Patton Oswalt, by far my favorite comedian, recently wrote a book called Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland in which he argues that pop-culture created three basic frameworks within which nerds came to understand themselves and their relation to a world that hates and/or fears them: zombies, spaceships, and wastelands. Summarized briefly, Zombies are folks who checked out of life, now they drift emotionless, driven by apathetic hunger and not much else; Spaceships are folks like computer programmers, people who have given up on the world as it is and want to create and/or explore alien worlds, new life forms, escape through technological wonders; and Wastelands are people who want to start from scratch, they desire a clean slate from which to build a new and better civilization, even if it is under some harsh and limited post-apocalyptic conditions. I bring this up for two reasons; 1) It’s fun. For the next couple days you can think about your favorite stories, celebrities, occupations, and figure out which of these boxes they each fit in. Ya know, organize your life through witty pop-culture lenses. Fun.
2) America is a Wasteland, and we would do well to keep that in mind.
Since being home, everyone asks what the best part about Germany is, and I found my answer being the same each time: Germany has something that is, probably, fairly unique in the world, the physical remnants of a couple millennia worth of various cultures living right on top of each other. There were the Germanic tribes, conquered and united by the Roman Empire, then left to fend for themselves and begin their own kingdom, temporarily challenged by various warring would-be colonizers (England, France), large portions devastated by two World Wars, injected with more than a little late 20th Century Americanized capitalist ventures, sprinkled with a touch of 21st Century technological invention to call their own. It looks like this:
I’ve never before appreciated what it means to have been born and raised in a Colony. We haven’t been thought of that way for a long time, but “colonialization” is very much the basis upon which our society was built. Like a tree becomes shaped by the flourishing of its roots, America—for good or for ill—was birthed out of a colonial culture which depended upon the annihilation and oppression of native peoples and native cultures in order to create a “City on a Hill.” That is where we come from, and it seems to me that five hundred-ish years later, this remains our mindset. When I say America is a Wasteland, I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, I just mean it as Patton Oswalt describes it, as a way of defining a certain type of personality: Germany (and probably most of Europe) is a Spaceship, America is a Wasteland. We prefer to deal with problems by annihilating them, we would wipe the earth clean and start from scratch rather than wrestle with the complexity of an issue, and we’re relentlessly nostalgic, constantly reflecting on an imagined golden yesteryear to take our minds off of the hard work we have in the present and the uncertainty we face in the future. It’s this scorched earth mindset that bulldozed and forced aside native cultures and peoples, that legitimizes and legislates the oppression and exclusion of minorities, and keeps our stories from sticking to any kind of coherent continuity.
My intention here is not to be marose or depressing…just illustrative. Because you can’t fight your culture, you can’t separate yourself from it, and those who try to demonize it just end up creating their own special subset of awful. But I believe we can understand it, and in understanding, we can critique, we can comment, and we can slowly choose to live into a different identity. Which is what we’re called to do as people of faith. Which is what the season of Lent is divinely inspired to assist with. Which I find best represented in the American southwest…the final frontier of the contiguous United States of America…the desert.
To be clear, as far as I can tell, even though the scripture says, “Jesus was immediately led into the desert by the Spirit,” we’re better off understanding that word “desert” as “wilderness.” The story is not so much about the topographical reality in which Jesus found himself (I haven’t been there myself, but it’s difficult to imagine that Jesus would have entered into an entirely different biome than he usually live in), but the spiritual reality with which he was wrestling. His task was to understand the calling as Son of God in relationship to the cruel and broken world in which he lived. So he had to retreat into the wilderness, the desert, to have some time with which to separate these two conflicting realities. There is a desert spirituality, like all regions of God’s Earth, the desert has specific lessons to teach us about being human, but the real setting for Jesus’ trials was simply “wilderness,” the wild, untamed world, non-colonized creation, physical reality that remained uninfluenced by human thought, society, or culture; a place to commune with and encounter an unmediated God. It’s in wilderness situations that we lack, not just creature comforts, but we also relinquish all our notions of safety or security. It’s a situation in which we are forced to wrestle with the most elemental parts of life—survival, nature, the beating of one’s own heart—without any of our learned behaviors or coping mechanisms. An extended period of time in this environment requires more “unlearning” than learning. This is a term I’ve stolen from Rev. Matt Myer Boulton in an essay he wrote entitled “Study,” for a book of theological essays for 21st Century disciples called On Our Way. It refers to a way of learning that is not about gaining knowledge as much as doing away with previously held assumptions. When you go camping for the first time you realize that the hardest part of survival is not really about learning how to obtain water, get warm, or find food—though you do learn new techniques for how to do these things—rather, the most difficult thing is getting beyond your own assumption that water should be easily accessable, or that you deserve to have a thermostat that creates your ideal climate, or that someone should make food for you at the push of a button. You literally have to unlearn, you have to dismantle your own set of expectations and assumptions about the world before you can even begin to solve whatever problems nature is throwing at you. That’s what a wilderness situation provides, an atmosphere in which nothing is assumed, none of your familiar trappings can be counted on. This is what makes Jesus’ trials legendary. It’s not just that he chose the path of faith in the face of death, it’s not just that he sided with hope in God rather than certainty in the devil, it’s that he made that choice from the vulnerable position of uncertain living. Going back to the camping metaphor, it’s like being trapped in the forest with no tools or resources and choosing to figure out how to survive without stealing from neighboring campsites. My Lenten journey this year is different for me in one major way: I may have begun Lent by going to the desert, but I was actually returning from the wilderness.
