Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Titus 3:1-11) transports me to the Shakespearean stage of Titus Andronicus, under the direction of Julie Taymor. The genius of Lion King and Across the Universe fame was the director, both on stage and in film, of this little-known work of Shakespeare, his first tragedy. Read the play and you’ll understand why people don’t name their kids Titus, even if is a great biblical name. This drama of division and conflict and revenge is one of the grittiest and gruesome tales you can imagine, complete with rape and decapitation and torture and multiple murders in a plotline that will make your head spin (and will make you thankful you still have a head to spin). I suggest you watch the movie if you’re ever feeling a bit too cheery and optimistic about human nature, and need a dose of harsh realism. Anthony Hopkins is in his element as the tragic Roman war hero Titus, telling his sorrow to the stones in a famous speech, and at the end, the stones are about the only ones left to listen, as he and almost the entire cast of characters comes to a tragic end.
I wonder how Julie Taymor would direct a one-act of Paul’s epistle to a different Titus. Maybe she’d bring back Anthony Hopkins for the title role, this time as the bishop of Crete, who is receiving advice from his mentor on how to build a community of faith on an island known for its liars and gluttons, with a history of fierce battles between city states and a reputation as a safe haven for pirates. Paul writes the letter just as rebellion is heating up against Rome, and the Jewish-Roman war is imminent. Titus is trying to lead a fledgling church that has among its believers some divisive people, folks who claim to know God but are in fact detestable. Paul remembers that before the Spirit of Christ was poured out, he and Titus were no different: We were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. I imagine the people of Crete were quite familiar with these feelings, having initially repelled an invasion by the hated Romans in the first century BCE, only to fall to Roman rule after a gruelling three year campaign. There were no doubt many families in Crete who remembered those battles and carried deep seeds of vengeance and hopes for retribution, as Paul was writing to Titus about building a beloved community. The Cretan Christians were probably easy targets for the Judaizers and Zealots campaigning and recruiting for a violent revolt against Rome. All this served as a backdrop to Paul’s advice to Titus, to avoid foolish contentions, and unprofitable quarrels and strivings. Warn divisive people once, twice, and then have nothing to do with them. Their divisive nature and quarrelsome spirit is warped, Paul says, and the beloved community cannot abide it.
We often read biblical epistles like this and imagine that the conflicts Paul was describing to Titus in the harsh world they inhabited were the same kinds of conflicts we experience. When we talk about church divisions and strife and quarreling in our protected world of privilege, it’s often about the style of music (a generation earlier it was the color of the carpet) or the finer points of reformed theology or the latest battle in the culture wars. We are far removed from the kinds of malice and strife that quite literally ripped people apart in the disturbing world of first century Roman empire, be it the real world of Paul and Titus or the stylized world of Shakespeare. From our safe vantage points, we have become numb to the news of this level of human suffering and destruction that still takes place around the world. This is why Julie Taymor says she wanted to direct Titus Andronicus, to give complacent people the chance to feel again in their gut the suffering of those who understand all too well the ways destructive divisions can warp the human spirit and the human community. Significant as they may seem, the divisions of theology and worship style pale in comparison to the divisions created by wars, by our criminal justice system, and by increasingly grotesque concentrations of wealth and poverty. A dose of Titus Andronicus might help us get into the real world of the biblical Titus, and it might help us get into our own real world, and it might help us get into the world of the Spirit a little more intently, as we fervently pray for the Way of Jesus to be poured out among those inflicting untold horrors throughout our world.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and
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