Nov 27, 2014

I’m Not So Sure I Want to Live an Epic Life

I might want to live an epic life of greatness, but I’m not sure that I can. Furthermore, I’m not even sure that I’m supposed to want to live such a life.

Victory

One of my favorite movie scenes takes place in The Return of the King, as the Rohirrim prepare for a desperate assault on the hordes of Mordor surrounding the city of Minas Tirith. Their king Théoden races up and down the line, rallying the men (and woman) of Rohan with these stirring words as they look down on the Pelennor Fields:

Forth, and fear no darkness. Arise, arise riders of Théoden. Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered. A sword day, a red day, ‘ere the sun rises. Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride for ruin and the world’s ending… Forth Eorlingas!

Better yet, just watch it for yourself.

The Charge of the Rohirrim

It’s one of the most stirring displays of heroism, derring-do, and good overcoming evil that I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it thrills me — and gets me choked up — nearly every time I watch it. And afterwards, I want to take up spear and shield myself, and hurl myself at the darkness… whatever it might be. It makes me want to live as epic and heroic a life as I possibly can.

But then I come down from that cinematic high and find myself wondering just how, exactly, I’m supposed to live such a life as a white, middle-class web developer living in Lincoln, Nebraska in the 21st century. This is something that’s been bouncing around inside my head for awhile now, and only recently have I been able to put words to it: I might want to live an epic life of greatness, but I’m not sure that I can. Furthermore, I’m not even sure that I’m supposed to want to live such a life.

I’m not one of the Rohirrim, and I don’t charge into battle on horseback. I drive a Volvo to an office where I sit at a desk developing user interfaces for web applications. Accepting such a reality, however, seems to fly in the face of what our culture — which places so much emphasis on personal autonomy and satisfying every material want and need — tells us to desire. This can be even truer within a Christian context.

It can be difficult to explain just what, exactly, is meant by an “epic life,” especially within that Christian context. I first began to notice it, though not in so many words, as a push-back against post-modernism. Specifically, the post-modern idea that there is no over-arching narrative that lends meaning to our existence. Rather, post-modernism — and I realize I’m probably making the philosophy majors out there cringe with my oversimplifications here — asserts that we must each discover our own personal meaning because meaning, truth, etc., are all relative.

I’m not one of the Rohirrim, and I don’t charge into battle on horseback. I drive a Volvo to an office where I sit at a desk developing user interfaces for web applications.

Christianity, with its idea that “we live and move and have our being” within God — to use the apostle Paul’s speech at Mars Hill — claims the opposite. There is absolute meaning and truth, and they are ultimately determined by God. There is a grand narrative and we all have a special, unique, and meaningful role to play in it. Not surprisingly, a great deal of comfort is found in the thought that everything can and will be turned to good. At the very least, it means that even the greatest pain and suffering that I or my loved ones might experience will, in the end, mean something. Life is not ultimately pointless — and what’s more epic that that?

But mere comfort isn’t always enough, and therefore, I see Christians occasionally taking that idea and amping it up to heights that seem more akin to power trip fantasies than mere consolation. The now-disgraced Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll is a good example of this mindset. In a 2011 sermon, Driscoll said this while railing against video games (emphasis mine):

Young, particularly men, and now women are joining it, they want to get on a team, be part of a kingdom, conquer a foe, and win a great, epic battle. So they do it with their thumbs and it doesn’t even count. Nobody’s really liberated. The Taliban is not really conquered. Women are not really freed from oppression. Generations are not really changed. It’s all fake. It doesn’t count.
You want to do something? Get off the couch, unplug the electronics, give your life to Jesus, find some other guys, and do something that actually matters. Leave a legacy for women, children, generations, not just the high score on some stupid game. It’s amazing. A whole world filled with guys who want to be on a team, go to a war, defeat an enemy, and save a princess. That’s the story of this book, the Bible. And if you want to be part of that kingdom, you got to get off the couch and follow that king. And you do not quit. You fight differently when you fight for ones you love, a kingdom, and a king.

Note the language, which is full of warfare and battle. Certainly the Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war and there is true good and true evil, but Driscoll’s language, whatever truth it contains, is over-the-top and more akin to a battle cry meant to rally the troops. Or consider the language coming from Christian mixed martial arts ministries. From a New York Times “op ed doc” earlier this year (again, emphasis mine):

As this Op-Doc video shows, Mr. Burress is one of a growing number of pastors who incorporate mixed martial arts (M.M.A.), a violent sport also known as cage fighting that embraces kickboxing and wrestling, into their parishes. Pastors like him feel that the church’s traditional evangelizing is not resonating with young men anymore, and they are resolved to change that. They justify their unorthodox approach by arguing that many of the Bible’s core tenets involve fighting: for freedom, for one’s beliefs, and for Jesus, too.

In the documentary, there’s language about how Jesus wasn’t a sissy and His disciples were all roughnecks. (Never mind the tenuous Biblical support for these ideas.) Again, the language is of conflict, battle, toughness — all of which tie into this notion of engaging in epic struggle, Rohirrim-like. The sense seems to be that this is the nominal Christian life; as Christians we are to be warriors for God striving against the world, with all of the attendant violent and militant implications.

We want to do something epic — we feel like we should do something epic — and for better or worse, our culture often conflates “epic” with war-like imagery.

Even the venerable C.S. Lewis used similar language. He railed against a culture that bred “men without chests” and in his classic satire, The Screwtape Letters, even described the Church as “terrible as an army with banners.” However, Lewis also wrote this in The Weight of Glory about what it means to live as a Christian:

Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things. Before I went to the last war I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing — and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and solders are still men: the infidel’s idea of a religious life, and the civilian’s idea of active service, are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.
There is therefore this analogy between the claims of our religion and the claims of the war: neither of them, for most of us, will simply cancel or remove from the slate the merely human life which we were leading before we entered them.