“Sicher,” is a German word with a dual meaning. Depending on the context, it can mean “certain,” or it can mean “safe.” “Bist du sicher?” can be a question for someone giving directions, “Are you sure?” or it can be a question for someone who we know to be in trouble, “Are you safe?” I never realized before how closely related those concepts are. To be Certain is to be Safe…ich bin sicher…I feel least safe when the things I come to depend on most are no longer present, whether they be people…or services…or infrastructure…or beliefs. Ich bin sicher when the world works the way I expect it to. Since returning to church in America, I have been caught off guard with how often our churches discuss “faith” and “doubt” as if they are somehow exclusive entities. Apparently most of us have been taught that to have faith in something is to be certain of it, and those who doubt are weak-willed nonbelievers. For an awesome conversation about this I refer you to the movie Doubt, which is based on a John Patrick Shanley play by the same name. The problem with this belief is that it has far more to do with social cohesion than it does with the faith journey. Being certain is being safe…and faith isn’t about either of those things. Faith is a position in which you take a courageous leap towards what you hold true exactly when doubt and fear consume you the most. It’s the last chorus of Nickel Creek’s song Doubting Thomas, “I’ll take your promise, though I know NOTHING is safe.”
I would even say that we don’t begin the journey of faith until we’ve encountered doubt. And we experience the most doubt in the wilderness situation. The fact that Jesus begins his ministry from the wilderness reality should tell us how pivotal that experience is for those of us who would follow him. The wilderness is where we learn to pray. As Richard J. Foster wrote in his book Prayer, “As we are learning to pray we discover an interesting progression. In the beginning our will is in struggle with God’s will. We beg. We pout. We demand. We expect god to perform like a magician or shower us with blessings like Father Christmas. We major in instant solutions and manipulative prayers.” So the more we learn to pray, the more we replace our own will, our own desires, our own certainties, with God’s. In the wilderness we discard our presuppositions and our assumptions for actual Prayer…the Prayer of Doubt. Jesus’ trials in the desert could be seen as living out a Prayer of Doubt, a position that allows us to say, “God, in my uncertainty, in my fears, in the darkest hours of life….through you, LORD God Almighty…ich bin sicher.”
So…that’s the setting for Lent. It’s where we begin.
Now, before God created the Heavens and the earth, all was wild and waste…sound familiar? The Creation story of our faith sees Creation as a process of naming and separating various intermingling entities…God calls specific things into being from Chaos, the cosmic soup of everything and nothing. Cornel West has said (possibly quoting Robert Frost?) that “categories are the human way of managing chaos.” What I had no appreciation for until this year is how this same act of creation—separating and naming, calling forth ONE thing from EVERYthing—wasn’t just necessary at the dawn of time, but it is a continuing reality, a constant call for all of creation. And we really do need a wilderness setting to begin learning this craft…to make something out of our messy lives…to name the Singular Light within the Darkness of Chaos.
My wilderness setting has been Germany, where I’ve been charged with the tasks of surviving and thriving without the trappings of my familiar life that have kept me comfortable and safe. Almost all of my default positions in life—the ways I naturally react to and deal with any situation—are absent from my daily experience. Friends and family with whom I share a common history and language. Comfort food stuffs which, when you think about it, are comprised of chemicals that my body has been trained to respond to with positive chemical reactions. A culture that says to me every day, in a million imperceptible ways, “You are exceptional, you are entitled, you are privileged, and you can do no wrong.” Services and entertainments which cater to my every whim and pleasure. A common language. At times I have dealt with the absence of these things with dignity and creativity, and have grown by leaps and bounds because of it. Other days I eat lots of peanut butter and watch TV shows online while begging my body to fall asleep so the day can be over. Keep in mind, that’s not because anything bad is happening to me. It’s not because I don’t have people who love me in Germany. It’s not because I’m actually suffering or being put upon. I have a great life in Germany and it’s a fantastic experience. So why the down times? Because humans are hardwired to seek out certainty and comfort. I’m not struggling because I’m having a bad time…I’m having a bad time because I’m struggling. In the vacuum created by the absence of all things I find familiar and comforting, something new is forming. It’s like the brief time in my life when I went rock climbing on a regular basis and began feeling muscles in my abdominal area that I didn’t even know existed. One thing is forming out of the chaos of many things…and the act of creation, like childbirth (I’m told) brings certain discomforts and pains.
Almost as if the desert itself objected to the ways Germany has changed me, my body has been responding to Arizona dust and pollen since the moment I stepped off the airplane. The desert air, though not yet as blistering hot as I remember, is so arid that it sucks water directly from my body, creating an ashen layer of dry skin across my hands and lips. I wake up most nights with the distinct feeling that dust is being poured directly into my sinuses, but as it turns out…it’s just me breathing. If climate is any indicator, then the old adage is a bit wrong: You can go home again…you just have to deal with a runny nose and watery eyes.