I guess there comes a point in every couple’s life where watching TV and not showering is a more alluring prospect than long hygenic rituals followed by being social. My wife and I are binge-watching a new show called Imposters. I thought the show’s premise was implausible, almost silly at first. But now we’re hooked.
Imposters begins with a newlywed couple so immersed in their own love and happiness, it’s almost nauseating. After some intimate moments (this show is on Bravo) we cut to the husband, Ezra Bloom (played by up-and-coming actor Rob Heaps), talking about his nuptial bliss with co-workers at the family business. It’s a high-end financial-related hedgy-fund something-or-other. They love his new wife, Ava (Inbar Lavi), and you get the sense that his happiness is like a new set of clothes he’s wearing well, much to their surprise.
After work, Ezra buys Ava a puppy — he’s bought her a new gift every day of their first month of marriage. The pet store clerk tells him his credit card is declined. He’s a man of means, so this is a surprise to him. He tries another card, then another. Declined, declined, declined. Defeated he returns home to a house that feels empty and an open laptop with a message on the screen: “Play Me.” He complies and finds out he was the victim of a con. Ava, who we later find out is really a woman named “Maddie,” breaks the news to him that he’s been had. She walks him clinically through his range of emotions in about 20 seconds. She knows he’ll seek revenge. But if he does, a family secret will be outed that will crush him and those he loves.
Ezra then does a lot of drinking, spends what little money he has left, and becomes suicidal. Then he gets a knock on the door from a guy claiming to be an FBI agent. The only thing is, he’s a little dumb. Not a lot dumb. Just a little. Ezra quickly realizes that Richard (Parker Young) was one of Maddie’s, aka Ava’s, previous marks. The two of them locate another previous mark, a woman named Jules (Marianne Rendon), and the three of them wind up awkwardly bonding around the shared pain of lost love and betrayal — and increasing each other’s vindictive resolve.
They determine to find “Maddie,” but it’s not quite clear whether or not they want to actually exact revenge. They seem to be more interested in understanding how all this could have happened and who Maddie really is. The problem is, they have no money. She took them for everything they had. They’re desperate. So they wind up becoming more like Maddie than they imagined they could be. They pay off private investigators, fly cross-country, make fake IDs, and become con-artists themselves. We’re only a few episodes in, but the twists and turns are making Imposters more and more interesting, in large part because, as we get to know Maddie better and better, she seems just as victimized as her victims. Everyone is hiding behind pain, cover-ups, deception, and resentment.
The irony of the storyline is that the wounded trio has to become Maddie to find her. Even more ironic is that they already were her to begin with. It takes a fraud to spot one, perhaps. You get the sense that what happens to Ezra, Richard, and Jules is less of a transformation and more of a revelation. And the last ones to get it are actually the wounded trio themselves. We become what we behold, and we spend lots of time beholding the ones that have let us down or loathed us, at least in the instant replay of our self-consuming subconscious, where our lives are mostly lived. But I digress…
I really wanted to write about The Benedict Option. It’s Rod Dreher’s approach to what you do when you’re a church person anxious about increasing — and what feels like encroaching — secularism. David Zahl has already written on the subject a few months back. But I’ve been inspired of late by Tomas Halik, whose work I’ve been engaging on and off constantly for about a year with my friend, Bill. I’ve learned more from Halik than I can say, and I think he offers a different approach to a secular world that has “come of age” and turned from the Church than the Benedict option. I’ll call it the Zacchaeus Option.
Most of humanity’s worst moments as a species happen when we move toward a bifurcated anthropology en masse. We all do it reflexively. We do it reflexively all the time. We do it by psychological necessity to get through the day. Boss: good, I think. Board member: good…? Bad…? Aunt: bad. Uncle: good….wait, Uncle is also a little bad. Once in a while, when we we get to uncle, we scream uncle (on our decent days) and admit that the line between what we love and hate, what comforts us and kills us, what divides us and unites us…it’s all so incredibly fuzzy.
Gray is neither slimming nor soothing, but it’s descriptive of where we live, whether we like it or not. But oftentimes we can’t handle the ambiguity and ambivalence that surrounds the grey and we go back to painting in black and white. The black-and-white bifurcated approach to humanity leads all too often, in the words of Miroslav Volf, to excluding “the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” Very often those from whom we are estranged, who are the objects our our exclusion, are much more like us than we’d like to admit.
Self-understanding is part of what it means to be a person. And it’s critical to being persons together, too. Christians live together in the Church. But what’s interesting in our story is that our community’s founder said he was God in the flesh and then allowed himself to be manhandled and crucified. He was constantly telling his disciples, those literally rubbing up against God incarnate, that they didn’t get the whole picture. At the same time, he consistently went to those on the sociological fringe of society, regularly offending theological sensibility and propriety. And he did it with reckless abandon. As William Temple pointed out, Jesus seemed intent on founding a movement that by its nature existed for the sake of its non-members.
