Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
Danny is driving again. His recently restored truck hums along the hot Florida coast as glowing streetlights illuminate his lonely cab. While Danny is physically alone, his family joins him tonight as they often do during these drives. Their voices emerge, crackling and scratching their way through the truck’s ancient tape deck while filling the angry chasm between Danny and his lying siblings.
Danny Rayburn (played by Ben Mendelsohn) is at the center of Netflix’s Bloodline series that traces the sordid details of an unraveling dysfunctional family in the Florida Keys. Danny is the black sheep who has returned to the island to enact revenge on the siblings who turned their back on his father’s abuse of him decades earlier. The tapes playing repeatedly in his truck are from a distant police investigation in which his two brothers and his only sister take turns telling the same lie: Their brother was hurt in an accident.There are chapters of our lives that frequently play across the cinema of our mind, which, if we are not careful, have the capacity to define the rest of our days.
While Danny’s story is a particular story (and a fictional one)—tied to a people and a place and a circumstance that is unique—his story is also universal. It is a saga outlining the fragility of the human mind and heart that has a penchant for grabbing hold of pain and loss like a piece of driftwood and refusing to let it go. It is the plain truth that there are chapters of our lives that frequently play across the cinema of our mind, which, if we are not careful, have the capacity to define the rest of our days.
If these memories were positive, there would be little to discuss here. But the troubling reality is that for many of us, the snapshots of life that we cling to most are the painful ones. They are the scenes of rage, abuse, anger, and revenge. They are the humiliations, rejections, and losses that are apt to remind us how little we can trust the world or the ones charged with our care. These are the replayed shattered dreams and broken promises, those times when we were confronted by the kind of evil that tempts us to believe that the great God of the Universe is far less powerful than we first suspected, or has fallen asleep, or simply does not care to save us. And like Danny sitting in the solitude of his rusted truck, the more we listen to the tapes, the more our wounds fester.
As your eyes have drifted across these words what images came to mind? What scenes emerged from your story? Is there a particular snapshot which seems to always be hanging in the air like an unwanted portrait framed on the central wall of the living room? Is it a word, a face, a place, or a night? Is it a schoolyard, an office, or a house? Is it a hospital or a graveyard? Is it a church? Is it a pastor? Can you name it?
For Danny Rayburn it is the scorn of his father who blamed Danny for the death of his sister Sarah years earlier. It was Sarah’s death (and the inability for Danny’s father to name his own pain) that leads to Danny’s physical abuse and emotional abandonment. When Danny returns to the family business in an attempt to restore the fractured relationship with his father, Robert, Danny is rejected once again when Robert asks him leave town, while slipping a check across the table. The explicit message from Robert wounds Danny deep into that unhealed scar and hits the play button on tapes that rage all the louder: You are unwanted; your siblings are the only ones who are loveable.
In my own life, it was a simpler and equally as self-destructive mantra, “I won’t be a statistic.”
This was the phrase I carried with me for too many years. It was the tape playing in the moonlit cab of my heart, and it was the motivation that kept me standing through the divorce of my parents. It was my strength through distant and emotionally abusive stepparents, through more divorces, and the eventual loss of an already absent father. It held me together through my addictions, through marriage, through parenting and graduate school. It was my solace when I entered ministry, and it was the spokesman for the striving and ambition that has marked my life for decades.
But it was also the reason that alcoholism clung to me like an unshakable fog. It was the reason my marriage limped along while my wife suffered under my fear of intimacy and penchant for emotional distance. It is why my ministry was marked by conflict and gossip, immorality, and anger with authority. It was why my longing for success turned into the perpetual search for fame and the transformation of relationships into a commodity. Everything and everyone became a means to that dreadful end: “I will not be a statistic.”
The phrase emerged early in my life as a motivational speech. While struggling with the divorce of my parents, I was keenly aware that my life was on a trajectory for failure. In my younger years, I scarcely knew what a statistic was, yet I was seldom unaware that people pitied me and held infinitely lower expectations for my life in contrast to other boys in my class—like Matt, Jason, and Jeff, who all still had a father in the house. In response, my broken heart sought solace in the notion that I would beat the odds.
By all external definitions of success, beat the odds I have. But I never counted the cost or understood the reality that the idols we worship take as much as they promise to give, and what they give is infinitely less then what they promised. But our idols keep us company. Like the lingering tapes that join Danny on his road trips, our self-made mantras are like old friends that claim to understand us and grant us comfort. They are familiar and encourage us to keep picking at our scabs to make sure the wounds we have come to love never, ever heal. The merry-go-round just keeps spinning.
