“I feel my wings have broken in your hands, I feel the words unspoken inside, When they pull you under, And I would give you anything you want, You were all I wanted, All my dreams are falling down, Crawling round and round and round, Somebody save me…” — “Save Me” by Remy Zero (theme song to the show Smallville, about Superman as a teenager)
“I want to see how it ends.” –Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer series finale
A young man drives out to the desert, an isolated area known for its deep canyons and vast hiking trails. He doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going, taking pride and excitement in the challenge of facing nature one on one. By all appearances, he is well skilled in outdoor survival and extreme sports; he is 28 years old and in the prime of life. Suddenly, he topples down a narrow canyon, too far out for anyone to hear, no passersby for miles, and he opens his eyes to find himself hanging halfway down the canyon, suspended in midair, his arm caught between a rock and the canyon wall. What must he do to survive?
A 30-ish American male is offered a position as a truck driver for a company operating in Iraq. He is virtually unemployable in the states and he has a child and estranged wife to support. He takes the job, traveling around various parts of war-torn Iraq, haunted daily by the various challenges and dangers for civilians just trying to get a paycheck; fire fights, roadside bombs, kidnappings. One day, he is in a convoy, standard procedure, taking freight from one checkpoint to another, when a sudden ambush leaves many of his colleagues dead or missing. The next thing he knows, he is waking up in a coffin, buried somewhere in the Iraq wilderness. He finds a cell phone with him from which he receives calls from his abductors, instructing him to demand millions of dollars in ransom money from his American employers or they will leave him in the box to rot. He has about 2 hours before he runs out of air and suffocates. What must he do to survive?
On a normal work day, listeners of a popular religious broadcast receive word that the end of the world is approaching within a matter of weeks. The person in charge of the broadcast, a man deeply trusted by his audience, has done the research, and tells his audience he has every reason to believe that May 21, 2011 will be the beginning of The Rapture, which means for true believers and followers of Jesus Christ…May 21 will be their last day on Earth. Various listeners of the broadcast prepare for the end in various ways–selling property, emptying out bank accounts and retirement funds to buy advertising, hoping to spread the word and save as many souls as possible. Others pass on job offers or leave their jobs all together, wanting to spend their remaining days with loved ones. Some play it a little closer to the vest, opting for a simple vacation with their family, enjoying one last adventure on this world before venturing together into the next. May 21 comes…and goes, as if it were any other day. As the sun rises on May 22, this disparate group of people are left facing a future they had not planned for, unsure of what is real and what is not. What must they do to survive?
In case you didn’t catch on, these three plot summaries share at their heart essential theological questions concerning life and death, the theological category for which is called eschatology, or “last things.” What makes a good life? What makes a good death? If there is an eternal, all powerful and loving God who is the Creator of All Things, and our existence is clearly finite, what does eternity have to offer us when our finite forms deteriorate? What do the answers to that question mean for our lives? Are we given purpose and direction for our time on Earth? Is there a meaning to life? Can there be a meaning in my death? Does death get the last word? How important is it to prepare for what comes after death? When confronted with death and suffering, is there reason to hope for anything better? All of these questions and more could maybe be boiled down to: How does it all end, and what awaits me after that? Eternal bliss, eternal damnation, eternal nothingness?
None of these are easy questions to even articulate, let alone answer.
While these plots are all united in their common questions, the big difference is the first two are fictional, in the sense that they are the plots of recent movies (though those two movies are, or reasonably could be, based on true stories), while the third is a very real tale that began this last Sunday when the followers of a man named Harold Camping woke up to find out that the world–and their lives–are not yet finished.
I was going to write about these two movies–127 Hours and Buried–at some point anyway because they are easily the most interesting movies I saw in the last year. But to explain to you why I feel that way, I would have to first tell you the tale of how I got health insurance in Germany.
So, here is the epic tale of how I got health insurance in Germany: I walked in and asked, “Could I have health insurance, please?” And they said yes. So now I pay around $80 a month and I have health insurance in Germany, a country I was not born to, a country to which I do not contribute financially, and has no obligation to care about my well being. What does this insurance cover? Well…I’m not entirely sure if it covers big ticket items. If I needed to have all my organs immediately replaced tomorrow, or begin extensive cancer treatments, how much would the insurance cover? I’m not sure. But for the first time in my life–or at least my adult life–I went to the dentist for free, and something like a $10 copay will get me into any emergency room or doctor’s office in the country. Out of my seven years of adult living in America, I have been gainfully employed for six of them. My health insurance never cost anything below $200 a month, and that never included dental. Last year when I had actual teeth problems, I had to take out a student loan just to help cover the costs of an emergency root canal, have some follow up cleanings, and even that was only affordable because I found an amazingly kind dentist who gave me a discount. What’s the point of all this? Well, I am a single, white, strait male with no kids or property, who was making a solidly middle-class living and still feeling…stuck. Feeling that I have to choose between investing in my health and taking a vacation. Living with a looming sense of uncertainty, knowing that if anything truly devastating happened to me, I probably did not have the financial resources to survive it. Uncertain about how to spend my money, investing in a future I might never see, or embracing the moment and enjoying today. I feel caught between impending disaster and unchangeable circumstances. No guarantee for the future…no solace in the present…and if I’m feeling all this, then anyone who has a more complicated life and financial situation than myself are probably feeling it…or feeling worse?