Tomas Halik writes as a convert under the iron curtain in what is now the Czech Republic. He’s a psychoanalyist-turned-priest who trained in an underground seminary under communism. He knew John Paul II and was actually ordained the day before John Paul became Pope. He opens his Patience With God: The Story Of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us as follows:
I agree with atheists on many things, often on almost everything — except their belief that God doesn’t exist…
In today’s bustling marketplace of religious wares of every kind, I sometimes feel closer with my Christian faith to the skeptics or to the atheist or agnostic critics of religion. With certain kinds of atheists I share a sense of God’s absence from the world. However, I regard their interpretation of this feeling as too hasty, as an expression of impatience. I am also often oppressed by God’s silence and the sense of God’s remoteness. I realize that the ambivalent nature of the world and life’s many paradoxes can give rise to phrases such as “God is dead” to explain God’s hiddenness. But I can also find other possible interpretations of the same experience and another possible attitude to “the absent God.” I know of three (mutually and profoundly interconnected) forms of patience for confronting the absence of God. They are called faith, hope, and love…
Yes, patience is what I consider to be the main difference between faith and atheism. What atheism, religious fundamentalism, and the enthusiasm of a too-facile faith have in common is how quickly they can ride roughshod over the mystery we call God — and that is why I find all three approaches equally unacceptable. One must never consider mystery “over and done with.” Mystery, unlike a mere dilemma, cannot be overcome; one must wait patiently at its threshold and persevere in it — must carry it in one’s heart — just as Jesus’s mother did according to the Gospel, and allow it to mature there and lead one in turn to maturity.
Halik expresses his own calling as to those who, like Zacchaeus, are drawn to the love of God but remain far-off. It’s those who remain far-off that seem to define not just his mission but his theology. Every book he writes seems written with Zaccheus over his shoulder, listening in. For Halik, the presence of Zacchaeus doesn’t seem to hang like the sword of Damocles; his presence seems more like a stray dog desperate for companionship but scared to come into a would-be master’s home, despite having chosen to one day linger at the edge of the property. Halik describes his own calling as follows:
I feel that my chief purpose is to be an understanding neighbor for those who find it impossible to join the exultant crowds beneath the unfurled flags of whatever color, for those who keep their distance…I like Zacchaeuses. I think I have been given the gift of understanding them. People often construe the distance that Zacchaeuses maintain as an expression of their “superiority,” but I don’t think they are right — things aren’t that simple. In my experience, it is more the result of shyness. In some cases, the reason for their aversion to crowds, particularly ones with slogans and banners, is that they suspect that the truth is too fragile to be chanted on the street…
Most of those people did not choose their place “on the margins” voluntarily. It could well be that some of them are also reticent because—like Zacchaeus—they are all too aware that their own house is not in order, and they realize, or at least suspect, that changes need to be made in their own lives. Maybe, unlike the unfortunate person in one of Jesus’s parables, they realize they are not properly attired for the wedding and therefore cannot take a seat among the guests of honor at the wedding feast. They are still on the journey, dusty and far from the goal. They are not yet “ready” to display themselves to others in the full light of day, maybe because they find themselves in a blind alley on their life’s journey…And yet they sense the urgent moment when something of importance passes by them. It has a force of attraction, as it had for Zacchaeus, who longed to set eyes on Jesus. But sometimes, as in Zacchaeus’s case, they hide their spiritual yearning with fig leaves — from others and sometimes from themselves too.
The same thing remains true about today’s Zacchaeuses as was true with the original. Zacchaeus could only be addressed by one who knew his name, and also knew his secret. The Zacchaeuses of the world need to be addressed by someone who doesn’t see them as fundamentally alien. They need to be addressed by someone who can empathize with the complex emotional and intellectual realities that cause their reticence and leave them at a distance.
