This happened at my church. The priest focused his sermon almost entirely on the epistle for that Sunday, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, completely avoiding the gospel reading: Luke 12:49-56 [full text]. But who can blame him? Jesus, in one his more apocalyptic moods, says some pretty disturbing things:
“I CAME to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I HAVE COME to bring PEACE to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather DIVISION! From now on five in one household will be DIVIDED, three against two and two against three; they will be DIVIDED:
- father against son
- and son against father,
- mother against daughter
- and daughter against mother,
- mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
- and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.“
You’d have to be crazy to preach on that! It’s just too RISKY. Any clergy who wants to keep their job would be well advised to avoid such texts. People don’t want to hear it. When thinking about the MESSIAH TO COME, whether past or present, most folks in the pews envision that figure as a bringer of PEACE and tranquility, not DIVISION. And certainly not family conflict!
…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame… (Hebrew 12:1-2)
He shared the experiences of his generation, which lived through WWII: the soldiers who risked their lives for something bigger than themselves. He told the story of a pilot of a B17 who crashed with his entire crew, never seeing the outcome of his sacrifice. He described what it felt like to live through that moment in history, “when the future horizon was so uncertain,” and how, in the face of incredible circumstances, those soldiers risked everything.
I tried to think of a story representative of my generation. Who among us has run the race? And sad to say, the best I could come up with was the movie Risky Business (1983), an iconic film for those of us who came of age in the Reagan Era. Unlike WWII, the mid-80’s were a period of relative peace and prosperity, when most white, middle class teenagers, like myself, experienced life as safe and secure. We thought our futures were guaranteed. To this day my Gen-X friends and I romanticize that last gasp of suburban tranquility, epitomized in TV shows like Family Ties. Little did we know that we would be the first generation deprived of the opportunities our parents took for granted. Yet even before the American Dream began going bust in the 1990s, Risky Business, challenged the cookie cutter reality of the 1980’s suburban cutlure by exposing the one thing it couldn’t provide: a life free of ANXIETY…
In the very first scene high school student Joel Goodsen (played by Tom Cruise) recounts his recurring nightmare: “The dream is always the same. Instead of going home I go to the neighbor’s. I ring but nobody answers. The door is open, so I go inside… nobody seems to be there… I hear the shower running so I go upstairs to see what’s what. Then I see her, this girl, this incredible girl [in the shower]. What’s she doing there I don’t know because she doesn’t live there… she says ‘I want you to wash my back.’” but Joel can’t find the shower door. “Finally I get to the door and I find myself in a room full of kids taking their college boards. I’m over three hours late; got two minutes to take the whole test. I just made a terrible mistake. I’ll never get to college; my life is ruined.“
Joel lives in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago full of lawyers, doctors, bankers, and the like. His parents are caricatures of the white suburban establishment. Even though his father owns a Porsche, Joel’s parents live passionless lives, frozen, so to speak, within the icy confines of their shallow, predictable lifestyle. This is perfectly represented by the large CRYSTAL EGG, cherished by Joel’s mother, a very expensive object which occupies a place of honor atop the fireplace mantel.
Throughout the movie, Joel’s parents lecture him in mild, but overbearing parental tones: “Did you get your SAT scores?” “My house, my rules.” “Be good.” “We TRUST you.” With the result that Joel Goodsen, being the epitome of the “good son,” becomes extremely ANXIOUS about his future - he’s afraid to detour even the slightest degree from the course his parents have outlined for him, convinced that one slip up will cost him his admission into Princeton, his father’s alma mater, and ruin his FUTURE.
In another dream Joel is about to make love with the neighbors’ babysitter. The police send a SWAT team to surround the house. “Alright Goodsen, we know you’re in there… the house is surrounded.” In the dream, his parents arrive, taking hold of the bullhorn, they plead in their same mild tones: “Please Joel, … get off the babysitter, don’t throw your life away like this.” The babysitter’s father, dressed almost exactly like Joel’s father in a cashmere cardigan and casual pants, is more threatening: “You’ll never have a future, not if I can help it. You got that? NO FUTURE.”
The truth is, Joel’s FUTURE is slipping away, but not because of any slip ups on his part. Joel is so ANXIOUS he’s unable to take any sort of RISK, he cannot ACT on his PASSION. He’s growing up to be a very typical, mediocre young man. It is this mediocrity, more than anything else, that jeopardizes his FUTURE. As Bill Rutherford, the Princeton admissions officer, says, “your point average is 3.14, your class rank 52, which places you in the 84th percentile, is that correct?… junior varsity tennis team, recording secretary Spanish club, varsity track team one year, honorable mention Cook County Science Fair, Future Enterprisers, yearbook staff, student council two years. Well Joel your stats are very RESPECTABLE, you’ve done some solid work here, but it’s not quite Ivy League is it?”
