I knew very little about religion until I was 13. I had gone to a Catholic home group once, a Methodist Sunday service once, as a young’un, but it was just mystifying. The Jesus I knew was through Jesus Christ Superstar, and that was real, but limited to an album. One day at a doctor’s office I saw a tract that told me to pray some prayer. I tried it. I tried to make it mean something. I just didn’t get it.
I got bullied that year. A fellow student, named John, all year long threatened me and pushed me and waited for me around corners. I received a knife for my birthday and decided to use it. He threatened me, I pulled it out and fumbled to open it before him. He peered closer, “What’s that?” Seeing it clearly, he called out, “Mrs. Miller! Steve pulled a knife on me!”
I was caught. I was bawling. I told them what John did to me and my plan, tears streaming down my face. Being more innocent times, nothing happened to either of us, we were just kept apart.
That next summer, I got more serious about Jesus, which means going to church. I devoured the church library and became more confident in my faith.
In the middle of my freshman year in high school, John approached me alone. “What are you going to do to me? Pull a knife on me?”
“Nope. I turned away from all that. Let me tell you about Jesus.”
He quickly walked away. Nothing is as frightening as a fanatic.
Ordet is The Word. The Word is Life.
Ordet, the film, is not unlike everyday life. It is simple and the scenery is beautiful. The indoor rooms are stark and somewhat cold. People talk about their work, their religion, their hopes and their desires. And people judge each other. They point at and consider their way of life, their beliefs, inadequate. If they are not judging they understand that they are being judged, even without a word. Yet everyone tries to balance out this judging with kindness.
Inger is different, though. She always has a kind word, a positive hope for everyone. She serves everyone and dismisses their doubts and hates. Inger is the glue to keep everyone together. Everyone loves Inger. Some, like her husband, Mikke, worship her, which both embarrasses and tickles her.
And then there is Johannes. Everyone shakes their head at him, and wonder at him. They muse about how a brilliant young man could turn and become so irrational. Johannes thinks he is Jesus, the Son of God. He speaks quotes by Jesus as if he were speaking of himself. Some might call it blasphemous, but his community understands that his mind is broken. Johannes would arise early in the morning and wander in the hilltops, by the water. His family would have to wander the fields, calling out his name to bring him home. It was better when he just stayed in his room. Inevitably, especially when he heard a discussion in the living room, or a stranger, he would wander out and make a crazy pronouncement. Everyone understood. They shook their heads. So sad, how one so full of promise would one day give himself over to insanity.
Fred is a tall, lanky man with a wispy but long beard—a Gandalf beard, but not as white. He liked to walk around the block and at each corner he would spin around, stand for a moment and spin again before he walked the next section. He is pleasant to talk to, very polite and soft-spoken. As he came into a room, he would switch the light on, and then off, and then on. Sometimes a few times, just to be sure. He always took care not to offend anyone. And he was certain to pay attention to his authority, whoever that might be, whether the police or a judge. Everyone agreed that Fred is perhaps the kindest, most pleasant person to be around that they know.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He would have a balance in his life as long as he took his medication. But his medication was a burden, for it limited his thinking, as most mental health drugs have the purpose to do. So he would stop the medication and then his mother would begin to talk to him. She told him that he was being punished for his sins as a teen (many, many years ago). So he would begin to pray, outstretched on the floor. He would forget to pay his bills. He would move his furniture precisely. And then move his furniture out, piece by piece, until there was nothing left in his apartment but a blanket on the floor and a toothbrush in the bathroom. He would refrain from eating. And he would only take sips of water.
Once his pattern reached this stage, social workers would arrive with the police and take him to the hospital and then eventually transfer him to a facility who would adjust his medication until he seemed normal. Then he would return to his apartment. Until he got bad again. And then he would be sent back to the hospital. This cycle continued for years.
My fanatical commitment to religion caused me to obtain funds to go to a missions school in India. There I learned about poverty through beggars who surrounded me, especially one woman who kept stalking me until I gave her the funds she demanded. But I also learned about another brands of fanaticism of which I was not a part.
The group I was learning from was a strict Pentecostal church, who insisted that a person could not have the blessing of God unless they prayed in tongues, a mystical glossolalia. I was from a white fundamentalist church, so I understood the concept, but I had never had the experience. Never needed that kind of mysticism and it seemed a bit showy, anyway. Fine for others, not for me. But an Indian pastor on the teaching staff insisted that I figure it out. He gathered six of my peers, all of whom spoke in tongues, and sat me down and started to pray until “the spirit descended.”
