I came across this article in the LA Times about a Joplin tornado victim, M. Dean Wells, and was touched by the struggle of Wells' pastor to come to terms with a tragedy like this. What do you say at a funeral of a man who died while selflessly letting people in a Home Depot as a massive tornado hit, only to be crushed by the concrete walls of the giant warehouse store?
Wells' pastor admitted that he wrestled with portraying the tornado as an act of God. Thankfully, he instead read from John 14:2: "In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." The pastor remarked: "I would think that in this week in which so many homes have been smashed to smithereens, there ought to be some good news in that — that God is preparing a place for us."
Last week, I was presented another image of this idea that we get a place in heaven, this time in the movie The Invention of Lying. Ricky Gervais, atheist and comedian, wrote and starred in the film. I wasn't too impressed, because it had the potential to be funnier, and I wish Gervais would have focused more on advertising and movies as a big farcical lie.
Warning: spoilers below.
However, Gervais' character, Mark, offers a blistering critique of Christianity, from which I think Christians can learn a lesson. Mark lives in a world where no one is capable of lying or even fathoming the concept of a lie. But, Mark has discovered lying, which means that everyone else considers what he says to be truth. Therefore, Mark can manipulate his world. When Mark's mother passes away, he tells her that, instead of nothingness, she will go to the best place she can ever imagine.
Mark then ends up as an accidental modern-day Moses, basically concocting an ontology and theology that resembles Christianity. But this belief system is a gross mischaracterization of what the Christian faith should be, because its focus is solely to end up in a mansion that "The Man in the Sky" has promised everyone individually.
Mark and his friends end up hanging out by a pool, when Mark asks them if they're happier since they've learned about The Man in the Sky. A friend, played by Jonah Hill, replies:
Well, because I was thinking that if I get eternal happiness when I die, that will be really great. Because it's eternal, you know, so you can't really beat that. So I'm just really happy that that's going to happen, so until then I think I'm just going to stick with the alcohol and my little apartment and just kind of hang out by myself and drink and watch TV.
Mark doesn't think this sounds like a happy life, but the friend responds, "Well no, it won't be that long because the more I drink, the faster I'll die, and I'm just waiting for that mansion."
Leave it to an atheist to highlight how a solely heaven-ward faith can end up being so useless and unable to speak to the pain we have here and now, on this earth. Also, the promise of John 14:2, even taken outside the exaggerated context of The Invention of Lying, can end up meaningless in a society that already has anything it could ever want, materially.
It's a shame that it takes something like a massive tornado to rip us up from our foundations to remind us relatively wealthy and comfortable Americans that we have a place being prepared for us. I wonder what meaning that John 14:2 takes on for our fellow Christians, here and in other parts of the world, who struggle daily to find shelter and food. Maybe these material blessings are a curse at times.
That's why I strive for a faith like Wells', who, understanding that this present life matters, took the time to visit nursing homes and was so selfless that it led to his death. That's why I hope to avoid a faith like Mark's friend, who has no qualms with simply waiting for his mansion, beer and remote control in hand...