I have a new piece up at Plough Quarterly. You can read it here.
I had intended to write something funny this week, but contemplating both the war in Ukraine and Ash Wednesday— well, it led me to write something else. Perhaps next week I’ll be funny.
I love to hear from you- if you reply to the email this arrives in, it comes straight to me.— KHS
I am a terrible movie-watcher- by which I mean not that I watch terrible movies, but that I don’t like many movies at all. The Venn-diagram of my entertainment is comprised of three circles- documentaries, murder mysteries, and anything that opens with a woman of a certain age riding a bicycle. As there are not many choices that fit these criteria, I watch very few movies.
But I watched “Castaway” last spring--in a hotel room, where, as on a plane the conditions are such that all entertainment is somehow enhanced. I have thought about it ever since (don’t laugh just yet). In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a character stranded on a remote island. He is there for years with no supplies; in his wallet, he carries a photo of the woman he loved at the time. She clearly loved him, and right before the accident that landed him on the island, he neglected an opportunity to ask her to marry him. He was busy and distracted by his work and allowed such things to dampen his affection for the woman who was right before him, to whom he could have pledged his life.
But this temporary distraction was corrected when his plane crashes onto a remote island and he has little more than a photograph of her to keep him company. He is forced into a solitary contemplation of his love. It was this photo of her that for years ordered his loves. He focused his energy on returning to the safety of her love as he struggled to crack open the meager existence he’d need under the punishing conditions of the island. He looked at her face after not eating enough, after strenuously gathering water, after suffering a painful injury. Her face became an icon of sorts- a means whereby he could gaze at something beyond her features. What he saw when he looked at her was a promise of return, of safety and hope. He looked at her face and saw something worth ordering his life around.
So imagine the scene when he is finally rescued, barely alive, and after returning to shore sees her again. They are older and both changed, but the intensity of those years of absence returns them immediately to the love they had, perhaps only strengthened by absence. His devotion had increased his longing, and the reunion is incredibly charged. He wants nothing more than a life with the woman he loves.
The problem is, she had assumed he was dead and had married another man in his absence. Now- this is only a problem if her marriage involves him. But he deems that it does. This man who for years had ordered his life around the love of a woman now honors a higher contract, which is the troth she made to another man. “Forsaking all others” comes for them both with a cost.
There is a scene where it is pouring rain and he is in the presence of this woman again, the one whose love made him hold onto life. After years of quiet steady devotion this woman, he embraces her and sends her away to be with her husband. He quietly honors a contract that he did not sign. It is at once the most beautiful and painful thing imaginable.
I know this is not perhaps a critically acclaimed movie. But that scene- this man ordering his will toward a good greater than his desire, this valuing of honor more than love- this is a scene a Christian should recognize. “Yes”, she might say, “that is what we are to do”- to choose to honor a covenant, or even the commandments, above our own desires.
The cultural position on how the will might be ordered has changed in the twenty years since Castaway was produced. This story of honor is not often the one we see depicted on the screen. Now we are bombarded with narratives of individuals breaking up families and marriages to pursue their own desires. They must “live their story” and “be true to themselves” even if it means others are left to pick up the pieces. In today’s version of Castaway, Hanks and his former love run into each other’s arms and right into the sunset, never accounting for the marriage they broke up and the children who are collateral damage.
Our current version of events is one where desire is pursued at all costs. There is no greater good, we are told, than fulfilling the story our hearts tell us about ourselves. But this places the moral arc of the story inside the heart that Scripture tells us “is deceitful above all things”. This deceitful heart is now responsible for the satisfaction of the creature whom it inevitably deceives. What a burdensome existence! How doomed to failure! The soul cannot help but become endlessly tangled. Once one desire is fulfilled, it immediately finds another.
[This is the story of the Ring in the hands of Gollum, I think.]
It is hard to be a Christian without a view of unrequited love. This is because the Christian story demands that we place our lives inside a kind of moral arc that may offer no immediate return. Indeed we may need to give up things, many good things, while holding in view a greater Love that may return to us little pleasure. We may need to offer ourselves for the sake of a greater story, one that does not care much about our satisfaction or our fulfillment.
Modern people love to “find themselves in the Bible”, but they prefer to do so in a way that owes them something. When we read ourselves in the Bible, we are Israel crossing out of Egypt, fleeing corrupt social systems. Or we are Joshua’s army, proclaiming victory over a false politics of empire. We prefer ourselves as the protagonists, in need of liberation.
But this is not always who we are. Rather we are the Canaanites and the Amalekites, preferring our own idols for Israel’s God. We are Judah to Tamar, taking from another what is not ours. We are Esau stealing a better man’s birthright with a bowl of soup. We are Lot’s wife who looks back on a place of greater abundance and longs for it, instead of following God toward the invisible greater good. We would trade our freedom for the leeks and garlic of our captivity.