People in Germany, I am sure, have similar dread, similar stresses…but their health care system definitely makes it easier rather than worse.
Anyway, that is the uncertain moment I find myself in–do I build for the future, or do I opt for the enjoyment of the present moment? Is it possible to do both? Is there reason to hope for a brighter future, or should I cash in my chips while I’m ahead? Am I the only one wrestling with these questions in my daily living?
Buried and 127 Hours both deal with this existential crisis, but in very different ways. They both present a situation in which the protagonist is literally stuck or trapped, and in both movies, the entire story plays out in the confines of those traps. In Buried, Ryan Reynolds is stuck in a box during the entire length of the movie, we can hear the voices he talks to on his phone, but otherwise we are in the box with him the entire time, just like him we are unable to escape the constant dark confinement of the space. In 127 Hours, James Franco is stuck in the canyon for the vast majority of the movie, but in this case, we actually do get to leave the confines of his situation as we travel with his character into the recesses of his brain. He has no cell phone, no way of reaching the outside world, but he fines solace and comfort and hope in his memories of family and love and friendship, and though the entire movie is taking place in a canyon in Utah, we actually get to travel with him across the globe and through the history of his life. This contrast between the two films is also the contrast between the two characters. Reynold’s character is constantly reliant upon the various people at the other end of his cell phone; whether it is his abductors, his employers, his wife, the guy who is working with the military and attempting to locate him, they all have more power over Reynolds than he does over himself. This may seem obvious since they are not trapped in a coffin, and he is. But as the movie plays out, it seems to be less a thriller about a hostage trying to be rescued and more of a meditation on despair and desperation, and the futility of hope against impending doom. The final line of the movie is so tragically dark (not to give anything away), seeming to say that our entire existence is just shot through with meaninglessness, pushing into the realm of the absurd, and actually causing me to laugh out loud. The people on the phone don’t have power over Reynolds because he is trapped and they are not, they have power over him because his character seems incapable of the passion, or imagination, or strength of spirit required to claim power in his tragic situation. He puts himself at the mercy and whims of anyone else–friend and foe–because he is completely bereft of meaning or hope.
James Franco’s character in 127 Hours–entirely based on the real person, Aron Ralston and the book he wrote about this real event in his life, Between a Rock and a Hard Place–is completely the opposite of Reynolds’. Possibly because he has no phone, no way of reaching another soul, Franco’s character goes deep into himself. He is an engineer by profession, so at first he attacks the problem clinically and systematically: My arm is stuck between this rock and this wall. These are the tools I have at my disposal. Weight, mass, leverage, and all that jazz. But as time wears on, and his efforts fail, he is left with fewer and fewer practical options, and with escape looking less likely, he begins preparing for death. He has a video camera that allows him to leave messages for friends and family. His knife seems to be good for nothing other than carving a headstone for himself in the wall, “Aron Rolston: 1975-2003,” he was 28 years old. As Aron sifts through his memories, as he lists the love in his life as revealed in his friends and family, as he tries to prepare for the eventuality that he will never see them or hear them again, something remarkable happens. He does not give into death….he envisions life. He has an encounter with nothing short of the will of life itself, and it transforms him, first spiritually, from victim of death to struggling survivor, and then physically as he painfully divorces himself from the object that is keeping him imprisoned. He is not obsessed with outward authority that leaves him hopeless, but uses his own life and love to claim authoritative hope over a hopeless situation.
So, flashing back to my own feeling of being “stuck,” of being caught between certain death and despair and seemingly unchangeable circumstances, I am left asking: Am I controlled/manipulated/influenced by external voices, or can I be inspired by my own internal cry for freedom? Who has authority over my life and how I choose to live it?
It’s not a bad thing to give ourselves over to authority figures. Pastors, teachers, trusted friends and family, people who are worthy of our trust, people who can responsibly deal with the authority they are given are essential companions throughout life, and especially down the path of faith. None of us can uncover the truth of our faith alone, we all have small pieces of the puzzle, and we require each other to learn, to grow, to act. Sadly, however, when we feel truly lost, when we KNOW we are trapped, when our Hope Bridge that was supposed to take us to the promised land shatters under our feet, we tend to put our faith and trust in some authority figures who are not worthy of those gifts. When you are drowning, you don’t ask who is throwing the life preserve, you just grab on to it and hope that you are being pulled to safety.
Are we surprised that last Saturday was not the end of the world? Well…I’m not. And if Facebook statuses and blog entries are to be believed, a lot of other people aren’t either. Not only are we not surprised, most of us seem to find it completely ludicrous that ANYONE could possibly believe that they know the day of Christ’s Return, how everything plays out over the next months and weeks…how it all ends. And this isn’t new. End of the World predictions have been made throughout history, some of them famous, some less so. In the opening chapter of his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman lists a series of End of the World Predictors, their predictions, their logic, their followers, going all the way back to Jesus himself. That should demonstrate how storied and prevalent is the human desire for a grand finale, a way out of this strange and unjust world…even if it is devastating and scary. Like anyone, I do find the notion of an “apocalyptic event,” kind of silly and funny. But I refuse to make fun of those who hope for one.
What is the distinction there? I find it humerous that anyone would be presumptious enough to think they “know” the mind of God, to be able to think that any writings, stories, or predictions that humans have put forward somehow indicate or insist that God will take action in a particular way on a particular day. I do not, however, mock or take lightly the pain and suffering within the human heart that leads some to believe in–in other words, hope for or long for–the end of the world.
It’s what Dr. Cornel West calls the Tragicomic sense of life. In Dr. West’s “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization,” he critiques W.E.B. Du Bois’ thinking and writing about Black Life in America, and he says, “My fundamental problem with Du Bois is his inadequate grasp of the tragicomic sense of life–a refusal…to confront the sheer absurdity of the human condition. This tragicomic sense–tragicomic rather than simply ‘tragic,’ because even ultimate purpose and objective order are called into question–propels us toward suicide or madness unless we are buffered by ritual, cushioned by community or sustained by art.” Now, I don’t know anyone who truly believed last Saturday would be the end of the world, but just like anyone else, I have read the reports of people who sold everything they had, gave up job opportunities, used their retirement savings to buy ad space to educate as much of the public as possible…I don’t think it is disrespectful to claim that these are folks who are facing life’s tragedies without the tools Dr. West describes as being essential for escaping suicide and madness such as ritual, community, art. Understanding human existence as “tragicomic” means that we are not surprised–or amused by–people attempting to make meaning out of absurd pain through absurd means.
I believe it is this tragicomic sense of life–this way of perceiving the world that refuses to label tragic, absurd, sad, happy, comedic, but rather holds all of that in tension as one whole human experience–that allows the German theologian Juergen Moltmann to critique modern eschatology. In his book, “In the End-The Beginning: The Life of Hope,” Moltmann writes, “Some people think that the Bible has to do with the terrors of the apocalypse, and that the apocalypse is ‘the end of the world’. The end, they believe, will see the divine ‘final solution’ of all the unsolved problems in personal life, in world history, and in the cosmos. Apocalyptic fantasy has always painted God’s great final Judgement on the Last Day with flaming passion: the good people will go to heaven, the wicked will go to hell, and the world will be annihilated in a storm of fire. We are all familiar, too, with images of the final struggle between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist, Good and Evil in the valley of Armageddon–images which can be employed so usefully in political friend-enemy thinking. These images are apocalyptic, but are they also Christian? No, they are not; for Christian expectation of the future has nothing whatsoever to do with the end, whether it be the end of this life, the end of history, or the end of the world. Christian expectation is about the beginning: the beginning of true life, the beginning of God’s kingdom, and the beginning of the new creation of all things into their enduring form.”
Moltmann and West reject the simplification of our human experience into dualistic categories. They reject the world view of “Buried,” where barbaric circumstances and greedy gangsters rule supreme and death is the end of the story. Moltmann’s eschatology and West’s tragicomic sense point more towards “127 Hours,” and its trajectory from absurd pain and tragic circumstance to transformative hope and new life through death.
Where does that leave Harold Camping and his followers? The believers were clearly people who, for whatever reason, had given up on the possibilities of this world in favor of the hope for God’s imminent rescue. Camping offered them an authoritative vision of hope for people who felt they had none. Camping had millions of dollars and a prospering radio network…and now he still has all that, plus a lot of free publicity. Did he truly believe that May 21 would be the end? Hard to say. But for him, life continues as usual and for his followers, a world that was already too complicated and painful still goes on…but now with even more complications and more uncertainty.
In the end (ha!), eschatology is a lot more than just trying to figure out what the apocalypse looks like. It’s about all “last things.” It’s about what happens in the end for all of us, not just a select few. Look at it this way: It doesn’t have to be the end of THE world to be the end of YOUR world. The death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, chronic illness, devastating environmental disasters…the world ceases to be as it was, and it begins anew every single day. The only real question people of faith need to be concerned with is Where is God in all this, and what does God empower us to Hope for?
Psalm 121 is as short as it is beautiful:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip–he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you–the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm–he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Apocalyptic predictions have proven to be falsehoods time and again, just as God has always, and continues, to be the ultimate authority on hope. Those who wait on a Superman-type God who will swoop down to save them from the tragicomic human existence will continue to wait…for how long, no one can know. But there is another way of perceiving God’s presence and activity in our world, which Moltmann and the Psalmist articulate…a way in which we do not wait on and hope for the end…but the beginning. Rather than waiting for God to save us from suffering and death, we find God already with us in painful and glorious birth. In every birth and re-birth, in every discovery and sunrise, every time we are “stuck,” God watches over, God’s hand shelters and protects, God will never slumber, and our help always comes from God’s promise of new light within every night.