by Daniel Harrell
Many of you ask how I’m surviving my first winter in Minnesota, by which you mean all the snow. You’re worried, I know. Especially after this past week. Some of you have gone as far as to apologize, as if this winter is your fault. Please don’t worry. I’m a minister. I forgive you. I’m also a Kierkegaardian existentialist suffering a chronic and cresting midlife crisis, especially as I cross the mid-century mark. So I embrace winter. I hope it snows on Easter.
Speaking of snow, I’ve dealt with my midlife crisis in various ways over the years—predictably with escapades designed to delude myself into thinking I’m 20 years younger. Not too long ago I joined in a hike up the twin peaks of Mount Osceola, a double 4000 footer in New Hampshire. Now I know that sounds like a walk in the park to the Coloradans in the room, but still, the White Mountains can be adventuresome, especially on this particular day with 5 feet of snow on the trail. With temperatures at eleven degrees. Hiking up a severely steep grade. With howling wind and more snow forecast to fall.
No problem for true mountain men. In fact we were so confident in our eventual success that we didn’t start hiking until noon. After leisurely coffee and Danish, we laced up our crampons, strapped on our ice axes and commenced our steep ascent, soon to find ourselves heaving and scrambling on all fours, the wind starting to whip as the temperature plummeted. Finally atop the first peak, we were plainly hypothermic, worn out and flirting with cardiac arrest. Not that true mountain men were willing to admit debilitating fatigue. Better to freeze than to give in to the reality that two peaks were impossible on this day; that getting up one had been practically miraculous. No, we fully intended to complete our quest; anything short would be failure. Fortunately we had a woman hiking with us. “You guys are idiots if you think we’re going after another peak today,” she said firmly and motherly. “Turn around and let’s get back down this mountain before it’s dark and we’re dead. You can’t win at everything.” “Yeah,” we men joked, “we knew she couldn’t hack it. Let’s get girly down the mountain.”
Failure is hard to accept in American society. We live in a culture that adores success and never tires of raising expectations. Success substantiates our self-worth, whether its bagging twin mountain peaks in the snow, making straight A’s, landing the best-paying job, being happily married to an attractive person, raising well-adjusted children or losing weight. Watch the commercials and pop-ups and you’ll find success equals driving the right car too, as well as drinking the right beer, having the perfect skin and popping the best pills to ward off depression and pain while promoting sexual dexterity and hair growth (on your head). Such absurd markers of success not only make it hard to accept failure, they make it difficult to say the word.
Even for Christians. Among the many things we ought to be able to offer the world is an adequate theology of failure. But alas, we’re as enchanted as everybody else by cultural mirages of success—despite participating in a religion that prominently displays as its calling card failure’s most resonant symbol. Indeed nothing symbolizes failure more extremely than the cross, for the cross signifies the failure of God himself—a failure displayed in the Old Testament too, explicitly in 1 Samuel 4. I devoted the first two Sundays of Lent to exploring 1 Samuel 4, as dismal a chapter of Scripture as exists. It’s so dismal that some of you have expressed worry that if this keeps up all Lent, you might not make it to Easter. Especially if it doesn’t stop snowing soon.
Failure pervades chapter 4. Naturally there’s human failure: The sons of Eli fail in their roles as priests of the Tabernacle, exploiting rank to embezzle sacred offerings and sexually abuse female sanctuary workers. Consequently they draw down a fierce curse from God on their entire family. The armies of Israel fail not once but twice, arrogantly overestimating their battlefield prowess. In turn they suffer massive casualties to the Philistines. Israel’s elders and leaders fail in their presumptuous attempt to force God’s hand by manipulating the sublime symbol of God’s presence, the Ark of the Covenant—that gold layered box with a model of heaven’s throne on top that contained the Ten Commandments inside. They hauled the Ark out of its sanctuary at Shiloh presuming that would guarantee their army’s success because God never loses.
As I pointed out last Sunday, these human failures fell into the category of explicable loss, failure that assigns blame, failure that makes sense. But 1 Samuel 4 also features the failure of God himself, a categorical failure that defies categories. It that makes no sense. Obliged onto the battlefield due to the presence of the Ark, God lost the battle. The Ark was captured and hauled off to Ashdod. It is failure writ large, so large that it actually fails as an “adequate theology of failure.” By itself, 1 Samuel 4 is no more than a dirge, an downhill slide into perpetual despair. With God defeated, what hope is left? With God defeated, life is random and meaningless. With God defeated, evil wins, death is the last word and pitch black darkness is all the hope that remains.
