Monday, October 20, 2008

A Wicked Experience in the Big Apple

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I just passed through one of those milestone birthdays. Let’s just say I can no longer say I’m in my 40’s…. For this special birthday my wonderful wife, Marcelle, planned a trip to New York City with a couple of our best friends. I had been to NYC a couple times before but never as a tourist. We were there for three beautiful days and filled our time with interesting and perhaps life-shaping events (it’s a bit too soon to say for certain…). We stayed in a hotel just off of Times Square and we were able to walk to just about everything we saw. I confess I experienced some sensory overload, but the experience was one I will never forget and one for which I am extremely grateful. What a great weekend!

The highlights included two Broadway musicals. We saw Hairspray and Wicked. Although they are very different stories they both address issues of prejudice. Hairspray is the more conventional (less thought-provoking) of the two, with its black-and-white characters (n.b. the double entendre) and the happy-ever-after ending. It was full of fun, energy and terrific music. Wicked is more brooding. It calls into question the overly simplistic application of terms like good and evil in a revisionist prequel to The Wizard of Oz which shows that Elphaba (the Witch of the West) was not so evil after all, while those who demonized her were acting duplicitously either out of prejudice or self-interest.

Some of the first lyrics include:
Let us be glad, Let us be grateful,
Let us rejoicify that goodness could subdue
The wicked workings of you know who!
Isn't it nice to know that good will conquer evil?
The truth we all believe'll by and by outlive a lie

This sounds very much like traditional Christian teaching (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 15 on Christ’s victory over death, etc.), but it is subverted by the (about to be revealed) knowledge that the moral categories were being wrongly applied. The story would end up revealing that “the truth we all believe” would not outlive a lie, but rather was the lie!

Other lyrics almost sound as though they were taken from the book of Proverbs or other Old Testament wisdom literature. For instance:
No one mourns the wicked!
No one cries they won't return!
No one lays a lily on their grave!
The good man scorns the wicked!
Through their lives our children learn! What we miss when we misbehave!

Again, this traditional moral teaching is undermined by the knowledge that the terms good and wicked were being wrongly and simplistically applied thanks to the manipulation of perceptions by those who held power and influence in Ozian society.

I’ll share just one final bit of lyrics. This one ends with a paraphrase of Galatians 6:7:
Goodness knows
The wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the wicked
They reap only what they've sown

I’m sure some will see all of this as merely an attempt to undermine traditional Christian moral categories but there is no real moral relativism here. We see both good and evil in the main characters and are shocked by the hypocrisy and wicked manipulation of society’s application of the categories of good and evil. Such a manipulation has been an often observed part of the modern and postmodern experience and not just something prevalent in story books or ancient times. Like the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, Wicked warns against the simplistic, naïve or socially convenient application of powerful terms like good and evil in a world filled with complex characters, mixed motives, deceitful hearts, hypocrisy and politics marked by self-interest. There is a certain shocking, Nathan-confronts-David nature to the message (see 2 Samuel 12:1-7) which is a healthy and important challenge for us to hear.

One of the other highlights of the weekend was an audio tour of Ground Zero. What a moving and highly recommended experience! A place marked by both human wickedness and human goodness and an event which has also been manipulated at times to advance simplistic views of good and evil in the world…. As the American presidential campaign approaches its end the American population finds itself occasionally being fed a diet of rhetoric in which the opposing candidates (all well-respected people before the campaigns began) are demonized for the sake of the advantage gained by the candidacy of the other. Sometimes this is done to the applause of those most clearly identified as “Christians.” We all know “The good man scorns the wicked!” Sometimes people are all too eager to let a strong voice tell them which is “the good” man and which “the wicked” so they can pour their scorn on the right one. May God give us all greater wisdom than that, for the sake of this nation and those affected by its leadership.

Back to our trip to NYC. Did I make any special contribution to the betterment of society while visiting the Big Apple? Well, we visited the Hard Rock Café and I bought a cap that says “Save the Planet” on the front and “Love all, serve all” on the back. I rejoicify (sic) in the knowledge that with a simple $20 purchase I have advanced such a wonderful agenda, promoting good and the overthrow of evil through one little act of consumerism. What a comfort it would be, I suppose, if we actually lived in such a morally simple universe…. My birthday trip is now over, however, and I hope that in remaining years that God gives me I might, by his grace and mercy, make a greater difference in this complex, broken and hurting world than I have in the years I have lived so far. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV).

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