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Into The Wild Reflection Essay On The Steward

Tires crunch snow, molars crunch popcorn, and I think: Doesn't look so wild to me.

The italics and teeth are mine; the tires belong to the pickup that drops off Chris McCandless at the end of the road at the start of Into the Wild.

Sean Penn's powerful film is based on John Krakauer's 1996 best seller of the same name, which brilliantly pieced together the puzzle of a young man who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and (no spoiler alert necessary, I think) never walked out. Harrowing in spots, the book nonetheless came as balm to a nation eager to believe that its newly revived interest in nature was overdone and it should probably just kick back with a six-pack and relax. Equally soothing, for some, was an essay by historian William Cronon published the year before in the New York Times Magazine. Titled "The Trouble With Wilderness," it argued that wilderness is "a human creation," and a recent one; in the wild, there is no such thing. Nearly every hectare of nature has a human history; to idealize untouched nature is to evade that history. "As we gaze into the mirror [wilderness] holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires."

Both Krakauer's book and Cronon's essay put a spike in the romantic notion of wilderness, but the spikes pointed in very different directions. Cronon said wilderness was not real. Krakauer said it was so real that it could kill you. The political upshot (with Newt Gingrich doing much of the shooting) was the same: Neither a mirage nor a monster needs protection. Neither is worth seeking out. Consign Muir, Thoreau, and Jack London if not to the flames then to the upper shelves, where they are less likely to lead environmentalists to foolish zeal or youngsters to a cold doom.

Close readings of Krakauer and Cronon would not yield such conclusions, but we are not a nation of close readers. We are a nation of watchers, which is why Penn's take on Into the Wild requires scrutiny. (We'll come back to Cronon later.) For Penn, the story is rich but fairly simple: a tale of heroic folly. Fleeing a bourgeois life that he feels (since learning of his father's bigamy) is a lie, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) takes to the road, lives on the edge, and finally walks into the Alaskan wild, all in search of his "true" life. In the wild, he discovers that life is with people; but then, by a trick of fate and hydrology, it is too late.

With tight close-ups of well-cast faces, Penn's film lets us feel both the disgust that drove McCandless away from society and (for a far longer span) the love that, belatedly, calls him back. Penn fares less well with landscape. We see the southwestern desert, the rapids of the Colorado, the foothills of Denali, places that enraptured McCandless; but in place of rapture we have establishing shots or travel footage of the sort that may beckon from the edge of this Web page. Even the Grand Canyon seems unremarkable until we meet a couple of backpackers from Copenhagen gleefully dispensing hot dogs. They are the scenic highlights, and not just because they're nearly naked.

Facescapes, by contrast, are traced as lovingly as if by a blind man's fingers. We walk out of the theater prepared to draw a topographical map of Hal Holbrook or Catherine Keener or even, God help us, Vince Vaughn. We walk out, strange to say, with our love of our neighbors restored. Borat, groping for America's dark netherparts, instead revealed its open hand and patient heart. McCandless, fleeing his family, finds surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. He turns up saints under every rock, on every concrete slab.

Penn is reasonably faithful to his source but his few infidelities are telling. In the book, a 16-year-old gamine throws herself at McCandless but is mostly dodged. In the movie, the incident is inflated into a nascent romance, though a chaste one. This is done, I guess, partly for the obvious Hollywood reasons and partly to make the finish more conventionally tragic: not just a lost life (those are a dime a dozen) but a lost love. Penn also twists the knife by adopting the earliest, and first discarded, of Krakauer's three theories of how the young man died: the one that makes him seem most like a chump.

Krakauer, from his own experience as a rock climber, knows that wilderness can offer an escape from oppressive family relations. But he doesn't think that this makes the wilderness quest any less real. Transcendence is, by definition, transcendence of something; if that something happens to be tawdry, so much the better. McCandless embarked on a mythic quest in more or less the prescribed manner. He walked into the wild armed with gifts given him by mages encountered along the way. Of the many "uses" of wilderness, this is not the least. Theoutcome was tragic, but if that outcome had not been possible—had it not been possible for the dragon to slay him—the quest would have been a joke.

Penn knows this, too. In interviews, he speaks of the need for rites of passage, absent or gelded or debased in our day. (My own involved a battle with inked sheepskin before a crowd of hungry primates, just after my 13th birthday.) Yet in the film he tends to play up his hero's folly. Oddly, this seems to be Penn's way of romanticizing him (perhaps in Penn's own image): making him both a tragic hero and a kind of holy fool.

