Chapter 7: Parish Genius
Recall the course I helped to organize that became an unfortunate experience for Trinity United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Remember how, despite its promising syllabus and experienced leadership, the course collapsed almost as soon as it began. Readers of this book can no doubt propose cogent reasons for the breakdown, not least the remnants of racism and classism even in Trinity, a church splendidly accomplished in its quest for human solidarity. We who remained in the course acknowledged that theory and others, but still it seemed that there were particular local factors in Trinity’s resistance. The church members who absented themselves from the church were, after all, sturdy veterans of other projects in racial bonding. The ground rules of the course had seemed, at least in prospect, fair enough to them. They were not bigots or fainthearted liberals. They just did not like the course. It contradicted Trinity’s character.
It was when those of us who were left in the course sought to talk with the absentees about what had gone wrong that the story of Hero Trinity began to emerge. The dissenters felt that we did not understand Trinity’s authentic nature. The best way they had to present the identity of the parish was to relate incidents that demonstrated the parish’s character. The hero narrative provided the vehicle. It recounted, as laid out earlier in some detail, a harsh call to adventure, the appearance of a protective guide, a painful crossing of a threshold into adventure, then trials and the arrival of allies, followed by a union of races and a boon brought to the larger world. In age after age, epic singers have sung a structurally similar tale to identify a group’s moral fiber: its hopes and trials, its accomplishments and crises. In telling both us and themselves about Hero Trinity, members were representing their character in one of the most forceful portrayals devised by humankind.
Stanley Hauerwas devotes the first part of A Community of Character to demonstrating the intimate connection between character and story.1 “Every community and polity,” he writes, “involves and requires a narrative,”2 actually a constellation of stories, that acts to indicate and to inculcate a society’s collective character. Using Richard Adams’s story of an intrepid group of rabbits in Watership Down, Hauerwas demonstrates how narrative acts doubly to describe and provide the identity of a group. In persisting against great odds, the rabbits exemplify their own myth, and, in exemplifying their own myth, they persist against great odds. Hauerwas’s point is to show that, because Christian churches are also “story shaped communities,” the account of Christ’s kingdom both describes and transforms the character of ordinary Christians in our congregations.
Hauerwas thus introduces several different aspects of the link between social character and story. Functioning descriptively, story expresses a narrative coherence among the disparate states and events that constitute the identity of the community. In this way, story primarily recounts social character. But narrative in its telling also changes group identity, modifying self-understanding and altering corporate behavior; so story also informs character. Further, narrative structures shape the basic ways a society values and interprets its life; story as paradigm here accounts for social character. To these descriptive and operative functions of community narrative, Hauerwas adds another action that is normative: in the Christian community is embedded the Christian story that judges and redeems the other actions of narrative. By so doing, story transforms group character.
In telling us the story of Trinity Church, the persons who had left the course were primarily recounting their social character, knitting into narrative form its significant elements. Our noting the association of the Trinity story with the Hero journey was an attempt to account for Trinity’s character, to find its structural associations. Both we and the truants also witnessed to evidence of the transforming Christian story at work as well in Trinity’s character. Thus in characterizing Trinity, the absentees recounted its story as its history, the rest of us accounted for its story as its metaphor, and both we and they witnessed the story transformed as gospel. Had the course progressed in the manner we had hoped, we would probably have also employed the in forming aspect of narrative, sketching the story as a scenario for action.
Our course ran aground because it repudiated one of these links between narrative and character: the metaphorical link, the representation of the Trinity story by the Hero story. Our study, we ruefully discovered, had approached the Hero cycle from the wrong direction. As earlier confessed, the course had usurped from Trinity itself the role of bearer of a blessing to the larger community: we had tried to impose such a boon on Trinity and to ignore what Trinity had labored through great peril to deliver. We had also failed to celebrate the other phases of Trinity’s heroic journey: its trials, its alliances, its “sacred union” of the races. We had, in other words, systematically ignored the metaphorical aspect of Trinity’s storied character. In retrospect, it appears that though we may have been sensitive to parts of Trinity’s identity, we had, to our peril, ignored Hero, its spirit.
