What’s the connection between faith and authority? Ask a soldier.
What’s the connection between faith and authority? Ask a soldier.
If Treasure Island is any indication, a young person’s transition to adulthood has always been awkward and painful. At least it was so in the 1880s when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his story for boys. Stevenson’s adolescent hero, Jim Hawkins, has resonated with youth ever since. What boy does not dream of adventure, travelling to exotic places, deciphering mysteries, and overcoming danger? Such dreams have motivated boys for millennia in the hope that they can find their courage and discover their place in life. If the opportunities are not forthcoming then boys will invent them, if for no other reason than to establish a place for themselves in their own minds and, hopefully, in the minds of their peers.
So it is with Jim Hawkins. As the son of an innkeeper he has little hope of adventure until a strange turn of events sets him on a hazardous sea voyage in search of hidden pirate gold. Jim proves to be the hero, thwarting the mutinous plot of rebellious sailors led by Long John Silver, saving the lives of the captain and loyal crew members, and discovering the treasure. Not bad for an 18th century version of an underprivileged wayward teen.
Stevenson could not have envisioned the retelling of his story as a space travel adventure in which his hero is not merely underprivileged, but rebellious, sullen, introverted, and destined for a life at odds with society. That is the Jim Hawkins of Treasure Planet, the 2002 animated feature by Walt Disney Pictures. This space age Jim reflects the jaded, self-absorbed youth of the post-modern world. We follow Jim’s transformation from wide-eyed, joyful toddler to embittered youth. It is not a transformation he undertakes willingly. It is not his fault that his parents quarrel, but he suffers incalculably on the morning his father walks out. In an instant Jim is abandoned by the one person who could set him on the right course, leaving him to cast about for someone or something to give him purpose. In time Long John Silver the pirate fills that role as the two of them develop a relationship that proves redemptive for them both. There is a happy ending after all, but not without anguish along the way.
Jim’s angst is the subject of I’m Still Here, a song written for the film by John Rzeznik. It is an anthem for an alienated generation which does not know its identity. Cast adrift to find their own answers, these young people feel (with some justification) that their elders would rather they remain silent and invisible until they are able to join the adult world. Yet how are they to do so if no one makes the effort to guide them? Thus the youth have only two alternatives: either despair and end their miserable lives, or hang on in defiance against all expectations. Rzeznik’s lyrics tell us the option Jim Hawkins selects:
And you see the thing they never see,
All you wanted, I could be,
Now you know me, and I’m not afraid,
And I wanna tell you who I am,
Can you help me be a man? ,
They can’t break me,
As long as I know who I am.
The song ends with Jim’s defiant, yet hopeful, refrain, “I’m still here!” His defiance is not unlike Job’s defiance in the face of what he perceives to be unjust accusations by his friends:
Teach me, and I will be silent; and show me how I have erred. How painful are honest words! But what does your argument prove? Do you intend to reprove my words, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind? (Job 6:24-26 NASB)
Pompous people lend themselves so readily to ridicule. Unconsciously, of course. By their very nature they would not stoop to the indignity of common humor since it punctures the mirage of superior respectability they strive to maintain. That is precisely what makes it so easy (and so much fun) to lampoon such persons – albeit usually without their knowledge since they generally are the ones who wield power. Whether it is the official in high office, the wealthy heir, or the elderly matron, such people disapprove of anything or anyone that upsets their self-imposed definition of what is right and proper. Such definitions tend to be myopic at best, as well as inflexible, brittle, and hilariously easy to dispel. Doing so brings amusement and some measure of relief to the oppressed even though it likely will not result in appreciable change, or perhaps even notice by the butt of the joke.
Which explains why the operas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are still appealing. The best of their works feature masterful caricatures of England’s increasingly ossified Victorian society of the late 19th century. Perhaps the best of the best is The Mikado, a farce set in Imperial Japan, but featuring decidedly English characters and situations. This is apparent from the opening scene when a chorus of Japanese gentlemen strut haughtily about the stage singing of their lofty status. We soon learn that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu, has a dilemma: the Mikado, Japan’s emperor, has decreed that since there has been no execution of a criminal in Titipu for quite some time, an execution must take place within a month. It just so happens that Ko-Ko is himself a condemned criminal on reprieve from execution and is next in line for the chopping block. He is “consoled” by two noblemen, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush. Pooh-Bah explains that his family pride calls on him to take Ko-Ko’s place, but his desire for self-preservation prevents him from doing so. Pish-Tush takes a different approach with this empathetic offering:
I heard one day a gentleman say
That criminals who are cut in two
Can hardly feel the fatal steel,
And so are slain, are slain without much pain.
If this is true, it’s jolly for you,
Your courage screw to bid us adieu.
Ko-Ko is not amused with either man’s offering, which leads Pish-Tush to confess the truth:
And go and show
Both friend and foe how much you dare.