Of course, the holy man, like the hero, must venture into the wilderness to find truth. Siddhartha, Zarathustra, Moses, Elijah, Mohammed, John the Baptist, Jesus: They all did it. But to extract truth from the wilderness, it helps to come out alive. Suppose Jesus had eaten some alkaloid-spiked seeds: A queasy crucifixion, that would have been, and not much of a subject for Cranach or Bach, especially as they would never have known who Jesus was. Yet, we know who McCandless was precisely because he didn't make it out alive.

"You're not Jesus, are you?" McCandless is asked—half-seriously in the book, half-jokingly in the film. Penn himself is dead serious: By the film's end, the iconography of the gaunt, bearded, agonized figure in the loincloth is hard to miss. "Who do you think you are, God?" Mom (Marcia Gay Harden) asks Dad in a flashback that is not in the book. "I am God," Dad responds. (William Hurt, precise as ever, shows us that Dad is 82.3 percent joking.) Chris is thus the Son of God who dies for our sins—or, more to the point, for God's, which might well be said of the real Jesus, too.

Penn's mythologizing, which exceeds Krakauer's by several kilocampbells, is gripping, but troubling, too. For a case can be made that it was McCandless' need to see himself under the klieg light of myth, with little room for shade or nuance, that was his undoing. As Krakauer makes plain, but Penn (despite that scruffy, snow-crunching opening scene) does not, McCandless willed his wilderness to be wilder than it really was. In truth, he was never more than a few days' hike from a traveled road. The abandoned bus in which he made his camp sat just outside the boundary of the wilderness preserve. There were cabins (uninhabited at that time of year) five miles away. There was an abandoned cable-and-basket rig he could have used to cross the Teklanika River. There were points upstream that might well have been fordable even with the river in flood. He would have known about these things if he'd bought a USGS map. Of the magic gifts McCandless lacked, that would have been the cheapest and easiest to obtain.

Why didn't he get one? Krakauer has an answer: He yearned "to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map." But in 1992, there were no blank spots. So, "[h]e simply got rid of the map."

Here is where the spikes meet, where Cronon and Krakauer concur: The myth of wilderness can be dangerous, to the individual as well as to society as a whole. The problem is, the absence of that myth is more dangerous still.

Since Cronon's essay appeared, the scientific evidence has piled up on both sides of the scale. On the one hand, it has become clear that many places we think of as wild have in fact been transformed by millennia of human meddling. Even the Amazon rainforest owes its most fertile soil—the terra preta or "black earth," which is thought to mat, in aggregate, an area the size of France—to Indian "cool burning." At the same time, it has become ever clearer that places we think of as wild—however imperfect their wildness—are crucial to human survival. They are so by virtue of the wildness that is in them: the ecological intelligence that has evolved over millions of years and will keep evolving if we don't pave it over. The flow of energy, the cycling of water and nutrients, the mix of gases in the atmosphere, the regulation of climate and of the oceans' salinity: These and other vital services are provided free of charge. We can, if we are modest and deft and clever, work in partnership with this intelligence, but we can never fully duplicate it, control it, or replace it with mechanisms of our own.

The Indians of the Amazon could live in wilderness, stretching and torquing it subtly without squeezing out its wildness. We can't. Our tools are too brutal and we swing them about too freely. Above all, there are too damned many of us. If we get too cozy with wilderness (or "wilderness")—if we convince ourselves that we are competent to manage or "garden" or "steward" every inch of the Earth's surface—we are asking for trouble. As I wrote some years back, wilderness is indeed a social construction, but so is the guard rail at the edge of a cliff.

The object Cronon tried, with some success, to dismantle is, for all its difficulties, one of immense value, both spiritual and practical. In order to have practical value, it must have spiritual value: a paradox, but true. Religion is constantly building fences, planting hedges, scarifying our soles for traction against the slippery slope. The trick, of course, is to respect the guard rail but remember that one may, from time to time, have to climb over it. When we read on the front page of the New York Times that the Nature Conservancy, in acquiring 161,000 acres of Adirondack wild lands, has gone into the logging business, we are right to be skeptical but not closed-minded. And when we walk into the wild ourselves, we are right to do so in fear and trembling, with our feet on the ground and a good, up-to-date map in our pack.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2013

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. Psalm 23:1

Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most beloved psalm in the entire psalter. It is the one that almost everyone seems to be able to recite, and even those near death or suffering from dementia can usually connect with the familiar words. It seems to be, along with the Lord’s Prayer, almost a part of a Christian’s DNA, yet I fear this psalm becomes so rote and ingrained that we fail to give it the time and reflection it is due, and in doing so fail to tap its deep roots of mercy and meaning for daily life.

