The Abrahamic faiths begin with a sense that things are amiss. Death, suffering, toilings: they all boil down to there being a schism between the Source of Creation and creation itself. The covenant with Abraham entails two foundational promises: a bloodline and land. The requirements to benefit from these offerings differ amongst Abraham’s children. Textual Judaism established regulations on living, offerings within the Temple, strict observance on matters of ritual cleanness (understood literally and symbolically), and proscribed fundamental responsibilities for the treatment of those both within and without the covenant community. This manner of living, in broad and inexact terms, was believed to afford one the best path toward restoration to the life God intends us to live within Beloved Community.
This is replicated in Islam; the Qur’an incorporates much of the Tanakh and the Christian Scriptures.* Mohammad provides teachings for Arabs (originally) who wished to follow the Abrahamic God, much like Jesus and the early disciples/apostles provided a pathway for Gentiles. Spiritually, I do not know how to follow Jesus without understanding the ways in which our God has communicated to the Chosen People and the heirs of Ishmael.
Central to Christian theology, largely owed to Paul, is that Jesus fundamentally alters human anthropology. Another oft-used term is ontology, which is a big word for even bigger questions: What is the essence of the human person, in contrast to the Greek concept of accidents? What is intrinsic to us, what is a priori; what is the substance–in Greek, what is the ousia–the “isness” of the human person? Pauline theology argues that in Adam (embodied sin) all persons die, in Christ (embodied redemption), all people live. The way to access this redemption is through faith. Without question, though, Paul did not advocate a lazy, meaningless faith of the lips unsupported by a faith of the heart. Implicit in the mandate of faith is a radical entry into relationships, with priority given to those who are in need and who are within the community.
For Paul, there was a foundational shift in human ousia as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. God broke through all the boundaries and offered reconciliation to all persons who had faith. I like this on its face, but not in practice. As discussed in a previous entry, Christian history is filled with violent, horrible examples that have nothing to do with a free coming to authentic faith, but rather required confession of belief at the tip of a sword or the end of a gun. This is what turns canon into cannons.
Christian doctrine rests upon a belief in original sin, which is really not a biblical principle. It’s an Augustinian hermeneutic; a belief expressed in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. I took an online course in seminary that only had four students; not that many people want to study Augustine in-depth. I did because I wanted to be sure why I object to him so ardently. Augustine is responsible for the idea that human sin passes down through the sex act; Augustine had a longtime mistress, a son whose death Augustine interpreted as God’s judgment on his sexual life, and a complicated relationship with his mother. In Latin, we’d call him Hector quae prominebat, or Hector Projector. His term concupiscence begins the streak of sexual repression and shame that has come to define much of Western guilt about our own sexuality and obsession with that of others.
For Augustine, using a Pauline framework, original sin is wiped away by Jesus on the cross. I give more treatment of that in another series I am writing, but suffice it to say that the blood atonement theology that emerges with St. Anselm does not present a vision of God or Jesus that resonates with my experience of them both. Stripped of the loaded and problematic language, the theory does have a profound kernel: the God described in the Tanakh offers a salvific avenue to those outside the bloodline and land, one that begins and ends with spiritual faith.
Christianity has been sin-obsessed for too long. In no way am I denying the reality of sin, nor am I saying that we should simply ignore it. Not at all. But we really don’t need to make it the alpha and omega enemy of faith. In fact, I see the idea of Jesus’ incarnation as a step away from sin obsession. We are brought into right relationship with God, so we need not fear that sin is the final word; instead, we should focus on living lives that are imitatio Christi, imitations of Christ.
For me, following Jesus has affected a shift in consciousness and spiritual awareness, away from fear into one of love. I do not believe that something magical happened when Jesus came to earth, and our fundamental isness changed. I do believe, though, that in committing myself to Christ I have been able to move stridently toward a more authentic expression of what it means to live honestly and holistically.
Stay tuned for the next installment, which will focus on Jesus’ relationship to salvation and the end times. Please share with friends!
*I rarely use the term “Old Testament,” as it seems an insult to those who regard the Tanakh (Ta=Torah, the first five books; Na=Nevi’im, the Prophets; Kh=Ketuvim, the Writings) as living and ever-relevant. Similarly, I am loath to use the term “New Testament,” but do so regularly when speaking because it is just easier. I prefer “Christian Scriptures” or “Christian Testament,” terms that also allow for non-canonical texts that, despite the rulings of Councils, I believe are wells of wisdom.
