The Exodus:5 Project
The deeps covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Exodus 15:5
There are deaths worse than fate.
More than forty years ago, there was a short-lived television show based on the comic book “Tales of the Unexpected.” It was an effort to capture the lightning that energized “The Twilight Zone,” but despite great casts and stories, it lasted only eight episodes.
I remember one of those hours vividly. It was called “The Final Chapter,” and it starred Roy Thinnes and Ned Beatty. Thinnes played a reporter doing a story on what it felt like to be on death row, and Beatty played a prison guard who had a previous grudge against Thinnes. The premise was that Thinnes was given the identity of a convicted murderer with a scheduled execution date, and one by one the people on the outside who knew his real identity disappeared from his life. In the end, only his old enemy, Beatty, knew who he really was – and he wasn’t talking.
The fateful day arrived and Thinnes was escorted to the electric chair, protesting all the way that they were making a mistake. He was strapped in and given a bite guard. The electrodes were attached to his head which was enclosed in a metal mask that held it in place. In case your TV has really delayed reception, here comes the spoiler alert. First his editor, then the warden and finally the cruel prison guard stand before him just before the switch is thrown. They confess that they cooked up the situation so he could really, deeply understand the mind of a man about to be executed. Each one apologizes, especially Ned Beatty, who admits he never really had a beef against him. They remove the mask.
He’s already dead. Boom!
Prof. Alan Mittleman of the Jewish Theological Seminary is the author of a book called Hope in a Democratic Age. With thoroughness, he traces the notion of hope through history and philosophies and comes to the conclusion that hope is not merely wishful thinking, but a virtue – an admirable and moral expectation that things will get better. It is a positive outlook on the trajectory of life, even when immediate evidence seems to point in another direction.
The poor character in the television show had lost hope. Struggling against a dilemma in which he had been complicit, he was brought to the threshold of despair and abandoned. Strapped into the chair and wired up to the generator, life lost its meaning. He sank like a stone in a pond.
It will likely surprise you that I believe this character might have been saved if he had held closely to a little bit of doubt, of skepticism. A life governed by doubt is a life of disappointment. There is no ability to be happy or satisfied because nothing is dependable. But a life governed by certainty in any value or virtue – by unshakeable faith – is a life which can be shattered in the moment of clarity that is inevitable. There is no such thing as a sure thing. That’s what Roy Thinnes’s character discovered, and it killed him.
Whenever I have seen depictions of Pharaoh’s legions drowning as the parted sea returns to its natural state, they show horses rearing on their hind legs and charioteers flailing to save themselves. Unlike the Israelites who had to be persuaded walk through the parted sea, the Egyptians charged ahead with unshakeable faith. When the waters gave way, the verse from the Song at the Sea tells us, they sank like stones. I imagine that a moment that allowed no uncertainty was fatal to the soul and maybe even the body when that certitude dissolved (quite literally).
I don’t care if you understand this story literally or not. The point is the same. A healthy skepticism is the best preventative of catastrophic disappointment. Those who allow no space between their beliefs and the many possible realities will, without a monumental amount of luck or inexhaustible supply of denial, become the victim of their own confidence.
When I listen to prominent pastors deflect the flaws of public figures out of a desire to justify their previous faith, not in God, but in the politician, I am deeply saddened. Their hope is intact, but it is hope in a false goal. Religious life in general is under a certain amount of well-deserved scrutiny fueled by cynicism and suspicion, and prominent charioteers whose destination is the past will eventually be stopped by a doubt beyond their capacity. And then, they will sink like stones.