The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
“C.S.I. Miami” stands for more than the scientifically and technologically sophisticated resolution of complicated crime mysteries. It is representative of the way in which today’s society deals with evil, suffering and death.
Many people know Horatio Caine, the fearless police officer and chief crime scene investigator on the cult T.V. series “C.S.I. Miami”. But only a few people remember Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), an American lawyer and businessman who, in a moment of deep suffering and utter desperation, wrote the lyrics of the still much celebrated church hymn “It Is Well with My Soul”. The two men seem to have nothing in common, except for the anecdotic coincidence of their first names. And yet there is another interesting link to reflect upon: “C.S.I. Miami” stands for more than the scientifically and technologically sophisticated resolution of complicated crime mysteries. It is representative of the way in which today’s society deals with evil, suffering and death. In comparison, the lyrics of Spafford’s hymn are not just a nostalgic trip back to long-gone better times when the Christian view on evil, suffering and death was culturally accepted. Especially today, at the beginning of the 21st century, these lyrics have a powerful counter-cultural dimension which unveils and confronts the myths of our age.
Today’s best crime series (like the different C.S.I. variations, “Criminal Minds”, or even “Cold Cases”) speak about much more than guns and blood, about more than evil criminals and their final ruin. These series carry with them – among other things – often unspoken, but carefully constructed and regularly repeatd, messages about good and evil, about what our society wants to be and what it wants to fight at all costs.
Perhaps the most essential of these “value-loaded” messages is the hard-fought-for triumph of moral good over a deeply threatening evil. Someone might object that crime stories have always been – like Westerns – about good and evil, about the final triumph of good over evil. Quite rightly so. But what has changed rather fundamentally over time is the type of good and evil that is represented, as well as the kind of confrontation between them. Today it seems accurate to speak about a “hard-fought-for” triumph of “moral good” over a “deeply threatening” evil, especially in contrast to some older figures of crime-fighters.
The “good old days” of crime-fighting
It cannot be the purpose here to present a complete social history of famous detectives and crime-fighters. Yet it is quite instructive to recall a few historic figures, like Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Georges Simenon’s Commissaire Maigret, and even some older T.V. figures like Inspector Columbo or some German crime-solvers (Inspector Derrick or “Der Alte”/ ”The Old Man”). Compared to the personnel of today’s most celebrated series, these “ancestors” stood for several quite striking differences:
** In past times, the focus was usually on one detective, most frequently of a certain age, who had the experience and wisdom that went with his age.
** In accordance with that age, the detective did the job calmly, with a dogged sense of persistence and duty, but without frenzy or any metaphysical angst; they had no fear that crime could win, that it could even overwhelm society, or that the evil way of thinking of these criminals could take over the good spirits and hearts of those who fight crime and, therefore, need to understand how the criminals tick. No, these older crime fighters just did their job, taking some well-hidden pride in a “no nonsense-approach” like: ”I do what I am paid to do and I do it well, even if I am not well paid… ”. These crime-fighters had a detachment and a humanistic empathy that experience gave them; they had seen everything, which gave them an extraordinary understanding of human nature and, especially, of the worst things that persons or groups could be capable of.
Then came the time when the crime fighters in T.V. series got younger, considerably younger, and accordingly more attractive. Many of them also started to come along as at least two equal partners, like “Starsky and Hutch” or the detectives of “Miami Vice”. Of course, this evolution had its reasons. It made possible to restrict the “dull talking”stuff and to bring more exciting action, in particular car chases and shoot-outs. It also allowed the detectives a (rather blossoming) love life. The purpose was to reach younger “market segments” and ethnic minorities, in limiting those minorities no longer to the role of vicious criminals, but in showing them as detectives (or as morally virtuous victims). In the C.S.I. variations, this “turn to youth” has an additional and essential dimension: These young crime-fighters master the latest and most sophisticated discoveries of every imaginable scientific and technological discipline. They deepen the aggressive juvenilism of today’s society with a “chronological snobbery” that is often inherent in the call upon science and rationality.
Obliged to be incredibly virtuous
If the crime fighters of today’s best T.V. series are so young and attractive, so good at what they do, and so incredibly accurate in science’s latest wonders, why is all this not more than enough? Why are they also shown as morally virtuous? And why do they even have to be so virtuous?
