merit.  New is not necessarily improved.

Even with the regular recitation of a traditional creed, we are still in danger of ritualizing other non-biblical cultural beliefs.  But without this practice, what is to prevent the church from sliding away from the basic tenets of Christianity without even being aware of having done so?

In the absence of a Creed (or despite one), here are 12 organic creedal statements that some churches may have passively adopted. Click To Tweet

Here’s a partial list of organic creedal statements that rise out of context and a particular interpretation of the Bible.

  1. “New means improved.”
  2. “We experience the Holy Spirit in worship through our feelings.”
  3. “The most important aspect of the Bible is its inerrancy.”
  4. “It is better to be married than to remain single.”
  5. “There are spiritual things and then there are sacred things.”
  6. Sin is doing bad things.”
  7. The worst sins are sexual.”
  8. Christian living is about striving.”
  9. “All people are created equal” 
  10. The worshiper’s experience is important in the Sunday service”
  11. “Worship is singing and singing is worship.”
  12. “Efficiency and practicality are Christian virtues.”

Would you add anything to this list? The comment section awaits.

If you don’t recite a creed, take a long hard look at the implicit creeds that have been ritualized in your church.   This is a good practice for every church, even those who regularly recite a traditional creed.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it. Either way, you will be a 'creedal' church.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

Order of Worship (3): Proclamation

If the liturgy is a dialogue between God and his people, in the Proclamation section God does most of the talking.

God speaks to us primarily through his word–the Bible.  The sermon is an encounter with, not just the Bible, but God as revealed in its pages. What we find in the Bible is a collection of ancient texts that were written for us, but not to us.  The Bible is a story.  That’s not all it is, but it helps us to understand how to approach it.  It is not our story, but it is the story in which we live, not just Christians, but all of humanity.  It is a story centered on Jesus Christ–the Word as spoken of by John in the first verses of his gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Prayer for Illumination

Rituals are not empty, they are full in the sense that they train us on the deepest level.  What sort of training is provided by the weekly repetition of the prayer of illumination?  It trains us how to approach the Bible.  This prayer is an admission that we need God’s help, to understand what we find in scripture, an admission that we can’t rely on our own reason and knowledge to understand.  This is an acknowledgment that the Bible is a book that must be read with spiritual assistance–the Holy Spirit.

This prayer focuses our attention beyond ourselves as readers, indeed, beyond the text to our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God.  In this prayer, we anticipate the working of his Grace through our encounter with the text.  In a real sense, then, we are preparing for a supernatural event.

The Sunday Prayer of Illumination will change how we approach daily devotions on Monday, for it is a reminder that the words of the Bible are a site of miraculous encounters.

The Sermon

The sermon is, or ought to be, about the Bible.

What is the Bible?

What the Bible isn’t is an encyclopedia, or an instruction manual for life, or a rule book.   It’s hard to resist looking at the Bible in these ways because our cultural default is set to view everything as an object that might have a use.

In a recent Tweet, Tim Keller said, “It is impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols.”  This applies to our culture as well.  And one of our idols is Reason.  Rationalism is the idea that the best, or even only, way to know things is through human reason.  Our confidence in human reason has taken some blows in the last century, but we still stubbornly hold onto our faith in it.   It is so powerful that it has effected how we read and understand the Bible.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is true.  As Westerners, we believe that truth is an object of human Reason.  The Bible, then, becomes nothing more than an object that we study and use as rational subjects. We look for “applications,” instead of implications.   We get too wound up about biblical inerrancy.  But truth is much bigger than fact or useful information.  The Bible becomes something more like an encyclopedia than a story, or a poem, or a painting.   As Western Christians we must resist this limited notion of Truth.

So what is the Bible?

Rather than give a long rational treatise on what the Bible is, let me do what the Bible does and offer a picture of what a sermon, rooted in the Word, can be.

The image is found in Ezekiel:

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lordsays to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army

We are dry and lifeless.  The Word of God, preached by inspired human authors, brings life.  God could himself speak directly to the bones, but he chooses an intermediary–Ezekiel.  He uses the preacher before us.

This image presents the Word, not as an object that we approach as rational subjects, but as active agent.  We are the passive pile of dry bones–we are the object; the Holy Spirit is the subject.  He brings life though the hearing of the Word.  God is active in the sermon.

Do we listen to the sermon to learn about life or to receive it? The former is a happy by-product. The sermon is not simply the knowledgeable reflections of a pastor. The sermon is an act of Grace, and we receive the life that flows from it.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

Order of Worship (2): Confession

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In some churches, there is only an occasional song of confession, but somebody usually includes a confessional element in a prayer at some point, but confession isn’t a very big part of what I call modern, non-liturgical church services.

Confession is important.  It is about sin, and sin is a big thing in Christianity.  We all sin more or less continuously, so we need to repent again and again.  And when we do so honestly and regularly, we get a much better picture of who we are.  And how much we need forgiveness.

In the traditional liturgies of most denominations, we practiced confession weekly, and in this repetition, garnered long term beneficial effects.  These benefits are derived from turning our love toward God, through ritual.  Rituals have the power to shape our identities, and if we are not deliberate, cultural liturgies will shape them instead.

The Law

The liturgical worship service is structured around a dialogue between God and his people.  God calls us and Greets us, we respond with praise.  Then God speaks through his word; we are reminded of God’s expectations for us in the reading of the Law.  This is often the Ten Commandments, but there are many suitable passages, like Micah 6:8.  The point here is that we need to be reminded that God has expectations, and we have failed to live up to them.  We are disobedient and rebellious.

Thus, we need to repent.

Call to Confession

We are called to confession.  We have to be called because we don’t really want to do it.  True confession is hard because we have to look at who we really are.   An honest look at oneself does not happen easily.  We might need some practice–maybe even a thousand cracks at it.  But if you deliberately practice confession in church every week, it will begin to be a daily rhythm, and you’ll be good at it in less than 20 years.

The call to confession reminds us that what’s wrong with the world is not out there somewhere but within me.  I need a reminder, especially if I look at social media occasionally.  The sins of others are so obvious on Twitter.  The call to confession repeated weekly can begin to remind me that I am the problem with the world.

Until we realize that our biggest problem in life is not out there, but in us, we haven’t really come to a Christian understanding of reality.  The repetition of ritual helps us to accept this reality in ways far deeper than intellectual consent.  This is the power of ritual.

Prayer of Confession

If confession is just a mention in a prayer by the worship leader, then I might quickly confess the first sin that comes to mind.  I can usually remember one.  But, this is inadequate.  I have committed a lot more sins than this one.  Then there are the sins of omission.  Then there are the sins that I would have committed in different circumstances.  All of these damn me.

Our appreciation of God's Grace is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it. Click To Tweet

Our appreciation of God’s Grace in Redemption is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it.  The only way for us to understand our need for God’s salvation is to meditate on our sin, and then confess it.

This past summer I was in England and I worshiped in Anglican churches.  Praying in unison each week a prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer is a moving experience when you attend to the words.  Here’s an example:

Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.

We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God.

Amen.

Ritual Confession

“But if you confess every week it is no longer moving, or special.”

We overemphasize experience in our culture–in church, we have a danger of emphasizing religious experience.  Occasional experiences don’t shape us as regular ones do.  The function of the liturgy is not to be new and special, but to shape us into a particular people.  To conform us to reality, if you will.

It’s almost a given that we must avoid “empty ritual.”  But what we must realize is that there is no such thing.  Rituals are full.  We give a child a quarter to drop into the collection plate every week.  We insist a child say the words, “I’m sorry,” even when they clearly don’t mean it.  These are important things to do, for they shape the identity of the child.  The shaping isn’t intellectual–in the head–nor is it a changing of the heart.  In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says that routines and rituals affect us in our gut or bones.

We are shaped into a certain kind of people by a liturgy of confession.