The Spirit of The Congregation
When pastors refer to the “unique personality” of a congregation, they engage in an ancient practice of representing a community’s character by a singular spirit. The spirits associated with a community’s masks (personae) were early “persons” that symbolized the particular ethos of a society. Until recent decades, for example, Liberian people in Poro Society masks both represented and regulated corporate life in the West African interior.3 In donning a mask and a concealing costume, a Poro member joined the mask’s spirit to perform stylized tasks and movements that not only governed much of community behavior but also impersonated the hopes and values that shaped the society’s character. Spirits that identify and guide the nature of a community also appear in the New Testament. Angels of individual churches are vividly addressed in the second and third chapters of Revelation. The angels both personify the churches — Laodicea’s, for instance, is accused of lukewarmness (3:14-17) — and speak to them.
But the assiduous advocates of community spirit were the Romans. Armed with the earlier Greek understanding of daemon (the tutelary spirit of an individual), the Romans so institutionalized the concept that virtually any social group could claim an associated sacred being. This being was called the group’s genius. Families were identified and protected by the genius familiae, and Rome itself was personified by the genius Populi Romani. “The Genius,” reports Georges Dumezil, “is no doubt an expression of the originality, of the distinctive personality, and, occasionally of the esprit de corps of these various collective bodies.”4 Some evidence suggests that the naming of a particular saint as patron to an early Christian congregation built upon the concept of genius domus, the spirit of the household. If so, “St. Mark’s Church” would have signified not merely its members’ high regard for the evangelist but also their confidence that the spirit of Saint Mark actually personified and oversaw the congregation.
In neither centuries past nor today, however, was a parish genius such as Hero Trinity considered a free-standing independent deity. Instead, genius is an immanent spirit, standing for the church, its mythic story a metaphor that echoes the congregation’s story, giving it a resonant identity and augmenting the church’s power of self-reference. To be able to say “We are St. Mark’s” is to adopt a powerful narrative that in turn characterizes its parish.
Attempts to describe the character of a congregation by means other than narrative have not been very successful. Some have attempted to assess by questionnaire the “climate” of a church. These inquiries ask members to scale their corporate propensities, such as their tendency to emotional display or their attention to administrative order. The problem with such approaches is that they yield measurements of disparate traits but no framework for understanding the relation of the traits to each other or to a coherent whole. Narrative supplies such a framework. It is primarily in narrative that the character of the congregation emerges as an authentic figure that embodies and historically enacts a variety of traits. A storied persona best suggests the “unique personality” that pastors sense that their congregations possess.
The use of mythic figures to distinguish individual societies has continued, though many of the figures have long since lost any social or religious power. Nietzsche, for instance, found it helpful to distinguish Apollonian (aesthetic, ordered) from Dionysian (emotional, spontaneous) cultures.5 Nietzsche’s distinction has since been employed by both anthropologists and sociologists.7 Other figures are similarly employed: Meyer Fortes, in his ethnography of the Tallensi, uses the Oedipus and Job stories to characterize local custom and outlook.8 Myths are the fascinating, evocative, succinct metaphors by which societies throughout all times, including our own, catch sight of themselves.
Note the extraordinary susceptibility of the local church to interpretation by myth. Earlier we showed how modern concepts of the congregation were based upon four arguments that Stephen Pepper termed root metaphors: contextual, mechanist, organicist, and formist or symbolic. But metaphors, as Victor Turner avers, are also “a species of liminal monster . . . whose combination of familiar and unfamiliar features, or unfamiliar combination of familiar features provokes us to thought, provides us with new perspectives.”9 We can find not only monsters but also ghosts, leviathans, and totems inhabiting the four metaphorical concepts of local church.1°
Half close your eyes and glimpse the mythic creatures lurking within our four quite sober, disciplined interpretations of the parish. Consider first the contextual depiction of the parish, common in the 1960s, which portrayed it as imprisoned within its physical structure. Only insofar as the church could escape such confines would it assume its true purpose: to pervade the context of larger social surroundings and there to serve the political and economic needs of the world. In this it may be likened to a ghost. In ghost stories the present physical body entombs the spirit. To fulfill its essential nature the ghost must escape its material nature and, disembodied, haunt its context. There it makes its numinous contribution. The spirit of the contextual church is a vaporous ghost, and thus the form and identity of the contextual church are elusive.