After an hour of this, I did get all lightheaded and heard a voice, but I felt no compulsion to glossolize. Finally, the teacher stood up and said, “You received it! I know you did! I saw it!” I spoke back in anger, “I received something, but you don’t want to hear it.” I walked away from the group, who, I’m sure, felt that I was hopeless.
A few years later I was back in my home church, asking for permission to join their missions program, so I might return to India and Bangladesh to help the poor there. I was engaged, in Bible school, I had done all the right tests, said all the right things. The missions pastor (yes, there was a pastor just to gather funds and promote overseas evangelism in our large church) sat me down and said everything looked good, but he had questions about my fiancée. I looked at him in confusion.
“She is from an Assemblies of God church, right?”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“So she goes to a Pentecostal church?”
“Does she speak in tongues?”
“On occasion. Not in front of others.”
“Well, we just think that she isn’t the right spouse for you.”
“If you want to be a part of our missions program, you can’t be marrying a Pentecostal.”
I laughed at him and walked away. I never saw him again.
The struggle in Ordet is between people’s doubts and their commitment to religion. A- is part of the old cult, not believing in miracles, but faithfulness. Hardship and long days without any response from God has made his prayers empty, his faith cold. Piter, across town, is a deeply religious man as well, insisting that God worked strongly today, through a sense of fervency and a warming of the heart, which is the best miracle of all.
Because these groups are “so very different,” they insist the other group are full of heretics, that they may not participate in each other’s meetings, nor will they allow their young people to marry across this doctrinal border, as Anders and Anne wish to. This fanaticism and the bolding of minor lines causes great harm to both families, highlighting the cracks in the religions, causing hatred and bitterness and rejection of each other.
“What is really wrong with Fred?” I insisted. “He has strange ideas, but why should he be sent to a hospital every time he gets rid of his furniture? Why should he be given different mediation, which causes him to start all over every time?”
The mental health worker stated directly, “We are concerned about Fred’s well-being. But if you would keep an eye on him in your house, we will allow him without medication for a period of time. But if his behavior becomes dangerous, then we need to know.”
In his heart, Fred is a strict Trappist, although don’t tell him that. He wouldn’t want to be considered a Catholic, although he would just smile and say, “No, no, no, no.” Still, all day he wants to pray his ritualized prayers. He wants to read the same passages of the Bible over and over again. He wants to fast. And he wants nothing “extra” in his life. He wants a simple room. And what is wrong with living that way, I thought? Why not let him try to do it and see?
Day one: We have to convince him to eat. We think he ate.
Day three: He doesn’t wear his shirt. That’s fine. It’s hot out.
Day six: He accepts food graciously from us. We find it later in his room, untouched.
Day seven: We speak to Fred about his fasting. We get an agreement with the social worker that he can fast for a limited time, as long as he is drinking water.
Day nine: Fred stands outside humming all day, rocking back and forth.
Day ten: Fred takes off all his clothes and walks around the house. I insist that it isn’t acceptable. I tell him, “I have young girls here. You must put clothes on.”
Day twelve: Fred has only a blanket on. At least he’s covered.
Day twenty: Fred stays out all night in the rain, loudly humming so he can hear it over the downpour. We check on him and he’s freezing. We convince him to come in and change his blanket and get a shower.
Day twenty five: Fred refuses to drink water. He still isn’t eating. He is disheveled and wild-eyed. My fellow house-mates are screaming at me, telling me to do something for him.
We call the social worker, he checks Fred’s vitals and his health is dissipating. He is close to kidney failure. His personal religion is killing him.
I am dissatisfied with Bible school. They have three years to prove to me that the list of evangelical doctrines they insist upon—doctrines that I have to sign in agreement to graduate—are true in the real world. I just can’t agree.
Even if one believes the Bible there are so many holes. The Bible does not insist on, nor even mention, a Trinitarian view of God. Nor monotheism. The Bible does not even insist upon itself as an authoritative set of books. This tradition that claims it is not a tradition is full of unnecessary traditions.
I get it now. There is a group of people who have grown up with certain beliefs and they want them maintained. They will pay good money to make sure they are maintained, establish whole accredited universities to make sure they are sincerely taught by their pastors. It isn’t about a search for truth, such as my mind demands.