The ritual reminds us of two things--it reminds me that I am no worse than anyone else, and it reminds me that I am no better.Click To Tweet

Then, in the dialogue of worship, God speaks again.

Assurance of Pardon

As difficult as confession is, before we even start the confession, we know what’s coming.  Amazing Grace.  The assurance of pardon.

Human sinfulness is a big deal in Christianity, but God’s pardon and adoption into his family is the other half of the story.  Both should, then, be a significant part of our weekly gathering.

God’s pardon is really good news.  In the Old Testament, regular blood sacrifice established a pattern of purification.  Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.  The sacrifices reinforce the idea that death is the penalty for sin. But it’s clearly an act of Grace that God even allows for a substitute.  Old Testament animals functioned as a substitute death.  The inadequacy of these sacrifices is evidenced by the need for repeated sacrifice.

The death of God himself on our behalf is a once and for all sacrifice for our sake. We do nothing to earn it.  It is a free gift.  We do nothing but open our hands and receive it.

At this point in the liturgy, God gives pardon.  And we receive.  Repeated every week we become persons and a people of Grace.

In the prayer of confession, we come to realize and admit that we are in a hard place.  We cannot save ourselves.  We are unworthy to be anywhere near a holy God.  When we get honest about our sin, we come to an understanding of how much I need Jesus, and then we experience his Grace.

Response of Thanksgiving

We confess, God pardons, and then we express gratitude.

This is to be the pattern of the Christian life.  Like inhaling and exhaling.

But in order for this to become the pattern, it needs to be reinforced.

If we don’t practice it weekly, we won’t ever get the hang of it.  We will spend a lifetime not knowing ourselves, and worse yet, not knowing the extent of God’s Grace.

Occasional confession is a liturgy of omission.  A church that occasionally confesses is not much better than one that never confesses.  The repetition is where the shaping occurs.  The church that has a significant confession element every week will more effectively disciple the people into experiencing a pattern of confession and forgiveness that will alter their lives. The Sunday confession models the prayers we can offer on Monday and beyond.

If your church does not practice regular Confession and Assurance, is it time to consider including it in our weekly worship services?  If it does, allow the power of ritual to turn out love towards God.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (3): The Proclamation

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

pixagod / Pixabay

When I was a kid, Sunday church services were interminable.  I thought that it might be a lot easier to endure if I had some idea as to where we were in the service.  So I asked my dad, the pastor, if he could write out the service elements, in order, onto a piece of paper so that I could track along.  I reasoned that the long bits, like the congregational prayer and sermon, might be easier to suffer if I knew where we were in relation to the end.

Being the child of the pastor, I thought I had privileged access to this information. He chuckled and showed me last week’s bulletin.  There it was–The Order of Worship–a list of all the elements in the worship service.  It had been there all along, for just anyone to follow.  So every Sunday, I followed along and found that the church became less arduous when I knew where we were.

I discovered something else–every service followed the same pattern.  The order of worship wasn’t this week’s order.  It was every week’s order.  Eventually, I didn’t need to look at the bulletin.  I always knew where we were and the pattern became a comfort.

The Pattern of Worship

For a long, long time, all Christian church services were liturgical.  They followed a regular and predictable pattern.  Even after the huge disruption of the Reformation, services were still governed by a liturgy regardless of denomination.

I am only speaking from my own experience, but I began noticing some congregations were abandoning formal liturgies in the late 80s.  I started seeing church signs announcing “Liturgical Services” at a different time from the “Regular Service.” Now we have lots of these modern, non-liturgical churches.

These have a very simple order of worship.  If they did publish one, it would look something like this.

Songs

Sermon

Songs

I’m being a little facetious because there are a few prayers and an offering, but these events have been shortened and are now rather streamline.  It should be noted that the songs will sometimes connect to elements of the old liturgy they’ve supplanted–songs of praise certainly, sometimes confession or Thanksgiving or even a re-worked apostles’ creed–but when we rely on songs to carry these liturgical elements, they are no longer weekly occurrences and this is significant.

I suppose we’ve simplified things so as to avoid confusing visitors to our Sunday service.  After all, many of our neighbors are no longer familiar with church.  This may be reason enough to keep the Order of Worship simple.

But perhaps we’ve lost something.

An Active God

What does God do during the church service?

In the modern, non-liturgical churches it is easy to get the idea that God doesn’t do very much.  At least little is implied about his actions.  During the songs, he might be sitting there listening and smiling.  And what does God do during the sermon?  He is of course speaking, but do we frame the sermon in such a way as to leave the congregants no doubt that it is not just the preacher who is speaking?  Are the faithful are allowed to think God is listening indifferently–after all, he knows it all already.  How many people would say that His attention is drawn to another church somewhere else in the world that happens to be singing at the time because God likes the singing part the best?

In modern, non-liturgical churches, it’s easy to think that the people are the main or only actors in the Sunday service.   We arrive, we sing, we pray, we listen, we eat and drink and then we leave.  (There is another scenario, which is a concern for worship leaders, were only the worship band is active, and the rest passively consume, but this is a topic for another day.)

God merely receives human worship.

Passivity is not a characteristic of God as presented in the Bible.  The passivity we attribute to him is a product of secularization.  In the West, we have created artificial categories between physical things and spiritual things and then we marginalize the spiritual things.  The Western church is not immune to secularism.  Lot’s of people still believe that God is there, but they aren’t really sure what he does.   It seems like he’s a long way off, no doubt hearing our prayers, but is he really acting on them?  Christians influenced by Modernism experience a narrowing and weakening the presence and power of transcendent things in the immanent frame.

By stepping away from traditional liturgies, we’ve not eliminated liturgies, we’ve just adopted new ones.  If we haven’t been deliberate, we’ve simply replaced tratitional liturgies with secular ones.  Thus promoting and perpetuating secular ideas through corporate worship.

Some churches are promoting secular ideas through corporate worship because they've replaced traditional liturgies with secular ones. In secularized Christian worship, God is passive. Agency lies primarily with people.Click To Tweet

Habits and Rituals

Habits, rituals, and liturgies are important.  They shape how we think and they shape who we are.  We can ritualize God’s passivity and the weekly repetition will eventually shape how we think, and even who we are.  God’s passivity won’t just stay in church, we will eventually come to think of God as passive in our lives and in the world as well.

The converse is also true.  If we shape our worship service around God’s active interaction with his people, this idea will leak into Monday and beyond.

Traditional liturgies shape worship as an active dialogue between God and his people–(all his people, not just the ones with instruments.)

The Call to Worship and God’s Greeting

The first words the worshipers hear in the service are important.   At one service, the first words I heard were,

“I want to thank you all for coming to church this morning.”

Seriously?

Who greets us?  This greeting is all about the actions of the worshipers.   We have decided to come to church this morning.  Apparently with some inconvenience, for we have earned gratitude from somewhere.  Who owes us this gratitude?  The worship leader?  God?  Does God owe us something because we chose to come to church instead of watching the first half of the football game?

The Call to Worship suggests that someone is calling.  It is God himself who draws us to church.  He gets the first word.  We are not there because we chose to be there; we are not there because our parents made us come; we are not there because we are trying to impress that cute girl with our religious zeal; we are not there because this is what we always do on Sundays.  We are there because God has drawn us there.

Our bodies are there, but where are our hearts and minds?  The call to worship marks a turning toward worship, toward the throne of heaven, toward God.  The preceding week was full of joys and challenges involving relationships, obligations, worries, and diversions.  In the call to worship we are turned from ourselves, toward God.

And The Greeting is his.

What kind of people do we become if we are regularly thanked for deciding to come to church?  What kind of people do we become if we repeat, week after week, God’s active calling to corporate worship?

Acts of Praise

Next comes an act of praise.  Our action follows God’s action.

Importantly, this act of praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing nor is it caused by the first cords of music.  Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.

Praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing. Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.Click To Tweet

This may not be automatic for everyone.  But it’s what the liturgy teaches through repetition.  With ritual repetition, this will eventually come to be our natural response.

