“The Scaffold Sways the Future”
A few nights ago, I went with some friends to see the latest superhero film, Justice League. As a rule, I find this genre of movies rigidly formulaic and not terribly interesting, but my wife tells me that I’m not supposed to be antisocial so I went along for the ride. Also, I figured that no matter how awful the movie was, I would at least have the pleasure of listening to Jeremy Irons deliver a few lines.
My low expectations were (barely) met. Lots of two-dimensional characters with capes and shields and fine looking bodies in special suits flying around, cracking atrociously bad lines, flexing their muscles and using their superpowers to save the world from the really bad guy (an individual named Steppenwolf, in this case, who I must confess often just made me want to chuckle) bent on destroying the world. Yawn. Rinse and repeat every few months and you have a tried, tested, and true Hollywood formula for raking in millions.
Whenever I leave one of these films, a simple question occurs to me. Why? Why do we bother with these utterly predictable and unimaginative stories? What accounts for the popularity of these kinds of films? I suppose among the more parsimonious explanations would be that a lot of us are fairly uncritical viewers and have appallingly bad taste. Or we’re just looking for a mindless escape from the drudgery of every day life. Or we just like seeing explosions and have a lust for sex-tinged violence. There’s almost certainly some truth to each of these explanations.
But I think there’s more to the story. A few years ago, I wrote about what I think that “more” might be. I argued that these kinds of films give us narratives of good and evil within which to negotiate our hopes and fears, particularly in a mostly secular context. I even suggested that going to the movies is partly analogous to an act of worship. As I read what I wrote five years ago, I still mostly agree with myself (which is by no means a guaranteed outcome when I trawl through past archives on this blog!). The kinds of stories that we pour our time and money into is indicative of what we are afraid of and what we hope for. We’re always worried about the end the world, at least on some level, and we’re always waiting for a strong man or woman, or a league of strong men and women to ride in from the clouds (or the sea [Aquaman] or the grave [Superman]) to rescue us. And if our rescuers happen to come with lean, attractive bodies with cool tattoos that we can stare at while the saving is taking place? Well, so much the better for us, er, I mean the planet.
Every Wednesday evening, I gather with a handful of seniors to study the bible. We usually just read the passage or passages that will be read the following Sunday during worship and then talk together about what we think it/they might mean. This week’s passage was Ephesians 1:15-23. It talks about Jesus in pretty lofty, power-drenched language. He possesses “immeasurable greatness” and “great power.” He is seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” He has “all things under his feet” and is “head over all things.” There’s no mention of a cape or big muscles, and it’s doubtful there is any kryptonite or cool tattoos involved, but still. Sounds pretty impressive.
Of course, the interesting question is another simple one: How? How does Jesus come to inhabit all of this lofty language? It’s not because he flexed his muscles and forced the evil powers to bend to his will. It’s not because he rode in from the clouds swinging his sword (or his trident) in a display of righteous vengeance (although some Christians still greedily anticipate such a spectacle, no doubt). It’s not because Jesus is the most kickass of all the superheroes. Jesus’ authority and power comes, paradoxically, through self-sacrifice, through dying at the hands of his enemies, through forgiveness and a determined love that stretches far beyond the parameters we would prefer or choose.
One of the guys that comes to bible study loves to quote poetry. Sometimes he will leave poems in my church mailbox or just recite them to me in the foyer. Last night, as we were talking about the nature of Jesus’ authority in a world addicted to narratives of violence and the exercise of a particular expression of power, he said, “It reminds me of a line from a poem.” He paused, struggling to remember. Then he said, “it had something to do with wrong being on the throne but the truth being on the scaffold. And the scaffold sways the future.”
I looked up the poem this morning. It’s called “The Present Crisis” and was written in 1844 by the American poet and ardent abolitionist, James Russell Lowell. It’s a long poem, but the part my friend quoted last night goes like this:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
I love that line: The scaffold sways the future. This crucified king has arguably been more influential throughout history than anyone else. The one who refused to respond with force to force, the one who willingly laid down his life, the one who embodied the deepest truth our planet can ever know, that the Creator God’s very identity is self-giving love—this is the one who has shaped history. And God still hovers in the shadows of our violence and our hunger for more impressive heroes, swaying the present and the future, keeping watch over his own.