As I’ve written about before, Jesus Christ Superstar has been formative to my faith journey. My earliest memory is connected to Pilate counting the lashes and asking my sister, “Are they nailing him to the cross?” Portraying Pilate planted the seed of needing to know who Jesus is, a seed that germinated in my becoming a religion major in college. But what is Truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?
My Christology is somewhere between “Personal Jesus” and “Losing My Religion.” A Jesus who guarantees us personal salvation but allows us to spend most of our times telling people what they cannot do or be is odious; a Christianity that permits us to do whatever we want, to engage in pleasure while simultaneously causing and contributing to suffering is equally problematic. One detail that is non-negotiable to me is that Jesus pulls us into community. I simply cannot understand how one can follow Jesus outside of being a servant of God for others. This does not have to be a church. I love the church, but I came to faith as an adult and have been lucky enough to find communities in which an others-based, radical love approach to Christianity is practiced. Many others have not been so lucky, so they have formed their own communities. That’s our hope with the Beloved Community Project. But I reject out of hand the idea that confessing faith in Christ is the alpha and omega of salvation.
As I wrote yesterday, my aim here is to set forth a working Christology. There are two goals: the first is presenting a cohesive vision of Jesus, the second is that in so doing I will create a starting point for conversations with others that are not initiated by me. Over the next several years, I will write an entire systematic theology but I gots to get that doctorate first. So, if I am working with someone else and they want to know what I think of Jesus, we can start with this and then talk in person. Enough qualifications, let’s get into it.
“Be you angels? Nay, we are but men.” –Tenacious D
One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks I’ve had even post-conversion is the divinity of Christ. The doctrine of “fully human, fully divine” took several centuries to develop, and a not insignificant number of lives were cut short for daring to hold contrary views. And while I have always been fascinated with theology and the study of religion, I grew up outside the Church. I was not indoctrinated, I was not abused. So while I have been and continue to be disgusted with how supposed followers of Christ have used God to justify horrendous things, I believe in a Jesus who has helped me battle demons while growing in love. Still, one cannot claim to know Jesus and not have a biblically-based understanding of the man from Nazareth.
I am not intending to inundate the reader with lots of biblical references and theological jargon. I have other writings for that if people are interested. When I do use specialist language, I will define it but this obviously is not meant to be the Christology section of an ordination paper. This is honest reflections on a vastly complicated subject.
The first thing to establish is Jesus’ relationship to God. There are myriad texts that present him as a preacher, a teacher, a miracle worker, a revolutionary, as one predicted by the prophets, a Son of God, and even as God himself. I have found that those who take Scripture literally rarely emphasize the various aspects equally. To be fair, that is true for me as well. The difference is that I emphasize the things that will help me be a servant to others while far too much of Christian history has been filled with and those by who emphasize the things that make others afraid. Vulnerable. Subject to persecution. A person who is willing to wield violence unto death in order to extract a confession that Jesus is fully divine does not seem like the sort of person who really knows Jesus Christ. But what do I mean by that?
For most of human history, people lived in a comfortable gray area as it concerns human-divine hybridity. Across cultures and time, it has been reported that heavenly beings came to earth, often using rape as a tactic, to impregnate. An early documented accounting of Haley’s comet postulated that the streaking across the sky was the soul of Julius Caesar becoming fully divine. Comic books are filled with modern examples of ancient cosmogony. Full humanity and full divinity became a modern sticky wicket, though, especially for monotheism. How can corporeal flesh, with all its attenuating limitations and imperfections, contain the fullness of the divine, which is the ur-perfection of all things? This rabbit hole is interesting, but it is filled with sub chambers that burrow to the center of the earth. We’re aiming with a bird’s eye view.
My Christology began in and with Buddhism. Siddhartha taught that we are the cause of our own suffering, which we perpetuate as a result of constructing and defending ego. I read widely and deeply on the Four Noble Truths, particularly the Eightfold Path. I examined myself regularly to untangle the web of ego within myself, an ongoing process. I began to understand that this is what Paul writes about in Romans 6-8. When I am feeling anger or I’m engaged in envy, I remind myself that such feelings more often than not are rooted in egotism. Dying to that self and being clothed in Christ, to me, means that love, compassion, mercy, and grace are always abundant, but only if I commit to seeing them. If I am not able to love even as the temporary situation elicits other emotions, I have some dying to do. This does not mean allowing oneself to be trod upon as if a doormat; rather, it means that in this walk of life, one steps mindfully and aware of how the footfall impacts others. Jesus has helped me understand that sometimes we need to love people from a distance, as their toxicity cannot be addressed by anyone but themselves.