In other words, even in our desire to live a life that, in Driscoll-ian terms, is full of (righteous) warfare and struggle, we can’t escape the fact that it will “inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before.” And that’s where a disconnect emerges. We want to do something epic — we feel like we should do something epic — and for better or worse, our culture often conflates “epic” with war-like imagery. (This should go without saying, but I am not saying that war is never justified or proper, nor am I seeking to downplay the sacrifices and heroic deeds that occur during wartime, including their inspirational value.)

Again, the Bible does contain language about striving and struggling (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:24-27), so there is truth in this. But to what extent do we carry this struggle? How do we frame it? And how does it translate into our lives that — especially if we live here in America — are characterized more by seemingly mundane activities (e.g., going to work, raising kids, being a good neighbor) than something more epic?

My former pastor often shared this anecdote from his first preaching class in seminary: For his first sermon, he gave what he thought was a very thought-provoking one in which he contrasted himself with a non-Christian co-worker. They were both in a difficult situation at work, but because he was a Christian, my pastor was able to respond well while his co-worker floundered. The application was clear: being a Christian meant being able to live victoriously and overcome evil — it meant being able to become heroic. When he finished, my pastor saw that his professor was clearly agitated. The professor asked the rest of the class for their thoughts and then, before anyone else could speak, lashed out. “Your sermon contained my number one pet peeve, and do you know what it is?” he asked. “There’s only one Hero in the text, and it’s not you.”

There’s only one Hero in the text, and it’s not you.

On the surface, this should be obvious. Of course the Bible is about Christ and His amazing deeds, culminating in His death and resurrection that make possible eternal salvation for humanity. It doesn’t get much more heroic than that. But if we really let that sink in, it becomes quietly disconcerting because the obvious conclusion is that, if Christ is the hero, then we are not. We are not strong, He is. We are not awesome, He is. We are not worthy, He is. And if you live in a culture that values autonomy and power as much as America’s does, then such thoughts run completely counter to some of the fundamental assumptions under which we live.

For somebody, an “epic” Christian life is not going off to change the world, rattle the gates of hell, etc., but rather, trusting that God will simply grant her some bladder control.

I don’t say any of this to deny the very real sacrificial bent that exists at Christianity’s core. If Jesus is our model, then our lives will be characterized by sacrifice, trials, and hardships as we live in this world (e.g., 1 John 3:16, John 15:13, John 15:18-21). As such, we are called to maintain faith in Christ, but with that comes the temptation to make faith out to be something heroic in and of itself. But maybe — maybe — trials and hardships look a little different than we think. In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey writes about an experience that Richard Mouw (the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary) had:

Mouw recalls being in a meeting with sociologist Peter Berger. He is speaking as a seminary president should. Mouw said that every Christian is called to engage in radical obedience to God’s program of justice, righteousness, and peace. “Berger responded with the observation that I was operating with a rather grandiose notion of radical obedience. ‘Somewhere in a retirement home,’ he said, ‘there is a Christian woman whose greatest fear in life is that she will make a fool of herself because she will not be able to control her bladder in the cafeteria line. For this woman, the greatest act of radical obedience to Jesus Christ is to place herself in the hands of a loving God every time she goes off to dinner.’”
Berger’s point was profound. God calls us to deal with the challenges before us, and often our most radical challenges are very little ones. The call to radical micro-obedience may mean patiently listening to someone who is boring or irritating, or treating a fellow sinner with a charity that is not easy to muster, or offering detailed advice on a matter that seems trivial to everyone but the person asking for the advice.

Think about that for a moment, that for somebody, an “epic” Christian life is not going off to change the world, rattle the gates of hell, etc., but rather, trusting that God will simply grant her some bladder control. Or for somebody else, it means being a good neighbor to a troubled family on the block, and not running inside whenever you see them coming your way. Or just treating that really annoying co-worker with respect.

No doubt some reading this right now are rolling their eyes. “No kidding, genius. Of course you should do those things. That’s just part of being a decent human being.” But there’s the rub: How many of us are — if we really take a long, hard look at ourselves — decent human beings? How many of us are truly good neighbors? How many of us really show respect and compassion to those that, if we’re honest, we can’t stand to be around?

It might be tempting to think that our lives are too mundane and ordinary, then. We find it difficult to think like G.K. Chesterton, who wrote these beautiful words:

I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term, which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our… religion.

In that case, I just want to leave you with one final quote, a quote that helped me crystallize the thoughts behind to this piece, and a quote that I continue to find deeply refreshing and encouraging (via Alan Jacobs).

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — “Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much”. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.

If you’re a Christian, then you are most likely one of “those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women.” When you pass this world, you will, more likely than not, be “utterly forgotten by men.” And even if you happened to live the most epic of lives, eventually you, too, will be forgotten, your accomplishments becoming lost on the winds even as your bones turn to dust. And yet, you will have passed to God — you will have found Jerusalem. And I think the Biblical implication, particularly in the Book of Revelation, is that will be more than enough.

None of this is to necessarily discourage us from wanting to do great, maybe even “epic,” things for the Kingdom. But not all of us are called to that or are even capable of that. What’s more, all of us probably have skewed concepts of what, exactly, constitutes “epic.” No doubt, we don’t consider what that means from a heavenly perspective, one where a widow’s mite is of more value than the wealthy’s riches. But in any case, all of us are called to be faithful, and in the end, that faithfulness will triumph against the darkness in a way that no “epic” life could — for it ultimately bestows glory, honor, and love on the one true Hero, the One Who has done that which is truly epic.

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