Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

Won't You Tell Me, Where Has all the Good News Gone?

 

The lyrics from an old song go, "Won't you tell me, where have all the good times gone?" I was reminded of those lyrics this past Thursday evening as we had an opportunity to attend a student directed play festival at Furman University. The festival consisted of six ten minute plays, two of which were written by the students themselves. The impetus behind our going was to help our son fulfill a cultural event requirement for the Christian school he attends. Even so, my wife and I have enjoyed a good play on occasion and we thought this assignment would be a good opportunity for the family to enjoy an evening together at the playhouse.

 

The evening ended in disappointment. While the students performed well and displayed evidence of talent and long hours of hard work, the overall message conveyed was that of despair. Presumably, the individual vignettes were to be snapshots of common scenarios from our global culture. Regardless of their intention, the pictures weren't pretty. Nor was hope offered in the midst of such gloom. A central theme of darkness led to feelings of hopelessness in the midst of portraits of conflict and alienation. No doubt John Paul Sartre would have felt right at home. Indeed, I was singing the blues on the way home. I was moved to ask, "where have all the good times gone?" In the Christian context I was moved to ask, "where has all the good news gone?"

 

The irony of where we were was not lost on us as we have found a home in Southern Baptist life and ministry. Furman University is named for Richard Furman, a prominent minister and president of the first Baptist Convention in America. He laid the groundwork for establishing the school in 1826 as the Furman Academy and Theological Institution. The school was divided into four departments-Biblical Theology, Sacred Rhetoric and Pastoral Duties, Ecclesiastical History, and Biblical Literature and Interpretation. University status was achieved in 1850 and the school was moved from Edgefield, South Carolina to Greenville. Its theological school became the Southern Baptist Seminary in 1858 and subsequently moved to Louisville, Kentucky.

 

The University maintained its tie to the Baptists and ultimately became one of four Southern Baptist Colleges in South Carolina. In this regard, after World War II, Southern Baptists donated $3.5 million to the school for the purpose of expansion in order to keep enrollment up and compete with the newly forming Bob Jones University. Another $3 million was raised by the University and ground was broken on the current site in 1953.

Furman University owes its existence conceptually to Baptists in general, as well as theologically and financially to Southern Baptists specifically. Of course, Furman University severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992.

 

Not only is Furman a fully independent liberal arts college, but theologically speaking, the school has gone the way of liberalism. Even prior to 1992, the modern theology of mainline Protestantism had been adopted, homosexuality was openly endorsed as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians, and the last vestige of Richard Furman's belief system was all but erased.

 

While more glaring examples could be cited with but little research and even personal recollection from the late eighties and early nineties, the play festival fresh in my mind stands in stark contrast to the light that once shined from this place. Consider the first play entitled "The Dangers of Tobacco" by Anton Chekhov. The monologue was nothing more than the ramblings of a man beaten into submission by his shrew of a wife. This man, the only actor in the play, laments the trampling of his dreams and his downward slide into insignificance. The audience is left with the feeling that all should avoid marriage or the same fate is inevitable. Marriage is nothing but a platform for oppression and suffocation. As he is trapped by a wife he does not love, the air was pregnant with Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin's despair as the curtain closed.

 

By the way, I will not attempt to discover any deeper meaning than what struck me or the average person in the audience who is not acquainted with the work of Chekhov or the other playwrights listed below. For example, if the wife in Chekhov's play represented the Russian government and the play was really about insignificance in the communist system, so be it. Regardless of the exact nature of any metaphor presented in each of the productions, the message is the same. Moreover, an artistic connection to futurism was evident. That fact is no doubt lost on most of the audience. Yet, one wonders how much the political philosophy of the movement has infiltrated and influenced these young actors. The message conveyed may indeed conflict with the message they embrace. A word about futurism will be offered in the second half of this article tomorrow.

 

The second vignette was written by Furman student Lydia Balmos and entitled "Depression Glass." The scene revolved around Kate, a college student frustrated by her mother's lifestyle and lack of love for her, and her mother, a shallow society woman frustrated by her hardheaded and unwanted daughter. The dialogue takes place in a gift shop and depicts the different worlds mother and daughter are in with their associated misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and judgmental attitudes. The conflict is brought to a climax as Kate points out her mother's fault of forcing her trivia upon those who do not care and as Mom subsequently reveals that Kate was a mistake. In response to the store clerk's query, using a bowl of depression glass she had intended to purchase as a vivid illustration, Mom places it back on the table and declines saying, "we have too much unwanted stuff in our home already." Kate gets the message loud and clear and once again the curtain closes on the despair of another ruined relationship. The message was in part that we are trapped by the circumstances that create our relationships.