Buddhism also helped me to wrestle with the human-divine conundrum. From the beginning, Christianity has been home to metaphorical and allegorical hermeneutics. In other words, interpretations of Jesus Christ have always included symbolism. Jesus used parables to teach; does it change the truth of the stories if factually there was no prodigal son? Of course not, so how does it follow that the evangelists wrote only what is literally true? Jesus used stories, so did the evangelists, and so do we as followers of Christ. There’s a Buddhist teaching that I have consulted much over the past 15 years. The unenlightened person is like one who will ask the master about the location of the moon, only to stare at the pointing finger rather than the object in the sky.
I began with understanding Jesus as the master pointing to the sky, showing the way to the moon (God), but not as the moon itself. This is not unique or original to me, and in fact, stretches back to primitive Christianity.
This intellectual conception of God allowed me to engage more confidently in following Christ and working for Christ within both Christian and non-Christian circles. I came to God through Jesus, which satisfies a basic requirement for those who wish to seek ordination. But more importantly, it propelled me into relationships with others while focusing on service and genuine community. Jesus transgressed cultural and religious lines, proclaiming as the Beloved those especially who had been abused and shut out by prevailing powers. Following Jesus means loving your enemies, and not just saying that you do. It means not looking at others as inferior or less-than; again, this does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that people aren’t held responsible here and now for what they do. It means, though, that God doesn’t say, “take care of those who think like you, look like you, and only those whom you feel deserve it.” God says that we are our siblings’ keeper. And everyone is a child of God. Following Jesus means abhorring the argument that everyone who cannot meet all of their needs is lazy, asking for a handout, is holding others back, or is asking for special treatment. It means that you are more disgusted by a society that has failed to clothe, feed, affirm, and protect all people than you are by the needy people themselves.
Jesus being fully human means that we do not lack an example of how to live an authentic life. The fully human Jesus does not have anything extra or lack anything necessary; he is one of us.
The trite expression “What Would Jesus Do?” sadly was more marketing tool than ministry truth, but there is a kernel of usefulness present. Knowing what I know about Jesus, where would he see God in this situation and what would be his response as a servant of God to and for others?
Beginning with the fully human aspect of Jesus helped me explore the divine. I don’t say “fully divine” because I think the phrase is overused by those who don’t fully understand what it entails beyond being a litmus test for those who want to be card-carrying members of Team Jesus. Right now, I believe this: through his life, Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. His manner of life led him to an execution at the hands of religious and civil authorities who saw his message as inherently dangerous. Jesus submitted himself to judgment because he knew no other way to live a genuine life, and if this world wouldn’t let him he would simply leave. He did all things in love. I remain agnostic as to whether Jesus is ontologically God–that is, eternally and absolutely divine–or if Jesus experienced an awakening that, like others across time and space, propelled him to perfect union with God. In other words, I can make arguments that Jesus’ identity was an evolutionary process, just as it is for all other humans. I’m a modified Gnostic (or perhaps a Gentile Hasidic) in that I believe there is a spark of divinity in all of us; the purpose of our lives is to identify the spark, and allow the Spirit to stoke it into an all-consuming flame.
Through following Jesus, submitting to the Gospel, orientating myself toward the priorities Jesus identified, I have grown closer and closer to God. I’ve done a shit-ton of drugs and drank oceans of booze, but the all-encompassing feeling of being connected to the source of Love is beyond the high produced by anything I ever put into my body. The more I live the Gospel, the more I am able to let go of the false self. I know that there are some things worth dying for, and while I do not wish to perish I know that the spiritual death of being a slave to capitalism and American nationalism will be far worse than even crucifixion. We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth.
