My Life in Movies: The Wizard of Oz

My Life in Movies: The Wizard of Oz March 20, 2014

followingtumbleweedAn old mentor of mine tells a story of how he went from being a promising young Baptist evangelist in the late 50’s and early 60’s to leaving paid ministry altogether. His complete departure from what he called “the religious system” didn’t result from a failure to thrive in that system; on the contrary, to hear him tell it he was doing quite well. He had published a couple of popular manuals on church growth and had helped pioneer the use of door-to-door surveys as a means of evangelism a few short years before D. James Kennedy popularized the same idea in his Evangelism Explosion. He was also tapped to interview Christian leaders in high government positions amidst one of the early attempts to coalesce “values voters” into a unified voting bloc more than a decade before Paul Weyrich would attempt (and largely accomplish) the same thing through founding ALEC, The Heritage Foundation, and Falwell’s Moral Majority. My friend tells of how he got to attend high-level meetings with some of the biggest names in Evangelical Christian leadership only to discover that the people at the top had nothing intelligent to say about the issues that confronted them. He got to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and from that experience he learned that there was no magic there, no special anointing, no divine empowering to guide the legends of the faith he had previously come to idolize. He was having his Wizard of Oz moment, and it wouldn’t be long until he would leave the Evangelical world in search of an alternative. His experience took him out of one Christian subculture and into another. Mine simply took me one step further.

We Have Met the Wizard and He Is Us

Consider for a moment what happened in Oz. Dorothy found herself in a bizarre and unfamiliar land run by a wizard whom few were ever allowed to see. Everyone implicitly trusted the wizard because he could do things no one else could do. Wonder and awe kept most of the citizens of Oz at a safe distance, spellbound by his booming voice and his Big Giant Head. But Dorothy was desperate. She needed to get home and she would not be turned away for fear of the wizard. She was compelled to press through to meet the man himself. He gave her a special set of instructions which she followed to the letter. She reported back to him only to discover that he was really just a regular man, powerless to do anything to truly help her. In fact, he wasn’t able to do anything except feed and maintain the illusion that he was something larger than life. The Lion had to provide his own courage, the Tin Man his own heart, and the Scarecrow his own brains. Even Dorothy’s trip “home” turned out to be her own doing. In reality, of course, this whole story was her creation because it was all just a dream. This tempts me to bring in Inception for a bit, but I’ll need to save that for another post :)

The citizens of Oz truly believed that a great and powerful wizard was running the show, and this belief enabled the Emerald City to function the way it did. The whole enterprise depended on maintaining that illusion. But Dorothy’s determination to win an audience with the man himself led to the discovery that he was indeed just a man. No special powers. No Big Giant Head. Just a guy behind a curtain pulling levers and pushing buttons.


This is an excellent picture of what happened to my friend who won an audience with the legendary leaders of postwar Evangelicalism and it’s also a great illustration of what happens to people like me. Our hunger to take hold of reality in our Christian experience put us ahead of the pack. We surpassed our peers in passion, in studiousness, in commitment, and in self-sacrifice. The system rewards people like us by putting us up front so that we can lead everyone else by our example. But a funny thing happens on the way to the sanctuary. One day it becomes our responsibility to produce the effect that mesmerizes the spellbound “people in the pew.” We no longer get to sit and enjoy the show, watching the magic unfold before our eyes. It eventually falls to us to make the magic happen. We have to start pulling the levers and pushing the buttons ourselves, at which point it begins to dawn on some of us that this is all an illusion, and that we are the ones creating it.

