The Shawshank Redemption came out 20 years ago today and remains at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is punctuated with great lines and saturated with rich spiritual symbolism.
The warden, Samuel Norton, functions as an icon of toxic Christianity. The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. It becomes clear, however, from the moment he appears in the story that his Christianity is in name only. His faith has holes in it larger than the one Andy Dufresne chiseled through his cell wall.
When Andy and the other new prisoners are first introduced to the warden and prison life, the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. When one of the prisoners asks, “When do we eat?” the warden has him beaten. Holding out a Bible he says, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”
Contrast the scene above with the one in Luke 4 where Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, applies Isaiah 61 to his mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell and lays hold of his Bible. Andy and the warden engage in Bible ping pong quoting Scripture. The warden does not open the Bible, which is a good thing since hidden inside is the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through his cell wall.
When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.”
This is a classic blunder of fundamentalism: Salvation is inseparably bound to the Bible. And the Bible is equated with what fundamentalists say the Bible says – the Bible and their interpretation of the Bible become synonymous. As a consequence their conception of salvation is explicitly connected to propositional, dogmatic assertions derived from a particular reading and interpretation of the Bible. So whenever their view of salvation is questioned, they charge their opponents with denying the Bible.
I believe Christian salvation can be legitimately described in a number of different ways, but at the heart of it is a dynamic, interactive, transformative relationship with the Really Real – the Divine who is both within us and beyond us.
One way of describing the differences between a fundamentalist, toxic version of salvation and one that is more redemptive and liberating is by observing the distinction between moralism and mysticism (thanks to Richard Rohr for setting these two terms in juxtaposition).
Moralism is about saying pledges, earning badges, enforcing purity laws, believing dogmatic certitudes, and running endlessly on a treadmill of meritocracy that distributes rewards and punishments based on one’s performance.
Mysticism (the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality) is about discovering who you already are – a beloved daughter and son of God, and falling in love with a Lover whose grace is inexhaustible and whose love knows no bounds.
The warden’s interchange with Andy ends with the warden quoting 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.
Religion can easily become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego — a way for us to feel secure, superior, safe, and in control. Jesus saw right through this.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus enjoyed hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? The gatekeepers were invited, but they didn’t want any part of those Jesus kept company with. The religious officials were not comfortable around Jesus, while many “sinners” were drawn to him.
Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight.
What would Jesus say to warden Samuel Norton? Perhaps what he said to the religious leaders in John 9 when they asked him sarcastically: “Surely we (the religious experts, the gatekeepers, the ‘spiritual’ ones) are not blind, are we?”
“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Is there a bit of Samuel Norton in all of us? I suspect there is. If we are certain that we see, then we are probably blind, and our sin (our illusions, ego defenses, false attachments, addictions to power, control, etc.) remain.
Healthy religion and authentic spirituality have nothing to do with being correct, citing Bible verses, or ingesting the right formula. There is no “Roman Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” that automatically lead to salvation.
What we Christians have is Jesus. And the real test of genuine faith is whether or not we have the passion and will to imitate him – to love the way he loved.
There are two dramatic scenes that I like to imagine represent the outcomes of these two different approaches to Christianity (or religion in general):
Scene 1: On a night of heavy thunder and rain, Andy crawls through the hole he has patiently dug month after month, year after year from inside his cell. He reaches a pipe barely large enough for a human body, full of sludge, which eventually empties into a creek beyond the prison fence. With the storm as a cover, he busts through the pipe, crawling through the sludge. When he eventually “dumps” into the creek, he rips off his prison clothes in a moment of jubilation celebrating his new found liberation.
Scene 2: Samuel Norton unlocks his safe hidden behind a picture his wife made for him that reads: God’s righteous judgment cometh soon. He learns that Andy has taken all the documents that would expose his money laundering scheme. Shortly thereafter, as sirens blare and federal agents make their way to his office to arrest him, he loads his gun, shoves it into his chin, and pulls the trigger. A desperate end to a despicable life.
Andy’s experience can be our experience when we follow Jesus into a larger world beyond the prison walls of Bible worship and toxic religion – a world permeated and pervaded by love of God and love of neighbor.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.