Halik has been a student of the Zacchaeuses of our world as much as he’s been a teacher to them:
The path to the Zacchaeuses of today — people often on the fringe or beyond the visible frontiers of the churches, in the zone of questions and doubts, in that singular region between the two fortified camps of those “whose minds are made up” (i.e., self-assured believers and self-assured atheists) — helped me get a fresh understanding of faith and of the One to whom faith relates…Insofar as we are disciples of Christ, we want Him to be the one whom the Zacchaeuses of today encounter. I too, even while working on this book — I am a priest, after all — asked myself what it really means these days to bring someone closer to Christ, and, through Christ, closer to God. I don’t think it is quite as easy as certain enthusiastic Christians believe. A priest must not become an agitator, a propagandist, someone with pat slogans who is skilled at manipulating others. His role should be to accompany others, to “put them in the picture,” to bring them to the gates of mystery, rather than to “win them over” in the way that politicians or traders draw attention to their latest wares…
Truth, like the way and life, is in constant movement and process, although this process cannot be construed as unidirectional development and progress. The Bible leads us to the truth, not by means of definitions or theoretical systems, but through stories, through dramas both large and small — such as the story of Zacchaeus and thousands more. The best way for us to understand the biblical stories is to enter into them, to become involved in those dramas — at the very least like the participants in the sacred dramas of ancient Greece — and experience through them catharsis, our own transformations. If we want to talk about divine matters these days, we have to heal certain words and resurrect them, because they have become exhausted under the weight of the many different meanings that people have imposed on them over the centuries. This project brings to mind the lines of an old church hymn, a burning supplication to the Spirit of God: warm that which is cold, moisten that which is dry from fever, heal that which is sick, move that which is rigid. And maybe we could add another appeal: bring closer that which is distant!
In his newest book, I Want You to Be: On the God of Love, Halik offers the following insight about the looming specter of secularism:
If we want to get closer to the meaning of important religious affirmations and render them more approachable by those for whom religion has so far been a foreign language, we must patiently and responsibly attempt to “translate” them. We live in an era in which the face of the human world and the horizons of knowledge are changing rapidly and radically. Human beings have acquired power of life and nature that they never had before, and, as a result of that power, they confront the unprecedented threats of total destruction of themselves and their planet. It is therefore not surprising that at such a time of upheaval many of the statements that previous generations largely regarded as definitive answers have once more become questions for our contemporaries…
It definitely applies also to many statements of religion (and atheism); after all, how could we protect reflection on “ultimate things” from such upheavals? After all, our spiritual life (if it really is life, i.e., movement) and our religious notions are not completely detached from our life as a whole, from our knowledge, thinking, feeling, and experience, from our “lived world” (Lebenswelt)! God has placed us in time and space in which faith but also atheism are challenged to leave the cozy abodes of security in which they were settled and set off anew on a path of seeking…
We hear and read about the declining numbers of believers in our cultural space— but that assertion, repeated ad nauseam, is only valid if the term “believer” is wrongly applied solely to people who are “at home” in one of the traditional forms of religion. Moreover, the numbers of “convinced atheists” are also declining. But there are growing numbers of seekers, “people on a journey.” And isn’t it indeed Abraham, the father of the faith, who set off again and again on a journey (“and he set out, not knowing where he was going,” scripture says), who is the father of just such a faith: faith on a journey, faith as a journey?…
Abraham set off up the steep path of faithfulness and obedience. And yet he never, it would seem, completely abandoned the hope that the word of God that he had heard, and which rightly seemed to him incomprehensible and absurd, would not be his last word. He did not abandon the hope that God would return him his son, that God himself would provide the lamb for a burnt offering. And the Lord did indeed speak to him again.
A few pages later Halik does what any good theologian or missiologist does. He looks to Jesus to understand the church, the world, and the relationship between the two:
C. G. Jung mentions somewhere that indigenous tribes of “primitives” still living an ancient way of life reconciled with Nature and original human nature distinguish between “small” (private) dreams and “big” dreams that are of significance for the entire tribe. I have always thought of Nietzsche’s scene with the herald of “God’s death” in The Gay Science as the record of a dream — but a big dream with prophetic significance for our entire “tribe.” At the same time I felt that the message “God is dead” is only the first sentence, which must be followed by another, a second sentence, in the same way that Good Friday was an important message to us from God, but it was not the final one….
“God is dead!” That sentence uttered at the end of the nineteenth century continued to fascinate for the next hundred years. Maybe it was not only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us. A God who has not endured death is not truly Living. A faith that does not undergo Good Friday cannot attain the fullness of Easter. Crises of faith — both personal and in the histories of culture — are an important part of the history of faith, of our communication with God, who is concealed and returns again to those who do not stop waiting for the unique and eternal Word to speak to them once more.
I’m told the Chinese character for “crisis” is combination of the characters “danger” and “opportunity.” This is the precipice the church find itself at the edge of again and again. Heidegger talks about the contingincies of the life as making us feel “thrown” into existence. Throwness dominates his sense of what it means to be human. But the crucified God takes up throwness and makes it his throne on the cross. It’s in the light of his throneness that our own throwness can give way to a sense that we’ve been placed, because we’ve been graced by his identification with and acceptance of us as we are, not as we wish we could or think we should be.
Jesus speaks the same word to those inside the Church as he does to the Zacchaeuses who remain at a distance. I know your name. I know your secret. Come to me all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. When we realize the word to us all is one word, not two, maybe we’ll have a newfound patience for the Zacchaeuses of the world, and a newfound patience with God as well.
My friend and colleague Bill Borror and I did a follow up podcast to this post:
Or get in touch.