But the older we get, the less our mantras seem to help. As a counselor once told me, “What was once functional for your survival, has now become dysfunctional”: You might very well have needed to protect yourself from abusive parents, but you now need to stop hiding from your loving spouse. Your son is not the husband who cheated on you; your daughter is not your critical wife who left. Not everyone is a bully, and it might be time to stop trying to make your father proud. Whatever it is that may have helped you survive, whether it was a word, a memory, a personality trait, a defense mechanism, or a habit, true life begins by saying “thank you” and then saying “goodbye.”
The simplicity of the advice belies the true difficultly in the practice. Saying goodbye inevitable signals an invitation to another loss that hurts, no matter how freeing and healthy that loss may be. Experientially we recognize all around us just how difficult it is to destroy our old tapes as evidenced by the sheer number of people who claim the desire but refuse the action. We are like Gollum, hiding in the darkness of an underground cave clinging to “our precious,” simultaneously hating and loving that which has brought our freedom and imprisonment.
And so it is that our gracious heavenly Father gives us the true desires of our hearts and lets us endlessly wander in the wilderness until we are ready to finally come home with empty arms. As another counselor once suggested, “God keeps bringing us back to the same campfires until we are willing to deal with it.” So we snuff the flames or continue along the same worn path until He circles us back to the familiar glow. “How about now?” He asks.
The scriptures declare, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and there comes a time (at the end of our rope?) when the invitation is received. Freedom comes for a night, maybe a week, perhaps even a year, and then the familiar memories cloud the truth and we fail to heed the warning to “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Jesus knew we would try to make a science out of loss when all the while He meant it as a lifestyle.
The year was 1969 when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced the world to the now familiar “five stages of grief” through her landmark book, On Death and Dying. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the tried and true responses to the process of death, dying, and bereavement. But what about the process before the process? What about the dark night of the soul before the loss is embraced, what about the final fight that gives birth to the finality of our loss? Do we have words for it as well?
What I am suggesting is that before the cycle of grief begins, one must engage in the hardest work of all by giving the loss a name. To name something is to give it an identity, and one must struggle mightily to give voice to what we are letting go of—or the nebulous ambiguity will be apt to cling to us like a parasite. Indeed, as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) And it is precisely this elusiveness that often keeps us trapped in infinite loops of slavery, repentance, freedom, and then a return to slavery. We can’t grieve what we don’t know we have lost.
For Danny, his inability to properly name his pain led him to bitterness and a desire for revenge. Instead of mourning the loss of his childhood at the hands of his father’s abuse and withdrawal, Danny turned on his siblings. At the climatic end of season one, Danny and his brother John gather on an isolated beach to discuss their growing conflict and the certain danger Danny has brought upon the entire family through his nefarious life since returning to the island. Instead of recognizing that his siblings were equally victimized by their father’s manipulative and abusive ways, Danny centers his gaze on destroying the only people who truly loved him, his brothers and sister, which he has grown to loathe for their seemingly perfect lives. While his brother John pleads with Danny to reconsider his trajectory, Danny sneers at his brother with a cold callousness, “I told you your life wouldn’t always be perfect.”
When we hurt, our first instinct is to hurt in return. This is why the abused frequently become abusers themselves, the rejected become rejecters, the neglected will neglect, and the oppressed so often become the oppressors. This is symptomatic of an unnamed loss that goes unidentified and is able to wreak havoc under the surface of our humanity. And just like Danny, the victims of our pain are not even those who first wounded us.
When I drank myself into oblivion each night for years, I had always assumed that the problem was an addiction to alcohol. But it was only after my drinking ceased that I was finally able to see my problem for what it really was: my protector desperately needed a break. After years of neglect and fear of abandonment as a child, my inner mantra had created a monstrous desire to protect. Walls were erected higher and higher with each new relationship while new conflicts brought a strengthened resolve to make sure, as my shrink once noted, that I “never bled again.” But the older I got, the more exhausted the protector grew and the more alcohol I consumed to put him to sleep. And the cycle spun on, and on, and on.
The spinning would have undoubtedly continued if not for a series of Damascus road confrontations with Jesus, for my salvation could only come by way of the only One who knew my story better than I: the Author of it. Through the discernment of brothers and sisters who were willing to sit in the darkness with me, the Spirit illuminated the name above my true loss and invited me to offer a final goodbye.
If I could have talked to Danny before the entire Rayburn story went south last season, I would have offered him the most important advice I learned throughout this lengthy journey: No one changes until the cost of staying the same is greater. And when the cost is forfeiting the freedom that only Christ can offer, the cost of staying the same is always, infinitely, painfully, greater. When He names the loss, we can stop riding in circles with worn-out tapes.
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