Christ Church, Little Rock
November 6, 2011
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25
Around the turn of the century—1998, to be precise—some of us suddenly found the dream of starring in our own television show a little creepy, rather than just unlikely. We watched The Truman Show, as my kids did for the first time just last week.
For those of you who missed it, The Truman Show is set among the brightly painted houses and white picket fences of Seahaven, a town in which the blue of the sky, the dimpled perkiness of Truman’s wife, and the number of teeth Jim Carrey exposes with each of his character’s innocent grins are all too much or too many. It’s probably the campiest work of philosophy you’ll ever encounter.
Truman, you see, is the star of his very own television show, but he doesn’t know it. He was adopted by a corporation at birth, and every moment of his life has been carefully staged and broadcast live around the world. Seahaven is actually a completely artificial town, built inside an enormous dome. Its streets are filled with actors playing the parts of neighbors and coworkers and shop owners. Cameras are filming from flower pots and lapel pins. And Truman is the only one who isn’t in on the gag. Truman is the only one who doesn’t know that his life is a hoax.
As wild as The Truman Show’s conceit seems to be, I know there’s at least one person in this room who, as a boy in the early 1970s, wondered if his own world might be something like Truman’s. Could it all be a fraud? What if these people—parents, friends, teachers, strangers—what if they’re just faking it? Who knows what they’re up to when they’re out of sight? Maybe they go sit in a waiting room somewhere until they get the signal to step behind their cash registers or onto the sidewalk or into bleachers at a t-ball game. What if reality is a sham, and I’m really alone, the only person not in on the joke?
Now before you prescribe a psychiatric remedy for the Truman Show Problem I’ve described, let’s consider a theological approach. Or, rather, let’s take a Trumanesque approach as we try to make a little sense of a scene from the book of Joshua.
In the 24th chapter of Joshua, there’s plenty for a fair minded and reasonably sane modern person to hate. Joshua is giving Israel a pep talk as he comes to the end of his life. And in it he tells them to remember all the other nations that God has helped Israel pummel in battle, nations like the Amorites who were driven from the land Israel now occupied. Joshua tells the people to put away foreign gods, which might translate, “Don’t be so tolerant of indigenous religions.” Then he says, and I quote, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you.”
Well. What in the world do we do with this description of a jealous God who takes sides in wars, doesn’t forgive sins, and gets even with people who worship the wrong deities? If we take these verses at face value, we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to find something useful for our lives. Which is why you’re thinking, “You idiot. You could have just preached on the gospel.”
Point taken. But we modern people can be awfully near sighted, prisoners of our own time and place. We can’t imagine that such crude, primitive people could have anything to say to enlightened folks like us. But among the curious collection of gifts and challenges that are part of the Chrtistian faith is the insistence that these ancient Hebrews are our people. Our story is inextricably bound with theirs. Their stories may confuse and offend us, but maybe they can help us break free of the notion that nobody worth listening to lived before about 1750.
If we loosen up a little and put the indignation on hold for a moment, wouldn’t you admit our descriptions of God would be very different if we lived 3,500 years ago in Palestine, if we had been thrown into slavery in Egypt, then wandered through the wilderness as nomads, wondering what we’d eat and whose army would attack next, wishing we had a little plot of land where we might stay put for a while. A place where we could just enjoy a little milk and honey and peace because our enemies had been put down or away or out of commission.
Don’t the descriptions of God that seem so harsh to us mostly comfortable 21st century people who worry about things like perfecting our golf swings and coordinating furniture upholstery with our drapes and deciding whether or not to drop Netflix, don’t these old descriptions of God seem a little less barbaric when we consider the severe reality of the lives of the people who did the describing? If so, maybe these stories still have something to say, even to us.
Let’s return to the story. The central charge Joshua is delivering is that Israel must be loyal, they must give over their trust, “incline their hearts”, to use his lovely phrase, to God. In his speech about God’s jealousy and vengeance, Joshua actually seems to be saying, “Just do the right thing. God has taken care of you. So don’t be disloyal.”
But maybe the deeper issue for Israel’s people is a little like Truman’s. The deeper question Joshua is asking is about whether the reality Israel is living within is true. Not just factually true, but whether their way of seeing the world leads to abundant life and meaningful relationship, or isolation and estrangement. Does their common life as Yahweh’s people make more sense of what it means to be human than any other way of life they’ve experienced, or not? If it does, Joshua says, then Israel needs to invest themselves completely in that way of life.
As Yahweh’s people Israel had a common story, a shared way of life that shaped their relationships and their obligations, a way of life that directed the way they spent their money and did their work and nourished their bodies and treated the poor and the alien and the land itself. And if Israel were to become a disconnected bunch of individuals, each choosing casually from the religious smorgasbord of the ancient Middle East, there would be a cost. Maybe they would no longer be a people. Maybe they would no longer share a common reality. And maybe their story begs a surprisingly relevant question of us: Do we? Do we, in our world in which the individual conscience seems to be both ultimate guide and god, do we share a common story? Is it harder than ever, perhaps, for us to become a “we”?
You see, the real tragedy of Truman’s life in that quirky movie was not that his information about the world was just wrong. The tragedy wasn’t that his sky was actually painted on the underside of a dome and that computers controlled his weather. The tragedy of Truman’s life was that he was alone. He didn’t really share that world with anyone. Everyone but Truman had a strange but shared story. The bartenders and housewives who watched his life unfold on television, and the pretend policemen and window washers and hot dog vendors who kept the whole thing going—they had a common story in which they understood their place and their part. Truman gradually learned that he didn’t. Their story wasn’t his. What Truman really had to break free of was not a world in which the sun rose and stoplights changed at Christoph’s direction. He needed to break free of a world of isolation, and into a world in which he truly shared a way of seeing and being with other people.
Beneath the wild differences between Truman’s life, and ancient Israel’s life, and your life and mine is a very familiar human condition. Since the first pages of the Bible, since that other lovely old story about the temptation of a man and a woman in a garden, we’ve known that we can’t go it alone in this life. Evil and alienation are closely related. And the truth is that Joshua’s words may be more relevant than ever, because we live in a world in which we’re expected to each go out and find our own gods. The practice of faith is assumed to be an entirely interior and personal affair rather than something that is always enacted among other people.
Because if our religious life frees us from one another completely, it’s not freeing at all. Do we really want to be free to fend entirely for ourselves? Free to be alone and adrift in the universe rather than part of a people with a common story, a shared memory, a way of being in the world together that makes a little sense of the strange, wonderful project of being fully alive?
You’ll be glad to know that both The Truman Show and the book of Joshua end happily. After his sailboat bumps into the horizon, Truman walks across the water, up the staircase to a door in the sky and steps through it into the possibility of a real life, a whole life, a life in real communion with other people.
And the people of Israel said to Joshua, “You’re right. We are meant for each other. In spite of the strange ups and downs, the wonders and the disasters, our lives have found their meaning not as we each chase after gods by ourselves, but as we become a people of a common story, living together in covenant with God and one another.” Actually they put it more concisely. They said, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” Amen.