Sometimes they don’t have to die, are simply distant, do not see their children for what they actually are, as in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” though death would eventually place the real Peter, John and Michael Llewelyn Davies, as well as their brothers, George and Nico, in that sick man’s power.
Sometimes the parents are kidnapped or ill. But it is usually, after all, death of one or both parents that sets the stage for adventure. The child hero is a hero precisely because she or he has been tested.
The child hero narrative in literature took a dystopian turn after the horrors of the Second World War, that event a rebuttal, many felt, to the promises of Enlightenment Modernity, to the dream of world peace and prosperity through the application of science and reason. We got stories like Nobel-laureate William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
Equally dark, though not as dystopian, was “The Children,” a 1959 novel by another English author, Donald G. Payne writing under the pen name James Vance Marshall. Twelve years later it was adapted by filmmaker Nicolas Roeg as “Walkabout,” a classic now included in the Criterion Collection.
Both the original novel and the film “Walkabout” tell the story of two white children lost in the Australian outback. They meet an aboriginal boy on his walkabout, a coming-of-age ritual, part vision quest, part test.
Roeg took a hard book and made it a beautiful and brutal film. It is difficult to see it as a heroic epic though there is certainly heroism, an epic journey, but the movie did introduce many in the northern hemisphere to the ritual of the walkabout, to being tested in the desert. The timing could not have been better. For many, the Judeo-Christian project was as much of a failure as Enlightenment-Modernity.
Buddhism had become all the rage, made fashionable by the Beat generation, and by the late ’60’s and early ’70’s the search for something spiritually new and cool turned to indigenous religions, to sweat lodges, the shamanism of Carlos Castaneda and to peyote.
But testing in the desert was not, in fact, new. Every Christian knows the story of Jesus in the desert, a common initiation ritual in that age for religious teachers, not unlike the experience of the child Samuel, left alone with the holy to hear the voice of God. The time in the desert, a period of fatigue and deprivation, was intended to strip away what was false, to create what the Celts called a “thin place,” where the divine was close, where one could experience the holy, or in the case of today’s reading, the unholy. It was a time of visions, or some might say hallucinations.
It does not matter what you call it, the story is the story, and our concern is not whether there is an actual Satan, the enemy or adversary in the ancient tongue, that embodied evil that plays such a critical role in the earlier fictions of Eden and of the suffering Job. Nor is our concern with the ways that Jesus is divine and therefore capable of things of which we are incapable, for that has little value to us, lacks the power to shape our lives.
Our concern is what we might find in this story that helps us align our own very human lives with the direction of holiness, the direction of life, compassion, creativity and thriving. Our task is to mine the vein for what is strong and precious, for what has power for our lives.
The hero’s journey, the test, always involves the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the journey. Harry Potter is introduced to a world of magic. The Darling children are transported to Neverland. Huck and Jim head down the river, abandon Missouri. Jesus leaves the comforts of civilization.
While some are thrust beyond their control into the strange and fearful, as are the children in Payne’s novel and Roeg’s film, the time of testing often includes a choice, the opportunity to refuse the journey. For us it is the option to turn our heads and pretend not to see what is before us, to abandon the part of ourselves that bridles at injustice and cruelty.
The courageous children’s writer Lois Lowry, author of the powerful “Giver” series, gives us a hero who can literally see what others cannot, who must choose what to do with that information. For some today, the choice is to never go out into that strange and vulnerable place, that thin place, to never enter the desert, to opt for the numbing comfort of racial and social privilege.
But we do not read about those who refuse the journey, do not tell their tales. History and literature are filled with heroes who have been tested, who choose not to look away, who see what they see and name what they see, who take to the street and enter dangerous places when they might do otherwise, might choose safety.
Wendy could have refused Peter’s invitation, Harry could have chosen a life of quiet desperation over Hogwarts. Bilbo Baggins might have never left Bag End. Imagine a real world where Bonhoeffer stayed in the United States in 1936, where all he left us was difficult theology. Imagine a world where King was content to be a pastor in Atlanta. Imagine a world where Jesus kept his head down, stayed safe in Capernaum, never offered the world healing and truth.
Our encounter with the unfamiliar and unexpected comes in many forms. We may not be whisked away to a world of magic, but we often feel dislocated, unmoored. An entire socio-economic class felt dislocated and devalued as automation took away millions of jobs in manufacturing and agriculture, a situation exacerbated by the slash-and-burn practices of private equity firms. Born into a world where you got a job for a company that would employ you until you arrived at a generous retirement, a world that no longer exists, the response of many has been anything but heroic.
They scapegoat the powerless in order to feel powerful, just as Jesus is tempted to use divine power by the adversary.
The resulting rise of hatreds of all kinds in our time has left many of us feeling equally dislocated, as if old rules no longer apply, as if the aspirational nation we loved, a nation that was marching steadily toward equality and opportunity, no longer exists. Not so much strangers in a strange land, we have become strangers in our own land.
But even before the swastikas, bomb threats and murders, even before young white males were radicalized over the internet, we in the church were already in a strange and unfamiliar place, for the cultural privilege of church was long gone, the assumption that organized religion was a part of the social fabric. Already we were in a desert where we would need to be creative, to adapt, in order to survive. We were already in a time of testing.
Jesus does not refuse the journey, does not refuse the divine call, is no Jonah. He is in the desert, is tempted. Born into village life, accustomed to the cosmopolitan lifestyle in Capernaum, he sets off for the wilderness. There are so many easier paths. Even if the journey was not freely chosen, even if one is cast out into adventure, into the time of testing, there is always an out: “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
The heroine of “The Hunger Games,” Katniss, has opportunities to change side. We have the opportunity to change sides. Jesus had the opportunity to change sides, to align himself with that fallen creature.
And here too is a lesson, for the adversary is always a mirror of ourselves. How easily the roles might be reversed! How easily our pain and pride can turn us into twisted versions of ourselves!
If we read this as a God-being acting out a script we lose the power of what is going on. Jesus, the human Jesus, Jesus called by God and filled with God-consciousness, is tested, and the test is just beginning. He will be tested again and again, as we will be reminded on our Lenten journey. We are asked to believe that he can turn away, can abandon the journey. He will be tempted in Gethsemane, will be tempted on the Cross. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
We will be tempted, tempted to abandon the journey, tempted to ignore what we see, tempted to align ourselves with evil, tempted to just ride on the coattails of our power and privilege, to live on the endowment and postpone the journey until it is too late.
It is the easiest of things to do, nothing. Nothing requires nothing. For only the most vulnerable among us is at risk, has no choice in the matter, will be thrust out against their will. Most of us have a choice.
Will you embrace the walkabout that is Lent? Will you be the hero of your own life? Will you embrace the journey and face the adversary, the adversary in the mirror and the adversary in the street? Will you see what you see?
It is terrifying, this thing we do. We are called to do more than a human can do. Sometimes I am scared. Sometimes I wish the cup would pass me by. Sometimes I think God has forsaken me, even though I know how that psalm ends: “Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying what God has done.”
I close with words from another tale of testing, another tale of unlikely heroes. From J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,”
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”