I had never been attracted to religion although there was always a longing within me to connect to God. There were moments where I could have been defined as an agnostic or an atheist, but overall I have always been a mystic. I have always believed in a spiritual reality From my earliest memories, I was on a conscious and concerted search for God. But frankly, religion, though I was open to it in my youth, would have been the last place I would have thought you could find God. Churches and cathedrals seemed more like prisons where people were held hostage and God was held for ransom. Behind the piety of stained glass and pews were the bars and chains of guilt and shame.
Maybe that’s why few movies affected me as much as The Shawshank Redemption. I’m not a big fan of prison movies, and this one is pretty hard to watch, but Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman pull off what I think is Stephen King’s best story. The story revolves around Andy Dufresne, who was wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder. He is the one genuinely innocent person in the vile prison known as Shawshank. He teams up with a convict named Red who is the only prisoner who actually claims to be guilty. Nothing seems to stop Andy from both rising above the inhumanity of prison life and eventually finding a way to escape.
The tagline of Shawshank is, “Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free.” The most important point though is that the warden was a Bible thumping Christian. You know, a God-fearing man. I can’t read Stephen King’s mind, but whether intentional or incidental, he speaks for a lot of people who feel Christianity is a prison that holds us captive through fear and condemnation. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the powerbrokers who wield their self-righteous judgments over us are violent, corrupt hypocrites who are simply using religion to advance their own greed and hatred. But if you don’t give up, if you don’t lose hope, you might be able to break free from them.
The Shawshank Redemption is a harsh reminder that Christianity as a religion has often been a part of the problem and not the solution. Way too many things have been done in the name of Christ that Jesus has had no part in. And while you and I may bear no personal responsibility for the Crusades, we are entirely responsible for the genuineness of our own faith and how that faith is lived out in community through the local church. When what was intended to be a community of faith, hope and love becomes an institution known more for self-righteousness, judgmentalism and hypocrisy, we become our own version of a religious civilization. We become essentially civilized religionists and lose our primal spirituality. When we allow our faith to become domesticated, we become a part of the problem. Saturday Night Live didn’t make up the church lady, the church did. Dana Carvey just borrowed her from us.
Somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to become a poor imitation of the real thing. Ironically, what I am finding all over this planet are followers of Jesus Christ who no longer want to be identified with Christians—or at least Christians who are sick and tired of Christianity. They, too, want to break free from the prison that bears the name of Christ and uses the Bible to hold people captive. They are finding the courage to break free of the expectations that come with being civilized and rediscovering the purity and beauty of authentic faith.
This is an important thing to know about a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. You can civilize them for a while, but in the end, God will unleash the untamed faith within them. One difference between lions and tigers, I’m told, is that lions are more easily domesticated than tigers. The reason is that lions hunt only for the purpose of eating. Hunting for them is motivated by hunger. Tigers are different. Tigers hunt for the sheer thrill of the chase. When your pleasure is the hunting and not just the eating, it is much more difficult to be domesticated. All you have to do is keep a lion fed and you will most likely be safe. A tiger is always ready to involve you in a game of tag. You’re it.
At the most primal level, this is supposed to be the difference between Christianity and all other world religions. Other religions hunt for the purpose of survival. They are desperately trying to appease God. All their efforts and energy are motivated by fear, guilt and the unsatisfied hunger of their soul. Genuine followers of Jesus Christ are more like tigers. The thrill is in the hunt We have met God. We have tasted deeply of Him. We are not trapped in an endless effort to earn God’s love and secure our place in the afterlife. We have found freedom in Jesus Christ, and in Him we are fully alive. Our faith is not motivated by a desperate effort to satisfy God, but the unspeakable pleasure of knowing Him. You can train a tiger, but you can’t tame him. God never intended to tame us, but to unleash an untamed faith.
Like a savage coming from the wilderness, we engage this new civilization known as Christianity. We all face the temptation of choosing to become domesticated. A raw faith is always undomesticated, barbaric and primal. The best parallels I can think of to describe our potential domestication and need to rediscover our primal faith are found in mythology. Romulus and Remus, we are told, were raised by wolves and later became the founders of Rome; Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli was lost in the jungle and also raised by wolves, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan was lost in the wild and raised by apes.
All of them were raised in the wild and found themselves barbarians in the midst of civilization. Even when they learned how to survive and even thrive among the civilized, it was never possible to fully domesticate them. There was always something raw and untamed about who they were. They were fully human, but their primal nature had been awakened, and it could never be put to sleep. Though they dressed like gentlemen, there was always the look of the wild in their eyes. Even when they found their places among the civilized, there was always a sense that they belonged to the wild and to live anywhere else was to be out of place.
There are some things once born in you that are impossible to reverse. It’s not that they have control over you; it’s that they always shape who you are. Superficial changes can be easily discarded. External changes, however powerful, can eventually be broken. These legends each allude to a primal change, an unleashing of something deep within the human soul waiting to be awakened. In some ways, these stories hold a hope that somewhere deep within us lies divine potential to become more than we are when we simply conform. Is it possible that only God can awaken a humanity greater than what we have created together? It is a hope that if somehow we unlock our souls and unleash our faith, we could become what we were genuinely created to be. Each story points to a longing that resides in all of us to find the barbarian way out of civilization, which is where I found myself shortly after choosing to follow Jesus. In the end, we have to decide whether we’re going to be the wardens keeping people in cages or the tigers who refuse to be caged. In other words, we must choose the barbarian way out of civilization.