Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Heroes (Kirsten Lambert) 8.6.2008
Readings: Matt 9: 9-13, 18-26; Gen 12:1-9; Romans 4:13-25

Have you ever noticed how when Hollywood attempts to film any of the biblical stories they can’t help but turn the characters into your typical heroes? In movies like “The Greatest Story ever Told” which still seems to get repeated every Easter, Jesus seems to have been sponsored by Maurice Meade and Omo Washing Powder. In fact the guys who usually play Jesus would probably be pretty ‘hot’ if they weren’t so surreal or ‘otherworldly’ – you know, glassy-eyed with a strange permanent half-smile. They do these strange speeches in presentational voices with a sort of dreamy, over-dramatic affectedness. What the Hollywood over-dramatising does is to keep masking the fact that the stories in the Bible are usually about pretty ordinary people. REALLY ordinary.

Take Matthew for example. Matthew was a tax collector. A reasonably respectable profession in our day, but in his it meant he was a lacky for the Roman occupation forces in Judea. It is not surprise that tax-collectors are consistently portrayed as the lowest of the low in the gospel accounts. They were traitors, collaborating with the occupying forces. Perhaps today he’d have been someone like Tony Mokbel, or Lachlan Packer who owns the casinos. Actually that’s probably the closer equivalent, taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

What about Abraham and Sarah? Nothing too special about these two. Their personal lives would make a good script for The Bold and the Beautiful. Abraham, a wealthy farmer, has a wife named Sarah, who’s a bit of a hottie, so wherever he goes he tries to pass her off as his sister so he can get in the good books with the locals. Sarah can’t have kids so she suggests Abraham sleep with the poor maid, Hagar. Abraham’s response to this ‘indecent proposal’? Woohoo! Despite a promise from God for a child by Sarah, Abraham jumps at the chance of a bit of loin gratification. Then when Hagar gets pregnant and has a son, Sarah gets jealous and starts knocking her around until Hagar gets jack of it and leaves the house. Let’s just say that Abraham and Sarah’s family saga is a whole lot more like The Simpsons than The Lord of the Rings. That’s one of the wonderful things about this week’s readings. All of the characters are so ‘normal’ - I find this very encouraging.

Ross and I went and saw, Prince Caspian (The Narnia film) on Friday night, and that’s a classic example of the ‘fantasy’ genre with your typical hero. Prince Caspian is handsome, brave, good, strong and intelligent. He’s your super-hero type of hero, minus the super-powers, and all of his friends are the same. The thing I love about all of the characters in today’s readings is that they’re all so ‘real’. They may well be heroes of the faith now, and if Hollywood were to portray them they’d all be very respectable, but in their own day they’d be more like anti-heroes. You know, like Homer Simpson or ‘Earl’ from ‘My Name is Earl’.

I teach my Media kids about heroes and anti-heroes and their different quests. In the hero’s quest (like with Superman, Aragon or Caspian) they usually start out with a normal boring life and then they hear the call to adventure, which they have to accept or decline. Obviously, they decide to go on the quest (or there wouldn’t be a story). After the hero has accepted the call, he encounters a protective figure (often elderly) who provides special tools (such as a sword) and advice/physical training for the adventure ahead. At the beginning of the journey the hero is tested and has to cross the first threshold. This threshold is between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not. Sometimes the hero gathers a group of friends or like-minded associates, who are also facing the ‘enemy’, to help him on his way. On their journey they are faced with numerous trials, which they must overcome. In the climax of the story the hero faces the ultimate trial in a battle with the ‘evil one’. Usually he is on the verge of losing when the hero is helped covertly by the supernatural helper or may discover a benign power supporting him to overcome the enemy. The achievement of the goal or or "boon" often results in important self-knowledge, and more often than not, a marriage with a queen-like or mother-like figure. This represents the hero`s mastery of life (represented by the feminine) as well as the totality of what can be known. After this the hero returns to the ordinary world, and applies the knowledge he has gained to improve the world.

The quest of the anti-hero is a lot shorter. With the anti-hero they start out as a bum (they lack the qualities of a hero such as bravery, goodness and physical prowess), they hear a call to do whatever, like make a difference or solve a problem, they attempt to do this and totally screw things up; however, fate lends a hand and everyone ends up happy in the end if no wiser.

The kind of Jesus that Hollywood (and a lot of churches) presents is more the tale of the super hero. He’s good-looking, strong (super-dooper strong but he chooses not to use it), intelligent and good. He’s given a call, which he accepts, goes through trials, gets a gang of friends, overcomes several obstacles and in the final climactic scene he fights the powers of evil, who almost prevail, but in the conclusion he conquers all and lives happily ever after. He even gets the girl in the metaphorical sense by being wedded to the ‘bride’, the church. In my opinion it suits Imperialist America to present Jesus this way because it legitimises their warring. They can join with super-hero Jesus in his quest to defeat the ‘evil’ infidels (called terrorists) and liberate, or bring ‘democracy’ to, the (oil-rich) nations. It’s not just Hollywood which presents Jesus this way. It comes from a way of reading of the bible which focuses on Jesus’ divinity and ignores his humanity. Marcus Borg would probably label this kind of Christianity the ‘Earlier Christian Paradigm’ with its tendency to see Jesus within the framework of biblical literalism. This type of Christianity focuses on ‘believing’, particularly in supernatural events that prove that Jesus was divine.