Is Jesus God? In my mind, there is no separation between Jesus and God. I refuse, though, to participate in theological-purity witch hunts. A fully-human Jesus who reveals God, but whose resurrection is symbolic is still a very powerful cat. A Jesus who provides us the perfect paradigm for how to live an authentic life? Why would we want to shut that out? How does that understanding prevent someone from following the Gospel? I’ve Hindu and Buddhist acquaintances who see Jesus as an istadevata (a figure to whom one dedicates one’s religious life in exchange for divine benefits) or as a great teacher. The respect they accord to him and the ways in which they live their lives is far preferable to the hateful destruction I’ve seen from Christological purists.
For me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. But I believe in a God much bigger than one interpretation or even one religion.
In the next installment, we will consider how Jesus does or does not alter human anthropology. Please share this with friends!
I love Jesus.
I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.
But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.
But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.
I attribute all of that to Jesus.
Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.
Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.
But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.
I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary.
This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.
I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.
Marcion was a terrible antisemite; this second-century theologian believed that the Christian Scriptures should contain only certain Pauline writings and the Gospel of Luke. Absolutely nothing would be utilized from the Hebrew Bible, which Marcion believed was inspired by the evil destroyer God YHWH; Jesus was sent as a God of love to overthrow this demiurge so any references to the Tanakh would have to be removed from Paul and Luke’s works. With that said, Marcion wrote prolifically and we know that the Pauline epistle often referred to as “Ephesians” was thought by Marcion to have been written for the Laodiceans. The earliest manuscripts do not contain the phrase en Epheso (in Ephesus). It’s important to be honest from the start; studying Scripture means admitting what we don’t know.
It also means making decisions, so despite the arguments set forth by various scholars to the contrary, I affirm the consensus view. The epistle was written by Paul while he was imprisoned; it bears striking resemblances to the Colossians epistle, in terms of both shared language and thematic emphases; Paul stresses the relationship between Christ’s blood and the redemption of humanity, as well as develops doctrines of faith and grace, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. The structure of the letter is significant as well, mainly because it appears to reveal liturgical elements which inform our understanding of early Christian worship. To facilitate clear communication, I will refer to the epistle as Ephesians with the reader understanding that, as explained above, decisions have been made based upon informed assumptions.
I spent the weekend playing Julius Caesar. This morning I had to turn to God, which presents an interesting dichotomy. Caesar is about the power of humans who believe they have been made divine, the New Testament is about the power of God being made human. I’m a method actor, in that from call until curtain, I like to be called my character name and I basically stay in character. I’m not strident or stringent about it, but when I’m on stage I am not myself. I am my interpretation of that character. When I am in the pulpit, I try to get as far away from acting as I can; I am most myself in worship. Quite a jump after just a few hours of sleep.
This morning was a truly joyous service, primarily because it was about as casual a service as we’ve had; our incredible music director is on a well-deserved vacation, and the replacement is a beloved and insanely talented local pianist. Sadly, our office manager has been ill so it was left to me to format the bulletin, and even using a Word template I messed it up. The service began with me laughing at myself and making corrections, and instead of the usual organ-based service, we sang in full voice to the piano. We took extra time at the passing of the peace, which already is regularly and famously long. We saw faces we have not seen before, faces we have not seen in a long time, and the faces we look forward to seeing every week. Our prayers of the people were intimate and filled with the Spirit. And I preached on the floor, holding the Bible, and referencing basic notes included in the bulletin. I give you all of this detail because I had only basic tentpoles for the sermon. I called upon the Paraclete, the Advocate, to be our guide. What follows are words inspired by the reflections I offered in service.
Paul never knew the historical Jesus. He was a Pharisee who saw Christ as the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and as the agent through whom the salvation of all could be achieved. Whereas traditional Judaism traced identity via bloodlines, Paul believed that Jesus’ blood brought everyone to God via faith. It is often said that Paul was a blood atonement theologian; that is correct only if we remove any vestiges of Augustine, Anselm, and Luther. Augustine is responsible for our notion of original sin, specifically that it is passed through the sex act. Anselm used the ideals of feudalism to picture God as one owed a great debt by humanity, a debt that humans are unable to pay because of its vastness. According to Anselm, only God can pay it, but if humans have no role it will not be efficacious. Therefore, God becomes human in Jesus Christ and through his blood pays the debt owed by humans. Through faith in his resurrection, we humans can benefit from God’s grace in both this world and the next. Luther added notions that were perfected by the Puritans, evident in the near obsession that many Evangelicals have with sex, abortion, and the gayz.
