This reflection contains spoilers for the documentary Spookers and the film Take This Waltz. Both are available on SBS On Demand until 29 September 2018.
My Bible Study group recently started a video series called The Ridiculous Journey. Its tag line reads: ‘Following A Nobody from Nowhere – A search for purpose and meaning in the events and choices of our lives. A costly journey with an unknown destination. A Middle Eastern homeless man from twenty centuries ago and why he still stirs the souls and imagination of so many.’
In the first session we were challenged as to the bizarre nature of Jesus’ call to ‘follow me’. Who would follow this man and why would they? In a lot of ways following this itinerant rabbi when he challenged the status quo, rubbed the powerful the wrong way, threatened a religious order and ended up on a Roman cross seems, well, ridiculous.
This month we looked at the second instalment. The short video featured the ever thought-provoking and theologically astute Nadia Bolz-Weber. She tells the story of being asked at a conference how she creates a closer relationship with Jesus. Her response was stunning.
“I wish God would leave me alone half the time,” she said. “Getting closer feels dangerous. I’m gonna end up loving someone I don’t like again. Giving away more of my money? I don’t know. It just feels like a bad idea.”
That got our little group thinking. The accompanying questions went beyond the typical comprehension exercises and opened some good discussion. The most challenging was: ‘So why do it? What’s the reward? And don’t answer that question with “heaven.” Heaven isn’t a reward we earn, it is a grace given only by God’s forgiveness and mercy. Think deeper than that. What’s your response to someone who asks “what do I get out of it?” When you can’t respond with anything that is a gift of grace, what indeed is the ‘benefit’ of following Jesus?
The women in our group answered a few ways but community was one of the common themes. There is a sense in which belonging to a local Church, where, supposedly, everyone is committed to loving one another, building honest and transparent connections, and having a ‘safe place’ to raise children is a tangible by-product of following Jesus.
I appreciate that. When churches work well, they can be wonderful and supportive places of true community. It certainly goes well beyond the mateship of a sports group, or the social commitment of a local club or the disfunction of a gang.
I question, though, whether the Church is the only place to find that type of community. Only a matter of hours before attending this Bible Study group, I had watched the 2017 documentary Spookers, about a New Zealand horror attraction where amateur actors create characters designed specifically to scare the attendees. People of all ages and an incredible variety of backgrounds come together to become zombies, vampires, aliens, and chainsaw wielding murderers to ‘celebrate’ fear.
What struck me most about this workplace was the relationships that were built between the owners and employees. One middle aged woman had been in the corporate world of insurance but had become suicidal because of anxiety and depression. She had gotten a job at Spookers and was “blown away” to have her new boss visit her in hospital, which was unheard of in her old job. One young man is HIV positive, yet everyone there accepts him and treats him the same as before the diagnosis. Another young man talks about having dyslexia and ADHD but how at Spookers he is not teased or bullied as he was at school. Spookers has been able to help him move past being shy and is “reversing all the damage”. A teenage girl speaks of how little self-confidence she had in applying, but that getting a job at Spookers had a positive effect on her. One man compared the comfort, the feeling of being wanted and the ability to give of his skills and talents as comparable only to what he finds in his Mormon Church. He unashamedly compares his religion with his family experience of Spookers.
The testimonies of the staff of Spookers suggest that positive community can be found outside the church. It doesn’t have a monopoly on this. While I have no problem with community being a wonderful ‘benefit’ of following Jesus, could there be other aspects? This video series had me thinking.
A couple of days later I watched Take This Waltz. In this movie the main character Margot (Michelle Williams, pictured) has what appears to be a loving relationship with her husband Lou. A chance meeting with her neighbour Daniel sparks an unhealthy relationship. Margot leaves Lou to explore her sexuality with Daniel, but by the end of the movie she is alone once again. The new relationship has grown stale and deteriorated. Part way through, her alcoholic sister-in-law Geraldine lapses and piercingly tells Margot, “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.” In her drunken state, Geraldine recognises that she and Margot are doing the same thing – trying to fill that hole. One is trying with alcohol, the other with what she thinks is love but turns out to be empty sex. Lou is trying to fill it with his work and Daniel with the excitement of a ‘forbidden’ relationship. None are satisfied.
What do I get out of it? Of a relationship with Jesus? Perhaps the filling of this hole that Geraldine identifies. While Christians are not immune to affairs or alcoholism or overworking, perhaps Christ offers an alternative. Yet, there is a part of me that recognises that this is still a gift of grace, a gift of mercy. And perhaps that’s the point. What do I get out of a relationship with Jesus? Everything I receive is a gracious gift given through the forgiveness and love of God.
Dr Katherine Grocott