Monday, August 12, 2014, many in the United States and around the world mourned the passing of Robin Williams. As with most entertainers, we knew relatively little about him as a man; we were far more familiar with his many TV and film roles that could range from the deeply dramatic to the insanely funny.
Within minutes of the announcement, fans took to social media to declare their favorites. Family viewers mentioned things like Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Hook, while others noted more adult roles in movies like Awakenings and Good Morning, Vietnam!
As for me, I will never forget the impact of his performance upon my Year 9 self, as my favorite fictional teacher in Dead Poets Society.
Now I realize that actors don’t normally deserve credit for either story or screenplay. I also realize that traditional educators have grave issues with the kind of English teacher Williams portrays. And I realize that as an adult, I might not think the same way about a film that affected me as a youth were I to see it for the first time now.
But none of that changes the fact that Williams’s Mr. Keating left an impression for which I am grateful.
Iconoclasm and True Beauty
Keating enters the movie as the newest faculty member of a traditional Ivy-League prep school. The rigid, authoritarian, academic structure has little room for creativity, imagination, and originality, which are the very qualities he seeks to stir up within his students. At first, they’re confused.
In the early scenes, Keating shuts the classroom door to block the sound of Latin paradigms being recited down the hallway, and he tells his English class to destroy pages in their textbook that reduce poetic beauty to a scientific formula. Later, he inspires his students to value carpe diem, to look on life from fresh perspectives, and to use their gifts to make a unique contribution to the world. (Apple used the last of these in one of their ad campaigns.)
Heady stuff for adolescents. They ate it up.
I did too.
I was 14 when I saw the movie. Struggling to belong, to fit into a system that valued sports, fashion, and good looks above all, I knew the shame of failure. Now, this chubby, bookish, bespectacled band student heard – really heard – that I had value, that I could embrace an extraordinary life.
Life that refuses to play by arbitrary rules but instead revels in experience, expression, and passion.
Life abundant. And full of joy.
Just like Jesus promised. Tragically, Keating promised it too but couldn’t deliver because he taught them to look within, without looking up. Jesus taught us to find our life in him and then gave his life for us. And to us.
Sadly, some don’t quite get it.
But Some Did
As I grew older, I also grew in my faith. I learned to hear the voice of God, by his Word and by his Spirit. I also learned that there were others attempting to substitute their voices for his and reduce faith to behavior. The idol of teenage popularity was replaced by the cult of religious acceptance, but the struggle was the same.
And it was the same when faith expanded to ministry. As I began exploring God’s calling on my life, I soon discovered the established chorus of voices that defined how a minister should speak, how he should dress, how he should order his life, creed, and ministry – down to the minutest details.
Details the Lord himself had not seen fit to mention.
For a while I followed them blindly, assuming that the Blessed Path was the one that they had blazed. At times, their directions were more appealing than the Word of God. It seemed safer to listen to the ones who said, “Do this,” instead of the One who said, “Follow me.”
Then, in the Lord’s grace, I learned that there would always be a camp, a crowd, a conference that could attract my loyalty apart from Christ. And I learned that there always had been:
They were Jerusalem’s politicians, capitulating behind Isaiah’s back. They were the Jewish patriots, silencing Jeremiah. They were the prosperity teachers, drawing the exiles away from Ezekiel. They were the Pharisees, conspiring to kill Jesus for upending their traditional rule and breaking their yoke of religious control over the people.
I also learned that there had always been a band of faithful men and women who resisted them.
The Dead Preachers Society
Against religion, politics, pragmatism, popularity, and the halls of man-centered ecclesiastical power, I prefer to stand with them.
With the Apostle Paul, who valued the diverse, blood-bought Body of Christ above the comfortable, segregated church of his peers.
With Polycarp, who clung to the apostles’ teaching in the face of popular teachers with novel interpretations
With Athanasius, who opposed a universal church that was on the verge of denying the full deity of Christ
With Augustine, who proclaimed the necessary grace of God instead of the man-centered, self-determination of Pelagius and his followers
With Martin Luther, who stood against the religious rulers of the world because he believed in justification by faith alone
With John Calvin, who risked his life to purge Geneva of licentiousness and Europe of legalism
With Richard Baxter, who used both pulpit and pen to navigate a civil war and its political upheaval to proclaim the Gospel for the sake of a pure church
With John Bunyan, who preferred a prison cell to preaching politically-approved messages
With William Carey, who reminded the church that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility unite in one person: the Missionary.
With Adoniram Judson, who dared to leave America’s shores as her first foreign missionary, enduring years in Burma before seeing the first convert
With Hudson Taylor, who threw off British colonialism, emulating the Apostle Paul by becoming a Chinese to the Chinese.
With Charles Spurgeon, who alienated Anglicans and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians with his straightforward invitation for sinners to respond to the God-centered Gospel he preached so simply
And with so many, many others.
None of these men were perfect. All had their flaws. But they had something in common.
Without fomenting rebellion, without ignoring holiness, without bypassing Scripture, they walked away from the entrenched religious practices of their day. They walked away because they followed Christ. And they encouraged others to do the same.
With the Word of God in their hands, the Spirit of God in their hearts, and the Son of God before their eyes, they played their part for the glory of God and the advance of his Kingdom.
I want to play my part too.
What will your part be?