To make the Sunday worship service just a bunch of human activity, well, that’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit without Roger Rabbit.  Our Sunday worship needs to show God’s activity because he is active.  If we can’t see what he does in Church, how can we see him as active in our lives, let alone the world?

God doesn’t just sit up in heaven waiting for Sunday when some people will sing songs at him.  A weekly reminder that God calls us to worship will begin to change how we view ourselves, the world and the God who sustains it all.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6): The Lord’s Supper

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

The Meaning of Monsters

jplenio / Pixabay

I have this theory about monsters and what they mean.

Although they are antagonists, they are not the same as villains.  They are much more interesting.  Heroes are about what we want to be.  Villains are what we don’t want to be.  Monsters are what don’t want to be, but we might be anyway whether we like it or not.

Heroes and Villains

Heroes are our ideal.  They represent our best selves.  They stand for what we want to stand for as a group. They have the characteristics that we value, and wish we had more of.   Heroes are always courageous because this is a universally admired characteristic.  Heroes tend to defend the innocent and the collective good.  We normal humans don’t always do these things, but we like to think of ourselves type of person who would.  We project all this awesomeness onto our heroes.

Our heroes change because we change.  The great hero Beowulf bragged about his heroic exploits.  Today, we’d find his sort of arrogant pride to be villainous, but Anglo-Saxon listeners loved boasting if you could back it up.  When the great Achilles wasn’t harvesting Trojans, he could be found weeping by the seashore.  For Greek audiences, this wasn’t a sign of weakness, but passion–a virtue, until he took it a little too far; the Greeks also liked a tragic flaw.

Villains are the opposite of heroes.  They have qualities and characteristics that we castigate.  Villains break promises or they are cowards or they threaten the lives of the innocent and the virtue of women.  They possess the characteristics for which we punish our children.   Not all otherness is a threat.  Villains represent the bad side of “otherness.”

And so we have a fence around our identity.  Within the fence, we find our people and the values we espouse.  What lies outside the fence is otherness–other people and the values that we don’t hold, some of which we reject.

Heroes are how we see ourselves, villains are the opposite, and monsters represent the nasty bits of ourselves we'd rather not admit to. Click To Tweet

Narrative Identity

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) describes the relationship between narrative and identity suggesting that when we tell our stories, we are clarifying our identity.  Stories constitute the identity of individuals, but the mechanism is the same for collective identities.

Ricoeur suggests that identity is revealed through the interplay of two competing forces within narratives. The first force presses on the narrator to represent his role in the story in a way that is consistent with his view of himself—this Ricoeur calls the “demand for concordance.” We like to think of our identity as having some permanence, so we are compelled to tell our stories in a way that is consistent with this idea we have of ourselves.

The second force at work in the recounting of past events is what Ricoeur calls the “admission of discordance.”  This force presses the teller to accurately represent himself in thought, word, and deed.

These two forces are not always in concert.  Sometimes how we think of ourselves is inconsistent with reality.  A small divergence can be easily suppressed, but small divergences can build up and large ones are not easily ignored.  The discordant force threatens the supposed permanence of the teller’s identity. The competition between these stories can create tension in our narratives. It is out of this tension, says Ricoeur, that his identity is shaped and expressed.

Let me tell you a personal story that which illustrates this dynamic.

A True Story

When I was around 19, I went to a midnight movie with three friends, Jim, Marylou, and Stewart—I think the movie was Animal House. After the show, I stopped briefly to chat another friend in the theatre lobby, so I left the theatre alone a few minutes later.  As I stepped outside, four guys in an old car aggressively pulled up to the curb and, completely unprovoked, flipped me the bird.  Without thinking, I responded in kind, then turned to walk down the dark alley in the direction of the car.

I sensed that I might be in some danger when I heard the car doors slam behind me.  I knew they were coming when I heard the sounds of pursuit behind me. I picked up my pace, just a little.  I didn’t need to go any faster because I saw that I would make it around the corner before they caught me.

My friends were ready.  Jim had already told MaryLou to get into the car and lock the door.  He stood leaning against the car, waiting.  Stewart had taken off his jacket and was lighting a cigarette.  I don’t know how they knew what was happening but, I was glad they did.  I turned and prepared to meet the threat, with fists if necessary.  It’s all we had, and I hoped it would be enough.

My would-be assailants, thinking they would catch a vulnerable victim, rounded the corner at a run, eager for blood. When they saw that it was going to have to be a fair fight, they slowed to a walk, nodded, said “Hey,” and kept walking past us.

The Demand for Concordance

I’ve told this story many times, and it’s the same every time.  When I analyze these events, it’s not to hard to find some tension between the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance.

I think of myself as a nice person and a peacemaker. I am good at navigating around conflict.  In my recounting of the above story, I suppressed those little things which were inconsistent with this identity as I saw it.  I didn’t really behave like a peacemaker when I returned the obscene gesture, but I soften this inconsistency by describing my attackers as aggressive and my role in this altercation as, merely unthinking.  But there is an even more powerful challenge to my identity than the one against my peacekeeping ideals.

Am I a coward?

In my narrative, there is no mention of the fear I felt at the time, but I was scared.  This omission is a result of my reluctance to admit the possibility of cowardice. I don’t remember if there were four or three attackers, but I went with four because it excuses the fear that still clings to this memory.  In the retelling, I emphasize that I picking up my pace was strategic, and not out of any fear.  Their unwillingness to fight even with numerical superiority transfers cowardice onto them.  Lastly, I don’t know if Stewart calmly lit a cigarette and, although I think Jim leaned against the car, I’m not sure he was that casual. These details suggest a calm in my friends, which is transferred to me by association.  I also remember trying not to hurry, but was I as successful as my story recounts?  There is no lie here, just nuance that comes from the demand that my story concords with my held identity.

It is conceivable that new experiences would reveal that I was not a peacemaker, or I was in fact, a coward.  If this turned out to be true it would have gotten harder and harder to admit this discordance relative to me self-understanding.

This can happen on a collective level as well.

Here is where the monsters come in.

When Monsters Attack

Monsters show up–with any kind of strength–only under particular circumstances—when our collective identity is in crisis. When the stuff we’ve been suppressing begins to create weak points in the boundaries between the “us” and otherness.  The monster is what prowls around the fence and attack it at its weakest point.  The weak points of our identity are those places in the boundaries of our collective identity where we begin to lack certainty about who we are.  The parts that are getting harder to suppress.  Discordance that is beginning to demand admission.

The fascinating thing about monsters is they don’t simply represent otherness. This is too simplistic. Monsters are the projection of uncomfortable possibilities.   The monsters that intrigue us, the ones that, again and again, find their way into our stories, are the ones that most directly challenge our understanding of ourselves.  By their very presence, they ask us the questions that, deep down, we have already been asking ourselves—Is this really who you are?

The hero is what we are, or at least want to be. The villain is what we are not. Monsters are the embodiment of what is perhaps the truth that we want to suppress. They appear as the suppression begins to fail.Click To Tweet

Our Monsters

The Greek’s had the Minotaur and Medusa. The Anglo-Saxons told stories about the monster of the moors and marshes, Grendel and dragons.  Demons and witches terrorized the medieval identity. Later came Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the vampire who attacked the boundaries of Modern identities.

Each of these monsters terrorized a particular cultural identity that was in crisis. If Anglo-Saxon storyteller had conceived of Frankenstein’s monster and, the next night in the mead hall, told his story about a creature made from corpses, he’d receive an awkward silence and some puzzled grunts from his Anglo-Saxon audience. Such a monster would not have intrigued them, and the first telling would also have been the last.

Monsters scare and fascinate a people because the monster is tailor-made for that culture. Its form is the embodiment of particular doubts about who we are. It attacks the fence that surrounds our identity at exactly the point where it is the weakest. This is why we can learn a lot about a culture by studying its monsters.

