2016 saw the loss of many heroes. Bowie, George Michael, Prince to name but three from the Music world, Victoria Wood, Liz Smith and Terry Wogan to name three from entertainment, but there were countless others. Local heroes were lost too, people who became national heroes through their death than their life, Jo Cox being one. People, like these and others are placed in the position of Heroes, others are thrust there. But Heroes none the less.
As 2016 ended, and 2017 begins, I have been reminded in Samuel Wells book ‘Improvisation’ about the role of Heroes in the grand stories of the world.
Within Improvisation, Wells argues that there are five characteristics of Heroes when thinking about Heroes in an ongoing story or narrative, and in thinking not just about the real life heroes above, but the fable story heroes of Disney, of Tolkein and Enid Blyton, they are relatively straight forward. Drawing from Aristotle, Wells describes these as:
- Heroes make decisive interventions when things are looking like they might turn out to be wrong. The saviour complex is what this is sort of known as, think Sandra Bullocks character in the film The Blindside, and there are many equivalents. The Story is from the Heroes perspective, it is Bullocks neck on the line, her journey to save the situation and change it. The story of how the creative music and entertainment affected so many, many lives were changed by Bowie, by Prince and George Michael, they became savific heroes, their music intervened.
- A Hero’s story is told to celebrate the virtues of a Hero. The Hero has the qualities, whether strength, resilience, determination, wisdom or courage to enable their heroism
- The Hero’s story, presumes that in a world of good and evil, the Hero will risk death for good in their own fight. So Tolkien’s Aragon for instance, or the valiance of the Disney Prince charmings to fight the evil power to reclaim not only goodness but also the trapped or tortured princess. They risk it all for the fight.
- In the Hero’s story, when things go wrong, they can put it all right again, yet their flaws and failings also turn a story heading for tragedy into a fatal disaster It is ok that Sully can redeem the situation in the Plane heading out of the airport as it hit flying birds and lost control, he is the hero who saved many lives by landing the plane in the waters (see the Film Sully) -but what if even he, the supposed hero wasnt able to cope with the situation, would blind panic turned that moment into even more of a tragedy..
- The Hero stands alone in the world. They are the put alone on the stage, and held aloft by the community by their creative excellence or virtue, the decisiveness of their action – or to have the simple right to have their story told. As Rimmer in Red dwarf ( Series 3- Marooned) was quick to say, History is written by the winners, the survivors, those with the power to narrate it – in effect the authors.
All of this challenged me alot. Though I spent all day yesterday reflecting on what Wells was saying about the Heros in the story, I realised that before I asked critical questions of the practice of community work, the church and youth ministry – I also had to look at myself. I have to be honest, I like to be the hero. I kind of always have done. The person who rescues, it was said that from a fairly young age I has a compassionate spirit to try and help people, especially those who might, as wells identifies above, have a story that is heading for challenge or trial. So its the young person addicted to alcohol, or struggling at school, or colleague in ministry needing help or a hand. I guess i wouldnt be involved in community or youth work without the feelings, desires or determination to want to transform peoples lives, to be a positive intervention in their story, without them, but i guess that doesn’t mean i have to be a hero.
Yet on a broader note, has the notion of Hero been too easily accepted by the church, or community work? Maybe the clearest evidence of it is in the job descriptions for new posts:
Are you the person this dynamic church needs to transform the lives of people in our community?
Eager to pioneer a new ministry to save the lives of many?
________ church requires a dynamic, creative, inspiring individual to lead a ministry amongst young people to transform their discipleship
_______ is a community near to the church, in an Urban Prioirty Area, have you got the skills and exeprience to turn it around?
All requiring and appealing to the Heroic status. Possibly all hoping that the dynamic person will have the credentials, and lead heroically to save. What if the Hero in the situation cannot, as Sully could, steer the plane to safety? The personal plight of the Hero is not just the only problem with this. Neither is it the problem of the church, or ministry that devolves heroic status to the ‘saviour’ – for this is what psychologists tell us is what we do in groups, devolve power to those who assume leadership and thus heroic positioning.
As an aside, in a Faith Culture that possibly reveres heroes, whether heroes who ‘have large ministries’ or ‘have pioneers great changes’, a fascinating change has been taking place. It has been in film, the rise of the anti- hero. The hero that isn’t the successful, dynamic, go-to person who affects change. So for example – Shrek usurps Prince charming – the story isnt about how he slays the dragon to redeem the princess (see shrek 2) the anti- hero who is an ogre bumbles his way to the heart of Fiona, the princess by faithfulness and different virtue, though maybe Shrek is less the anti-hero, than that unlikely one. This is distinctive to the story of something like Deadpool, the anti-hero in the comic book superheros, who has heroic status but ultimately has a vacuous purpose only to deconstruct his own status leading to humour but nothing to replace it. The Anti- hero has given Hollywood a new range of stories and films.