In Ephesians, Paul presents himself as an apostle because of God’s will; this whole will thing is important to him. Remember, Paul had no claim to authority within the established Church. Unlike Peter, Paul did not know Jesus. Unlike James, Paul was not related to Jesus. Peter and James started as disciples–mathetai–essentially students who learned at the feet of the master. Apostle literally translates as “one sent out.” Apostles sow the seeds and then move on to the next town, shaking dust (the ancient world equivalent to flipping the bird) off their feet at those who do not offer hospitality. Paul talks about the will of God, perhaps because as a Pharisee he would believe that the age of the prophets ended in 400 BCE. Whatever the reason, Paul believes that God is moving people through Jesus Christ.
I am usually wary of and wearied by Paul, but in the selected passage for this week he sets forth some really important ideas. First, he offers a systematic theology for how the Abrahamic faith is open to non-Jews. Regrettably, this has terrible ramifications for the Jewish people, something we should not, but sadly must pass over now with lament. For me as a follower of Jesus, it is a transformational moment in history. Second, Paul cuts through legalism with a radical emphasis on faith; this is not to say that rules aren’t important, but the best of religion seems to emerge when we throw out what keeps people from meaningful relationships with God. Third, a meaningful relationship with God can only come about when we are in relationship with one another. Christ is the head of the Church, Paul says, and believers are the body. As Maria Portokolos says, “The man may be the head, but the woman, she is the neck.” Jesus as the head helps us to see clearly, to hear fully, to think compassionately. As the body, we must direct these thoughts and visions in the direction where Christ’s love is most needed.
Julius Caesar, for all his faults, believed in the community called Rome. And it cost him his life. Same thing with Jesus, although it should be perfectly clear who I bat for irl. But one cannot understand the kingdom of God unless one understands that it is a direct answer to the kingdom of Caesar. The tragedy is that so much of the American Church looks like it has Caesar sitting on the throne of Jesus. We who follow the gospel are the only ones who can change that, and the best place to start is with ourselves. Amen.
*This is the first entry in a five-week series.
Seven weeks ago, I wrote about starting a production of Julius Caesar. It is a couple hours away from the dress rehearsal, which we will have to do in the elementary school gym seeing that our fantastic in-the-round stage is currently being assaulted by Jupiter and Caesar doesn’t mess with umbrellas. It’s time for the second of three entries.
This production has been difficult for a lot of reasons that are endemic to the creative process so I shall pass over them by simply saying that I am tired. The energy it takes to play this character was underestimated greatly by yours truly; as I’ve written about before, I have played a type in my last three productions: Pontious Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judge Danforth in The Crucible, and now Julius Caesar. They all have power; they all are conflicted, but for very different reasons; and while none of the roles are leads, the stories fall apart without them. No matter how good the principles are, if the performances in these parts are poor, the whole production is pulled down. I make no comment on whether I play the role well, I simply comment that this is my experience.
Caesar has been the most difficult, in no small part because I was a Classics minor at Kalamazoo College, and when I finished up at Antioch, I did so through the fantastic World Classics Curriculum, which required more work than many graduate programs. I’ve studied Latin (and Greek, of course), and I’m a junkie for anything about the ancient world. But this production does not seek to be historically accurate–and Shakespeare’s play takes many historical liberties as well–but the character represents Empire as a Platonic Form. He has strengths and weaknesses, loves and hatreds, confidences and insecurities; he is both incredibly vulnerable (I have a seizure both on- and off-stage) and dangerously powerful (it takes a vast, Roman-wing conspiracy to bring me down). He also has relatively little stage time, so it is a great deal to communicate in a short period of time, and I have the added fact of my physical appearance. A Caesar with locs and a long beard? It will be a bridge too far if the performance is lacking.
So I have made some decisions, some I know the director does not necessarily like and some driven by my desire to not play Pilate or Danforth. I have no problem with character types, but I want them to be distinct and distinctive. Some of that is getting out of the way of superior writing; I have been blessed to work with incredible people on incredible shows. I know what I can do and what I cannot do, so my sincere hope is that I have not overestimated my talent or ability to enter into the character. I can say that I will leave it all on the stage; I don’t know if or when I will make back into a show, or if I will be able to work again with the caliber of talent we have in this show (seriously, it is mad sick). I’m gonna give it everything.