When his parents take a trip, leaving him home alone, the POSSIBILITIES this presents only intensify his ANXIETY. His best friend Miles tries to challenge him: “No guts Goodsen… sometimes you gotta say ‘What the f*ck!’ make your move.” Joel’s response is pathetic, “Me, I don’t want to make a mistake, jeopardize my future.” But Miles persists:”Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, ‘What the f*ck!’ ‘What the f*ck!’ gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future…. your folks are going out of town… you’ve got the place all to yourself…what the f*ck!‘”
Just the sort of advice you’d expect from a teenager. “What the f*ck!” smacks of irresponsibility, a lack of respect, a certain reckless immaturity… But what if “What the f*ck!” demonstrates something else? What my favorite 19th century religious thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, terms EARNESTNESS, the most serious sort of RESPONSIBILITY. For postmodern philosopher, Jacques Derrida, “What the f*ck” might even betray an INFINITE RESPONSIBILITY. But such responsibility requires PASSION, the sort of PASSION that can only be fueled by DESIRE. As Kierkegaard says, “EARNESTNESS of feeling is a FIRE” that is always at risk for being cooled (Concept of Anxiety, 149); it must be ignited through ACTION.
The first evening he’s alone, Joel blasts Bob Seger on his father’s expensive stereo system, something he was expressly forbidden to do, and performs the iconic dance in front of the CRYSTAL EGG [watch on YouTube]. As rebellious as this behavior may seem, it leaves Joel as ANXIOUS as ever.
The next night he takes his father’s Porsche out for a cruise, something else he was told not to do. Joel says with self-satisfaction, “Porsche. There is no substitute.” When he recounts this to Miles the next day, Miles is unimpressed: “You’ve done the old man’s car bit, that’s a good start…”
And why should Miles be impressed? The Porsche is a substitute for true rebellion, for ACTION. Joel is doing what his father does, it’s a repetition of the same behavior lacking any any expression of real PASSION, an evasion of true words and ACTION, of having to say, “What the f*ck!” As Kierkegaard would say, Joel has defrauded POSSIBILITY and the RISK that comes with it. His desire remains focused on precisely the objects his father prohibited him…. which explains Miles’ disinterest in Joel’s little “joyride.”
So what’s Joel’s hangup, what’s he so ANXIOUS about? Simply put: the peace and security of Joel’s middle class world depends on the strict control of DESIRE, on the cooling of EARNESTNESS, on extinguishing PASSION and any ACTION which might ignite it. Joel’s parents and their peers are devoid of all this. Their desire, their sexuality, are channeled through socially accepted venues and policed by external constraints which manifest as suburban conformity. Lacking PASSION, they’re unable to express any genuine concern for their fellow man, focused as they are on the shallow, pre-programmed pursuit of material wealth and security. It’s not that they’re greedy, you could even say they’re not greedy enough. ANXIETY prevents them from ACTING on their more passionate DESIRES.
As French thinker Rene Girard explains: DESIRE is MIMETIC, it is always provoked by another’s desire, which means it’s extremely dangerous [read girard on desire] The more passionate the desire, the more mimetic it becomes. If cut loose, MIMETIC DESIRE spreads horizontally, crisscrossing the community one neighbor to the next. Like a wild fire, it’s nearly impossible to control. And no desire is more unruly than that of a teenage boy - it can ignite an entire neighborhood.
Joel’s DESIRE must be tamed, and safely-channeled as quickly as possible, before it sets his suburban community ablaze, before it provokes multiple and competing desires, a contagion of jealousy and rivalry which could quickly escalate into violence. To avoid rivalry, DESIRE is always directed away from the neighbor, prohibiting what Girard calls INTERNALLY MEDIATED desire [link], and is redirected towards safe objects: expensive cars, SAT scores, an Ivy League education. Girard calls this EXTERNALLY MEDIATED desire [link]. To come of age in Joel’s suburban neighborhood, means to sacrifice DESIRE and PASSION before he has a chance to ACT on it - no wonder Joel has nightmares about the police surrounding the house!
So why would Jesus want to kindle such a fire? Why would he cut DESIRE loose? Why on earth would he long for that?
If Joel merely did what he was told and imitated the desires programmed for him by his parents and peers, if instead of going to the neighbor’s house, he came straight home - he would close the door to possibility, to opportunity and freedom, he would close the door to the coming of the MESSIAH.
Thank God, Miles decides to play a joke on his best friend. Ignoring Joel’s protests, Miles sends a prostitute to the Goodsen home. When the uninvited visitor arrives, Joel opens the door to discover she’s a transvestite - LOL - he immediately slams the door shut. The transvestite, who’s now stranded in the suburbs, asks to use the phone to call a taxi, “Joel be a courageous person, open the door.” Joel is kind enough to open the door, thus exposing himself to a dose of uncertainty and risk - which helps him muster the courage later that evening to take a further risk. The transvestite leaves Joel with a phone number: “Ask for Lana, it’s what you want, it’s what every boy off the lake wants.” Joel calls the number to arrange for another prostitute to come to the house, he dons a cashmere sweater, downs a scotch and falls asleep on the couch, but this time he leaves the door unlocked…
When Lana (played by Rebecca De Mornay) arrives, she proves to be much more than Joel bargained for. If he had known, I’m sure he would have kept the door locked! But DESIRE has already opened the door to the unpredictable, to the OTHER and all the POSSIBILITY this presents, exposing Joel to an unforeseeable FUTURE.
