Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wisdom of the Great and Terrible Humbug

*rediscovered on 9/15/14, two years after originally being lost in the "drafts" section of Blogger

Before today I thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fun movie, but not necessarily thought provoking. Viewing it on the big screen at the re-opening event of the Logan Theatre, however, fostered quite the opposite experience.

Maybe it was the lack of commercials interrupting the film (though I did go get popcorn and a Coke right before Dorothy encounters the Cowardly Lion - big mistake, a top five moment of the film). Maybe it was seeing the characters ten feet tall. Who knows.

Several times I felt as though I was seeing the movie for the first time. Lines I'd never heard before were jumping out at me, provoking thoughts and laughter I hadn't expected.

One blurb that is prompting some ideas came from the conversation between the wizard and Dorothy. Upon discovering that he wasn't actually "The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz" but instead "The Great and Terrible Humbug" (HA!) and incapable of keeping his promise:

Dorothy: Why, you're not a wizard at all, you're just a man! And you're a very bad man for pretending to be a wizard!

Wizard: Oh, no, my dear; I'm a very good man, just a very bad wizard.

But that thought is not quite fully cooked yet. Another day, another blog post...

The thought that went straight through the easy bake oven, however, was inspired by the conversation in the same scene between the Tinman and the wizard. Upon giving him a testimonial heart, the wizard cautions:

Wizard: A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

At face value this sounds like one of those feel good lines you'd expect to see cross-stitched on a pillow in a small town gift store. And normally I would dismiss such silliness and be on my merry way, but the quote stuck with me through the evening and as I was considering the thoughts of Miroslav Volf in his work The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World I realized there was a kernel of truth hidden beneath the pseudo-therapeutic exterior of the wizard's words. First, however, I must preface said kernel with a brief synopsis of one of Volf's ideas. 

Volf, writing on the subject of the memories of wrongdoing done to us, posits that memory can be active or passive, and that active memories are ones acted upon (actively recalled). He then describes passive memory (memory acting on us): "...[the memories of wrongdoing done to us] steal our attention, and they assault us with inner turmoil marked by shame, guilt, and maybe a mixture of self-recrimination and self-justification. They envelop us in dark mists of melancholy, they hold us back so that we cannot project ourselves into the future and embark on new paths. They chain our identity to the injuries we have suffered and shape the way we react to others." (italics mine)

Or, in other words, those memories can haunt us, shape us, and change us. And not for the better.

What does this have to do with a Tin Woodman and a humbug Wizard? Consider this rephrasing of his words to the Tin Woodman, this time in a less positive light:

Wizard: You will perceive your self-worth, not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others. or You cannot create your self-worth by loving others, rather, your value will be assessed by how much you are loved by others.

If the Tin man really does judge himself according to the love he receives, consider for a moment just how crucial it is that he receives that love. And how dangerous it will be for him if he does not.

Let's break it down a little more.

When I consider the gravest wrongs done to me, I would rank the worst as those that urged me to consider myself unloved and unlovable. In none of those memories of wrong did the wrongdoer actually use the words unloved/unlovable, but they were communicated quite clearly using the non-verbal language of the fall.

On account of sin three things entered the realm of human experience - shame, guilt, and fear. And rightly so. Sin is shameful, it incurs guilt, and inspires fear. But I'm not talking about shame, guilt, and fear brought about by my own sin. I'm talking about other people saying and doing things that inspire the sensation of shame, guilt, and fear on invalid premises. 

We've all been there. Maybe I make a mistake at work or in school and a peer or even a supervisor insults my intelligence and competence. I didn't actually do anything wrong, but I am immediately shamed and feel ostracized from my "perfect" peers. A gnawing fear is planted that engenders insecurity and anxiety. If it comes from someone respected or trusted it stabs even deeper! 

And the current beneath the fear, shame, and guilt? The message that who and what I am is unlovable. On account of my intelligence? My speech patterns? My skin color? My wardrobe? My friends?  Whatever. It doesn't matter. Anything could be used against you. It's almost a form a moral jiujitsu. Weaknesses and strengths are equally exploited as a means of tearing you down. 

How crushing! How cruel! All of this because someone has chosen to not love. Make no mistake; there are no neutral deeds. Actions and words are either loving or they aren't. And if they aren't, by necessity they communicate one thing: you are not loved. 

And it's only a short step from "you are not loved" to "you are not lovable".


Thus, the plot twists. For as I examine the ways I have been wronged I cannot dismiss from my mind the knowledge that I have loved imperfectly, too. But that is much too gracious. I have loved, and I have withheld love. And where I have withheld love I have inadvertently told those people that they are not worthy of my love.

Where does that leave us? I shudder to think that by withholding love I have been the active agent of the horror described by Miroslav Volf above, "[I] chain[ed] [their] identity to the injuries [they] have suffered and shape[d] the way [they] react to others." Could it be that by failing to love I have injured and shaped others into persons that also refuse love to their neighbor? 

Is my worth summed up by the quantity and quality of my love for others? Is it really bound to the love that others have for me? If I am so imperfect, how can I depend on the love of other imperfect people?

God be praised, for in the darkness of this horror the light of the gospel shines fiercely bright.

Christ be praised, for by his life, death, and resurrection he has freed me from the just punishment I deserve on account my sin against others and against God. Christ be praised, that by those same feats he has proven and established eternally my relationship with him, who loves perfectly, and whose love is powerful to sustain me. 

The Spirit be praised, for it is by his work of illumination and regeneration that this truth has been revealed and grasped and trusted and believed. And it is through his transforming power that I am enabled to love like my savior loved me!


Simply put, we are persons in community and how we treat each other has profound power to dramatically inform our self-image. Our experiences of love and hate form the memories that strengthen or cripple us from within. 

But the wisdom of the wizard is not gospel wisdom. It is incomplete. Living for the love and admiration of our friends, family, community, pastors, coworkers, bosses (or subordinates), will always leave us unsatisfied, always questioning, doubting, and wondering if the love received was truly genuine, dependable, and real. We can't even live for the love and admiration of God, because there's nothing we can do to earn it. 

In fact, on our own, God wouldn't be able to be near us, even look at us, on account of our sin. But God chooses to see us through Christ, who died our death and gave us life so we could have fellowship again with God.

Thankfully, on account of God's character, his actions, and his word, we know that regardless of how our community behaves his love for us remains constant. Our identity is secure in Christ our savior. 

And, here's the kicker, it is out the abundance of God's love that we can boldly love others. Whether they chose to love in return or not.

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