Those of us who realized this discovered that our faith was based on a complex set of well-protected illusions. We didn’t discover this because we had set out to contradict our beliefs in any way. It’s not that our hearts weren’t in the right place, as our critics always insist because that would make them feel better somehow. On the contrary, it was precisely because we wanted to believe it all that we pressed farther into the sanctuary to look behind the curtain. We were looking to support our faith, not dismantle it. But what we found is that in reality we are the only wizards. We make all these things happen ourselves. All that awe and wonder surrounding the Big Giant Head is just pyrotechnics, smoke, and booming sound effects. We discovered this not because we wanted our whole mental world destroyed but because we were trying to validate it. What we found instead was that it was based on an illusion, and thus for us the spell was finally broken. For those performing the illusions, the magic is gone.

When that time comes you have to make a decision. Do you stay and continue to play this game? Some choose to do that even though they’ve figured out it’s not real. If they were to “fess up,” they would lose everything: their income, their reputation, the admiration of the community, all their friends, and maybe even their families. The cost is high, lemme tell ya. So I can understand why many count the cost only to decide they need to just try and forget about the whole thing. Take the blue pill. Maybe go postmodern and dive into the gelatinous mental world of “radical theology” (long, complicated topic that I’ll cover another day). Whatever works to keep your world from falling apart. Some will simply find a way to twist the logic of what’s happening so that they convince themselves God is hiding, secretly making them do whatever they’re doing anyway, so it’s all good. One way or another this cognitive dissonance must be remedied. The only solution that I could live with was to embrace the discovery and follow the evidence wherever it leads. That’s how I responded to my Wizard of Oz moment.

I couldn’t possibly tell others going through the same thing what they’re supposed to do because I understand all too well how much you can lose. The spell won’t be broken for the rest of the citizens of Oz. You’ll have to deal with their anger and judgment for abandoning the illusion around which their community is built. The backlash may prove too severe. Your best bet is probably to quietly begin learning a trade so that you can slowly transition yourself out of the situation you’re in. Maybe folks over at the Clergy Project can help, or perhaps some of my friends at Recovering from Religion. Whatever you decide to do, the world will keep spinning, and life will go on. At the very least you should know that there are many of us out here who have been through this disorienting experience and made it out alive. We’re here to chat with when the time comes.

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  • mikespeir

    “Our hunger to take hold of reality in our Christian experience put us ahead of the pack.”

    And there have been Christian commenters on this very blog whom I suspect are on the same path right now; although, like you and me at one time, they can’t see that they are. I’d like to hear from them again in five or ten years.

  • Re: My Life in Movies: I’d love to hear your take on the Matrix trilogy!

  • Agreed. I’m personally convinced that those who throw themselves the hardest into apologetics do so because they themselves need the most convincing.

  • I’ll get to it eventually. The problem there is that there’s SO MUCH. I have to be a bit selective or I’ll never get the thing finished.

  • Thinker1121

    I think that where one ends up also depends on where they start. For example, a Christian who grows up in an evangelical church will probably internalize a view that “being Christian” is about having the right supernatural beliefs. So embracing modern biblical scholarship that separates the myth of Jesus from the historical Jesus will likely destroy the faith of that person. If, however, a Christian grows up in a church that embraces a view that “being Christian” is about a lifestyle and how to interact with the world, then it’s possible that modern scholarship won’t bother them as much, because for them being Christian is not really about belief in things unseen anyway (e.g. If the point of being a Christian is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by serving others, then what difference does it make if Jesus wasn’t really born of a virgin or wasn’t really raised from the dead?). I think this is the perspective that Marcus Borg and other liberal Christian scholars have, and these are the voices that productively engage modern scholarship and science and generally have no need for apologetics.

    I agree with Neil’s view on apologetics. Generally speaking, I have trouble buying into any “factual statement” about Jesus unless both atheists and Christians (and scholars of other faiths) all agree that it is factual.

  • The problem with getting a glimpse behind the curtain is that you cannot forget what you’ve seen. It would have been impossible for Dorothy to continue to believe in a powerful wizard once she had seen the little man behind the curtain.

