Beastly Spirituality

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Published:
November 5, 2016

One of the scenes from the Wizard of Oz that I remember from my childhood (the movie; I never read the book) was that of Dorothy and her friends traveling the road to the Emerald City, repeating to themselves over and over again, “Lions, and tigers, and bears, Oh My!” At the age of seven, it was not at all difficult for me to absorb their anxiety. Of course, that was not the only thing that impacted me as I watched. There was also the Scarecrow’s hunger for knowledge, the Tin Man’s for human connection, the Lion’s for courage, and of course Dorothy’s longing to find her way home. But still, even with all of that, I could never quite shake the sense of anxiety that seemed to always lie just below the surface in this story. It did, after all, have a number of disturbing elements: poisoned fields of flowers, creepy flying monkeys, and wicked witches, to name just a few. But, ironically, to me what was perhaps the most unsettling of all was the Wizard. The character who was supposed to be all about help and hope, turned out, at least in their first encounters, to be someone who quickly infused their expectant hope with anxious worry.

It was disheartening to me, that those first encounters with the Wizard were clearly more intimidating than welcoming and left the travelers with heightened levels of concern about whether or not they would be able to accomplish the seemly impossible feat that his help apparently was conditional upon. While Dorothy and her companions remained committed to their noble aspirations, there was still much about their experience as they set out to pursue their task that reflected a lot of the feeling from the earlier traveling tune they had been singing to each other. Except that now to, “Lions and tigers and bears,” the Wizard himself could be added. Oh My!

A few years later when, as a largely “un-churched” teenager, I found myself in the midst of an Adventist community, taking some of my first intentional steps on my own spiritual journey, there were several ways in which my own experience resonated a bit with Dorothy’s. There was, of course, the initial awkwardness, in which for a while I remember feeling about as much at home there as Dorothy did in Munchkin Land. But more importantly, I was also drawn to and moved by many of the same themes: the desire for knowledge, connection, courage, and a longing to ultimately arrive at home. There were a lot of really good things about that time and some great people who traveled with me, for which and for whom I continue to be grateful. But somewhere along the way, I also managed to pick up a similar traveling tune and set of images. Except that, in place of lions and tigers and bears, there were dragons and beasts and tribulations . . . and a certain amount of uneasiness about where I really stood with the One on whom the whole journey ultimately depended.

It was not that I had not experienced a profound sense of grace and peace. I had. I had also learned a lot, connected with some amazing people, made a commitment to follow Jesus, and felt the longing for home. But strangely, and regrettably, there were still powerful influences, within and without me, that seemed intent on shaping my spiritual life in ways that at times drew more upon an underlying anxiety about the beasts and whether or not I would falter on the journey God had sent me on than on a sense of assurance about the God Who had so graciously invited me to come and follow Him. Even though I had read about, been moved by, and experienced God’s love and grace, still lurking just below the surface was the fear that God might somehow turn out to be more like the wizard than the God Who was revealed in Jesus. Having now been a part of that church community for over 40 years, there is still something way too familiar about the sentiments that Dorothy and her friends gave voice to as they traveled together.1

One of the things my reflections on that story, and on my own, remind me of is that, in addition to our commitment to the journey and the values that inspire us as we travel, the way we experience the journey is also profoundly shaped and even guided by the things we say to each other and ourselves as we go. This is true whether we are reciting with conscious intention or if the lyrics are more like a tune that has gotten stuck in our heads. But in either case, not only do they influence our ability to travel safely and well together, they also have more potential to fragment and divide us than any honest disagreements about doctrine or policy ever could. In fact, I would suggest that much of the dissonance that we sometimes experience stems from the rhythms of the music to which we travel, which arise in response to the guiding images we are focused on being out of sync with each other.

It is this kind of “out of syncness” with each other that is repeatedly reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus says. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”2 What He signals here (and further develops through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount) is not antagonism toward the law but a way of approaching things that is less about avoiding what we fear may disqualify us and more about fully embracing what inspires us. When we make that shift, we move through life differently. Without at all suggesting that we should not take evil seriously and reject it, He describes a way of life that is lived less in response to an anxious concern about evil or our qualifying performance and more in response to God’s gift of grace and the desire to express that through genuinely loving God and others in ways that reflect that same love and graciousness. While Jesus was clearly at odds with many of the practices and policies of the religious leaders, it would be a mistake to see those things as the primary source of the tension they experienced with Jesus. The actual source of the dissonance had more to do with the picture of God they embraced and the subsequent music to which they moved.