Contradicting the contextual interpretation of the congregation is the mechanist understanding that seeks to revive the physical, tangible church by scientific techniques. Once revived, the church is set to work and grow. Within the image of a mechanist congregation is the figure of a monster. Monsters are different from ghosts. They are mechanistic, while ghosts are animistic. Like the figure created by Dr. Frankenstein, the monster comes to life by a scientific manipulation of inert forms. Now daunting readers for over 160 years, Frankenstein’s monster expresses the promise that life is not an elusive, ghostly spirit but the result of the combination of mass and energy subjected to expert knowledge. Thus by consecrated pragmatism a congregation can, in the monstrous view, be given life. It grows efficient and productive, as Frankenstein’s monster might have done had he not frightened everybody. Mechanist interpretations of the church are powered by monstrous images.
Still another creature inhabits the organicist conception of the local church: the leviathan. According to Thomas Hobbes, the leviathan is the huge “mortal god” whose like is not upon earth.11 Its system organizes the organicist hope for the parish, that disparate sorts of humanity will by covenant be brought to a wholeness greater than any of its parts. For both Hobbes and Herman Melville the leviathan arises in the midst of antagonism, but when human beings finally comprehend its harmonious system, the highest of human hopes are fulfilled. For Hobbes, the prior antagonism is a poor, nasty, brutish, and short life; through social contract, the commonwealth is established as a remedy. Moby Dick begins with the antagonism that fires the heart of Captain Ahab but is concluded in the sweet fellowship of the whalers. “Inner Leviathan,” says Robert Zoellner, “becomes a vigorous antidote for the alienation from others and separation from self which are the consequence of an astringent New England Puritanism and an Ahabian view of the world as antagonist.”12 Within organicist notions swims the giant reconciling leviathan.
The fourth approach to the congregation, the symbolic, is figured by the totem, the most potent of metaphors. Totems are to anyone else quite ordinary beings — rabbits, dogs, even plants, but to the people whom they represent they encapsule the group’s identity. For Emile Durkheim they were the elemental symbol of the community. Totem imputes a different concept of church, not one monstrously efficient, or spiritually pervasive, or whalishly inclusive. It argues that any community reflects a structure and peculiar idiom within which the meaning and identity of its members are expressed.
Ethos and Mythos
What might account for the descriptive connection that I persistently uncover between the features of myth and those of a congregation’s character? Myth is a primal account of the world, a classical representation of reality. Local character, by contrast, refers to the distinctive values, preferred style of behavior, and mood that together identify a contemporary group’s ethos. A connection between myth and world view would at first glance seem easier to argue, because both deal in ultimate meanings. The link between the perceptions of myth and the preferences of character is not immediately apparent: myths employ the indicative language of belief, while character involves the subjunctive language of value. And myths, moreover, primarily refer to the past, often to a time before history, while character has a purchase on the future. To have character, as Hauerwas points out, means that one possesses not only particular traits but also the moral strength to respond tomorrow in ways contrary to prevailing custom. Character “denotes not only what is distinctive but also what is in some measure deliberate, what a man can decide to be opposed to what he is naturally.”13 On the face of it, the role of myth in representing character is difficult to establish.
Yet the Hero journey characterized Trinity Church, and from preliterate times mythic beings in the forms of masks, angels, genii, and saints have served to identify the local community. As noted above, post-Enlightenment students of human culture have continued to use mythic figures like Apollo and Dionysius to distinguish in trenchant form the ethos of particular cultures. And ghosts, monsters, leviathans, and totems seem each to dwell in a root metaphor that shapes consciousness of the nature of the congregation. How, then, might this unlikely linkage between myths and ethos be explained?
Others who have observed the connection have advanced two theories. The first is that a deep archetype controls the expression of both myth and ethos. Advocating this view, followers of Carl Jung propound a specific, interactive engagement with archetypal entities. “The Gods grab us,” David Miller says in animistic hyperbole, “and we play out their stories.”14 Miller’s polytheism springs from a psychology in which a number of mythological figures populate a collective unconscious that patterns the behavior of both individuals and their societies. Especially on the occasion of ritual action or stylized behavior, the archetypal images give structure and meaning to the way people act and value their lives.
Miller employs the archetypal theories of James Hillman. Hillman himself writes:
Archetypal psychology envisions the fundamental idea of the psyche to be the expressions of persons — Hero, Nymph, Mother, Senex, Child, Trickster, Amazon, Puer and many other specific prototypes bearing the names and stories of the Gods. These are the root metaphors. They provide the patterns of our thinking as well as of feeling and doing. They give all our psychic functions whether thinking, feeling, perceiving or remembering — their imaginal life, their internal coherence, their force, their necessity, their ultimate intelligibility.15
In archetypal theory, myth is defined as the story that tells the congregation. In this argument, if the character of a particular local church were found to be Dionysian, the explanation would be that a deep paradigm of Dionysian norms and dynamisms informs the way the parish values and acts.