    I’ve been told that when I repent of my unbelief and come back to Christ that I can be restored to relationship with my daughters and granddaughters. The pain of that reality is so great at times that I actually consider trying to do it. Here’s my question- genuinely asking: HOW? What would be the steps I could possibly take to venture down a road of faith again? I have tried to work through a scenario in my mind, and I can’t do it.

  • mikespeir

    It’s the same with me. I try to imagine what it would take to make me believe again and can’t. I suppose God, if he’s really all Christians say he is, could come up with something that would convince me of his existence. But there would still be the problem of why I should think he’s a great guy and that I should serve him. He’d have a powerful lot of ‘splainin’ to do. I’m not sure how it would be possible to let an all-pwerful, omniscient God off the hook for the way he’s running the show.

  • you forget, Mike. FREE WILL. FALLEN WORLD. Those are the magic words that let God off the hook. It’s a fool-proof formula. He (his minions) have created the perfect scenario: he gets credit for the good, and a free pass for the bad.

  • mikespeir

    Wow, I wish I was God! ;-)

  • I’ve often thought that if people close to me had shown the same deference to my judgment as they do to this person (who to my knowledge doesn’t even exist) I’d be above reproach. I could never do any wrong, and I’d always come out smelling like a rose no matter what I did.

  • ctcss

    “He got to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and from that experience he learned that there was no magic there, no special anointing, no divine empowering to guide the legends of the faith he had previously come to idolize.”

    First big mistake right there. Why was this religious person idolizing a human or humans in the first place? You don’t have to be religious to fall for personality worship. People do in in all areas of life. Adherence to (or worship of) a person rather than principle leads to entirely secular problems like Watergate or the Penn State scandal. A thoughtful approach will help avoid problems like those in all areas of life, including religion.

    Religion should not cause a person to abandon thinking (although a shallow approach to religion might.) Any helpful approach to religion should actually demand rather deep thinking. That’s because religion is about ideas and concepts relating to God, rather than the humanly familiar, everyday things. And because it is about God, a person can’t simply assume that they have already covered this ground and have nothing more to learn in this area. At least as I was taught it, a person is suppose to learn to approach the concepts expressed in religion in a deeper way. For instance, as Jesus pointed out, love, as God expresses it, cannot be just reserved for those people whom one feels most comfortable with, or whom one favors. Jesus said that sinners also love those who love them, so simply loving one’s neighbor isn’t a very high bar to clear. Love, as God expresses it, has to be universal, infinite, and eternal. Thus love has to be there even for one’s enemies, no matter how jarring or off-putting that concept might be for a person to consider. So if a person wishes to follow God, they will most likely need to repent (which means to rethink, reconsider) what they may be currently thinking and doing. Granted, trying to successfully do this is most definitely a non-trivial endeavor. However, learning any deep subject area is also likely to be a non-trivial endeavor, so this should be no surprise to anyone.

    So instead of worshiping individuals because of their seeming stature, it would be more helpful for a person to actually learn more about (and attempt to master) the subject area being studied. For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense for a student of calculus to worship their teacher in order to make progress in their course. Rather, it would make a whole lot more sense for them to listen to instruction, study the subject, attempt to solve the problems, and then ask questions when confused by what seem to be tricky points. Similarly, a lawyer should not try to cozy up to a judge that they will be appearing before in order to get a favorable judgement. Rather, they should work towards understanding the principles of law so that their practice before the bar builds a solid and successful case for their client.

    The Wizard of Oz problem comes up when people simply worship a person rather than trying to understand and work with principle. Dorothy succeeded when she and her friends insisted on principle rather than bowing and scraping before a personality. God, at least as I was taught, is unchanging and unvarying. Therefore, in order to follow God in a helpful way, I was taught that one must work to be in harmony with God, just as one would need to work in harmony with the rules of mathematics or of law. (It certainly wouldn’t make any sense to work against the very principle(s) one is trying to adhere to or depend on. For justice to exist at all, it has to exist for everyone. For rules of mathematics to be useful to everyone, they must apply everywhere.)