We read the Bible and substitute another plot for the one of covenant. We may choose “justice”, which is often just capitalism in disguise, “concern for neighbor”, which may be health precautions taken to almost comical extremes. We now see many whose loves are energized by the war in Ukraine, a righteous cause, perhaps, but one that appeals to our desire for a clear moral arc and ignores the ugly brutality of war. I got an email this week from a very expensive women’s clothing store letting me know that they “Support Ukraine”. They wanted me to know that they felt kindly toward a foreign war so that I could feel morally virtuous as I bought $200 shoes. We should be ashamed of such extravagant stupidity.
When we “read ourselves in the Bible”, we do not choose our part. Rather we are a people whose story is given to us. We are cast into a narrative whose origin is much older than us, and whose end we may not see. This plotline will lead us, as characters, from “dust to dust”, from glory to glory.
When Josiah discovers the missing scroll of the Lord, what he reads is not a story of his liberation, nor an account of how his people would be restored. The story he reads is irrelevant to his desires. Rather he reads the commandments and knows that his people have violated them. As he rebuilds the house of the Lord, he realizes that the worst offense is not the temple’s neglect but the neglect of the people’s own hearts.
So it is with us; we too have neglected the fear of the Lord, the great moral arc into which we find ourselves cast aside and carried up- we have rejected this for the moral arc of our own desires. We have posited our own good within ourselves, have written stories in which we see our desires fulfilled and our loves returned to us. We have in this way made a mockery of the commandments, which call us to “Be holy as I am holy”- to vest ourselves in the worship of another who is higher than can be thought.
Not all love will be returned to us, not all of which we pledge ourselves to is truly good for us to have. We are not always those who have been wrongly oppressed or wrongly offended- we are often those who have ourselves neglected a higher calling, a greater law.
Back to the Hobbits; these are a people who are cast into a plot that is not of their own choosing. It is certainly not a story about their own desire. The Hobbits are horribly unprepared for the mission they are given. I keep repeating myself on this! They are squat and unskilled in war and they have no map.
And Mordor is real! It is a very real threat of domination, a soul-crushing force that seeks to steal from the Hobbits their duty and trade it for a textureless submission, one without honor. The Dark King can bring all things under his power, if he only has the one Ring he has lost. Ecclesiastes tells us we are a people living on borrowed breath. Mordor rejects this finitude. It seeks the last Ring in order to yield domination, to tie all of human together under the title of another King. The Dark King will rule with ferocity, flattening the goodness of each individual life, forcefully inserting his kingdom over the goods of each individual’s flourishing. He will make the simple contentment of the Shire a memory.
But he does not have that one Ring. The Hobbits do, and they are journeying toward Mordor to dispose of it. This is the only thing in their power. They are to cast this token of the Dark King’s reign into the fire and so extinguish his power forever.
They do not intend to fight! They have no aspirations of replacing Mordor’s power with their own. They do not resist the domination of sheer power with activism or protest movements. They instead quietly move toward the darkness, seeking to destroy whatever pieces they hold of its dominion. They journey, with honor, to play a part they have not chosen in a history that is much larger than themselves.
As I have said the Hobbits do not have the weapons or the training they need. They have no battalion. But they have a sense of a future that is connected with their past, and they know where they fit in that story. They have not looked at their history and “found” themselves in the story; they have been cast into it, as minor players who are given the leading roles.
If you do not commit yourself to a bigger story, you will cast yourself as subject to your own desires. You will choose your role and imagine yourself much greater than you are, you will reframe your history around your loss, you will seek to insert yourself into the leading role of a story much greater than your own. Your desire for love and domination will orient your journey and call the shots.
Desires are never neutral and they never leave the soul unprotested; the soul wants with an urgency that is magnetic. It will seek an end to which to orient itself. Karl Barth spoke of the sinful soul as a hedgehog, “turned in on itself”; such is the shape of the soul that does not resist its own desire. Left alone our desires come to dominate themselves. This is the condition of all humanity; it is the shape that we take necessarily if we do not turn daily to the God who calls us to trod, together, toward our calling.
The Hobbits resist the siren song of desire by allowing themselves to be cast into a larger plot. They refuse to submit to a lesser story where they are the sole protagonist and their god is their stomach. They rather submit to a story that calls them outside themselves, that calls them to join together as a band of unexpected creatures who share a vision of a greater good.
I am a Christian not because I think we have the best apologetic or the most spotless history. It is not impressive prayer books or liturgy or iconography that keeps me in the faith. It is rather that I think that Jesus is King. Because I believe this, I’ve offered myself to be a bit player in another story. I’ve shown up to be cast into a narrative that may call me to other roles than I am naturally inclined to. I may be cast into a role I do not choose, for glory I may not see.
But I will be daily called outside my desires. I will be invited to leave my narcissism and lust and distraction and frustration- to leave them behind and orient my life toward something else.
If you are a Christian, too, you needn’t settle for a lesser story where your god is your own desires. You can allow yourself to be cast into a story where you are merely a humble player, where you may well fail but where you will choose faithfulness instead of greatness. You can become a member of this merry band of God-lovers, singing in the dark. Whatever fruit results will be not of skill or husbandry, but of obedience.