This is why we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying our monster—the zombie horde.

Black Hats, White Hats, Red Hats, Grey Hats

Simplistic thinking and knee-jerk reaction is a problem these days.  There used to be more a little more nuance in people’s thinking, some acknowledgment of grey areas.  Not anymore, it seems.  We live in a world of black and white.

I was watching Twitter this week when the #CovingtonBoys met Nathan Phillips.  People looked at that now famous image and jumped to all sorts of conclusions about what happened.  Pretty much every conclusion to which anyone jumped was wrong because they jumped from simplistic assumptions.  A week has passed and some people are still looking at the incident through stereotypes.

With this binary thinking, there are clear good guys and clear bad buys.  Heroes in white hats and villains in black hats.  But this isn’t reality; there were no black and white hats at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday–just grey (and red).

The Sainthood and The #Covingtonboys

There were a lot of people who saw the students from Covington High school as saints.  Others see them and want to respond with violence.  The reasons for both reactions are the same.

  1. They are Christian.
  2. They are obviously conservative
  3. They are wearing MAGA hats.

The Sainthood of Nathan Phillips

There’s a whole other batch of people that instantly saw Phillips as the saint.  Their evidence?

  1. He is a U.S. Marine Veteran.
  2. He is an Omaha Tribal elder.
  3. He must be liberal.

TheCovingtonBoys are not Saints

I work with High School students.   They are all capable of much good and we celebrate this when we see it, but they are all capable of many forms of vice or folly.  They are like every other human being on the planet except they are young.  Consequently, both their good and their evil are a little more exuberant.

I am going to disagree with Rienzo, who seems to equate the boys to Christian martyrs facing lions in the Colleseum.

In this group of students, as in most groups, you will see a mix of good, bad and foolish.

They are Christian: Not all Christians are good.  I would go so far as to say, “No Christians are good.”  I wouldn’t be so bold, except the Bible says it.  For it puts Christians in the larger category of being human.  I will concede that there is a lot more hostility directed toward Christians in the media these days.  But, it is not at all helpful for Christians to automatically come to the defense of other Christians, just because they are Christian.  We can expect evil within our midst.  And the best course of action is to deal with it.

It’s equally ridiculous to demonize all Christians.  For one thing, the standard by which Christians are being demonized is a Christian standard.  Secondly, many of the offenses for which Christians are accused are not Christian or at least not exclusively Christian, but human nature expressed through religion and politics.

Every Christian is also human.   That means they will sometimes do good things, but it also guarantees that they will also do evil.  Consequently, we will have to condone or condemn their words and deeds, one at a time.  This is not convenient, but it is moral.

They are conservative:  This doesn’t automatically make them good people, but it doesn’t automatically make them bad people either.   There are good reasons behind social and economic conservatism.  And there are problems with it as well.  Let’s admit this fact, instead of automatically and thoughtlessly condoning or condemning.  Meaningful dialogue is the only way to tease out the truth and the falsehood from these positions.  Meaningful dialogue and name-calling are mutually exclusive.

I don’t understand Christians who are completely comfortable under the conservative label when a good chunk of conservative thought runs contrary to the Bible.  But even so, they are half right, and it might take some responsible dialogue to determine when, where and why.

They are wearing MAGA hats:  This is a hard one.  Some people see this as a token of sainthood.  It certainly isn’t that.  But I try not to think of it as signifying pure, unadulterated evil.  It is inseparable from Donald Trump.  This means that Christians should be very hesitant to wear them for he represents so much that is contrary to Biblical Christianity.

Of course, the students don’t understand that it’s inappropriate to politicize the March for Life with a Trump hat, but where are the adults?   And then I realize that there are probably a lot of adults are wearing them too.

Of course, the students don't understand that it's inappropriate to politicize the March for Life with a Trump hat, but where are the adults? And then I realize that there are probably a lot of adults are wearing them too.Click To Tweet

Nathan Phillips is No Saint Either

Nathan Phillips is no saint, nor is he likely a villain, but this week, binary thinking reduced him to one or the other.  From some perspectives, the evidence for his essential goodness comes from his service in the US military.

He is a Veteran:  Partly out of guilt for our treatment of Vietnam War veterans, and partly because of our worship of Freedom, we’ve recast the idea of a soldier as Defender of Freedom.  We liturgically show appreciation for the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform at civic celebrations and sporting events.  Further, the military is, as always, linked to nationalism.  Consequently, our cultural narratives now celebrate our soldiers.  Veterans are the good guys.  Phillips is a veteran.

Our veneration of Freedom and Nation can lead us to unthinkingly considering all veterans as white-hat heroes, but Nathan Phillips cannot live up to this image.  He is only human.

He is an Omaha Tribal elder:  This has lately become a powerful signifier or goodness.  I recently overheard a woman bashing Christians for being bigots and anti-science.  But it was obvious that she held firmly to the now fashionable reverence for Indigenous culture and spirituality that our federal and provincial governments are promoting.  I support this promotion, by the way.  But with qualifications.

Indigenous Spirituality in a Box

We do well to understand the culture and spirituality of our Indigenous neighbours.  There is much to admire and even emulate. But I worry that we are sanitizing and homogenizing this culture.  Both Indigenous spirituality and Christianity are inconsistent with the modern liberalism that dominates the political and social scene in Canada often for the same reasons.  In the case of Christianity, the differences are emphasized and condemned.  In the case of Indigenous culture, the differences are emphasized and patronized and sanitized and then celebrated.

Both Indigenous spirituality and that of Christianity are inconsistent with the modern liberalism that dominates Canadian politics and education, often for the same reasons. But we condemn the differences in the former and praise them in the latter.Click To Tweet

We are not taking Indigenous culture and spirituality as it is.  We pick and choose the bits that fit our particular political and social narrative.  I fear we are we sentimentalizing.  And so we fail to understand our neighbours but walk away feeling as if we’ve somehow done right.

I wanted to tell the woman who was bashing Christians and venerating Indigenous spirituality, that 70 percent of Indigenous people are Christian.  I suspect this would have been problematic because I don’t think it fits her simplistic narrative.

When I was a kid, the media–movies and television–usually presented Indigenous Americans as aggressive and savage.  We’ve come to repent of this racism, but we are in danger of replacing this misrepresentation with another.  Disney does this when it presents the Sioux as passive victims in Hidalgo.

We often reduce indigenous culture down to its connection to the land or its respect for elders and ancestors or the dialogic approach to problem-solving or as a complement to secular modernism.  These are wonderful aspects of these cultures that we might benefit from, but aren’t we just cherry picking?   Aren’t we really assuming a patronizing openness to these particular ideas and in doing so, disrespecting the whole?

Very rarely do people or things fit neatly into categories of Good and Evil. One of the things we can learn from Indigenous culture is the efficacy of a restorative justice model to teach us that this is so.Click To Tweet

He must be a liberal: There are two problems here.  One is that it’s a simplistic assumption–liberals cannot usually be identified by how they look.  The second problem is to assume that if he’s a liberal, he’s a saint or an embodiment of evil.  There are good reasons behind social and economic liberalism, but it’s not all good.  Meaningful dialogue is the only way to tease out the truth and the falsehood from these positions.

I don’t understand Christians who are completely comfortable under the liberal label when a good chunk of liberal thought runs contrary to the Bible.  But even so, they are half right, and it might take some responsible dialogue to determine when, where and why.

Very rarely do people or things fit neatly into categories of Good and Evil.  One of the things we can learn from Indigenous culture is the efficacy of a restorative justice model to teach us that this is so.  I’m not sure if Phillips is so keen on restorative practices, but we’ll see if he consents to meet with the boys.  America needs some Indigenous Peoples’ wisdom in these curcumstances.  Ironically, these ways are also Christian.  Let’s use, and celebrate both.

If you’d like a nice parable that also bears on this discussion, read “The White Knight” by Eric Nicol.