 

The third play was a cynical look at contemporary motives behind marriage. Written by Jon Jory and entitled "Heads," the play centers upon three college roommates, one of which is engaged to be married. One of the roommates has found the lost wallet of the campus loser and discovered that he is the heir of a two-hundred million dollar fortune. Because she plans to be a doctor and be married for her money, she is not interested in the loser. She spends here time attempting to convince her roommates that they are faced with the opportunity of a lifetime. They can marry for money, get a divorce two years later, and walk away with a cool two million at least. Neither is keen to the idea at first. Ethical issues are cited as well as the fact that one is engaged already. In the end, both girls warm to the idea and flip a coin to see who gets to take the man and his money. Of course, the audience is left again with the impression that marriage is something one must simply endure. If one can get a little money out of the deal, then it may be worth while. People are viewed as commodities to be used and thrown away once they have served their usefulness. Part of the message was that we are trapped by greed and materialism.

 

The fourth play was entitled "Piznoncan" and written by Furman student John Paul Foster. The setting was an island on which a cult-like group lived, none of whom had seen the mainland. If a person left the group, he or she could never return. The players are Ciara and Padrick, two young teens who are friends and who could be more if given the opportunity. The problem is that Ciara has decided to leave the island and Padrick pleads with her not to go. She does not know what's in store for her, but she knows it must be better than what she has. In the end, she leaves her home and her friend as she is trapped by her need to know what's out there. Padrick is trapped in his world and cannot leave. Love cannot bloom as we are trapped by the pull of different forces.

 

"Seeing the Light" by Robert McKaye was the fifth snapshot. Two men work together in a small room with a singular light that shines red overhead. The light is indeed shining, but has never done so before. The men debate as to whether someone should be told. We discover that the shining of the light indicates that nuclear missiles have been launched. Ned wants to call someone about the light while Marshall is adamant that no one should be called. Either the light is broken, or, nothing can be done if its not. If the light is not broken, the world is about to end. Thus, faced with a hopeless situation, not knowing if the light is broken and not knowing what to do, they do nothing. Again, hopelessness and helplessness are key themes. One is reminded of Henry Nouwen's Nuclear Man. This man has lost the boundaries between himself and his milieu. He has no connections with his past or his future. He "has lost naïve faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new life styles carry the potential for self-destruction." Nuclear man suffers from historical dislocation, that is a loss of continuity from the past to the present, fragmented ideology, that is a fast-shifting value system, and a search for new immortality. We are trapped in a deadly world of our own making.

 

Before we look at the last play, these snapshots, as well as the last one, are indeed indicative of the problem in the world today. The portraits conveyed would not be objectionable if not left to stand on their own. In a Christian context, one can easily see the gospel as the answer to each of these scenarios. If the gospel of hope were proclaimed in the aftermath, then a powerful evening would have materialized. As it was, we were left with no message of hope.

 

Furman student Allison Allgood adapted Francisco Canguillo's "Lights" for the last performance. One must admit that it was a clever way to round out the evening. As it was still dark from the close of the previous picture into our culture, supposed persons in the audience began to despair about it being dark. This particular vignette was actually funny, so much so that one could miss the message. The message was indeed the same, and was brought poignantly home as we sat in the dark listening to one man become more panicked with each passing moment. The theme of the evening was darkness and the despair and panic that flow from such. In the end, all he could do was scream for "lights!" We are trapped in the darkness of the despair of our own souls. All we can do is scream for light.

 

Consider the irony of this message and this ending. The people are left screaming for light and no light is given. This message is not only conveyed to the audience, but conveyed to the students in this mixed up culture and University. Note the irony of screaming for light when Furman was once a beacon of light. Think about the message of hopelessness emanating from the place where once the message of hope reigned. Listen to the scream for light when the same institution in 1992 said, "we want no light." "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 Jn 1:5)." Jesus said, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn. 8:12)."

[Part Two Tomorrow]

 



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