    So, if a person looks behind the curtain and encounters unvarying principle rather than varying personality, they might actually find themselves more likely to be reassured and encouraged rather than disillusioned. So when I think of God, I am not looking for a human personality writ large that I somehow need to placate. I am looking for a universal principle that I can rely on no matter where I find myself. Anything less would not seem to be fill the bill as God.

    Anyway, that concept is what makes belief in God work for me.

  • There’s a great line in a song by America (70’s band alert!) called “Tin Man” that says: “Oz never gave anything to the tin man, that he didn’t- didn’t already have”.

    I think that’s the greater message in the Oz movie. To me, anyway, it’s not so much about the leaders of Christianity, and their make-believe reality; it’s that Oz himself- the big man; GOD…is a mirage behind a big curtain. To focus on the fallacy of worshipping certain leaders and miss the point of the fallacy of worshipping a hidden God, is to miss the greater point.

    Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Lion…they had what they were looking for all along. No one- not Oz; not Yahweh, not Jesus, had to give it to them. Loving one another; being kind instead of mean; serving, giving…those are not exclusively Christian ideals. They are common throughout humanity, and we don’t need to bow and scrape before an invisible, inconsistent deity in order to live those kinds of lives.

    We do those things because that is simply a better way to live. Not so that we get to (selfishly) go to heaven when we die.

  • wsbivens

    Here is a documentary that exposes the racket:

  • David W

    “To focus on the fallacy of worshipping certain leaders and miss the point of the fallacy of worshipping a hidden God, is to miss the greater point.”

    This is a nicely put response to ctcss’ comment.

    The only change I would make is that I would replace ‘hidden God’ with ‘non-existent God.’

  • I was trying to give the big man in the sky the benefit of the doubt :)

  • That’s what I get for using a word loaded with baggage like the word “idolize.” I practically asked for a sermon about worshiping God instead of worshiping people. I have three basic reactions:

    1) Despite the fact that I foolishly used a word borrowed from theism (idolatry implies that an invalid object of worship is usurping the place of a valid object of worship), I really just meant that he looked up to them greatly. You couldn’t resist preaching, though.

    2) Following a man is biblical. Paul said it at least twice: “Be imitators of me,” he said (see 1 Cor. 4:16 and 11:1). Having mentors, heroes, leaders, etc is not an invalid model of learning within the Christian faith so please spare me the talk about how you shouldn’t follow men.

    3) To keep with the Wizard metaphor, you are talking as if there really were a real magical wizard behind the poseur they encountered. I do not concede that. The whole thing was an illusion.

    I’m saying the Emperor has no clothes and you’re telling me I’m just not looking at them correctly.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Humans believe they must explain everything so they invented religion and it has become “The Neverending Story” because the more we explain with religion the more things we find we don’t know and must explain.

  • ctcss

    I really just meant that he looked up to them greatly.

    What makes you think I didn’t understand that point, especially since I referred to the Watergate and the Penn State scandals? No one was building a religious shrine to Nixon, nor to the coaching staff at Penn State. However, what happened there was the result of putting person ahead of principle. If your friend was impressed by his leaders but later on found out that the emperor had no clothes, how is that any different from those who gave undue fealty to Nixon, or to Paterno and Sandusky, and then later on found out they should not have? When a person’s position allows them to be given a pass when serious questions should be asked, that should be an automatic red flag. (And no, I am not saying your friend’s leaders were guilty of a crime as Nixon or the coaches were, just that they apparently lacked the substance he thought they had and no one ever thought to question them about it seriously, merely because of who they were.)

    I do think it is rather neat that your friend figured things out and followed a more productive path later on. He is to be commended for doing so IMO. I did not mean to imply anything negative about his character at all. He sounds like a very solid and sincere person.

    The point is, to avoid problems, it’s best to avoid “worshiping” a person. We all have clay feet of one sort or another and those who give us too much credit or deference are likely to be disappointed when our clay is exposed. That’s why I like Jesus’ statement “Why callest me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.”

