Monday, April 8, 2013


What would life be like without fear?

My initial thought: fantastic. There are so many situations and people and spiders to draw out fear in us. Fear can be deeply crippling, holistic in its ability for incapacitation. Our hearts race, our palms sweat, our stomachs turn, our heads feel dizzy, and our souls fidget inside us. A world without fear seems like it would be a relief from all the anxiety and stress of being afraid.

What could bring about such a reality? Perhaps an experience so fearful and shocking, it could cause a sort of numbness to any fear afterwards. A moment standing in the doorway of death, staring fear in the face, then turning back into the ordinary world. It would transformative, to say the least. This is the sort of situation that Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) experiences in Peter Weir's film, Fearless. The survivor of a horrific plane crash, Max now walks through life as in a sort of trance, taking in the world around him with a renewed sense of wonder. The feel of spit in the dust; the sense of the desert wind flowing over one's face; the sweet taste and texture of a strawberry. All are worth exploring anew.

Yet this newfound wonder also brings about a strange detachment, an aloofness from those around him who have not gone through the same experience. He spends more time with a boy who survived the crash than his own son; he is drawn to another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), a distraught and heartbroken mother who lost her infant son when she could not keep him held in her lap through the chaos. He spends more and more time with Carla, trying to heal her, to save her, to show her the life without pain and fear he has found.

Bridges creates such an interesting protagonist in Max, one that feels both heroic and destructive all at once. He loves and cares for Carla and the other survivors, yet is coldly aloof with his own family. It's difficult to discern whether he's spiritually-enlightened or experiencing unique PTSD symptoms. Many of his tactics and actions could be interpreted as misguided at best and dangerous at worst. An example: there is a car crash scene, where Max wants to demonstrate in the most vivid way possible that Carla could not have saved her little boy, so he drives both of them headlong into a concrete wall. Watching this unfold was like those TV medical dramas where the doctor decides to use a controversial or untried medical procedure in order to save the dying patient. The scene doesn't seem to condone Max's actions; it simply shows that this is how Max feels he needs to help Carla, and, like it or not, it actually sorta works.

Is Max actually fearless? There are moments where he does seem afraid: he is afraid of losing his fearlessness. He has to do something extreme--walk across traffic, stand on the edge of a building, crash a car--in order to stash that fear away and reignite his boldness. It raises the question again: is complete fearlessness a good thing? It seems like something we'd certainly desire; no one likes to be afraid or anxious. Yet if the lifestyle of Max embodies a life without fear, I'm not sure I want it. A healthy fear of traffic or the edge of tall buildings or the loss of a loved one might be a healthy thing, as long as that fear doesn't overwhelm our motivation for love and compassion and grace.

As a pastor, I've encountered a form of Max in the church: it's the savior complex. Seemingly spiritually-enlightened and self-sacrificing, but often operating out of fear and insecurity, a person with such a motivation takes on the cases of the needy and emotionally-broken in order to "save" them, doing anything they can to bring about emotional healing and wholeness. The Max-and-Carla relationship, including its undertones of infidelity and codependency, are sadly all too common in the context of ministry. I'm not sure Weir was intending this interpretation, but that's where my pastoral paradigm went. This savior complex is the sort of relationship we need to be...well...afraid of.

Fear not. It is the most common command found in the Scriptures, the one that God continues to reiterate to His frightened and anxious children. You don't need to be afraid any more; you are loved, and that love is stronger than fearWhen Adam and Eve first sinned, their initial reaction was one of fear--they hid themselves from God, running away from their Creator. When Christ is raised from the dead in the gospel of Mark, the women at the tomb run away "trembling and bewildered." Fear catches us in the best and worst moments, both in the banishment from the first garden and the resurrection in a new garden. Fear can suck the hope out of anyone. That's why the Gospel is so critical in every single situation we may encounter. N.T. Wright puts it this way:
...that the message of the gospel, the message that the true God is the God who raises the dead, can and does go that deep; and that wherever you may be, and whenever you may hit that rock-bottom sense of despair, the gospel can you reach you there too. Indeed, that is where it specializes in reaching people. It is when we are weak that we can be strong.
When we are taken to the end of ourselves, to the point where all else has failed and death seems imminent, it is in these moments that faith offers new life and hope, that we can remember we are deeply loved by a good Father, that perfect love casts out fear, and that the God who raises the dead can handle all fears and worries. A life truly without fear is a life in the kingdom of God.

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