Toxic Christianity in The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is pervaded with great lines and rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity. When Andy and the other prisoners make their first appearance before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. He has one of the prisoners beaten for asking, “When do we eat?” Holding a Bible, he tells the prisoners, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”
The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. But it’s clear from the beginning of his appearance in the story that his Christianity is in name only. In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell. He takes Andy’s Bible as Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth. He does not open the Bible, which is good since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through the cell wall is hidden inside. When he hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.”
The final verse that the warden quotes is John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian.
Christianity (as well as toxic religion in general) can be as deadly and destructive as it can be redemptive and life-giving. I sense that for a number of people who wear the badge of Christian faith, their faith has become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego. I suppose we are all guilty of this to one degree or another.
Religion can become a clever way for us to feel secure, to feel superior (we are the ones chosen while the rest are passed over and excluded), and to be in control. Jesus, in the Gospels, saw right through this. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus found hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight (read John 9).
Authentic spirituality is not about being correct or citing Bible passages. It’s not about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. It’s about being humble enough to admit that we are blind, so that the Divine Spirit can lead us to a place where we can see.
There is no magic formula: Believe this, do this, practice this. There are no four spiritual laws, five steps, six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. But somehow our illusions must be exposed and we must face the many ways we parade and protect our egos. Somehow we must surrender to a greater Love and greater Story, instead of being so absorbed in our own little stories where we are so easily offended and hurt, and become bitter, jealous and resentful people. Somehow we must let go of our passion for power, prestige, and possessions that dominates Western life, and become more passionate about what Jesus called the
. kingdom of God
I wish I could offer you a prescription, but there is none, other than following Jesus. Transformative spiritual persons are fairly easy to detect, though. You can see the Love and Compassion in their eyes, their face, their words and gestures. Their whole body radiates the light of Christ. They are gentle, understanding, humble, empathetic, and at the same time, they can be bold, courageous, and unafraid to challenge the powers that be.
Why are there so few transformed people today in Western/American Christianity? Or even better, why has my own (your own) spiritual growth been so slow and difficult? Interested in your response: email@example.com.