For centuries, theologians have tried to account for God’s defeat in the face of evil, be the face that of the oppressive Philistines in 1 Samuel or the everyday evils of disease and disaster. The attempt warrants its own theological category—we call it theodicy—it’s the effort we ministers make to explain how an all-powerful and good God can allow so much suffering in the world. It’s a question of particular interest to me as it pertains to biology. Given the vast immensity of death endemic to the evolutionary epic, how does this square with faith in a Creator who made the world as good? I’ve gone public in print and recently on video suggesting that somehow death must be a part of God’s character.
Kierkegaardian, I know, but what I mean is that death has two sides. On the one side it serves as the negative paycheck for sin, as the apostle Paul put it, but on the other, according to Jesus, it’s also the utmost expression of sacrificial love. Thus rather than viewing eons of evolutionary death as purposeless waste, what if we saw it somehow as God’s sacrifice? My little video was picked up by a couple of anti-religion bloggers last week who with ferocity labeled it “abhorrently and contemptibly mindless” and my assertion “vapid idiocy.” “Reverend Harrell’s god is a psychopath,” one commenter wrote. “No mentally sane god would do such sick things.” And then from the estimable Richard Dawkins himself, “How utterly obscene. How loathsome. How Christian.”
And if that’s all there was to it, I might have to agree. By itself, labeling death “sacrificial love” is nothing but a euphemistic obscenity, especially given how badly love already gets twisted in our society. Sacrificial love is not love without some kind of redemption. Jesus himself said that “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” More than stating the biologically obvious, Jesus makes a much larger point about the way all things are. Just as the death of an organism will allow for its flourishing reproduction and continued genetic existence (not that the Bible would put it this way), so would Jesus’ death redeem the negativity of death due to sin and lead to a new and flourishing continuation of life. Forgiven sinners still die, but in Christ death no longer has final say. The way of the cross becomes the way of new creation.
For a theology of failure to be adequate, a corresponding theology of redemption is required. The cross requires an empty tomb. 1 Samuel 4 requires 1 Samuel 5. After their triumphant capture of the Ark of the Covenant, the nefarious Philistines giddily paraded the Ark twenty miles south to the shrine of their chief deity, Dagon. Mortal enemies, the Philistines were spiritual enemies too. They situated the Ark beside a stone idol of Dagon so to exhibit Yahweh’s proven inferiority. But they also did it to exhibit appreciation to Yahweh for contributing to Dagon’s triumph. As polytheists, the Philistines were always happy to welcome helpful deities into their pantheon.
However such sacrilege would not be tolerated. So that night, once the victory celebration subsided and the lights were shut off on the Ark and idol of Dagon. The next morning, when the Philistine clerics reported to work, eager to continue their gloating, what they discovered was the idol of Dagon fallen face first, prostrate on the ground before the Ark of the Lord. Was this an act of worship? Of submission? Or just clumsiness? Likely the Philistines chalked it up to the latter, figuring that somebody partied too heartily the previous night and bumped the stone idol too close to the edge of its pedestal. Just set it upright and let’s get on with the trophy celebration.
It’s important to note that the Philistines would not have considered the stone idol they crafted as actually being Dagon itself. They could see that the stone idol was a rock which was why having to set it back onto its pedestal did not provoke a crisis of faith. That occurred the following morning. Though the Philistines knew the idol was a rock, they nevertheless believed that it represented the actual presence of Dagon, just as the wooden box of an Ark represented the actual presence of God. Which is why the subsequent events raised such alarm. 1 Samuel 5 reads that “Early on the next morning” (which if you’re counting would be the third day), the Philistines returned to Dagon’s Temple fully expecting to find Dagon and the Ark as they’d left them, with the Ark displayed in submissive defeat before the idol. It was just like the women who came to the tomb at Easter fully expecting to find Jesus as he’d been left: dead and buried, laid out in submissive defeat to his enemies. Despite being the most faithful of the early disciples, the women still came to the tomb carrying burial spices.
However to everyone’s utter shock, a reversal had occurred. The tomb was empty. Dagon was not only bowed but broken this time, his head and his hands cut off. This was no accident. Dagon had been executed military style. He’d been literally disarmed in the dark; rendered impotent within his own stronghold. As Old Testament commentator Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Dagon learned through the night, we know not how, that Yahweh is the God before whom every knee shall bow and every nose shall be pressed low to the floor.”