Martin Luther reflected on Psalm 23 one night in 1536 after saying grace at supper (LW 12: Selected Psalms), expounding on the reality that many who have access to Scripture become indifferent, even disdainful towards it, while those without access crave it and will seek it:

We should, then, learn from this psalm not to despise God’s Word. We should hear and learn it, love and respect it, and join the little flock in which we find it, and, on the other hand, flee and avoid those that revile and persecute it. Wherever this blessed light does not shine, there neither happiness nor salvation can be found, neither strength nor comfort of body or soul, but only dissension, fear, and terror, especially when sorrow, anxiety, and bitter death threaten.

Luther also likens the psalm’s “green pasture” to the church, and the church’s beloved community to the Good Shepherd’s flock. Maybe I missed something in seminary, but until this week I never really recognized this short psalm of praise as both communal as well as personal. We are stronger in community, and we have the capacity to be better, too. In community, in concert and in contact with God’s word read and proclaimed, and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we experience something precious and life-giving. We are strengthened for the journey, our focus is  sharpened, and we are reminded of God’s many good gifts. In our life together we affirm our abundance rather than fear our scarcity.

The world will tell us otherwise. The marketplace lures us with false promises of fulfillment if we will only buy and buy and buy some more. Away from the beloved community and the Word, we are tempted to see ourselves as controllers of destiny and fortune. What need have we for the church and for belief in a Deity when we can strive for our own fulfillment, be our own god, and seek our own dreams of success and status? It doesn’t take much, however, to bring us to our knees in the reality that we are not in control.

This week we shudder in the face of darkness and evil. In Boston, a joyous celebration of the human spirit is transformed into a scene of carnage. It is one more sobering example of how precious little control we really do have over our lives and well-being. In the face of such a sobering reality, this psalm reminds us that we need not cower in fear but rather are free to respond in love, in prayer, and in hope. The darkness will never overcome the light. No matter our health concerns, economic woes, or the state of the world, God is active and present in the world with us, lamenting and mitigating the effects of our human sin and brokenness. In community, we affirm this truth by looking into one another’s faces, by passing the peace, by praising and praying, and by feasting on bread and wine, body and blood of the One who overcame the darkness once and for all.

So this psalm is a good reminder not only to praise and pray, but constantly to be aware of who we are and whose we are. We have so many blessings. We have enough. And we always, always have enough to share and room for one more. Our cups run over. We have no need to want, for God will provide means and a way. Why not use this Sunday to reflect on the deep promises and the powerful praise present in Psalm 23? In Luther’s words, “Therefore it will undoubtedly be up to the little flock to know this blessing and, together with the prophet, to sing to God a psalm or song of thanks for it.” How will they know unless we tell it? How will we know, unless we speak it to each other and share the stories of God’s grace and mercy in our lives? When we give witness to these promises as David did so long ago, we too can say “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

 In Worship

Be sure to add prayer petitions for those affected by the tragedy in Boston this week, as well as for those who face persecution and suffering everywhere in the world.

Consider using Psalm 23 as a meditation and prayer. If you project images in worship, find images suitable to your context for each verse. Allow time between each verse for quiet reflection and prayer. Consider adding a prayer petition pertinent to each verse. Let the silence linger a bit. In our world, we rarely experience the gift of silence that allows us to feast on the word of God.

With Youth

Youth will likely have concerns and questions about the tragedy in Boston. This is a good opportunity to use Psalm 23 in conjunction with Fred Rogers’ timely reminder to “Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.” Read the backstory here. What is the appropriate Christian response to tragedy? How do maintain a spirit of trust and avoid rushing to judgment? What can we do? How can we live boldly in the shadow of evil?

With Children

Listening for our Shepherd

Have you ever tried to follow someone’s voice while wearing a blindfold? You have to listen very carefully, but if you do, and if you trust that person, you can be led successfully by just the sound of someone’s voice. In our gospel lesson today from John 10, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them,and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28)

How do we hear Jesus today? Children will have some good answers–and some creative ones, too. Remind them that we learn to hear Jesus’ voice in scripture, through teaching and preaching, and in prayer. We have to learn to listen, and the best way to start is to pray that God will help us learn to have both listening ears and listening hearts.

Pray this or a similar prayer:

Dearest Jesus, I want to learn to listen for your voice and follow you every day of my life. Help me to listen to you. Help me to follow you. Help me to share your good news with others. I love you, Jesus, and I’m so glad you love me. Amen.

Photos: © CURAphotography – Fotolia.com, © jStock – Fotolia.com, © Ezio Gutzemberg – Fotolia.com, © kmiragaya – Fotolia.com, and © Baronb – Fotolia.com.

Filed Under: Blezard, Sharron, Lectionary Reflections, Preach, Year CTagged With: community, discipleship, Fourth Sunday of Easter Yr. C, John 10:22-30, lectionary reflection, Martin Luther, preaching, Psalm 23, stewardship