Lucy Allan, "Our Cultural Narrative of the Hero and its Pesky Presence in the Emerging Church"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.

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When I was asked to present at the Urban Life Together conference about my experiences of trying to do that whole “community thing” in my neighbourhood, I had been thinking about how we tend to put certain people on platforms. Literal platforms, like stages. How people get up and tell inspiring stories about how following Jesus to the margins has brought about Kingdom-like redemption and community. And they write books with steps about how to do this. I was also thinking about how when people are asked to speak, they probably tell the greatest stories from the last few years of their life, but not usually the times when they tried something and it failed completely, or when they felt like giving up. So I decided to be a dietician of stories and serve a balanced meal.

You see, there is a tendency within our culture, perhaps in human nature, to create heroes and idols. From the oldest great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, dated around eighteenth century BCE, to modern day Hollywood films, novels and videogames, there’s a tendency for our collective narratives to be built around heroes. Your average movie plot involves the status of the ordinary human being shifting towards that of a hero, someone great, either by strength, smarts, luck, birth or legacy. I’m sure you can think of examples. Videogames go one step further in that the player gets to be the hero character within the game. In itself, this meta-cultural narrative of the hero isn’t necessarily all bad, but it does allude to some deeper dynamics at play.

The hero narrative isn’t just in stories. It’s in our advertising. Advertisers know that they can appeal to us through association with the hero. The brands themselves and those that adorn them, are heroes valued by others. “Weave your way into immortality,” says a Nike ad. “The most unforgettable woman in the world wear Revlon,” says another. We can even see the hero narrative at play in aid organisation advertisements. Panning shots of starving children with flies buzzing around them and big eyes staring at you. “You can save lives.” We are drawn to heroism. In a study about how consumers form their beliefs around climate change, the hero character as an element of narrative structure was found to be the most effective vehicle through which information persuades.[1] It’s effective messaging, albeit a little manipulative. We can rely on advertisers to show us what we really want, yet cannot buy. As sociologist Jacques Elull points out:

The well-known mechanism of identifying with movie stars is almost impossible to avoid for the member of modern society who comes to admire himself in the person of the hero. There he reveals the powers of which he unconsciously dreams, projects his desires, identifies with the success and the adventure. The hero becomes model and father, power and mythical realisation of all that individual cannot be.[2]

Given all of the above, my initial question is this: what is the role, psychologically speaking, of our cultural hero narrative?

One reason may be because the status of the “hero” acts as a symbol of immortality. Within psychology, Terror Management Theory suggests that the perpetual clash between our survival instincts and the awareness of our own mortality invokes terrifying existential angst, and that we manage this angst by holding fast to our cultural worldviews; in particular those things which give our life a sense of meaning and significance that will last beyond death.[3] Within the literature on Terror Management Theory, many studies have shown that when people are subconsciously thinking about their own death, they will become more defensive of ideas that give their life significance, be it religion, nationalism or some other self-identity.[4] It has even been demonstrated that subconsciously thinking about death will make people more likely to desire fame and increase their liking towards celebrities.[5]

With this in mind, it doesn’t surprise me therefore that the classic Hollywood narrative is so appealing to us. Fame, glory and power are all associated with immortality: they are constructs that are supposed to reach beyond death. When someone, be it ourselves or someone we perceive as similar to us, is lifted up to the status of hero it subconsciously tells us that it is possible to transcend death in some way or another. This can help explain why ANZAC day and other war remembrance ceremonials are becoming increasingly popular and “religious.” As we remember the dead soldiers, it is comforting for us to have stories that immortalise them as heroic. We use words with religious connotations like honour, sacrifice and glory. This becomes a problem, when we cannot question the militarism or nationalism surrounding the ANZAC legacy without pulling into question the stoic integrity of the dead soldiers themselves. Another problem associated with hero worship is the unattainable beauty standards perpetuated by the skinny, photoshopped and hyper-sexualised actors, models and singers, which contribute to poor self-image and self-esteem, in turn leading to eating disorders and depression. When we idolise images that are not real, we mutilate ourselves in pursuit of them.

The more we delve into this cultural narrative, the more apparent just how ingrained it is in our psyche and society. What I would particularly like to focus on in this paper, however, are the things we might address within the Emerging Church. In the following paragraph, I will briefly allude to the external expressions of the hero narrative within the Church. Following that, I will explore in more depth the internal expressions of the hero narrative in the Christian context.