Whether Dagon the deity actually existed (or exists), I do not know. Scripture is clear that there are “cosmic powers over this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” against which we wrestle. But Scripture is also clear that all evil in whatever form it takes is ultimately rendered powerless before God. Thus the Psalmist can confidently taunt the hand-crafted manifestations of such powers as “having mouths, but not speaking; eyes, but not seeing. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they do not make a sound in their throats.” Idols are ultimately nothing but not not not because the evil they represent is ultimately nothing too.
And not only the idols but the people who worship them. “Those who make them are like them;” the Psalmist continues, “so are all who trust in them.” In toppling Dagon, the Lord takes aim not only at the idol but at idolatry. The existence of powers and forces contrary to God is one thing, paying homage to them is another. While there are those who still worship actual idols (be they iPads, nice cars or hockey trophies), idolatry in our day also takes a more subtle strain. Our captivation with success—the right school, the best job, the perfect person, the perfect body, popularity, power, approval, financial security—the pursuit of all these things only succeed in supplanting our worship of God as the sure source of identity and worth.
Which is why an adequate theology of failure is so necessary. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon recounts a story of a favorite professor named Paul Holmer who taught a class on Søren Kierkegaard (at the University of Minnesota where he was considered the expert of Kierkegaard). There was a divinity school debate on “the role of the preacher” featuring Professor Holmer, which was surprising since Holmer, like Kierkegaard, was generally contemptuous of clergy. The debate opened with another professor, the famous William Slone Coffin, presenting an exciting image of the pastor as agent of social change. Coffin asserted that “Because you visit and work with people in a variety of settings, you can organize them to [successfully] work for justice. You will have important people in your churches—bankers, lawyers. You can do much good getting folk motivated to get together and work great change in your community.”
Professor Holmer replied, “I disagree with everything that professor Coffin has said. The pastor’s job can’t be to organize people, to bring them together. People hide [in organizations]. It’s one of their best defenses against God. Your job as a pastor is to break up the [clubs and] groups, render them exposed and vulnerable, force them to confront their failures. That way God can get to them. Besides, Jesus despised bankers and lawyers.”
Failure compels a dependency on God who shows himself most dependable in exactly those moments you find yourself most needy and exposed. There is redemption in this. Failure brings you down to earth that is solid beneath your feet. Failure links your broken heart to others just like it. Failure delivers you into the everlasting arms where you find the solace that eluded you during your success. Failure provides the pathway to genuine faith.
Ironically, in the toppling of Dagon, like the resurrection of Jesus, God redeems those avenues of defeat we so frantically seek to avoid—those failures we desperately fear and don’t dare risk. And yet it was the capture of the Ark that overturned captivity. It was the death of Christ that reinterpreted death. It is the cross of failure that became the crux of life. Such ironic divine double negations remain at work everywhere: one person’s loss placed alongside another’s is what provides the most heartfelt empathy and comfort; humility in response to humiliation is what results in integrity; acceptance of failure redeems feelings of failure providing hope and courage to try again. The resurrection of Jesus through death provides true lasting hope and even joy that no personal achievement or accomplishment can match, all to the praise and glory of God alone.
By the way, the only thing worse than having to swallow our middle-aged pride atop snowy Mount Osceola was having to trudge back down its steep face. Had we possessed the youthful stamina to traverse to the second peak, (not to mention the mature wisdom to have started on time) the descent down the other side would have been a gradual delight. But now we were never going to make it down by dark. We would be forced to suffer the consequences of our stupidity as we slowly maneuvered down the dangerous, icy slope. Of course we weren’t 50 yards down before Tim, one of us macho mountain men, slipped. Clad in slick Gore-Tex from head to toe, he predictably slid for the next mile and a half, all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. Soon we were all right behind him, of course, spinning and sliding as collective losers, descending in 20 minutes what had taken us three hours to climb.
Turns out hikers have a technical term for this. Glissade. It’s basically just a fancy French word meaning “slide on your butt.” Although you are supposed to use your ice ax as a brake, I found that the occasional trees I crashed into worked just as well. I’m convinced the term glissade was invented by some pathetic hiker too embarrassed to admit he had miscalculated his capabilities. Nevertheless, we got off of the trail before dark. And once there—humiliated, frozen solid, sore and beaten—all we could do was praise the Lord.