    Following a man is biblical. Paul said it at least twice: “Be imitators of me,” he said (see 1 Cor. 4:16 and 11:1). Having mentors, heroes, leaders, etc is not an invalid model of learning within the Christian faith so please spare me the talk about how you shouldn’t follow men.

    In 1 Cor 4 Paul is warning the Corinthians about having a false sense of pride and warning them not to go around citing one’s teacher as a bragging point. He wants them to follow his example of humility, not to continue on proudly as they seemed to be doing. Paul further points out that only God can truly give an accurate judgment of a person’s merit. He is unwilling to even hold himself up as being without fault. And in I Cor 11:1 he is pointing out that they need to follow Christ, just as he is trying to follow Christ.

    This does not appear to be about having human heroes. Heroes can fall down, as Paul did rather spectacularly by appealing to Caesar (Acts 25:11) rather than relying on God for his safety. (Not his finest moment IMO.)

    The point is, following a human is bound to end in sadness unless that person is completely following God. In which case, it would seem most logical for a person to simply follow God themselves from the get go. I’m not saying that teachers aren’t needed. It’s just that the student shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that their human teacher/mentor knows everything and can do no wrong. That’s worshiping a person. The student needs to develop their own relationship with any subject being taught (in this case, God), otherwise how will they ever be sure that they understand it?

    To keep with the Wizard metaphor, you are talking as if there really were a real magical wizard behind the poseur they encountered.

    I’m not sure I’m following you here. All I was saying (regarding Dorothy and her friends arguing with the Wizard after they had come back with the broomstick) is that they succeeded by not being put off by (or bowing down to) his puffery (the bells and whistles of his imagery), but insisted instead that principle needed to be adhered to.

    Was the wizard a fraud? Of course he was. But he admitted as much when he was exposed and then tried to help them simply as the human he actually was.

    I’m saying the Emperor has no clothes and you’re telling me I’m just not looking at them correctly.

    If by this quote you are referring to your post in it’s entirety, I’d say you are correct in that you never found anyone who lived up to their billing, including yourself. But if your teachers/elders were apparently lacking in their own substance and ability (which seems to be what you concluded), it would reasonably follow that the person they taught (you) would not have been very well served by their apparently less than adequate efforts.

    So your own admitted failure is not actually your fault, it’s theirs (at least as I see it). They should have been honest with you that they were, in essence, doing nothing more than putting on a show. (Once again, your apparent conclusion.) Furthermore, they should have revealed that fact to you (as an enthusiastic and promising young student) right up front. That would have given you the opportunity to decide early on whether you felt comfortable just putting on a show (as they apparently were), or felt the need to find teachers who weren’t willing to leave things at that level, if any of that sort could be found.

    It seems unlikely that we will agree about whether belief in God has merit or not. (i.e. whether there are actually clothes to be seen.) I think there are. You don’t. I think there is far more to delve into (from what I have seen and experienced) and far more to see, simply because I do see (what I believe to be) God as being helpful and useful. You seem to think you have seen enough relating to belief in God and that none of it was adequate or helpful.

    But just to be clear, I don’t think that we are even looking at the same thing. So it’s not a question of both of us looking at the emperor and arguing over whether or not clothes are there. I actually think your view is accurate. But I don’t think I am looking at what you are looking at. If I was, I think I would agree with you and abandon my belief in God.

    Basically, you appear to be looking at matter and I am not. You claim that you cannot see God in matter. I agree with you. The emperor called “matter” has no clothes. Matter is finite, mindless, and indifferent. It governs (and is ruled) by chance. Such qualities are totally inadequate for God. That’s why I am not looking for God in matter. Matter is wholly inadequate to express the nature of God.

    So, like Abraham, I am looking “for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” And such a destination lies in a very different direction from matter and materialism.