This same tension has continued to exist and persist in communities of faith today, including our own. In our own case, as well-versed as we may be in the lions, tigers, bears, and even wicked witches of Adventist evangelism as they have appeared over the years in the rich imagery of Daniel and Revelation as dragons, beasts, and a number of other equally disturbing manifestations, and even though we have invested heavily in the ever on-going process of working out our statements of beliefs and church policies, too often, the song that plays in the background and which gives cadence to our steps seems to fall somewhat short of that which we hear resounding through the universe in Revelation 4 & 5: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Instead, too often what we hear playing is the background is more reflective of “dragons, and beasts, and deceptions . . . .” And if the central “Oh my!” of our spiritual lives arises more in response to the beasts than the Lamb or when our vision of the Lamb has become distorted because our internal default settings have been influenced more by anxiety and fear (the motivational force behind the beast of Revelation 13) than love and grace, we may discover that, in spite of our aspirations, we may have fallen more into step with rhythms, or the spirituality, of the beast than that which is inspired by the Lamb.

When this happens, we can find ourselves in the midst of some unfortunate, and even tragic, story lines. One of the ways this happens is when, once having identified particular expressions of the beastly powers that have risen up over the years, the particular qualities that caused us to make the identification slip into the background as we assume that that task is now over. Tempted to rest upon our apocalyptic laurels, we can too easily fail to notice when those same qualities work their way into the fabric of our own shared spirituality. While we might rightly identify problematic doctrinal expressions as being out of sync with the teachings of scripture, we might be much slower to notice when the way we go about doing what we do has become out of sync with the way of living that Jesus embodied for us. Perhaps this is part of the process that lies behind the familiar image from Revelation 13 where John describes a key beastly quality in terms of looking like a Lamb but speaking like a dragon.3

One of the fundamental mistakes of the religious leaders in the time of Jesus was that they confused being Jewish and faithfully adhering to the religious system they had built with what identified them as God’s people rather than the way of life that is lived in response to God’s love and grace as it was embodied in Jesus. Because they were traveling to the wrong tune, even as they had tagged Babylon and Rome as the enemy and themselves as God’s true people, they lost sight of the priority of the way of life that actually defined those terms. This impaired their ability to love their non-Jewish neighbors (or each other for that matter) as themselves, and it also allowed them eventually to embrace a rather “beastly” process that came to the conclusion that it was better to get rid of Jesus than to risk the unity of the Jewish nation.4 What got them to this point was not their inability to properly articulate doctrine (however much those issues may also have existed) or stay united in practice, but their inability to recognize the nature of the spirituality, the marching song, that was guiding them, and to embrace the one that Jesus was offering. While claiming to be acting in the best interest of God’s people, they had in fact embraced the spirituality of the beast.

What I would like to suggest is that in the midst of the journeys we find ourselves on, even as we are paying attention to the great themes that inspire us and as we remain aware of things that oppose us, there may be a more fundamental task - that of taking a step back and identifying the actual music that is playing in the background as we engage with each other. We need to do this not so we can have a new talking point to insert into our arguments but as a means of discernment in regard to what drives us. Those inner responsive tunes that define the core of our spiritual lives matter. Those that arise in reaction to what we fear or make us anxious, particularly when those feelings have shaded our picture of God in a way that raises our anxiety rather than relieves it, have consequences. When we feel threatened or even chronically anxious, we can be led to behave in ways, or go along with things, that we never otherwise would. Hence, we read the warning about how that mark can be received in either the forehead or the hand. (And, by the way, if even bringing up the “mark” makes you feel a twinge of anxiety, that should give you a bit of a clue about some of the traveling music that may have worked its way into your play list.)

In contrast, music that arises out of a sense of love, grace, and assurance, playing responsively at the core of who we are, causes us to live more gently and generously as we find ways to make room for each other and to genuinely love even our enemies. As we continue to pursue and promote the things that inspire us, it is how we go about that process and how we are with each other, that reflect the images we keep central and the music to which we move. While old, unhelpful melodies will continue to crop up and persist, to be sure, we have a choice about the spirituality that we embrace - that of the Lamb or that of the beasts. Perhaps that is where our apocalyptic journeys should begin.

 

Notes:

1. Now, let me hasten to say that my purpose here is not to exegete the Wizard of Oz or to suggest any hidden or deeper meanings in that story. I am not at all sure exactly what the movie, or for that matter, the book it was based on, was trying to get at. I am rather just borrowing some language and a few images, noticing some of the ways that the experience of the characters seem to resonate with similar sensibilities in my own spiritual life and those of many others that I have journeyed alongside over the years. (So, my apologies to L. Frank Baum and others for using parts of this story in ways that were probably never intended.)
2. Matthew 5:17 (NIV)
3. Revelation 13:11
4. John 11:50

 

Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

Photo Credit: Fogs’ Movie Reviews

 

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