I’m quite aware it’s your affair.
Yet I declare I’d take your share,
But I don’t much care.
That is not unlike the lamentable comfort of Job’s friend Eliphaz:
Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. (Job 4:7-8 NASB)
Great art retains its appeal through time. This is true even with works created for children – including cartoons such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The success of this cartoon classic is due to the things children appreciate: outrageous characters, simple story lines, a make-believe world that mirrors real life, and just enough irreverence to entice the mischievous streak in every youngster. And yet those who grew up with Rocky the flying squirrel and his friend Bullwinkle J. Moose continue to appreciate the show because of its sophistication. As children we could not possibly understand the clever references to the Cold War then raging between the United States and the Soviet Union, nor the endless puns and jabs at politics, literature, and popular culture.
As children we did not need to know those things. All we needed to know was that Bullwinkle and Rocky were funny. Even the villains were funny. Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, along with their Fearless Leader, soon acquired fame that rivalled the title characters. As caricatures of Soviet spies and political figures they were the perfect foils. Moreover, they established a clear line between good and evil for young viewers. Every child knew that Boris and Natasha were bad. Their ceaseless efforts at killing Bullwinkle to advance their evil country’s fortunes originated from nothing else than pure meanness (as explained by Fearless Leader himself in the story “Goof Gas Attack”). If the plot were exceptionally evil the spies would receive orders not only to deal with Bullwinkle, but to kill moose and squirrel. Even when they received a note from Fearless Leader saying, “DO NOT kill Moose and Squirrel”, we knew that this apparent kindness occurred only because at that point the evil plans would best be served by keeping Rocky and Bullwinkle alive.
Children may not understand such things completely, but they grasp them instinctively. Understanding comes later, after they have become adults and acquired years of knowledge and experience, not all of which is good or pleasant. Children in their innocence discern good and evil, but they take as established fact that there is no gray area between the two. After a few significant encounters in the real world they begin to learn that people and things can be confusing mixtures of good and evil. Some appear to be good, but are evil at the core. Some may do evil things, but for good reasons – or so they maintain. Some do good for selfish reasons. The sad reality is that children soon learn there is no absolute good among human beings, which makes navigation of this world exceedingly hazardous. It is easier to revert to childhood innocence and attempt to stay there as long as possible.
The childlike place is comforting and safe. There we recognize that good and evil exist, but all we need do is cling to the one while avoiding the other. We need not seek the origins of evil, nor try to understand why evil and good seem to be intertwined in every heart. A child will take the word of its parents in faith and act accordingly. If they say a thing is good or bad, the child will act on that. It is only later that the child begins to inquire into the nature of good and bad. In time that path of inquiry leads to a line that should never be crossed: the point of defining good and evil on his own terms. Unfortunately, it seems that this very line has marked the boundary between childhood and adulthood since the time of Adam and Eve. That may be why Messiah Yeshua said this:
And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4 NASB) Please click here to continue reading
The Barking Fox just completed the annual Torah Cycle and is ready to embark on another year of Bible commentary. Rather than embark on another systematic journey through the Torah and Haftarah, in this Hebrew year 5776 Fox Bytes will focus on selected books and topics, starting with the book of Job.
A sad commentary on human nature is that people who stand for what is right rarely are the people with whom one would prefer to be seen in public. We may honor such saintly persons as Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, or William Wilberforce, but we do not want to be close friends with them – or at least not let such relationships be known. Our preference is to hang out with “good old boys”, friends who like the things we like, sympathize with our problems, and make us feel better about ourselves without actually causing us to change. That, of course, is the problem with those saintly people: they uphold high standards of right living which make us feel uncomfortable. It does not matter how blessed they appear to be, or the peace they seem to enjoy in any situation, or that they give the authorities no cause for alarm. The truth is that they are righteous, and their righteousness interferes with our desire to live comfortably and indulge whatever pleasure seems good.
Shakespeare understood this fact of human nature. He made use of it in his masterful manipulation of the Roman public through Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassins justify their murderous act by saying the great man was ambitious and that his ambition would have been the death of Roman freedom. Antony seems to agree, saying “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, a statement that indicates whatever good Caesar would have done has died with him. Then he turns the tables, calling the assassins honorable men – good men whom the good citizens of Rome should trust, and with whom they should be glad to associate. Yet their honorable good pales in comparison to Caesar’s selfless ambition: an ambition that enriched Rome through his military service, that wept for Rome’s poor, and that refused a kingly crown thrice offered. In other words, any honor that may have accrued to Caesar’s assassins was as nothing compared to the great man’s righteousness in life and legacy in death.
We learn through Shakespeare’s theatrical Marc Antony a truth written centuries earlier to a real Roman audience by a man who also understood something about human nature:
For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (Romans 5:7 NASB)