Joel, however, EXPECTS his economic arrangement with Lana to conclude by morning, but he lacks enough cash to pay her $300 fee (prostitutes cost more than he realized). Leaving Lana at the house, he goes to the bank to cash a savings bond. When he returns, the CRYSTAL EGG is gone… Lana has stolen the centerpiece of PEACE and TRANQUILITY in the Goodsen household. Joel now learns that there’s more to be ANXIOUS about than just losing his virginity. As Kierkegaard would say, he’s about to get an EDUCATION in POSSIBILITY.
Indeed, unlocking one door quickly opens another and before you know it Joel’s home is invaded by prostitutes, transvestites, and a pimp named Guido - people he would never normally meet. At first all he wants is a return to normalcy “I just want my egg back, I want my house back!” But as these people enter his life, creating a fair amount of chaos, they actually have some positive effects upon him. Yes, Joel is suspended from school, “his record ruined,” he’s kicked out of Future Enterprisers, but by remaining open and continuing to ACT in the face of all this uncertainty, he finds he can take risks, which previously he could only ever dream of.
At one point Joel’s parents call to check on him and hearing a party in the background they’re suspicious, “Is that a WOMAN’s voice?” But rather than threaten him with punishment, they simply demand conformity in those same mild tones: “We TRUST you.” Meaning we know you won’t break the rules and disobey us. Joel, tells himself, “It seems to me if there is any logic to the world, ‘Trust’ would be a four letter word.” He’s sick and tired of the pressure to conform. Joel having come this far is not willing to turn back: he make’s a decisive break from his previous programmed existence, and taking his life into his own hands, he takes a leap into UNCERTAINTY. In that moment, when he decides to ACT, his words to the Princeton admissions officer couldn’t be more fitting:
[Movie Clip] “You know Bill, there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years, sometimes you got to say, ‘what the f*ck!’ Make your move.” But beware, when that moment of rupture comes, when Joel takes this leap, it appears reckless and irresponsible, a violation of everything respectable, of all normalcy. “What the f*ck!” is disruptive, not simply because it’s a challenge to parental authority, it’s open-ended, it isn’t programmed. It’s not just “What the hell!” It’s far more RISKY than that. As Jacques Derrida says, the future is full of risk, “the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity.” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 5) As Joel’s future opens up, it may feel to him that he’s adrift in uncharted water - no wonder people get anxious! But as my favorite postmodern theologian, John Caputo, warns “Faith is not a safe harbor, but risky business.” [Tikkun, Mar-Apr. 2010]
Therefore, if and when the MESSIAH COMES, too many of us may prefer to remain safe and secure in our egg, with the doors locked. But this is a FALSE PEACE. As Lutheran pastor Paul Nuechterlein says on his website [Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary]:
“The old way of peace meant sacrificing the desires and goals of the daughters and wives in families. As families have rightly become more egalitarian so has the discord, in many instances, increased between husbands and wives, parents and children. Divorce has increased greatly.”
By breaking free of his parents middle-class conformity, Joel is not free to desire as he pleases, for desire remains MIMETIC. But as his desire brings him into contact with others, Lana for instance, he’ll experiences some of it’s effects: for instance, the rivalry and conflict of competing desire. At the same time he’ll be freer to ACT, to respond in the midst of a crisis to the needs of others, to welcome the unexpected visitor. As Caputo says, keeping “the net of social relationships open makes possible what Arendt calls ‘natality,’ the fresh, natal, initiating power of a new action, a new beginning or a new start. Each day is a new day, a renewal of the day, a new gift. Today is always new. Today you begin again.”(Caputo, Weakness of God, 169)
When Joel’s parents return, only after Joel desperately reconstructs their home and furnishings, making it appear exactly as it did when his parents left, returning the EGG to its proper place on the mantel (Joel has to go to great lengths to retrieve it) it appears at first that the family routine will continue seamlessly. But this time there’s a difference: Joel’s mother finds a small CRACK in her CRYSTAL EGG, “the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed.” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 14) There is hope! ‘Natality’ is born afresh. A totally unforseen and unprogrammed FUTURE announces itself - Joel’s father gives Joel the news: Joel has been accepted into Princeton, the future which was originally denied him due to mediocrity, has now opened wide, not as a reward for doing everything he was told, on the contrary, but as a possibility that belonged to a FUTURE that his middle-class existence would have blocked. So while Joel may appear to fulfill his father’s expectations - he will go to Princeton - it will be on very different terms. His days of playing it safe are over.
And truth be told, his education at Princeton will hardly be the one to matter most, to actually form his character. Only his education by way of POSSIBILITY, by way of DESIRE can transform Joel into a person of INFINITE RESPONSIBILITY - capable of running the race - one who has grappled with the effects of INTERNALLY MEDIATED DESIRE [more of this in an upcoming post]. It certainly won’t be Joel’s father, who upon learning of Joel’s acceptance to his alma mater, can only say, “Having I been telling you every once and a while you’ve just got to say, ‘What the heck!’” - Sue Wright