Eventually, in my seeking and longing, I realize that the transformation I was looking for is minimalism. The faith I would accept is the piece of information that Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t feel it necessary to report: the fact of resurrection. The kernel of truth I would hold fast to is the resurrection of Jesus. That one addition, one step beyond what history can conclude.
There is certainly a historical question that the resurrection well answers. How can a group of frightened, persecuted, ignorant Jewish peasants become the core of a major world belief? There is a black box between the disciples in the locked room and the bold statements before authorities with little to explain it. Their explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead. But only a handful of people—500 or so, according to the earliest writer—actually witnessed it. Now billions of people hold to this idea—the resurrection of the dead, that began with Inger… I mean, Jesus.
One small piece of belief, with weak historical evidence, but with enough good will and power for me to stand on. I am not, I determine, at the end of Bible school, a follower of evangelical doctrine. I am not a part of any tradition. Nor do I believe in the Bible as a whole. I am, instead, a follower of Jesus alone. That is enough for me. In this way I can accept all—including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists—even atheists-- who also honor Jesus and his teachings. I can accept all Christians, but still can stand off enough to critique. For followers of Jesus must, at minimum, not live out a pattern that is in opposition to what Jesus said and did.
That one resurrection is enough for me to see the world in a different way. It is the miracle that can help me to see life in a unique way. To be without the evil binds of religion, but to allow others the freedom to believe as they will. And the most important factor in life is love. If only I could figure out what “love” meant.
Ordet is a miracle. Watch it the first time and it is a plodding critique of religion. Watch it a second time and it is a stirring testimony to the power of faith. The movie literally transforms after seeing the last five minutes. It is like seeing a blue/green/red image and then putting on the 3D glasses. It all becomes clear.
Unimportant characters become the crux of reality. Nonsense becomes the most important truth. Everyone is transformed through death and life. And God is found: powerful and loving.
Jesus says, “The church murdered me in my own name.” And yet, through his love, through the faith of a child, the structures in which people tried to live are discovered to have no roofs, and a new structure is built.
“Ordet” means “The Word.” What is the Word? “Arise.” It is life. It is the call to come to life. It is “live and let live”. It is, “be alive to each other”.
The loophole in Fred’s religion of death was ripe to be manipulated: Authority.
Fred took his medication in the hospital and for up to six months as long as he was under a state-upheld commitment. The judge is an authority, and he will obey a judge. But once the commitment ran out, a judge could no longer maintain it. A commitment is only legal if a person is a danger to themselves or others. But at the end of six months of medication, Fred is neither, so he is released. And then he begins his downward spiral.
But if the judge appoints Fred to a particular adult foster care home as his legal authority, and one which insists that people must be on medication to live there, then there is an opportunity to end the cycle of death. On paper, and more importantly in Fred’s mind, they are the authority he must obey. And they insist that he take his medication. This is the faith that saved Fred’s life.
This is what a group of us determined. The doctor spoke to the stability of Fred’s medication, I spoke to the structure of Fred’s faith, a social worker spoke about a facility that would accept him, a judge’s assistant spoke to the legal demands. Fred was moved in within a week.
I checked on Fred a few times after he arrived in this facility. He was healthy and he told me his list of activities. He freely ate and drank.
After six months a worker in the facility gave me a call. “I’m concerned about Fred.” I steeled myself for his concern. “He doesn’t communicate much to others, he spends almost all of his time in his room. And he’s mumbling a lot. I wonder if we should force him to interact more with others.”
“Is he eating and drinking okay?”
“Oh, yes, he’s fine. He’s just not social.”
I then gave him a description of Fred’s monastic order. Fred’s necessary, balanced religion.
Fred still lives in his spare room, prays, meditates on his scripture and eats today.
In Ordet, there is so much death, uncertainty, loss and destruction. Until the true saint of the film, Ingar, dies. Suddenly, everyone is faced with their own responsibility to bring life. But I wonder, I wonder. Once Ingar is back, able to serve and mediate and love, will the balance of tensions, hatreds and boundaries return? Once someone is around who is the voice of understanding, compassion and love does that free others to rest from that work and to return to the norm, condemnation?
Is unconditional love actually freedom to establish false boundaries? Must love be silenced in order to be shared? Even as I do not know the next scene in the film, I don’t know the end of love largess.