Other observers argue in a similar vein for the existence of deep structures that shape the character of a group. Victor Turner proposes the presence of root paradigms that function as mental models of acceptable conduct, guiding the performance of people during a community crisis.16 And Don Browning, looking specifically at congregations and their moral decisions, uncovers five levels of symbolic and instrumental action, the most fundamental a metaphorical basement that harbors myths and symbols that fashion more obvious congregational norms and behavior.17
By using arguments that affirm the existence of archetypes or root paradigms, one might reason that the consonance between myth and social character is a result of their mutual dependence upon deep cultural templates that shape their distinctive appearance. Hero and Trinity resemble each other because both are funded by a common deep structure. In such an understanding, the archetype or paradigm persists through time almost independent of its observable manifestations. Turner compares a root paradigm to a strand of DNA, which profoundly influences the cellular structure of its host but nevertheless keeps its autonomy. The archetypes of a collective unconscious likewise continue through countless generations of societies that display their shaping power.
The other major argument holds that the myth is itself a product of the struggle of a community for the particularity of its character. This approach does not attribute the similarities between a myth and a society’s ethos to an influential but independent paradigm, but posits instead the similarities as the direct result of a community’s labor for, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s term, its moral particularity.18 To survive, a community must develop and maintain a specific, and therefore particular, constellation of outlooks and values. Unless it possesses a distinctive character recognizable to its members, the community dissolves in anomie. A group needs to identify “who we are” in order to embody its otherwise amorphous sentiments and actions. Myth quite literally characterizes the community.
In this second approach, myths and the struggle for social character fit together in two ways. First, the establishment of moral identity requires both narratively shaped world view and propositionally shaped ethic.19 The development of group ethos demands images and stories perhaps even more than a code of abstract prescriptions. A group more often follows a pattern of behavior because it is story-shaped than because it responds to a set of norms. Myth, then, helps to fashion community values and also reflects their formation.
Rejecting the archetypal origin of myth, Walter Burkert writes:
The phenomena of collective importance which are verbalized by applying traditional tales are to be found, first of all, in social life. Instructions or presentations of the family, clan, or city are explained and justified by tales — “charter myths” in Malinowski’s term — or knowledge about religious ritual, authoritative and absolutely serious ritual, and about the gods involved, is expressed and passed on in the form of such tales; then there are the hopes and fears connected with the course of nature, the seasons, and the activities of food supply; there is the desperate experience of disease. But also quite general problems of human society, such as marriage rules and incest, or even the organization of nature and the universe, may be the subject of [myths]; . . . it is only philosophical interest, both ancient and modern, that tends to isolate the myths of origin and cosmogony, which in their proper setting usually have some practical reference to the institutions of a city or a clan. 20
For all of their seemingly exotic features, myths in this view are closely associated with maintaining the corporate life of the community, typifying it, exploring it, enforcing it.
A second feature of the struggle for community character that links it to myth is that it results in a selection from among several behavioral and descriptive options. Individual character, by Hauerwas’s reckoning, is “the qualification of our self agency, formed by our having certain intentions (and beliefs) rather than others…. One character is our deliberate disposition to use a certain range of reasons rather than others.”21 A group gains moral particularity in its local and immediate appropriation from a universe of values and their interpretations. In becoming accountable, a community selects particular accounts that specifically portray and inform the group’s character.
It can be argued, therefore, that a twentieth-century church like Trinity can echo a millennia-old Hero pattern because both group and myth participate in the process of self-qualification: the reduction of the group’s potential traits, connections, and moods from a full panoply of possibilities to a particular pattern of values. The ethos of Trinity is the result both of choices it has made, some unconscious and some conscious (such as its decision not to move to an Atlanta suburb), and of matters beyond its control (the attitudes of legislators across the street), each giving Trinity’s character its qualification. The process of character modification continues; it develops or deteriorates, but always in relation to the particular choices Trinity makes and the particular circumstances the church encounters. Though Trinity’s story is distinctive, it is not unique. Through the centuries, other groups have met with (or hoped for) structurally similar adventures. And these have been represented in the many versions of the Hero journey. The myth interprets the desires and experience of communities that have qualified their ethoi in forms similar to those which characterize Trinity Church.
