Facing the Paradox

Just before I watched Facing the Giants, I happened to skim through a book of Zen koans* I picked up at Goodwill. The movie has the same paradox that a lot of Zen koans do (or maybe that Buddhism in general has?).

A formula for the most boring koans goes like this: Monk asks master how to achieve Buddha thought, or enlightenment. Master's response is to fart or bark or throw teapot to the floor, or talk about the weather.

In some cases, we're told the monk became enlightened. Sometimes it's presented as a true story of a real monk's process of enlightenment. Other times, the monk might not get it but we're supposed to, we the readers.

The moral of some of the koans is that if you stop wanting enlightenment so desperately, then you'll suddenly get what you wanted. Perhaps I assume too much when I assume that's the moral. The master says or does something irrelevant, distracting, to demonstrate that students (and readers) must distract themselves from their goal in order to achieve the goal. Like Douglas Adams's knack to human flight: all you have to do is throw yourself at the ground and miss, which only happens when you distract yourself.

In order to achieve the state of mind that these monks seek, they need to stop wanting it, stop wanting anything, and then they'll have it. If "Buddha thought" or enlightenment is a state of no longer wanting, then is anyone pleased or fulfilled when they attain it? Meanwhile, the masters and monks apparently still have things they want. Why do they remain monks or continue following rules unless these are things they want? If you continue to sow fields and prepare meals and treat wounds, aren't you demonstrating your desire for self-preservation?

It's not exactly the same, but you see this in some modern Christian parables too, like Facing the Giants. A decent movie, as formulaic as any secular football movie you're likely to see. Act One sets up a depressing situation for the main character, the football coach for a small Christian high school in the South (Georgia?). His car breaks down repeatedly, appliances that he can't afford to fix go on the fritz. He can't have children because of a medical problem. The last straw comes when his career is threatened because he hasn't won a state title in six years.

He prays on it, studies the Bible, listens to advice, and concludes that he needs to make Jesus first in his life, in everything. He convinces his team that they must praise God whether they win or lose. When the coach does this, everything turns around for him. When he helps the team do it, they beat the state champion Giants.

It's not that they're supposed to stop wanting things in Christian parables, but their desire to be proper Christians is supposed to be a higher priority than everything else. Like monks in koans, they're often shown getting what they want as soon as they distract themselves from wanting it.

Maybe the message is a little muddled in this parable. Are we supposed to come away thinking that all things other than Jesus are comparatively unimportant, or that making Jesus first in your life will bring you the things you want (a better career, prestige, spontaneously fixed medical problem, the state championship, even a new car)? As if those things should still be important to you, just slightly less important than getting yourself right with Jesus.

There's probably some technical term for Christians who believe that good things happen here on Earth to people who believe in Jesus (to people who believe the "right" way). I realize that's not all Christians. But for the rest of us, including Christians who believe that bad things sometimes happen to good people on Earth, that rewards might come later but not necessarily on Earth, we have to figure out how to survive depression and low moments. The alternative is suicide or apathy or continued sadness.

We have to be able to push past bad times, even when we might know that more bad times are still to come. A parable showing someone achieve that state of mind would be a person keeping a positive attitude in the midst of bad times.

A better example, if they're trying to communicate this moral, would be the story/joke/parable/koan about a monk chased off a cliff by a tiger. He manages not to fall to his death by grasping on a strawberry vine halfway down the cliff. Did I mention the other tigers circling at the base of the cliff below him? As the vine begins to come loose by the roots, he notices a beautiful strawberry, plucks it and enjoys it. The end.

In as far as we're left thinking/knowing that this protagonist is going to die soon, it's not a conventionally "happy ending." But in the versions I've heard, it ends on a happy moment, the monk able to enjoy the strawberry and ignore anxiety about his impending doom.

What we see too often in Christian inspirational stories and in this movie is that people keep or attain a positive attitude, and then good things happen to them. It's a story of people with good lives overall, surviving through temporary low moments.

Will they really be able to keep positive the next time they go through bad moments? Or do we pretend they’re never going to suffer bad events again?

I suppose in their larger scheme of things, this is supposed to represent Christians living through low moments on Earth, receiving the payoff later in Heaven. But it requires going out of your way to interpret that message from it. Taken literally, it just looks like people having better experiences while they're still on Earth because they acted like proper Christians. Maybe I don't know any "proper" Christians, but it doesn't seem to be borne out in what we see around us here on Earth.

* Is there something especially zen about making a tiny paperback book with fewer pages than your average magazine?


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