Master

 

 

This is Sawyer. He is a six-month old golden retriever. As you can see, he is formidably cute. It was my pleasure to spend ten days with him in August. My parents were in Kenya at the time, visiting church partners, so I was tasked with watching and training my parent’s dog. I’d never owned a dog, much less trained one, so the experience was an education.

Henry Kissinger once described Lenin’s politics as a continuation of war by other means. Training Sawyer was a sort of inter-species politics, and a war between human and beast by other means. From the start of our time together one thing was clear: Sawyer was not at all clear about who was in charge. During the days we skirmished over walking routes and had stare-downs over meal times. On bad nights he would run in circles on top of the couches in our living room before settling down and sinking his teeth into the feathered-flesh of one of my mother’s pillows. I, in turn, would look at him sternly while I ate a peanut-butter sandwich. 

At the end of the week, tired from a day of half-obeyed commands, I watched P.T. Anderson’s The Master. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic science-fiction writer turned leader of a group of spiritual seekers; Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams play his closest acolytes. Things go well at first: Joaquin Phoenix settles down a bit and gets to know this group of seemingly well-balanced folks. But even throughout the early portion of the film, something is off. In scene after scene, and shot after shot, the characters, and the camera, focus on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. Hoffman, for his part, is buoyant and self-assured — always in command of the room he is in. It’s clear that he is the center for the group he’s formed: in one scene he tells Joaquin Phoenix’s character to walk back and forth between two walls, incanting the words of his choosing, as the group watches for hours. As the film continues, cracks begin to appear. The certainty Hoffman exuded, that the group had fed on, begins to be replaced by doubt. One of his followers, at the release of his ‘second revelation,’ asks him breathlessly about some discrepancies between the first and second. Hoffman reacts angrily and tells her off. The woman, bewildered, leaves him. As the doubts wear at the group, Hoffman increasingly asserts his dominance explicitly. Like flying chairs at a carnival loosed from their center, his followers fly outward, before crashing to earth. Joaquin Phoenix, whose life had been stabilized by the community, careens back into who he’d been before once he realizes he can no longer look to Hoffman for answers.

It was only when the credits rolled that I realized what had been irking me for the whole film: I was a cult leader. And Sawyer was my willful disciple. The same sort of power relations I’d found so reprehensible in a human community, were the basis I’d used for training my parents’ dog. Don “The Dogfather” Sullivan and the authors of Leader of the Pack had informed me that dogs are pack animals, and thus naturally disposed to rigid political hierarchy, and I’d believed them, and acted accordingly. Like Hoffman’s character, I’d established my own will as pre-eminent, and worked to abolish the will of my lone follower (unlike Hoffman, to limited success). Though I wasn’t too concerned — Sawyer is, after all, a dog — I did feel queasy about the analogy with The Master. 

As an undergraduate, I studied International Relations, which examines how nations relate to one another. Toward the end of my time at Wheaton, I grew tired of it: the theories of power I heard seemed crudely fatalistic and exploitative. I grew tired, too, of the way God’s power was sometimes talked about at Wheaton: God was powerful because he always got his way. The link between human power and divine power seemed too seamless, as if God’s rule was simply beneficent bureaucracy writ large. 

There’s a story I love in the book of John; my favorite in all the gospels. In it, Mary Magdalene is alone at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. A man approaches and asks her what is the matter. She replies: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she adds, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” The man replies with a single word: Mary. All at once the meeting is transfigured — for in speaking Mary’s name, Jesus reveals himself. In response, Mary exclaims Rabboni! and clings to him.

The word Mary uses, at this moment of poignant encounter, is Master. With this word, she shows that she recognizes this man who has found her weeping: it is the same Lord who called her, who she followed, and who was just crucified. But she also intimates something about the power of this man: he is her master even as he is her friend.

Rowan Williams, in a lecture entitled “Faith and Human Flourishing,” says that “dependence on God is radically unlike losing a struggle for power; losing your control; losing your autonomy.” God’s power, he says, is “absolute freedom to bring the Other into being, without fear, without rivalry, without anxiety.” God is not anxious to prove himself pre-eminent; his power is creative and hospitable: it is, as the psalmist puts it, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” It is this power that Mary experiences in the garden. 

A natural impulse, when the word power is raised, is to think of politics. It is easy to see power as a competition of wills and as depressingly ubiquitous. It is harder to see power in the quotidian care of a parent for a child, from their days in diapers through their transition to independence. But it is there, and its reverberations are felt in ways diffuse and enduring; love, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, never ends. Power can be found in the most unremarkable places: Mary found it in the familiar embrace of her friend in a garden. It was this friend, who, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “let himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” and it is he who manifests true power. For the cross is, as St. Paul writes, “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”