Hence the perennial argument about the nature of myth offers us the two not entirely antithetical explanations of the consonance of myth and ethos. Hero Trinity may be authentic because a deep metaphor generates both the narrative and societal patterns. Or Hero Trinity may represent the current ethical configuration of a congregation because the myth brings interpretive power to that pattern, the myth itself the product of congruent social situations. Though neither explanation is easy to discount or verify, I find myself — of a church by myth without suggesting that the church is indelibly imprinted with a particular pattern of behavior. That accords with my observations and experience: powerfully descriptive and formative as myth and ethos may be, for congregations that authentically “have character” the future is not preternaturally determined. Character may in specific ways limit the range of future choices a congregation is equipped to make. But character also provides the moral power for a congregation to make its own choices.
Factors in Character
There are several different ways to interpret to a congregation its particular character, the most helpful of which are narrative in form. A written history of the parish, if it can be propelled beyond names and dates to explore the church’s identity, can reveal the richness of character. So can vignettes that disclose certain congregational traits and dispositions. The stories adumbrated in responses of members to interviews or to questionnaires that focus on preferences and dislikes may also be suggestive, although the usual reduction of this data to statistics (“47.5 percent want a new adult group; 22.3 percent do not; 11.2 percent did not care, and 19.0 percent did not answer”) actually says surprisingly little about parish character (“more people agreed with the ‘new adult group’ answer than with any other answer, but more people avoided this answer than favored it”). Pastors considering a call to a congregation often complain about how little they learn about the church from a “parish profile’’ in which answers of members to long questionnaires have been quantified. What prospective pastors want to hear is the church’s inside story, the drama within which they might become a principal actor.
The final chapter in this section on characterization will examine methods by which a congregation can come to terms with its history and other stories, deal with problems of narrative distortion, and contemplate the possibility of character transformation. Before then, I want to advocate what I consider a more difficult but rewarding channel to understanding congregational ethos: the task of apprehending the parish genius, the myth that recounts and accounts for a congregation’s character.
This unusual undertaking benefits a congregation in several ways but also poses some difficulties. Myth enables a community, now as it did in the past, to speak concisely about its complex cultural character. To say, for example, that a society is narcissistic is to report a descriptive mouthful in a single mythic word. For a congregation to be able to refer to itself as Valhalla, as one I know now does, permits it to recall an intricate self-portrait that features (a) absentee warrior-salesmen who return bruised to the household, (b) subordinate women, (c) an emphasis upon alcohol and boisterous games, and (d) an Odinesque style of leadership. But not only does a church gain in myth a metaphor by which to model the features of character, it also finds a way to address publicly and corporately features, such as drinking and male dominance, that heretofore were explained as the problems of individual members, and then only in private conversation.
The metaphorical power of a myth also gives members a poetic jolt. One sees one’s church in fresh terms, as I did in exploring the disastrous conclusion of the Meleager myth that I think characterized the Episcopal congregation I served as founding pastor. Understanding a congregation to be participant in a mythic structure also helps a leader understand how the pattern of its corporate action may override his or her personal influence. In one of the stories that we shall examine in the next chapter, a pastor with high ideals was dismissed because of the way he tried to insert into parish life his personal convictions. In the period that the vote against him was taken and he served his last months, he, I, and a group of the church’s leaders were exploring the congregation’s character and mythic pattern. The myth we discovered in part gave symbolic form to the dismissal incident, helped the pastor to see his personal plight in a larger contextual scheme, and gave the members some images by which to discuss the deeply embarrassing incident with their pastor.
Most of all, the use of myths helps a congregation affirm its juncture with the human race. To discover that a local church’s most intimate and intense activities do not at their base reflect a withdrawal from the world but rather a participation in public, mythic structures can be a liberating perception about the symbolic depth and breadth of church activity. Things that seemed to be household routines and petty indulgences in the parish are by myth lifted to the mystery of the whole storied world, the oikoumené
There are also dangers in mythopoesis. Unless the congregation is itself actively involved in the steps and reasons for mythic characterization, the result will probably appear to the congregation strange and even repulsive. Members not used to having their congregation depicted in terms other than Christian or traditional metaphors (such as family and fortress) can easily miss the point. Comments on, say, the Orphic quality of their common life, unless carefully developed, may be misunderstood among the very people whose life together the mythic concept might illuminate; if this happens, the myth’s contribution to congregational self-understanding and self-transcendence will be lost.
