Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday Musings: When Eustace Was A Dragon

 
 
I had a fight the other day.
It was a conflict of opinion, a clash of personalities (if you will), and the other person was being "insensitive" (I felt) so I went with a knee-jerk reaction and dished it right back out at them. In their face! They should know better than to argue with me or expect me to act in a way more suited to who they want me to be. I'm a deep-thinker and highly sensitive; I react strongly to being told I am wrong. 

IT'S JUST WHO I AM.

My personality type.
My zodiac sign.
My sixteen-point profile.
My "spiritual gift."
ME.

I have been wrestling with this concept and the inherent issue for quite some time, and I just recently got some new inspiration, so I am hoping that by trying to organize things in this blog post, I may be able to make sense of it for myself, and perhaps help others at the same time.

THE CONCEPT: Who We Are

Who are you? How would you describe yourself to a total stranger? An online acquaintance? A prospective employer? A prospective date? A friend? A long-lost relative?

How would you describe yourself to God?

The thing I have noticed in all these personality quizzes that are taking social media by storm, the thing I observed in real life that brought on this problem is that:
All the quizzes in existence have a limited number of results. And none of them will be completely, 100 percent ME.
As Rocket says...

And we are okay with that. 
I kid you not, one quiz, I knew exactly the outcome I wanted, and I knew exactly how to choose my answers to get that outcome—and I got what I wanted.
Getting into a box is very easy, no? You just have to go through the motions. Give all the right answers, whether you believe them or not. Either that, or your choices are A, B, or C. You can't just go and make up a choice M because it would be more accurate. So you pick the "lesser of two unrelatables" because it's cool or it's the best option the quiz has to offer.

But how does this play out in real life? It's not as easy to fake your way into a "box" with actual live interactions. No, there is where the real you comes out; the "you" that is unlike anybody else. The "you" that is so engrained into the very fiber of your being that your first response is as reflexive as a knee jerk.

See where I'm going with this?

We each of us have an identity in ourselves. That identity is as much a part of us as our own skin. It's as much a part of our actions as breathing, and requires about as much concentration. We can no easier ignore this identity of ours, with its drives and its flaws, than we can peel our own skin off down to the muscle. We end up with these reactions because we don't want to think about what our response is doing to the other person. That takes a level of personal responsibility that requires NOT thinking about our own feelings for a moment—and that's not something we want to give up.

Side note: May I make an extra point here that identity has nothing to do with gender? In this day and age, when people are trying to say that gender is just a state of mind—to which I say: "You can swap the gender, but the person will still have the same problems." A vain, self-absorbed, unrestrained, discontented man will become a vain, self-absorbed, unrestrained, discontented woman. The appearance changed, but the identity did not. (Just a passing thought, with not as much weight as the rest of this post... But still something to consider...)

THE ISSUE: When We Are Redeemed

The issue, once we've identified ourselves, is then what we do with that identity; how we use it to excuse ourselves when we are being rude ("It's just how my brain works!") or selfish ("I can't help who I am!") or greedy ("I need to be treated in this way or I don't feel loved!") and justify our behavior ("It's just who I am! You're asking me to change myself?") in pride—
There's the problem with this. I cannot see that the way I am acting is "wrong" if it feels "right" according to "my personality."

In thinking about this issue of identity, I suddenly recalled the scene in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," when Eustace visits an island and "becomes" a dragon.

We can all look at the fictional character's behavior in the book and agree that, if there ever was an anthropomorphic dragon, he would have the same reactions and behaviors as Eustace.
What if I concluded, then, that the magic on the island didn't turn Eustace into a dragon, it manifested the dragon that was his true identity? If you recall, he still had all his memories and human cognizance he was the same Eustace on the inside. Only his appearance had changed.

Eustace is us; there will come a time when we will, if we do not deal with it, become the very thing we fear, the thing we do not understand–and yet something we recognize all too clearly as what was deep inside us suddenly bursts to the forefront overnight, creating chaos and driving away those closest to us.

What happens when we are redeemed?
It's a word that those of us who have heard the Gospel and believed understand. We Christians are familiar with the concept: Jesus Christ redeemed the souls of anyone who would believe Him and place their faith in Him as Lord, and He did it by dying by crucifixion and taking the blame for our sin in the eyes of His Father, the Almighty God. God recognized the sacrifice and the shed blood of His Son as full payment for the judgement that we had earned by the mere fact that we were born with the personalities and the proclivity to know what it meant to behave the way He wanted and do the opposite: live for our own comfort, success, and the pursuit of what makes us happy.

Back to Eustace: what happens once the dragon is manifested? If you've read the book, you know how it continues. Eustace encounters Aslan (the allegorical representation of Christ) and is instructed to "undress."
In other words, he must remove his own skin.

Remember what I said about our identity being part of us like the skin we wear? Early societies believed the seat of the person to be somewhere among the internal organs, like the heart. I say "skin" when referring to the identity of our person because it is an incredibly resilient organ. Burn it, slice it, stretch it, pierce it—it will always grow back. It is constantly refreshing itself, but we never notice because in the absence of any drastic and direct changes to affect the growth, the new is just about the exact same as the old, right down to the cellular level. Plus, it's the only organ not relegated to one area, but spread out over the entire body. It's the thing keeping our insides from becoming our outsides. It's the first line of defense our body has so that the very air around us doesn't poison us. Without our skin, we would just be a pile of innards and bones, barely contained in muscle, tissue and tendons. 