Our tendency to put people on platforms, and to create heroes of others is pervasive within the Church. It’s not a bad thing to celebrate the ideas and achievements of others. It’s not a problem in itself that some people write books and speak around the place and become well known for doing so. However, there are at least two things to keep in the forefront of our minds here. First, it is important to recognise and call out any significant imbalance of voices in our discourse. An imbalance of voices on stage, be it of gender, class, ethnicity or otherwise, indicates power imbalances in our wider society and perpetuate them. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Church does much better than the rest of society in promoting diversity: indeed, often it may be worse in this. Our celebrity pastors, theologians and personalities are mostly white American males (we paint Jesus white, too). But even in our oh-so-countercultural Emerging Church subculture, we don’t do much better. The most noticeable difference may be that a larger proportion of our white male hero figures have dreadlocks and beards. Secondly, we need to acknowledge the way we appeal to the wider, Institutional Church, if we are to continue to call it out of its socio-political slumber. A common criticism of the Institutional Church is that it is too seeker-sensitive: appealing to our dominant Western culture to draw people in, rather than critiquing it. But our subtle hypocrisy is that we employ the same pragmatic seeker-sensitivity when we are trying to appeal to those in the Institutional Church. With the use of stages, books, promotional activities and heroes of our own, we appeal to the culture of the Institutional Church even though plenty of us who have been a part of Emerging Church movements for a while are not necessarily impressed by those things anymore.

The main issue I wanted to discuss regarding the hero narrative in the Emerging Church, however, is its influence in our interpersonal relationships, particularly in the context of discipleship and community development. I’ve got a friend—let’s call her Ash. She’s been a friend of mine for a few years and I know her well. Sometimes it’s been rough, because Ash has struggled with depression for a number of years, but I liked being the person who was present during those times.

There was a time not so long ago when Ash was on the mend. She seemed to be getting better. But then she became a little more distant. Stopped answering my calls. I took this as warning sign, and dropped by her house. Sure enough, she wasn’t in a good way. She’d been adopting some new and less than healthy coping mechanisms. She said that she’d been trying to convince everyone, including herself, that she was getting better, but wasn’t, and trying had sapped her energy. We talked for a while and she was being more honest with me than she’d been in weeks. She had an appointment to go see her psychologist, so I said we’d hang out tomorrow and study together. I left her place feeling pretty good about myself. I’d had a feeling she wasn’t doing well and I was right. It seems as though I’d come at the right time, when she needed me, I thought to myself as I drove away. I had my church cell group that night and so I went straight there. During prayer I asked my friends to pray for her and they did.

Next day I text her, “Is it okay if I come over at one?” Instead of the expected confirmation, she replies with this devastating message: “I’m in the ED” (Emergency Department).

Shit. She’s in hospital! Must be some kind of overdose. I panicked a bit. It’s not the first time she’d been in hospital, but I was so sure that the conversations the night before had been a positive thing that it was quite a shock to me. A lot of things went through my mind. What more could I have said? We prayed for her! I drove to the hospital and found her there, still half drugged up in the ED, behind a locked door, as if she might try and escape!

In her half-drugged state, Ash told me what had happened. She’d taken a pile of pills that she’d been stashing up. She told me she’d intended to kill herself, but when she felt herself slipping away, she thought of her family and the ramifications, so she called her neighbour who drove her to hospital. I probably looked a bit shaken. She asked me how I was doing of all things. Good grief! I was honest and said it that it hurt to see her hurting herself, and that I was wondering what I could have possibly said or done last night to make things better. “Yeah…,’ she said, speech slow and slurred from the drugs still in her system. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to sit in the helplessness.”

It’s always a frypan over the head when you hear the exact, simple truth you need to hear, in the place you least expect it. It never ceases to humble.

It was at that moment Ash pointed out my need to feel needed, to be someone’s saviour, to be the hero, and it stung. But that good kind of sting, like betadine. It’s too easy to want to be that person that people need, but we should know better. Do we ourselves each have one person that we rely on for all support? No. We rely on our networks of support, and on our communities from which we gain a sense of belonging. These are what we need to be helping others to create. People don’t need a hero. They need community. I think it is important to be aware of this tendency to be in interpersonal relationships where we are needed, creating heroes of ourselves.

Perhaps sometimes the language we use around discipleship can contribute to this saviour complex. Phrases like “following Jesus to the margins,” “mission trip” and “the poor” all involve a power imbalance. It’s not that we need to do away with this language altogether, just that we should be careful how we use it, because the words we use to describe the world influence the way we perceive it.

Viewing ourselves as heroes and other people as victims to be saved can also distract us from the systemic sociological and environmental ills that contribute to isolation, mental illness and poverty in the first place. We need to consider the individual’s story within its wider context. As philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins puts it:

… we are no longer able to maintain the fantasy that we are a type of hero helping poor, unfortunate people. Rather we realize that we need to do this work in order to discover how poor and unfortunate we are, and how violent the structure we participate in is for some people.[6]

When we acknowledge the wider systemic factors of isolation, mental illness and poverty in our society we must realise that we very probably participate in, contribute to, and are victims of the same system.