A myth can also stereotype a congregation, implying that the tale exhausts all that is worth knowing about the church and its future. It is precisely this danger of reducing the thick description of a parish to a Procrustean myth that makes me wary of theories about deep mythic paradigms as archetypes that would grab a parish and force it to work out a mythic story. A more helpful and I think accurate understanding of myth portrays it as a story by which groups qualify their character and catch sight of themselves in doing so. The myth of a congregation binds neither behavior nor the description of behavior. Rather, myth is the companion story, the genius, that gives corporate life a metaphorical resonance.
Myths also present major hermeneutical problems in their relation to the Christian gospel. It is easier for most people to understand the complex link between, for instance, Christian stories and an individual person with Oedipal tendencies than it is to comprehend the interpretive nexus of the gospel and a congregation characterized by the Oedipal tale. We are, on the whole, willing to believe that individuals may have distinctive, mythically resonant personalities and yet be saved in, even through, their characteristic fullness. But to learn that the genius of one’s local church approximates some deity such as Demeter may stir up an inquisitorial zeal to purge the corporate ethos of its non-Christian characteristics.
Such a purge is of course culturally impossible, and it misses the point of an incarnational gospel. The servant form that Jesus assumed was not culture free. It participated in the mythic structures of a specific time and people; indeed, the message thus conveyed is that it is within such human finitude that the redeeming love of God occurs.
Does this mean that biblical stories might be the myths that best characterize the congregation? I do not draw from the rich resources of the Bible for mythic patterns by which to frame a congregation’s life, and I am frequently asked why. Two basic reasons account for my reluctance, the second more significant than the first. The first reason is that Bible stories are standard fare for Christian congregations. A comparison of the life of a congregation with that of the Children of Israel, or the parish with a parable, is a common device, often superficially employed in the church today. Even if powerfully presented, such comparisons seldom awaken a fresh self-understanding of the church’s corporate nature. Nonbiblical myths are different. Members are not used to comparisons with Daedalus or Oedipus. They pay attention, argue, repeat what they hear, and sometimes enrich the comparison with further examples. That seldom happens with biblical comparisons.
The second reason stems from, and I think explains, the fact that in none of my studies has a biblical story seemed to me adequately to identify the ethos of a particular congregation. For the Christian congregation, biblical narrative is different from other mytluc stories. It serves a different function and, as Northrop Frye contends, provides a structurally different message from the other myths of the world. Frye argues that the Bible, although full of metaphors, is not essentially metaphorical but rather rhetorical, a “concerned address” in which Christians (and, in Frye’s view, Western culture as a whole) find themselves to be the object, not the topic. For Christians, the Bible does not function as an anthology of likely tales with descriptive implications:
The linguistic idiom of the Bible does not really coincide with our three phases of language, important as these phases have been in the history of its influence. It is not metaphorical like poetry, though it is full of metaphor, and is as poetic as it can well be without being a work of literature. It is really a fourth form of expression, for which I use the now well-established term keygma, proclamation.22
To use biblical narrative as a descriptive tool by which to picture the local church is to reduce its meaning to that of a companion image, a metaphor that reflects and enriches careful self-understanding. Eviscerated from such a use of the Bible is its prophetic, challenging, always elusive message which often defies self-understanding. The church canonizes the Bible not because it provides a mythical picture of congregations but because it contends with the self-characterizations that Christian households are wont to construct. But the kerygma does not void the myths by which society characterizes itself. The kerygma instead gives them radical, critical, and finally redemptive meaning.
In chapter 9 I shall suggest methods and devices for “finding” a myth that has interpretive significance for a particular congregation. Here I want to demonstrate, by telling a congregational story in the light of its myth, the four features of both story and myth to which I pay special attention in the search for character. When I find correspondence between myth and ethos at each of these points, tale and congregational character seem to illuminate each other. The four points for correlation are remarkably similar to a typology of four elements of character that Richard Bondi developed independently and by a different method.23 In his investigation of how story influences personal character, Bondi undertakes a phenomenology of the self to discover the various aspects by which the self exists in relation to the world. My own study is aimed at the rationale for the consonance of a particular myth with a particular ethos, but our corresponding results suggest their mutual utility in further analysis.
I look at four elements — each a moment or quality in which character tells:
1. Crisis and integration: In a loss or dislocation, what is the characteristic response and reintegration that is sought?