 

Disney’s Hidalgo: Racism and the America’s Identity Crisis After 9/11

Image by CineMaterial

On September 11, 2001 Americans experienced an event that resulted in a national identity crisis.  Someone had to hate America so much that they’d be willing to kill, and die, to express that hatred.  In the wake of the attacks, Americans had a lot of questions.  Who are these terrorists?  Why do they hate us?  Is Islam peaceful or not?  Was this attack all about religion?  Who are we?  Did we do something to deserve this?  What don’t they understand about us?  What don’t we understand about them?

Deep down, these questions are about identity. We were having an identity crisis.

In the face of this crisis, Disney makes a movie.

To assist in the clarification of the American identity, they release the film Hidalgo (2004).  In it, an America encounters the other with an Arab face as Frank Hopkins and his mustang, Hidalgo, enter an endurance race across the Arabian Desert.   Americans are asking, “Who am I and who are these people called Muslims?”  Hidalgo answers these questions for the viewing audience by clarifying what we are against the Arab other.

In Hidalgo, Disney uses a mythologized version of history to present an innocent and morally upright America which finds strength in the virtues of egalitarianism, self-determinism, and cultural diversity. Click To Tweet 

The Myth-Making of Disney

The popular understanding of the term myth is “a story that isn’t true”—or even an outright lie.  This is not what myth means.  Truth is central to the idea of myth.  Myths  are stories that communicate a vision of a people and their understanding of the world.  Roland Barthe says that in myth a worldview, set of values, or an ethos, are presented as if they were part of the natural order of things.  These things are constructed, they are products of history, but they are powerful nonetheless, for they define a cultural reality—they articulate the truth according to a particular people, those who have adopted the story as their own. 

Myths are not always some ancient story about origins.  Religious figures, authors, politicians, artists, and journalists create and communicate myths as well.  When it comes to the creation of myths, Henry Giroux says “there are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company.”

Disney wants to construct a collective identity from the American past.  It is a particular identity they want to create and they aggressively rewrite and mythologize history to do it.  This is almost always done in opposition to some other.

Disney is not unique in this approach.  We’ve been doing it since we were living in caves.  Richard Kearney says that crises of national identity “seek provisional resolution by displacing the internal conflict of us/them onto an external screen.  Hence, the need to identify outside enemies.”  The other against which identity is constituted is mythic, in the Barthean sense.  It’s presented as if it were part of the natural order of things.

For a time, America’s indigenous people filled the role of the other against which the national identity was constituted.  Because of its dynamic nature, the mythic other is subject to change.  This shift is evidenced in Hidalgo where it is the Arab other that represents alterity and the Sioux is brought to conform with notions of self-identity and sameness.   

Hidalgo: Reimagining Wounded Knee

The inciting incident in the film Hidalgo is the Battle of Wounded Knee after American soldiers misunderstand the Sioux Ghost Dance to be a display of aggression. This event has been altered and mythologized in the film.

The Ghost Dance.  Historian Jeffrey Ostler explores Sioux life as they lived in the economy of the reservation which replaced their dependence on the buffalo herds.   Reservation life, says Ostler, was a “project of control.”  The Sioux experienced a systematic attack on their way of life which reflected a “commitment to cultural genocide” on the part of the American government.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance, which lead to the events at Wounded Knee, would bring about a cataclysmic event that would restore the buffalo and remove the whites from the earth.  Ostler says it “is best understood as an anticolonial movement.” Disney empties the dance of its “oppositional character” and turns the events of that fateful day in American history into a new story.

In the film Hidalgo, the Disney version of the event has been mythologized—emptied then selectively refilled—to show that the events at Wounded Knee were accidental.  The meaning of the Ghost Dance has been distorted in the film.  Rather than an anticolonial movement, it is made passive.  It is a prayer “to their ancestors for help.”  Where Ostler emphasizes the Sioux as active agents, Disney chooses to present them as passive victims.

It serves Disney’s purposes in the film to put partial blame on the U. S. Army for the tragedy.  Therefore, some of the soldiers clearly hold racist attitudes which are expressed in derisive comments and maltreatment of the Sioux.  Yet the massacre is primarily attributed to misunderstanding.  The soldiers are nervous because they mistakenly believe the Ghost Dance to be a prelude to an uprising.  The first shot fired is accidental as an impatient soldier attempts to disarm a deaf boy who did not understand the soldier’s intentions.

By presenting the events at Wounded Knee as accidental, American innocence is maintained and yet, the results are suitably tragic to have a significant impact on the protagonist.  He must experience guilt for his participation in the events at Wounded Knee Creek. 

American Identity: Sioux Heritage

Frank Hopkins is the hero of the film.  In Disney’s mythology, Hopkins is America.  He’s a cowboy.  His strengths and character represent those that we accept as the essential characteristics of America and its people.  Significantly, Frank Hopkins is half Sioux and he is embarrassed by his Indian blood.  As an Army dispatch rider, it is Hopkins who delivers the orders from General Miles which say, “If they choose to fight, subdue them” and so he blames himself for the massacre.  Hopkins rides through the aftermath, the bodies of victims frozen in a grotesque tableau.   

This scene, which again emphasizes the Sioux as passive victims, is juxtaposed with a reenactment of the event in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where they are presented as savage aggressors.  Buffalo Bill narrates the drama and describes how the U. S. soldiers were “outnumbered by warriors, but undaunted in spirit, the brave held their ground.” The juxtaposition of these scenes indicates Disney’s critical attitude toward this blatant revision of history present in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the racist assumptions which underlay it.

Disney is particularly critical of representing of the kind old Chief Eagle Horn as “the last of the wild hostiles, the red pirates of the prairies.”   Hopkins is a participant in the show and his continuous drunkenness indicates the guilt that he feels over his participation in the massacre of the Sioux and his denial of his Sioux heritage.  It is in the resolution of this identity crisis that Hopkins, and the American audience, will ultimately find redemption.

Hopkins’ is called to undertake the quest for his identity by Arab strangers and he reluctantly accepts.  Buffalo Bill has titled Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo as the greatest living endurance race champions of all time.  An Arab sheikh, who hears this label at a show in Europe, objects and insists that Buffalo Bill remove the title from this horse and rider or enter them into a thousand-year-old endurance race called The Ocean of Fire in order to back up this claim.

Dual Heritage, Dual Mentors

Initially, Frank refuses this call to adventure, but Old Chief Eagle Horn in the role of mentor addresses the truth that Hopkins has been avoiding.  He tells him that he can resolve his identity crisis in the Arabian desert.  Hopkins reluctantly accepts the challenge.

On leaving New York harbor, Hopkins stands on the deck of the ship as it slowly passes the Statue of Liberty.  The scene is shot as if to show a conversation with the statue-as-mentor.  We can assume that she tells Hopkins to remember what America stands for.  She knows for it is engraved on her pedestal.  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!  

Hopkins is on his way to “ancient lands” where he will encounter “storied pomp” and Lady Liberty implores him to remember that America does not present masculine “conquering limbs” to the world, but a maternal light of “world-wide welcome.”  Here again, we see the perpetuation of a mythology which presents America in a way that is completely contradicted by the events at Wounded Knee and yet is to be accepted, by the audience, as truth.

Frank Hopkins: Middle-Class Family Values

In his encounters with the other, Frank Hopkins, the embodiment of the American identity, is presented as morally upright which means, for Disney, that he adheres to a code of “family values.”

Because Disney’s world is “middle class in its portrayal of family values,” cheating and adultery are activities performed by the evil, and fair-play and chastity are practiced by the good.  Accordingly, Frank Hopkins is good and most of the Arabs in the film are evil.