The challenge with Heroic status in the Christian faith is one of positioning not necessarily of projection. Imagine if you will the concept that Kevin Vanhoozer and NT Wright talk about, in terms of developing an overall plot structure of the Biblical narrative. Bear with me on this. But if you imagine that there are five scenes to the play, and critically, the play is Gods play. Then these five scenes might look like this:
- Covenant with Isreal
- Christs incarnation, death and resurrection
- Church, its emergence
- Consummation, Revelation and Christs return.
From the Bible story, it is clear to imagine clear moments as acts of God in the ongoing events that unfold. For Vanhoozer, and Baltasar before, they use the term Theodrama, – literally the Drama of Gods actions in the world. The clue in terms of positioning is that the current status of the church, of the whole world in fact, in that it is playing out the scenes in the fourth act. Which, as Wells suggests; ‘reminds the church that it does not live in particularly significant times. The most important things have already happened, The Messiah has come, has been put to death, has been raised, and the Spirit has come’ (p57)
It is not necessary then a time for Heroes. Even though the world might invoke hero status on its idols. A hero in the church or youth ministry is invoking the wrong sense of who they are, their role and their positioning. To invoke the wrong position might inevitably lead to heroism. To feel like having to act as creator in a situation, then the person is in act One, instead of God having done this act, there is in this a desire for independence, to rename, to discover for oneself (like Adam with the animals). Similar mistakes are made, if the Hero or we the church position ourselves in acts 2 or 3 – to assume Christ hasn’t come at all – and so we play battles of good/evil, or try and teach people lessons, or that we are being Christ as act 3, then we confuse our own role with trying to be as significant in the world as Christ was, and is. It would also be a mistake to think of ourselves in act 5 – as if the ending is set in stone, has already been determined and that our fate in inevitable on the runaway trolley in the temple of doom.
By realising that there are 5 acts of the play, not just one, and that the current position of the church in the world is act 4, then this brings both a freedom and liberation to the church, and also those who minister within it and act in mission in local communities. It leaves Christians free, in faith, to make honest mistakes. It leaves the space open for creative imagining of continuing the story, it leaves the Hero of the story to have already been played, and where God will end the drama as he sees fit. So, the role of the Christian, is then not the Hero, or the anti- hero, but the Saint.
Drawing from Aquinas, Wells describes the characteristics of the Saint, compared to the Hero:
- The Saint is almost invisible in the story and certainly not the crucial character, is easily missed, quickly forgotten. In a way, Tolkeins voice seems to be through Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, yet there are times of great absence on Galdalf, certainly in the books. The Film projected Gandalf as more of a present hero. Was Gandalf the ‘saint’ ?
- The Saint may not have great qualities such as the Heros Valeur, – but the Saint is faithful. The Story is the saint is one of persistence and faithfulness.
- The Saint needs not to fight for good over evil, they know that battle is secured the goods they have are in abundance and that matter are in unlimited supply – love, joy, peace, patience – goods which do not rise with the stock market, or need violence to protect them. The battle has already been won, yet their reward is not the Heros, who has his own, but in God’s who redeemed it all
- If the Saints failures are honest but go wrong, they highlight God’s greater victory. Though a failing of lesser integrity brings to the fore the receiving of Gods forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. ‘A Hero fears failure, A Saint knows only light comes through cracks’ (Wells, p 44)
- The Saint is never alone. They assume, demand and require community. In thinking about St Francis recently, he is rightly commended, but his work was not alone, his wife with him, and he formed community of faith as he travelled. The same for St Patrick who developed communities in Ireland. They call for a communion of the Saints, of other fellow travellers. It is noticeable that those called into key positions in the Christmas narrative are not alone; Mary shared her pregnancy joy with Elizabeth, who can also vouch for angels, and then journeys with Joseph. The Shepherds and Wise Men are both collectives. It is only Herod who stands alone.
If the world has lost some of its Heroes recently, there will always be others who take their place, either created, manufactured or positioned. As a youth and community worker, even on the streets, it can be easy to fall into being the heroic one, it is possible that the structures of ministry and the church even create the platform for Heroes to exist, or fall from platforms so created in the first place. Yet though it seems as heroic, the call is not for new heroes, the call for the church is not to provide the world with new heroes, but to provide itself and the community around it with saints. Saints who delight in the resources in the world, the goodness already there that points to Jesus being active, saints that listen and hear, saints that aren’t positioned in the centre ‘with a dynamic ministry’ but who direct and guide from the fringes, leaving others to thrive, Saints who shape and form community and not go it alone. Saints who are the church, who fall and fail honestly together knowing that battles have already been on and performing and telling the story is their main purpose. In here is a helpful analogy with developing the assets in communities- rather than be the saviour for them, acknowledging that the gifts are already present. The Saint might just act with more asset tendencies, than the hero.
So, no new years resolutions from me, but thinking of Saints verses Heroes has got me challenged. How might it possible to be more of a saint, to knowing my place in the story, and less of a hero and what that might mean in being involved in ministry in churches, with young people and in my own family in the North East.
Does the world, and the communities around need saints or heroes? Can cultures of collective saintliness be created in ministries, churches and communities?
Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, The Drama of Christian Ethics, 2004
Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005
Rohr, Richard, Eager to Love, 2014