2. Proficiency: What is the characteristic skill, the chosen manner of doing things, the reliable pattern of behavior?
3. Mood: What is the characteristic temperament, the emotional atmosphere?
4. Hope: What end is characteristically expected and sought?
Note how these four elements point to the character of a church that began its ministry not too far away from Trinity Church.
On the surface the story of this congregation is familiar enough. It is the ambiguous history of a middle-class, white church in the last decade, during which its mainline denomination declined in membership and influence. In the late 1960s members of the church sold their building on a busy metropolitan corner to purchase property in a growing suburb to which most of them had already moved and from which they hoped to gain further members. An alert and active group, they designed their new building in a way that would make it distinctive. They paid special attention to the welcoming of newcomers, and, in the early 1970s, they called to their pulpit a talented pastor who they felt would attract young people and those in the neighborhood searching for a church home. Although several churches around them grew substantially in size, theirs did not. As the 1970s passed, they concentrated upon the development of their corporate worship life and a deeper understanding of the covenant they sought to share. Except for nagging concerns about losing their own young people, they now consider themselves a reasonably secure and involved, though not a popular, congregation.
The story of the congregation gains character and moral significance as it unfolds in greater detail. The congregation’s own genius emerges, distinguished from the field of other forms, but empowered by a resonant association with other stories that throughout history have related the same design. The story, when further rendered, echoes the myth of Daedalus.
Visitors complain that Daedalus Church is hard to find because its building is invisible from the road and its driveway entrance sandwiched between a shopping mall and a woods through which its road winds. A meandering footpath surrounds the building, and the building by architect’s plan is a further labyrinth. Because the structure is unlike most churches and does not have spires and doors to direct a visitor to the sanctuary, a newcomer is first puzzled about how to enter the building and, once inside, must decide from among three corridors which one might lead to the worship area. In the words of its designers, the building “unfolds” as people move through it. “You work your way in, and it keeps on opening.” Having entered the sanctuary, worshipers find themselves, however, back in the woods, because the area is a small auditorium facing a huge glass proscenium that brings the woods inside. The woods captivate the worshipers. “If that sanctuary were not dominated by a twenty-seven foot cross,” says the pastor, “I would be worried by its window.”
The clever craftsman who designed the labyrinth for King Minos was Daedalus, an Athenian immigrant who came south to serve the Cretan kingdom. “We are all outsiders of one sort or another,” says a Jew who became a member of the congregation. A hundred years earlier the founders of the church were northerners who came to this southern city to teach in the region’s first black college, an institution their denomination had helped to establish. Since then the congregation has attracted primarily other northerners and clever people — academics and other professionals — disaffected from their childhood denominations. More than a dozen Baptist and Methodist clergy sympathetic to black causes in the 1960s left their own denominations and now make Daedalus Church their home. Members in general consider themselves “enlightened, . . . a one percent among ninety-nine percent with different views.” The labyrinth was created by Daedalus to house the half man, half bull borne of Pasiphaë wife of Minos, who lusted for the white bull given Minos by Poseidon of the Sea. She had persuaded Daedalus to fashion the shell of a cow that she could enter. In unnatural love the bull mounted her and Minotaur was born. In the years since Reconstruction the
members of the congregation have frequently been called Yankee niggerlovers.
Daedalus is the clever artist and inventor, his work on display in temples throughout the Mediterranean. He creates a cunning honeycomb, a magic sword, toys, lifelike statues, and wings. The church’s daily life celebrates the originality of its members. Local artists hang their work in its halls; art, craft, and bread-baking classes are held each week. A mark of membership is to possess a work fashioned by another parishioner: “We need to own something — a rug, metal sculpture, or painting — made by another member.”
Crisis and integration
Every ninth year, seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian maidens were sacrificed to the Minotaur. The problem at Daedalus Church is the children. Perhaps because the church must coax the adults, it leaves the needs of youth less tended. Although the present pastor was selected a decade earlier with the hope that he could do something for the young people, and elaborate schemes are made each year to involve the youth, the younger members do not participate as they do in nearby Methodist and Baptist churches. Many members think their children will not succeed them in the pews; the offspring of the pastor do not participate.
Icarus, son of Daedalus, flew with him but so close to the sun that the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea. “A lot of our kids are not going to be part of this in the future.” “The future generation may not be our children, but other people who have since grown up.”