Where Hopkins is inclined to help fellow riders who have fallen, the Prince, who rides the favored Al-Hattal, pays British soldiers to prevent Hopkins access to the well they guard.  The Prince’s actions, as well as those of several other Arabs who cheat, steal and betray, reinforce the idea that the Arab is capable “of cleverly devious intrigues, [and is] essentially sadistic, treacherous, low.” When Lady Davenport, a member of the British aristocracy and owner of a horse in the race, perceives that Hidalgo is a threat to win, she offers Hopkins sexual favors and a great deal of money for his withdrawal from the race.  She is later found to be conspiring with the story’s villain, Sheikh’s bastard nephew, to ensure the victory of her horse.  Frank’s refusal to cheat or throw the race for either money or sex shows a moral strength that is superior to that of both the Arabs and the British.

Although the moral code to which Hopkins adheres is based on the Judeo-Christian values, the writers have chosen that he is to be known as “The Cowboy” and the adulterous and dishonest Lady Davenport is given the title “The Christian Lady.”  This suggests more than just a secularization of the moral code, but also, in the reversal of meaning of the historical signifiers, a not so subtle hostility to Christianity. Thus, the American national identity is constituted against that of the other—Arab, British and Christian—and has been found to be morally superior.

American Values: Human Equality

Another piece of the American identity that the movie reinforces is the idea that we stand for human equality.  On disembarking in Aden, Hopkins’ immediately encounters a harsh, hierarchically structured society.  Just outside the port city, the caravan passes a group of black men chained together at the ankles.  Frank makes eye contact with a little boy walking in his chains of unusual size.  One of the Arabs says to Hopkins, in a mocking tone, “Have you never seen a slave market, Mr. Frank?”  Then he laughs.

That slavery in America was abolished only a few decades previous, and that Hopkins had certainly seen the inhuman treatment of the Sioux Indians is forgotten.  Of these facts, the audience is expected to have, what historian Mike Wallace calls, “selective amnesia.”  In the Disney mythologized history, Frank’s feelings at the sight of the boy in chains are the same as those of the audience—revulsion—because this could never happen in America.  History has been “sanitized” for the sake of this new mythology.  Frank eventually buys the boy and takes off his chains, and although he runs off at first, he returns to help Frank of his own volition.   

When he arrives at the Bedouin camp, Hopkins discovers another helper has been assigned to him, a goatherder who has been accused of stealing milk.  For this minor crime, he was given the choice to either “serve the infidel” or lose his left hand. Like the slave boy, the goatherder decides to join with the infidel.

The goatherder consistently attempts to establish his superiority over the boy, which he is entitled to according to the structure of Arab society. On these occasions, Hopkins asserts his egalitarian values and insists on the equality of the two.  Thus, he embodies the inscription communicated to him by Lady Liberty as he began his quest.

However, in Hopkins’ treatment of his two assistants lies an assumption of white superiority which is assumed even in the midst of his insistence that black and Arab are equal.  The audience accepts as natural the Orientalist sentiment articulated by Edward Said in Orientalism where he says that the white man “belonged to, and could draw upon the empirical and spiritual reserves of, a long tradition of executive responsibility toward the colored races.”

It is not only blacks and petty criminals who are treated poorly in Arab culture.  It is clear that women are degraded as well when the Sheik declares that “On cold nights, my wives sleep in the stable tents so that Al-Hattal, his champion horse, is comfortable and appeased.”  The plight of women in Arab society is primarily explored through the Sheik’s daughter, Jazira.  If the Prince, riding the Sheikh’s own Al-Hattal, wins the race, she will be added to the Prince’s harem as his fifth wife.  In this position, she will be no better than a slave.  For this reason, she secretly assists Hopkins and Hidalgo.  Thus, the team of misfits now also takes up the cause of women.

However, because the Sheikh loves his daughter, he secretly allows her to ride even though it is forbidden for her to do so.  The implication is that traditional Arab ways are contrary to expressions of paternal love.  Because the Sheikh is conflicted between his love for his daughter and the Bedouin tradition, he is endeared to the American audience.  This is an example of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls historicism, the idea that history is a developmental process and all cultures are evolving to the same enlightened end, but they do so at different rates. The Sheik’s conflict between tradition and love, suggests he is a little further along than the rest of Arab society, and American society with its egalitarian values is much more advanced than the Arab society.  The historical fact that women suffrage would not be won in the United States for another thirty years is ignored.   

American Values: Self-Determinism

Another aspect of American identity that is emphasized in the film Hidalgo is self-determinism.  In the film, fatalism dominates the Arab view of the world and therefore the race.  There is no doubt in any of the Arabs’ minds that Hopkins will perish in the race, for Allah would not allow an infidel to succeed.  That Hidalgo will eventually win the race casts dispersion on the idea that such a thing is ordained by God.

The conflict between Hopkin’s self-determinism and Arab determinism is before us continually.  Although Hopkins is inclined to help another rider whose horse was killed, he was forbidden to do so because it is Allah’s will that the horse fell. The goatherder explains to Frank, “There are those who are chosen to be winners and those chosen to be losers. Allah chooses thus, and it is written.”  At the beginning of the race, a rider, named Sakr, says that he thought an infidel’s presence in the race is sacrilege, but, he says, “I trust in Allah that He’ll roast some of us like sheep on a spit before the sun sets today. You shall be among the first.”  Later, when he encounters Sakr near death in quicksand, Frank refuses to allow him to die.  Although Sakr protests that it is Allah’s will that he perish, Frank argues “What about your will?  What about your horse’s will?  Seems to me that’s what will get you across a finish line.  Only then is it written.”  Frank pulls him free against his objections, but Sakr learns a valuable lesson.  Later, he sacrifices his own life to save Frank.

In the argument between American self-determinism and Arab fatalism, the former is clearly presented as superior as is evidenced by Sakr’s complete conversion to its precepts.  Another example from the film occurs when Jazira asks Frank, “How did you tame [Hidalgo]?”  To which he answers, “I didn’t.”  In America, not even a horse is denied the freedom to write his own destiny.

Hopkins’ Struggle for Identity

A dominant theme of the film challenges the British and Arab belief in the idea of racial superiority.  Hidalgo is a Mustang, a breed which Lady Davenport correctly explains as having “mixed blood of Spanish origin.”  The contest is presented as a competition between the “impure animal” that is Hidalgo and the “purest equine bloodline in the world.”  At the top of this list is Al-Hattal—“equine perfection.”  Frank is warned that should Hidalgo attempt “to cover an Arab mare, it would be viewed as a most inviolable blemish.  The foal would need to be destroyed before touching the ground.  As would the offending sire.”  Frank Hopkins’ mother was a Sioux Indian and so he too is of mixed blood.  The antagonists in the story are both Arab and British, each who believe in the importance of pure bloodlines, not only in their horses but in themselves.   

It is in the contest between the pure and mixed bloods that Frank addresses his own identity.  His meeting with Chief Eagle Horn after he is challenged by the Arabs takes place in a dark compartment in the train symbolizing the suppression of Hopkins’ Sioux ancestry.  Chief Eagle Horn tells him that he is called far rider not because of his many long distance races, but because he “rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.”  The chief suggests that Frank is lost until he accepts his Sioux ancestry because right now he is “neither white man nor Indian.”  With this wisdom, the old chief imparts the gift of a necklace on which hangs the circular Sioux symbol first seen among the bodies at Wounded Knee.  Later, the goatherder, in ignorance, creates a flag using the Sioux symbol from the necklace.  Hopkins’ identity crisis is resolved in the climax of the story.

Hidalgo has been injured in the final battle against the Sheik’s bastard nephew and the race has taken its toll on both horse and rider.  It is clear to Frank that he must euthanize Hidalgo.  In his sorrow and his exhaustion, he begins to sing the song of the Ghost Dance.  As he sings, he hallucinates and he sees his Sioux ancestors dancing around him.  At this moment the Prince rides up and ridicules Hopkins for ever thinking that he had a chance against him.  The Prince declares, “I am born of a great tribe—the people of the horse.”  At that moment Frank embraces his Sioux heritage with pride and says, “So am I.”  With this internal victory over himself, Frank can finish the race.  To symbolize his complete acceptance of his Sioux blood, he rides toward the finish line without a saddle or cowboy hat.  As they race at full speed to the finish line, the Prince uses a whip to drive on Al-Hattal, but Frank only whispers “Let ‘er buck.” Under the banner of the Sioux symbol, Frank and Hidalgo win the race.