Dress rehearsal is when I no longer rehearse the character, I inhabit him. It’s when I commit totally to the world we are creating. Otherwise, why ask people to come watch? If we don’t believe in what we are doing, why should the audience?
Performances are July 14-15, 21-22 at Mills Lawn School. Admission is free. Bring your own chairs or blankets.
Warning: this contains spoilers for season five of OITNB
This is not the first time I have written about the Orange is the New Black character Suzanne Warren, nor the first time I have opined about mental illness in media. In the main, I am not a fan of how mental illness is portrayed in films. I really did not like Silver Linings Playbook. I despised The Virgin Suicides, including the novel, and as Black Cindy says about Girl, Interrupted, “just think of the whitest movie ever made.”
In fairness, most of the objections I have to the way mental illness is portrayed on television and film are borne of industry and production restrictions. A psychotic killer on Law and Order may get three or four episodes of character arc, but they are almost always criminally insane. Most of the time they have gone off their meds, and some doctor who has only read their file makes definitive statements about how the person can be apprehended. These are police dramas, procedural shows that are not looking to explore the nuances of mental illness. In films, most often the constraints are owed to screen time for characters and the need to show extremes of behavior in successive scenes. More and more, I simply do not watch shows or films in which mental illness plays a major role, frankly because I am tired of seeing my community portrayed as criminals when we stand a much higher chance of being victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.
But Uzo Aduba has changed that for me. Season one of OITNB seems almost like a distant memory now; a highly sexualized “Crazy Eyes” who pees on the floor as a warning is replaced in season two by a complicated Suzanne Warren, an African-American who was adopted by white parents and at 10 years old was the emotional equivalent of her 6-year-old sister. Suzanne, who is at Litchfield Correctional because she innocently detained a young boy who tragically died when he fell out a window, is sexually inexperienced but deep-feeling; she is highly intelligent, both in terms of cognition and emotions. She free-associates with her words and actions and tries to explain to others things they can’t understand, but I do. As a person with mental illness, I see not Uzo Aduba trying to affect mental illness, I see Suzanne Warren, a character who is channeled by the actress, exhibiting behaviors I know very well.
One of the issues explored in the current season is medication. “Loony” Lorna Morello has taken over the pharmaceutical bay during the riot, which stretches through the entire season. When inmates come seeking their meds, Lorna tells them that they don’t need them, that pills are used to control them, or as she says, “sand down your edges.” Suzanne says several times that she does need her meds, but finally agrees that she’ll go off of them. As the hours pass, Suzanne becomes increasingly agitated by the extreme circumstances around her and the loss of routine. Again and again, Suzanne tries to communicate with others until she enters crisis. Black Cindy secures medications, but they are the wrong ones. As it just so happens, she grabs lithium, which is a medication I take. On first viewing I did not think the writers handled the introduction of medication carefully enough; Suzanne goes nearly comatose after the drug is administered, which is not what would happen if someone who wasn’t on lithium took a single dose. However, on a second viewing, I see that Suzane simply crashes when she is made to feel safe. I have gone catatonic for hours at a time, unable to respond to even my wife’s voice, after a mania or mixed episode.
Chances are you have seen this meme or some form of it. It is utter bullshit, hopefully for obvious reasons. If not, ask yourself: would you say that to a diabetic requiring insulin or a cancer patient taking chemotherapy? Of course not.
OITNB presents this meme for a sustained critique, in many ways, by playing the storyline out for several episodes. Suzanne, like many of us, requires medication. To be sure, medications, especially in prisons or mental hospitals, can be over-prescribed or administered at artificially high dosages. But Suzanne is only able to begin the process of regaining herself when she has both medication and a safe environment. I know from experience that being surrounded by loving, supportive, informed, and compassionate people helps me to dedicate my energy to being well. When either is taken away, I self-destruct.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell Uzo Aduba how much I appreciate her, how much I relate to and love Suzanne Warren. I am aware of how lucky I am, much of it through nothing other than a genetic lottery, to be where I am. I write about my mental illness because I want, in some small way, to make a difference for the community I am in through no choice of my own. But Ms. Aduba is doing more through her art than perhaps anyone else in the world because the show reaches such a diverse audience. I don’t know of a single person who watches OITNB who doesn’t love Suzanne Warren, and for many people, it is the first time they have ever seen the humanity of someone called crazy.