One alternative to this kind of Jesus is to get rid of all of the fantastic, miraculous or even ‘spiritual’ elements of the bible and have a totally human Jesus who ends up being just a wise teacher who tragically gets killed by the authorities. In the early days of the quest for the historical Jesus people tried to strip the bible of its miraculous elements. One theologian even literally cut out all of the accounts of miracles and the supernatural in the New Testament, but I don’t thing there was much left, apart from a lot of holes. This reminds me of the realism of the theatre of the 50s and 60s with plays like ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ or some of those really harsh reality films that you only ever see at the Luna like ‘Jindabine’. Life is hard, meaningless and ultimately tragic. At the end of the film you want to go home and slit your wrists.

Thankfully there is a middle ground between Fantasy and Realism, between super-heroes and anti-heroes. In literature it’s called Magical Realism or Magic Realism and you’re all undoubtedly familiar with the genre through books like, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ or ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez, both of which are always featured in the top 100 novels of all time. Or you may have watched magic realism films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Big Fish, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malcovich or even The Lake House. Magic Realism is the type of literature that is usually characterized by elements of the fantastic woven into the story with a deadpan sense of presentation. Writers such as Márquez, Gunter Grass, and John Fowles interweave a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales. Magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. The title ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ says it all. Magical Realism also incorporates aspects of human existence such as thoughts, emotions, dreams, cultural mythologies and imagination. It uses symbolism and imagery extensively. Through this amalgamation, Magic Realism can be more exact in depicting human reality. Thus Magic Realism combines the ‘real’ with ‘magical’ to create a ‘more than real’ or ‘hyper-real’ story in order to show some truth about life. The thing I like about it is that Magical Realists portray the real world itself as having magical aspects inherent in it.

It reminds me of Marcus Borg’s ‘Emerging Christian Paradigm’ which sees the writings of the bible, and the gospels in particular, as a combination of historical memory (the realism part) with metaphor (the magical part). Hence the metaphorical elements of the gospels are the ‘more than real’ in that they teach us about reality. Borg describes Jesus as a mystic, in that he was on the path of personal transformation through centring in God. The emerging Christian paradigm, with its historical-metaphorical approach to the Bible and Jesus leads to a different way of seeing Jesus. Borg states that the pre-Easter Jesus (the ‘really human’ Jesus) is a Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher and prophet of the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed the immediacy of access to God; he challenged the domination system, was executed by the authorities and vindicated by God . In the decades after Easter his followers spoke of Jesus and his significance with the most exalted or language they knew: Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Light of the World, Bread of Life, and so forth.’ This post-Easter Jesus is like Magical Realism to me because it uses metaphor, symbol and mythology – ‘magical’ language to describe the ‘more than real’, which is the truth underlying the historical facts.

With regard to this morning’s readings we see characters who are painfully real people. Yet each of them is transformed by their contact with the divine. Sarah and Abraham are blessed by God and become a blessing to many nations. Matthew is transformed, the woman with the hemorrhaging is healed, and the little girl is raised from the dead, each through their contact with Jesus. For me this is a mixture of the real with the ‘more than real’. It helps me to view my own life and ‘faith’ in this way. To see the ‘more than real’ elements that lie behind the gritty realism of life. It also shows me that life is not going to be like a Hollywood blockbuster with me as the hero of the story. Neither is my life some sort of tragic and ultimately meaningless existence.

Let me give you a couple of real life examples from my friends who I’ve seen over the last couple of days. Kelly, who works as a counsellor, is a really spiritual person and I sort of see her as a wise mentor sort of friend. We meet for coffee once a week, and this Friday she was very upset because she had just discovered that her husband is addicted to internet porn. How’s that for gritty realism. I met up with another friend yesterday, Rebecca, my Hebrew tutor, who is Jewish and very much into the Kabbalah. Rebecca has had cancer and is currently trying to cope with looking after her elderly mother who suffers from dementia. If we were superheroes Kelly would pray and her husband would renounce his addiction and they’d live happily ever after. Rebecca would be miraculously healed of cancer and her mother would… well she’d have to be cured as well. If it was gritty realism Kelly’s marriage would ultimately fail, after a series of long drawn out arguments and tragic events. Rebecca would die of cancer and her mum would be run over by a drunk driver whilst doing a bunk from the old-aged home where they mistreated her. But in magical realism…. I don’t know what will happen with Kelly’s marriage but just having a friend to talk to and cry with did make a bit of a difference. Through prayer, meditation and talking with others there is spirituality, a sense of connection, or re-connection with ‘the other’. With Rebecca, she can see the positive effect that having cancer has had on her family – in that they have been drawn together - and she’s finding new and creative ways of dealing with her mum.

William James defines mystical experience as a non-ordinary state of consciousness marked above all by a sense of union and illumination, or reconnection and seeing anew . This is in contrast with our usual state of consciousness which is marked by a sense of separation, a distinction between ourselves and the rest of reality. With mysticism, the sense of self that is commonly called the ‘ego’ falls away and we feel a deep sense of connection with ‘what is’, with God. James also calls these experiences ‘noetic’, i.e. they are accompanied with a sense of ‘knowing’ – not a new piece of information – but a knowledge of the real, the ‘more than’ of reality. Thus mystics are people who seek out these experiences of connection with God and are transformed as a result. In my terms they seek out the magic in the real, to see the ‘more than’ or the truth that underpins reality. They seek to be connected with and transformed by God. The thing with God is that there is magic in our realism.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands