Friday, November 29, 2013

A Team Effort (thoughts on courage by an orthodox rebel)

Hey! Don't tell me what to do!
"Be strong and courageous. Be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever you go." Josh. 1:9

"Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might." Eph. 6:10

A common  modern maxim is that we ought to "believe" in ourselves. It is quite a controversial statement. It is simultaneously derided as a cliche outgrowth of pop-philosophy and/or pop-psychology, and yet it is touted everywhere by almost everyone, esp. in our arts and entertainment. It does have a certain silliness and attractiveness to it. Silly because it seems overly simplistic; attractive because it seems positive and ennobling. In fact, it is silly and attractive because there is something true and false about it.

"Happy thoughts...."
The truth it contains speaks to its more general subject, i.e., confidence. The thing is talking about confidence. (Confidence in what, we shall get to in a moment.) This is the part where it tries to hit the nail on the head. We need confidence. Our courage needs some kind of assurance, an affirmation that it can be and is being backed up by something. With such an assurance, we can indeed do great things: take greater risks, think greater thoughts, and do greater acts. Thus, in this general sense of confidence, the maxim can ring true and become attractive.

How 'bout not?
Where it is false, however, is in its specifics: what or whom should our confidence be placed in? Here its answer is obvious: our confidence must be placed in ourselves, in our own strengths and instincts and skills and qualities. In the end, we must be the assurance of our own courage, the backing of our own backs. We alone are to be the final guarantee against all that besets us. Now, there is something ennobling about being your own hero, but there is also something terrifying because the whole thing rises or falls with you. And there is also something anti-Christian about it, which I will now labor to explain.

Do not think that I am about to call anyone who "believes in" themselves a horrible person. Far from it. I have no idea how horrible (or wonderful) they are or will be. I only say that they, horrible or not, have been misguided by misinformation. They have been told that the buck stops with them; for the Christian, this is false. The buck can never stop with yourself. It ought not to. We are finite, limited, and fallen, and while those facts do not rob us of one ounce of value or dignity before God and man, it does mean that we are ultimately unreliable. At some point and in some way, we will fail both ourselves and others. We have neither the strength nor skill nor anything else by which we can adequately back ourselves. This is why the biblical view of courage was always directed at God: be courageous because He is with you; have confidence in His great strength.

This is not simply about power. God has all power, but that doesn't mean it will do us any good. What does do us good is two ideas in addition to His power: He is intimately with us, and He intimately loves us. If you belong to Christ then you belong to God (Col. 3:3), bound together in a mystic sweet communion by infinite love (John 14:20-21; 17:23, 26). It is on the basis of these three truths that we have confidence, not because of ourselves but because there is one who (1) is greater than us, (2) is with us, and (3) loves us.

The loneliest number.
This is a real difference between Christian thought and everyone else. Christianity is fundamentally communal, all the way up to the trinitarian God Himself. Everyone else (mainly in America) is fundamentally individualistic: the "buck" really does stop with us. And the difference between the communal and the individualistic is stark, especially when it comes to courage. For example, in The Matrix, all falls on Neo, the "One". The fight rests on his shoulders alone, on his strengths and choices. But in The Lord of the Rings, there is not the "One" but the "fellowship," which even when it frays, it's frayed into groups. The smallest was Frodo and Sam. The task of destroying the ring was appointed to Frodo, but he did not go alone, and as he would later say, "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam." Two famous movie franchises. Two completely different messages. (And two different success rates.)

"My dear, do as I do, not as I say."
I think there is something absolutely true about the Christian notion of communal courage. This came home to me in a very frustrating way. I had just watched The Cat Returns, which is an adorably wonderful film with the most disappointingly idiotic moral ever. "Idiotic" because it was not what the film was about. In the final scene, the Cat Baron has just rescued a girl named Haru from the Cat Kingdom. Along the way, Haru had found her confidence and bravery. The Baron's final words to her, spoken with the intonations of Toucan Sam, were, "Remember: follow your heart!" And then the whole thing was spoiled. "Follow your heart" is the same as "believe in yourself," and the film was about neither of those things. Haru did indeed find her courage and confidence, but it was because of the Baron, not herself. The Baron believed in her, fought for her, cared for her, and on the basis of his courage and confidence for and in her, she found her own. That was the real message of the film, the message of communal courage: you cannot be brave alone. It is (so to speak) a team effort.

"Here I've found my bravery."
When Moses died and Joshua was made the leader of Israel, God tells him not to be afraid because He is with him: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee" (Josh. 1:5). In a strange, non-analogous way it reminds me of the end of Braveheart where Robert the Bruce looks at his fellow Scots and says, "You have bled with Wallace. Now bleed with me." The idea is the same even if the exact image is not: we cannot have confidence alone. We cannot have courage in the void. There must be another with us, one who is somehow greater than us, who is closer than a brother, and who loves us with passion and faithfulness. We act on communal courage all the time, in our imperfect way. How many "stupid things" were you willing to do because your friends were with you? How many terrifying things have you done because a loved one had your back? And how much greater will the risk and danger be, how much sweeter and grander the adventure, when God is the Beloved in whom we believe?

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

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