A classic worst-case scenario for your Tuesday. You are on a Carnival cruise liner in the south Pacific when an engine room explosion somehow rips a hole in the side of the ship. The great vessel goes down in a mass of steel and cocktail shrimp. Your only thought is to find something to hold onto in the midst of the confusion—did I mention this takes place in an epic storm that separates you from everyone else? Eight hours later, you find yourself stranded on a deserted island. No food. No DirecTV.
My question is this, ‘How long would it be before you created an imaginary friend?’
At this moment, some of you are thinking of Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball buddy in the epic survival flick, Cast Away. Cast Away had a way of stimulating two completely opposite thoughts at the exact same time: 1) I never want to experience that. Ever. And, 2) I kind of want to experience that. I suppose it’s easy to yearn for great adventure when you’re sitting on your couch eating the last of the Blue Bell homemade vanilla. Be honest for a moment … sometimes you feel like Chandler and Joey is this memorable scene:
But, in the above worst-case scenario, you’re not with your best bud. You’re alone. At what point do you so desperately ache for another soul to verify your own humanity—to be in suffering with you—that you begin to anthropomorphize just about everything? If there were two of you, there would, at the very least, be the taken-for-granted conversations like, ‘I’m going to get more wood for the fire.’ ‘Okay.’ These seemingly trivial interactions would mean the difference between hanging on and outright despair. You can always hang on for another person, even if you can’t hang on for yourself.
On a meta scale, it’s the difference between deism (God Out There) and Immanuel (God With Us).
So the stranded individual must develop a survival instinct, if he/she is able to survive at all. And, in the deserted isle scenario, one is forced to fabricate a sense of community by inventing a personality extra nos (i.e., outside of ourselves). As much as I’d like to think I would be satisfied just talking to God as a conversation partner, ala Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the physicality of the Other—and the lack of thereof, in God’s case—would impel me to carve faces into coconuts. To name trees. To commune with the crustaceans.
As some of you know, I serve Concordia University by instructing incoming freshman about the wonders of Christian theology. For the final exam, I sometimes close with this essay question: ‘Is it possible to be a solitary Christian?’ I’m always curious what answers that specific question will provoke. On one hand, I’m hoping that the student absorbed my long and passionate plea for the necessity of embodied Christian community just two lectures ago—thus answering in the negative. On the other hand, grading exams is quite literally the worst part of my job … so I want to be amused. I’ll get responses like:
- ‘No, because Jesus is always with you.’ (true, but perhaps missing the point)
- ‘Yes, because the zombie apocalypse is imminent and I plan on being the only survivor.’ (false, they’ll be robots, not zombies)
- ‘Yes, a Christian is a Christian in private devotions and worship, so why can’t this be applied to the whole of life?’ (somewhat true, I guess)
- ‘No, because God is everywhere. There is no place where you could possibly be isolated from His care. Thus, the question is non-sensical.’ (philosophy major)
The life of faith is acted out in the midst of our neighbors. We don’t self-baptize or self-commune. We require the other person to impart the sacraments to us. Bonhoeffer had a way of saying this: ‘[Christians] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation’ . The apostle Paul added his own spin by linking this witness, this bringing, to our physical selves, ‘We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body’ .
Honestly, it would take me about three days. At the end of three days I would be creating my own Wilson, if only to practice the life of the Christian. I would yearn for rescue like the prisoner yearns for release, if only for the picture of God’s grace in the face of others. Perhaps the prison is a fitting comparison … after all, solitary confinement has to be one of the most vicious of all punishments as it removes a certain measure of humanity from the incarcerated.
The next time you want to ‘escape’ from a get-together, remember that your presence and your words might be bearing the message of salvation to someone in a self-imposed prison. You might just be the passing ship to that poor, ragged heart that waits on the sand, too tired to wave his hand and beckon you over. That type of community is neither imaginary nor utopian … it is the picture of the father embracing the prodigal.
Let us be so desperate for Christian community and the Christ found there that we would be willing to talk to coconuts in its absence. Let us also bear Christ gladly to those equally desperate, embracing them in their return from their far away land.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 23.
 2 Cor 4:10 (NIV).