Without our identities, we wouldn't know ourselves from any other.

Sure gives a new meaning to what you may have (till now) assumed was a children's book, doesn't it?

Anyway, Eustace is on the path to redemption, trying to do his almighty best to oblige Aslan and get his skin off—but every time he tries, there's always another layer. 
I highly doubt Lewis was implying solely that the human personality is comprised of layer upon layer of complexity, even in one's own view of oneself. What he may have been implying was that, in all of the self-driven efforts to follow God's direction when He wants us to "put off the old man" as Paul says (Ephesians 4:22-24)—there's always a part of ourselves that we have become blind to, a skin-within-the-skin that we don't even know is there. We can't see it, but it is the root of our identity, and as long as it's still there, our personality will not change. As long as our personality doesn't change, we aren't really doing that "putting off" thing that God wants, so that He can "put on the new man" and give us fresh clean identities to replace our ugly, knobby dragon scales. 

Aslan didn't just wash away the dragon scales to reveal the boy underneath. Our identities as redeemed believers and Christians come from a different Source than our first identities did.

When Eustace finally figured out that he couldn't ever possibly "undress" to satisfy Aslan's requirement, Aslan Himself steps in and strips all of the skin clear away, down to the bone. (The Disney movie did not do it justice; it was more vivid in the BBC miniseries version, but also poorer cinematic quality... Bugger...) Eustace describes this last skin as deeper and darker and so much more revolting than the others. But once Aslan had essentially removed all of his dragon-skin (meant to represent his sinful identity, remember), Eustace is then available to receive a fresh new boy-skin.

Putting off, and putting on. I never understood it before. I was like Eustace, trying to unburden myself and discard the nebulous "sin nature" for which I blamed all the mistakes I was making. But in reality, Jesus–like Aslan—stood there beside me and said, "Let Me do it this time, child." Paul talks about it like it's our job, but really, we are only allowing Jesus to do the work of putting off and putting on; it really is the most effective method.

Eustace with his fresh boy-skin given to him by Aslan after He had removed the old dragon-skin is markedly different than the Eustace that had been at the beginning of the book. Lewis takes care to point that out several times in the rest of the book. Some might attribute it to his having "learned his lesson"—but what if it was because the "new skin" carried a sense of new identity with it? After all, if this story was meant to be an allegory, it wouldn't do to represent Jesus as this mystical being whose purpose it was to merely "teach lessons" like another Confucius or Buddha. He came to CHANGE DRAGONS INTO BOYS.

CONCLUSION: What Has Christ Redeemed?

Recalling how Eustace described his old skin reminded me of a quote from Lloyd Alexander's "Book of Three":

"Once you have courage to look upon evil, seeing it for what it is and naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you, and you can destroy it." (p. 216)

Now, this leaves a divine force out of the picture entirely, but the concept, I think, is key to understanding how we have been redeemed, and what to do about the sin that still crops up because, unlike Eustace, we haven't turned into dragons yet, so our "skin changing" actually happened on the inside, which makes it harder to recognize.
The key, according to the quote, is having the courage to identify any responses, attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors that a redeemed person should not have, to call it for what it is, and cling to our redemption from that thing. Once we disown these things, it is gratifyingly simple to let Jesus step in and remove our propensity toward that habit, replacing it with His own corresponding response.

Think of it this way:

If I have been redeemed, but I still claim the right to get angry when my preferences have been violated and my comfort is in jeopardy—has Christ not redeemed my attitude?
 
If I have been redeemed, but I still like to entertain certain thoughts and desires because "that's just the way my mind works"—has Christ not redeemed my mind?
 
If I have been redeemed, and yet I still argue and demand validation from people, engage in gossip and slander, and I reserve my right to complain about my circumstances because "It's just my personality"—has Christ not redeemed my habits?
 
If I have been redeemed, yet I remain belligerent, defiant, prideful, and say hurtful things to others and about others, but pass it off as "It's just the negative side of my spiritual gift"—has not Christ redeemed these gifts He has designed not for my own ego or my own fulfillment, nor the disparaging of others, but for their encouragement?

We know good and well when our behaviors and choices hurt someone else. When we chalk these negative attitudes and behaviors as "who I am," it is disregarding the "new skin" we have been given. When we can realize that Christ has redeemed WHO WE ARE IN OUR MOST INSTINCTIVE RESPONSES, we should then be able to see clearly enough to choose "redeemed" over "born this way," and the more we do this, the more it allows our habits and attitudes to be changed by His redemption, and we can recognize those bad habits and attitudes for what they are, and break the cycle.

My pastor told a story in his sermon on this point. I'm not sure of the source, and I missed a bit of the story, but as much as I can remember, it goes like this:

There was a man with a habit of sleeping around with different women. By and by, Christ redeemed him, and he began to respond to the adulterous urges less and less, so that they no longer were a part of his desires. A while later, he happened to cross paths with one of the women he used to visit regularly—but this time, he passed her by without a second glance.
"Hey!" She called after him. "Don't you remember me?"
"I remember who you are," he replied, "but I am not me anymore."

Friends, if we have been redeemed, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES. The less we avail ourselves of that excuse, the more we are able to adjust to the new "skin" Christ has given us, and become more and more like real boys instead of dragons.