Ironically, in the resolution of Frank’s identity crisis, and in the resolution of the American national identity of which he is representative, the identifiers of self-determinism and egalitarianism have been undermined.  Thus far the film has consistently asserted that it is neither God’s will nor the blood in one’s veins that determines destiny or worth.  Yet at the climax of the story, we are presented with the idea that blood does, in fact, matter.  It is the blood of America’s Sioux that is superior to Arab blood and which determines Frank’s destiny.  This determinism and blood superiority is inconsistent with the other major themes of the story.  However, because it conforms to the dominant theme of the film—the superiority of Western culture over that of the East—the inconsistency is easily ignored.

Crisis Resolved:  American Superiority Maintained

All the themes in the film, which are grounded in comparisons between American and Arab cultures, fall under the overarching theme of American superiority.  In each comparison—Cowboy/Arab morality, egalitarian/hierarchical society, self-determinism/fatalism, and American diversity/Arab purity—the controlling theme of the film, and therefore the fundamental aspect of America’s identity, is its superiority over the Arab.

What Edward Said described as the cultural hegemony of Europe is true of America.  The idea of America is a collective notion identifying “us” Americans against all “those” non-Americans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in American culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside America: the idea of American identity as a superior one in comparison with all non-American peoples and cultures.  Giroux says that Disney’s world is largely “colonial in its production of racial differences” and this is apparent in the film Hidalgo.  We need look no further than the fundamental story: an American defeats one hundred Arabs riding purebred Arabian horses.

At the conclusion of the race, the Arabs are shown to have learned some valuable lessons from the cowboy and tacitly admit American superiority.  When they first meet, Hopkins was refused a handshake from the Sheik because to touch an infidel would negate his powers to tell the future. In the end, the Sheik offers a handshake admitting that he could never tell the future in the first place.  This is an admission of human equality and therefore an agreement with the egalitarianism America espouses.  Sakr, formerly so committed to Allah’s will, writes his own destiny and willingly give his life for Hopkins.  His conversion to American self-determinism is so complete he is willing to die for it.  At the race’s conclusion, the Prince admits that purity of blood is not the only measure of a horse, and by implication of a man, when he says, “It is a magnificent horse.”  Not only did Hopkins learn of the superiority of his Sioux blood and culture, but the Arabs also learned about the inferiority of theirs.

As in other Disney films, the racism in Hidalgo “is defined by both the presence of racist representations and the absence of complex representations of . . .  people of colour.”  The Arabs are portrayed as arrogant, dishonest, disloyal, racist and incredibly bad shots with a rifle.  Yet, Disney presents these, what Said calls Orientalist, ideas as “morally neutral and objectively valid.”

But not only has the Arab been inaccurately presented.  The historical “cowboy and indian” are nowhere to be seen in the film.  Disney has taken a mythologized notion of the adventurous cowboy and the most noble, mythic qualities of the American Indian and has put them into Hopkins to be representative of America.  The film clearly communicates regret at the killing of the Sioux at the beginning of the story, but they offer no such sentiments for the killing of Arabs.  This contradiction is apparently acceptable because of the myths which have been constructed about these groups within the film, as well as in popular culture.  The Sioux have been cast as the innocent victim; the Arab as the brutal victimizer.  The filmmakers are critical of the mythologized history presented at the Wild West show, yet feel no compulsion to direct their critical eye at their mythological presentment of Arab culture.

Even though they claim the film is based on a true story, it is clear that Disney’s priority when telling the story of Hidalgo is not historical veracity but the construction of a national identity.  In fact, Frank T. Hopkins’ race across the Ocean of Fire may have been completely fabricated.  Fellows Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, founders of the Long Riders Guild, claim that the that the legend of Hidalgo is “the biggest Wild West hoax in American history.”  Still, the film’s screenwriter, John Fusco, insists that his story is based on rigorously checked historical sources.  The extent to which Disney has diverged from historical truth in the Hopkins’ story is debatable, but that they have altered historical truth about America’s dealings with its indigenous people is not in question.

Disney does not consider this abuse of the past—“they freely and disarmingly admit to its falsification, pointing out that this is, after all, just entertainment.”  Of the Hidalgo debate, Nina Heyn, Disney’s Executive Director of International Publicity said

No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It’s like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question I don’t think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film. It has little to do with reality.

Three years after 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released. In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks. Click To Tweet

Three years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the film Hidalgo was released.  In the name of entertainment, the film’s purpose is to clarify the American identity in the face of this monstrous threat presented by the attacks.  In the film, the American audience comes face to face with the Arab other.

To this end, Disney offers a comparison between America and the Arab other—American versus Arab morality, egalitarian versus hierarchically structured society, self-determinism versus fatalism, and racial purity versus cultural diversity.  In every case the Arab is found to be inferior, thus the monster has been defanged.

Because its purpose is to create a collective identity against the other, Disney perpetuates the Orientalist vision of “difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” (Said).  In doing so it fails to use history as a site of a cross-cultural, cross-categorical conversation between America and other peoples.  When history is a means to understand the other, rather than as a means to identify oneself against the other, we develop what Richard Kearney calls “narrative sympathy” which enables “us to see the world from the other’s point of view.”  It is unfortunate that with its incredible power to influence culture, Disney has chosen to close to avoid meaningful conversation in favor of a racist monologue.


 

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (2)

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Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t really so much a picture of hell, as it is a picture of pagan worship.

But, in a sense, the latter is a picture of the former.  The interactions between the contestants in Hell’s Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.

The interactions between the contestants in Hell's Kitchen are seasoned with the bitter tastes of hell.Click To Tweet

Hell’s Kitchen: The Community

The god shapes the community of worship.  Ramsey lays out how the community is to function on Hell’s Kitchen.  He’s very sparing with his blessings and establishes a competition–for his favour.  In this competition, there will be one winner.  All the others, eventual losers.

Each contestant is pitted against the others.  “Friendships” are largely opportunistic.  If another contestant goes out today, then I stay.  If someone wins, I lose.

In a sporting context, there are always winners and losers.  In Hell’s Kitchen, the competition doesn’t stop after the contest is won and lost.  It moves into the dorms and the jacuzzi.   Ramsey promotes it–“Go back to the dorms and determine which people you want to put forward for elimination.”  And we get to watch this agonizing process.  Like I said, it’s hellish.

C. S. Lewis writes about the ethos of hell in The Screwtape Letters.   In this excerpt, an experienced devil, Screwtape, explains it a novice tempter, his nephew:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

In this sense, Hell’s Kitchen is hellish.

There are many contexts in which we find ourselves in hellish circumstances.  It’s when we encounter someone who believes everyone is against them and they will use us, and anyone else for their own gain.  They use people for financial gain, to feed their ego, for sexual pleasure, or because the need to be in control. They will take, and never give, unless there is something in it for them.

But this doesn’t describe all of our experience with others.

Christianity and Competition

In our daily lives, many of us experience a little heaven now and then

The whole philosophy of Heaven is, logically, opposite as that of Hell.

This philosophy rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is part of other things, and, specially, that oneself is another self.  My good is your good and your good is mine.  What one gains the other also gains.

We often experience the philosophy of heaven in the best moments of our lives.

When we give of ourselves to our spouse, their gain is also our gain.  When we sacrifice for the sake of our children; what we give up is eclipsed by what we receive from their joy or flourishing.  We give time to colleagues, students, even strangers and receive many times the blessing back, sometimes just in the form of a smile.  The math doesn’t work, and this is incomprehensible to the devils like Screwtape and those humans who buy into his logic don’t.  They just can’t imagine how it’s possible to can give and get back more back.  Happily, most people get it–the math of heaven.

