When actor Dennis Farina (Law & Order) died several weeks ago, I came across an interesting tidbit about his life: before spending the last two decades playing cops and mobsters for film and television, Farina was a bonafide Chicago police officer for 18 years. For the better part of 40+ years, Dennis Farina played the same part.
To some extent, actors and actresses are no strangers to being typecast. The system—studios, directors, producers, and audiences—tends to associate a person with a particular type of character or role, and so Channing Tatum plays Channing Tatum roles while Kevin James plays Kevin James roles. Never—and I mean never—do we hear that an exciting role has come down to two finalists, Tatum and James. They simply aren’t up for the same parts.
Some actors find themselves typecast as action heroes. Others are buffoons. Some are wise-cracking sidekicks. Others are villains. It’s villains—antagonists in literary terms—that I’ve been thinking about lately. An antagonist in a story is simply the hero’s opposition—someone or something that’s in the way as the protagonist pursues her objective. It’s Apollo Creed in Rocky or racism in Remember the Titans.
In the story of our culture, the Church is often typecast as an antagonist. We’re the opposition; we’re in the way. For the casual non-believer, it’s not unreasonable to view the church as actively working against (perceived) advances in science, healthcare, education, politics, art, foreign policy, sexuality, and gender equality. Antagonists are often known for what they’re against, which dovetails nicely with a church that seems to only speak up when it’s angry: Stop that! Don’t do that! Don’t think that! Don’t say that! Don’t drink that! Don’t vote for that!
To a lot of people, the bride and body of Christ is a mustachioed figure with a black cape and a maniacal laugh. It’s as though we’ve hatched a diabolical scheme to blow up Progress Bridge in order to prevent the Culture Train from reaching Godless Liberal Town. We’re the opposition; we’re in the way. But I wonder if we could change that.
I’m not proposing we change our positions, but rather our posture. There are lots of different roles in a story.
One role Joseph Campbell identified in what he called “The Hero’s Journey” was the mentor, the archetype who “provides motivation, insights and training to help the Hero.” Mentors in stories—from Yoda to Gandalf to Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred—are the characters who get protagonists on the right path. Instead of being in the way, they show people the way. The contrast is sharp.
What if instead we saw and positioned ourselves as mentors—that helpful, guiding, sometimes challenging voice that helps the protagonist get where she’s going? Imagine a church that was determined to help.
- Need community? We’ll help.
- Need counseling? We’ll help.
- Need job training? We’ll help.
- Need ESL classes? We’ll help.
- Need a bag of groceries? We’ll help.
- Need a safe place? We’ll help.
- Need parenting insights? We’ll help.
- Need medical care? We’ll help.
- Have questions and doubts about faith? We’ll help.
- Have an addiction? We’ll help.
- Have a desire for a fresh start? We’ll help.
- Have a vision to help others? We’ll help.
“The mentor’s role,” writes marketing and storytelling author Jonah Sachs, “is to make change irresistible but not mandatory.” That sounds to me like a great story for the church’s relationship with culture in the 21st century. This is the story in which we compel people toward our particular version of the good life, rather than coerce them into superficial, deistic moralism. The mentor never threatens, ensnares, or bullies. Instead, the mentor points, challenges, trains, and releases. To borrow from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, mentors teach protagonists to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright posits that evangelism “will flourish best if the church is giving itself to works of justice (putting things to rights in the community) and works of beauty (highlighting the glory of creation and the glory yet to be revealed) ...”
In my mind, a church that sets itself to help, as opposed to attempting to hold back the tide of moral decay, is positioned to yield both beauty and justice with alarming regularity. If we really mean everything we’ve said about human flourishing and the common good these last few years, I think it’s time we acknowledge that being antagonists isn’t going to get us there. Mentors, on the other hand, live to point the way.
The reality is many churches are already writing just and beautiful stories in their corners of the world, and it’s up to all of us to tell those stories when and where we can. To recast ourselves as mentors and retire the notion of a rogue waxing his mustache, I suspect we’ll need to tell our stories with as much frequency, quality, and volume as we can muster.
When Charlie Rose once asked Steve Martin for advice on behalf of aspiring entertainers, Martin’s offering came down to a simple provocation: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If we’re intent on breaking free of our typecasting, I think we’d do well to take up his challenge.
Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.