“This is the church of the last resort,” says one of its members, a university professor who struggles for faith in a secular era. “For us it is not a question of which church but whether church at all.” The church serves those who want a spirituality although they “are afraid of being and appearing pious, holier than thou.” Were this congregation not to offer a way by which the religiously disaffected can find spiritual help, this group would leave the organized church altogether.
Unlike the protagonists of many myths, Daedalus and the other actors are not divine. As a human being, Daedalus creates his own mortal means of transcendence, showing Theseus how to thread his way out of the maze, but chiefly by fashioning for himself and his son the wings by which they escape the land and surrounding seas of Crete.
Each Sunday the pastor makes wings for the congregation. Fighting the natural drama of squirrels and birds and swaying branches that flood the worship service through the giant window, the pastor, beginning nonchalantly, slowly reintroduces the God of history, the deity of Israel. His sermons and patter throughout the service brilliantly coax the congregation into reconsidering Christian terms and acts they long ago discounted heaven, Sabbath, baptism. “Hey, folks,” the pastor later imitates his own style, “this language is yours as well as that of the fundamentalists.” The congregation assists him at the several points in worship where they add their own thoughts, and, for an hour, they together fly beyond the confines of their present earthbound character.
Daedalus is neither god nor hero. He survives by his human ingenuity in a world of threats. Daedalus’ story foreshadows the account of outsiders throughout history who create mazes to involve themselves in, and wings to extricate themselves from the mystery, and who lose their children in the process.
1. Stanley Hauerwas, A Communiy of Character, 9-35. See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, chap. 15.
2. Hauerwas, Communiy of Character, 4.
3. George W. Harley, Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia, vol. 32, no. 2, Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.:
Peabody Museum, 1950); Notes on the Poro in Liberia, vol. 19, no. 2, Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1941).
4. Georges Dumezil, Archaic Roman Religion, vol. 1 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), 362. A study of the word “genius” is found on pp. 357-63.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (New York: Random House, 1967), 33-144.
6. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934).
7. Andrew M. Greeley, The Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America (Glenview, III.: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1972).
8. Meyer Fortes, Oedipus and Job in West African Religion, with an essay by Robin Horton (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983).
9. Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, 31.
10. James F. Hopewell, “Ghostly and Monstrous Churches,” The Christian Century 99 (1982).
11. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Collins, 1962), 176.
12. Robert Zoellner, Salt Sea Mastodon: A Reading of Moby Dick (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1973), 158.
13. Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 52.
14. David Miller builds upon the archetypal psychology of James Hillman. “The Gods and Goddesses live through our psychic structures. They are given in the fundamental nature of our being, and they manifest our behaviors…. The Gods are Powers. They are the potency in each of us, in societies and nature…. By calling for an impersonal dimension in our psychology, Hillman reaches below or beyond the merely personal and discovers that the Gods and Goddesses are worlds of being and meaning in which my personal life participates” (David L. Miller, The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods and Goddesses [New York: Harper & Row, 1974], 59-61).
15. James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 128. Elsewhere Hillman describes the functioning archetypal complexes of fifty-seven Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Indian deities.
16. Root paradigms are “certain consciously recognized (though not consciously grasped) cultural models in the heads of the main actors…. These have reference not only to the current state of social relationships existing or developing between actors, but also to the cultural goals, means, ideas, outlook, currents of thought, patterns of belief, and so on, which enter into those relationships, interpret them, and incline them to alliance or divisiveness…. Paradigms of this fundamental sort reach down to irreducible life stances of individuals, passing beneath conscious prehension to a fiduciary hold on what they sense to be axiomatic values, matters literally of life and death” (Turner, Dramas, 64).
17. Don S. Browning, “Integrating the Approaches: A Practical Theology,” in Carl S. Dudley, ed.,Building Effective Ministry, 220-37.
18. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 205.
19. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 87- 141. See also Steven Tipton’s study of ethical configurations in a Christian sect, a Zen center, and a human potential movement, in Steven M. Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1982), 244-77.
20. Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 23.
21. Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue, 59.
22. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 28.
23. Richard Bondi, “The Elements of Character,” Journal of Religious Ethics 12 (December 1984). Addressing the unresolved question of how story influences personal character, Bondi undertakes an analysis of the aspects by which the self through character exists in relation to the world. He develops four elements: (a) “the capacity for intentional action” (which is similar to my category of proficiency); (b) “involvement with the affections and passions” (my category of mood); (c) “subjection to the accidents of history” (crisis and integration); (d ) “the capacity of the heart” (my category of hope).