I think Gordon Ramsey gets it.  We catch glimpses of it in all of his shows.  I don’t think his moments of sacrificial kindness are simply a means to more viewership.  Yes, he does it for ratings, but perhaps deep down he does it because heaven feels better than hell.

One such moment was in episode six of this season’s Rookies versus Veterans edition.   Chris decided to step out of the competition.  He was on the verge of a breakdown.  The show is stressful enough, but he had also been involved in a serious accident nine months before coming to the show.   Sous Chef Christina and Ramsay caught wind of Chris’ plight.  Their response was sympathy and by urged Chris to seek professional help.  It’s a small thing, with hardly any sacrifice, but for a moment I believe that Ramsey was acting almost completely in Chris’ best interest.

On Hell’s Kitchen we see quite a bit more hell than heaven.  That’s why I stopped watching it.  But I never miss an episode of Master Chef.

The Theology of Hell’s Kitchen (1)

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I used to watch Hell’s Kitchen.  I like Gordon Ramsey, despite the arrogance.  He knows what he’s doing in the kitchen and his food is amazing.  I’ve eaten it.  And he knows how to run a restaurant.  Always a little harsh, he’s nearly altruistic in Kitchen Nightmares and the new Hell on Wheels; he’s almost nurturing in Master Chef.  But I’ve stopped watching Hell’s Kitchen because it’s way too hellish.  Ramsey is abusive and the contestants are mostly a bunch of cocky malcontents with personality disorders. To have to go out to dinner with these people would be hell enough. To have to live and run a dinner service with them, I don’t have to imagine–this is the subject of the show.

Although Ramsey is not all that religious, he’s given his show a name that is foundationally Christian.  Is the kitchen in the show anything like the scullery where the reprobate will eternally toil in “adamantine chains and penal fire”?

The simple answer is, of course, no.  And Ramsey is not really anything like a devil.

All images in the show’s opening credits suggest Gordon Ramsey is the boss of hell.  Horns, pointy tail, glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position similar to that of a pagan god than the Christian Satan.

The opening credits of Hell's Kitchen show Gordon Ramsey with horns, pointy tail, and glowing demonic eyes, but if you look at the show theologically, Ramsey occupies a position more like that of a pagan god than a devil. Click To Tweet

Pagan Worship

Life was hard in the ancient world.  Floods and drought threatened vital food supplies as did marauders who were forever running off with the harvest.  In this world of uncertainty, vulnerable humanity sought the aide of the gods to ensure fertility and security.  Survival, they believed, depended on their ability to humour and mollify these gods.

The gods themselves were very unpredictable. The slightest thing could set them off.  The demanded attention, the right kind of attention.  They were jealous when they felt others received more attention.  When resentful, they lashed out against the people.

How do you manage gods like these?  Invariably, people came to the conclusion that the gods needed to be manipulated.  In almost all religions the gods need to be appeased.  Worship was, and in many cases still is, appeasement.  If you can please the gods, blessings will follow.  Failure to do so means disaster.  The rain ceased to fall, and the land failed to bear fruit and the women were barren.

It is no accident that in places where there were no natural barriers and the climate was most unpredictable, the sacrifices demanded by the gods were far more costly than in places with more reliable food supply and less threat from enemies.  The bad things were thought to be an indication of the gods’ displeasure with the sacrifice, so the ante had to be increased.  This is why some cultures ended up sacrificing their children, so high was the gods’ price for blessing.

Appeasing Gordon Ramsey

In Hell’s Kitchen, worshipers must obey and appease a powerful and aggressive diety in order to earn favour and blessings.  Through appeasement and performance, contestants attempt to earn, the salvation for which they hope: survival into the next episode and ultimately, a dream job in the restaurant business.

In Hell’s Kitchen, appeasement is both individual and collective.  The most competent team is rewarded with a cool culinary field-trip; the losers are given a hellish chore, and one member of the losing team will be sent away.

There are three means by which Ramsey is appeased.

Appeasement in Hell’s Kitchen means getting good food out fast.  “Two scallop”  means two, perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, perfectly presented scallops at the pass when Ramsey wants it.  If your number, cook, seasoning, presentation, and timing are perfect, or nearly so, you will earn a blessing–a “nicely done” or “the scallops are perfect.”

Woe to the chef who fails in one or more aspects of this complex ritual.  Many cooks will be berated for failure to appease, but one will be banished.  Banishment from the presence of the god, banishment from the community and the hope for salvation will be dashed.

There are other means of appeasement in  Hell’s Kitchen.  As you stand before Gordon Ramsey facing eliminations as one of three, he asks you, “Why do you think you should stay in Hell’s Kitchen?”  He can be appeased, it seems, if a would be Executive Chef can convince him of her passion.  Passion is what one must bring to the altar.

The third way to appease the pagan god, and Gordon Ramsey, or more accurately avoid his curse, is to submit.   Muttering under your breath, talking back, or directly defying Ramsey will bring down his wrath.  No ego but Ramsey’s is permitted in Hell’s Kitchen.

Christian Worship: Favour First

Christian worship is different from pagan worship because the Christian God is different.

God is love and he is also holy.

He loves us.  He wants to be with us.  This is mostly for our sake, not his.  It’s good for us to be with him; he desires our good; therefore, he wants to be with us.  The problem is, we can’t be with him–we are not holy.  Unholy things can’t be in his presence–they couldn’t survive.

As in pagan worship, Biblical worship involves sacrifices and offerings to God, but not to appease him, but to purify ourselves.  Purification comes from the blood of sacrifice.  The purification from the blood of animals was very limited.  There were still many barriers between the Holy God and his people.  But they laid the groundwork and created a pattern through which his people could understand his holiness and their need for his grace.

In pagan worship, the people acted first so that the gods would give favour.  In Old Testament worship, God’s acts first–in giving favour.   It need not be earned, we have it already.

Christian Worship: Gratitude, not Appeasement

In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1–16) we see two offerings.  Able’s offering was acceptable to God.  There was something about Cain’s offering that wasn’t acceptable.  It is not certain, why God rejected Cain’s offering, but I think there is a good possibility that Cain’s offering was meant as appeasement–a bribe for divine favour.  He sacrificed in a manner consistent with the pagan nations.  Abel’s offering, then, was a gift of gratitude.  An appropriate attitude toward the God that he knew.

The sacrifice of animals on the Old Testament was inadequate.  It was always temporary and symbolic.  To purify all of humanity and all of creation, a much bigger sacrifice must be made.  Bigger and completely perfect.  The only one who meets these requirements is God himself.  He would have to bring the sacrifice; he would have to be the sacrifice.

Jesus is God and his death on the cross was the once and for all sacrifice that purifies all of creation, including humanity for all eternally.  We can only be in God’s presence if we are clothed in the blood of Christ.  We are not thus attired unless we accept the sacrifice.  This is all that is required of us, but it makes all the difference.  If we accept Christ’s sacrifice, we can be in God’s presence because we are covered in the blood of Christ.  He took on our sin received the effects of sin, we take on is purity and receive the effects of his purity.

Christian worship can’t be about appeasement, because we had his favour before the sacrifice.  We couldn’t bring any offering that would have purified us, so God made the only sacrifice that could save us.

1 John 4: 8-10 is the summary.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

We don’t get what we deserve; we receive salvation at his expense.  What can we do now, but be grateful?  This is central to Christian worship.  And Christian worship isn’t limited to church services.  Christian worship is a life lived out of gratitude for what God has done.

My favourite part of all of Gordon Ramsey shows is when he comes down from his throne and offers grace to one of the lesser folk.  He takes on the price for someone else’s benefit.  These moments are always poignant, but even more so on Hell’s Kitchen where we are usually experiencing Ramsey’s continuous wrath.  Viewers like these gracious moments.  I think something resonates in us when we see moments of grace.  Perhaps because this is what our hearts were made for.

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