In recognising that we have internalised the hero narrative, how do we grapple with it? Is there a theological framework we can use to help us with it? I would like to talk about the concept of kenosis. “Kenosis” is a Greek word meaning “emptying.” It’s found in Phil 2:7 as “made himself nothing” (niv), part of a section sometimes referred to as the “kenosis hymn.” Richard Beck gives us one way to conceptually frame this idea of kenosis, of the Christian emptying.

Specifically, what is being emptied is the hero system—the ways we have internalised social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The “emptying” of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system.[7]

What is the alternative to “the hero system,” as Beck describes it? Who are “blessed” according to Jesus? Cue the Beatitudes! (Are you squirming in your seat yet?) Those who are “blessed” in Jesus’ system are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers (Matt 5:1–12). Those who weep now, and let’s not forget those who are hated, excluded, insulted, laughed at and rejected because of Jesus (Luke 6:22). Let’s just think about that for a moment before we put the hashtag “blessed” on our Instagram pictures of our Melbourne lattes! I think this is all very relevant for a privileged audience, which, as a citizen in the world’s most liveable city,[8] definitely includes me, and probably you.

But what does this mean for the poor, the oppressed, and those at the bottom of our global power structures? Is Paul’s call to “empty yourself” and “carry your cross” a message to accept and be complicit in one’s own suffering? It certainly has been interpreted this way in the past. Beck, however, says that “kenosis is letting go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up.”[9] Emptying yourself of the internalised values of the hero society is liberating for everyone, but only sounds like good news for those on the bottom. Someone who values themselves as being successful, well known and connected with lots of important people is not going to be naturally drawn to the idea of doing away with that whole paradigm. The beatitudes, and the self-emptying in kenosis, are not going to be all that appealing.

At this point I want to emphasise that “emptying yourself of the internalised values of the hero society” is not simply agreeing with these new ideas. This shift is not like an opinion that can be changed in a day. We’re talking about some of our most ingrained and internalised values and thought patterns, and undoing it takes hard work. It is very easy and very well for us to intellectually affirm, and explicitly profess that significance is not found in wealth, or status, or how many people know us, or how many people need us. Many of us have got that far. But internally we may have a lot more work to do. Theologian Sarah Coakley suggests that contemplation is the practice that will help us through the process of kenosis. She argues that it is the vulnerability of sitting silent before God, and before your own self, that sets us free of the internalised power structures that get in the way.[10] As for myself, I am terrified that I’ll never fully believe that my self-worth is not how many people are listening to me. However, I did not recognise this except through introspection and contemplation, and I’m still working on it!

Our cultural narrative of hero is ingrained in our stories, in the media and in our relationships with one another. Association with hero status, in ourselves or vicariously through others, may psychologically buffer our anxieties about death and meaninglessness. Critically analysing who our heroes are and why in our churches and communities may expose an imbalance of the gender, race and class of the voices making up our public discourse, and may also expose the way we are appealing to the celebritisation that occurs in our wider culture. Recognising the pull towards a hero narrative in our interpersonal relationships as we walk alongside others may prevent us from trying to control others, and push us instead towards building networks of support and places of belonging from which we can all thrive together. Uprooting the internalised hero narratives and power structures from within ourselves though the spiritual discipline of contemplation may be our path to freedom.

 

[1] M. Jones, “Heroes and Villains: Cultural Narratives, Mass Opinions, and Climate Change” (PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 2010).

[2] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Random House, 1965), 173.

[3] J. Greenberg et al, “Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to those who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 2 (1990): 308–18.

[4] B. Burke, A. Martens, and E. Faucher, “Two Decades of Terror Management Theory: A Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Research,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 2 (2010): 155–95.

[5] J. Greenberg et al, “Toward Understanding the Fame Game: The Effect of Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame,” Self and Identity 9, no. 1 (2007): 1–18.

[6] Peter Rollins, “Getting Thrown Out of Prison: Judge Dredd, the Oppressed, and Salvation,” blog post, September 9, 2014, http://peterrollins.net/2014/09/getting-thrown-out-of-prison-judge-dredd-the-oppressed-and-salvation (accessed December 3, 2014).

[7] Richard Beck, “The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 4, Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting,” Experimental Theology, blog post, November 3, 2014; http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/the-fuller-integration-lectures-part-4.html (accessed February 2, 2015). Emphasis in original.

[8] Clay Lucas, “Melbourne Named World’s Most Liveable City for Fifth Year Running”, The Age, August 19, 2015, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/melbourne-named-worlds-most-liveable-city-for-fifth-year-running-20150818-gj1he8.html (accessed October 29, 2015).

[9] Richard Beck, “All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation,” Experimental Theology, blog post, August 4, 2014, http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/all-sick-and-twisted-ways-power-and.html (accessed February 2, 2015).

[10] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).

Image: ashley rose, Flickr (Creative Commons)