Perhaps much of it comes down to a question of acceptable clichés. Lawyers or politicians in T.V. series are only exceptionally shown as virtuous (and then precisely as exceptions who confirm the general – and not very flattering – rule). Things are quite different for policemen, according to their creed : “To serve and protect”. The cliché extends to the saying that policemen bust criminals before lawyers bring judges to release them for shaky legal reasons, which starts the whole cycle of crime and punishment all over again.
There is also another reason: It became impossible to show T.V.‘s crime fighters as less virtuous than T.V. doctors in medical series. Therefore the C.S.I. series and others just took over into the field of crime fighting the extraordinary moral goodness that could be seen in series like “E.R.” (Emergency Room) and number of its derivates.“E.R.” had an important role in over-coming the cold and brashly aggressive egoism that predominated during the 1980s. “E.R.” showed that a different way of being successful was possible and attractive. By doing so, and by incarnating the “revival of empathy”, the alternative model of moral goodness soon became so over-powering that it lost any serious alternatives. Only recently medical series could again start to depart from this virtuous model, with characters like Dr. House. Following once more the medical example, it became possible again to show crime fighters who are at least unconventional – like “The Mentalist” – or even frankly weird, like “Monk”.
The lawlessness of the streets and civilization’s last frontier
The moral goodness of crime-fighters also has much to do with something else: Even a society that works to abolish almost every traditional boundary or restriction senses the necessity of having some kind of “ultimate and uncrossable limit”. In the mythology of the Western movie, the sheriff upheld not only the limits of lawful society against the lawlessness of the streets, but incarnated the frontier of civilization, essentially against the evil and savage Indians. Similarly, today’s T.V. crime-fighters incarnate the struggle to uphold such ultimate and deeply moral boundaries, especially when they fight “sexual predators” or “serial killers”.
Today’s Western society not only allows and promotes sexual freedom to an un-precedented extent, but often goes as far as to declare it compulsory, in an over-sexualized frenzy that has taken over almost every area of society. Paradoxially, even such a society feels the need to uphold at least one last restriction to sexual freedom: Everything is permissible between “two consenting adults” but not beyond. Any trespassing of this ultimate limit is not just forbidden but rejected as profoundly appalling. This explains the somewhat hysterical undertones of debates like those about sexual harrassment or “the rape culture on campuses”, or precisely anything linked to “sexual predators”.
“Serial killers” (or “serial predators”) are another nightmare that says a lot about today’s society. Nowadays we think of ourselves as being much too sophisticated to believe in supernatural stuff, like God or the existence of “Satan”. But the “serial killer“ is a very concrete resurgence of the “roaring beast that goes around and seeks whom to devour“. And T.V. series like “Criminal Minds” are built quite fundamentally on this resurgence. The beast could be anybody, even (or particularly) your neighbour; and this is the absolute nightmare of a society which boasts of being built on hermetically protected private spheres of individual freedom that coexist side-by-side. The beast could attack anybody, especially you – according to the mysterious, perverse and beastly strong mechanisms of the beast’s distorted brain. The killings will go on and on unless they are stopped by an even more powerful team of super-brains, hastily flown in from Washington. The confrontation has epic dimensions: In 1972, the chess game between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was presented in the West as the ultimate and global confrontation between good and evil. “Criminal Minds” and other series show us a renewed variety of such an ultimate chess game between the unrestrictedly good powers and and some form of unredeemably bad brain.
Virtue after the disappearance of truth
The fight against odious and violent crimes, especially serial crimes, also shows another essential and profoundly moral limit: In our postmodern society, in which each person has his or her own truth, and is responsible towards no one in particular, lies have become acceptable, and it has become tolerable to shy away from assuming responsibility for one’s misdeeds. But, here again, these virtuous crime-fighters struggle for an unnegotionable limit: No one should get away with violent crime. And, even if the criminals go very far in denying, disguising and covering up what they do, there are precisely all the unbelievable achievements of science and technology to unmask them nevertheless.
There is still another – and perhaps decisive – reason to explain why crime-fighters in T.V. series are presented as extraordinarily virtuous: the all-encompassing and often very aggressive invasion of “victimhood”. We may live in the most prosperous and most individually-oriented era that the West has ever known; and yet we are all of a sudden surrounded by people who say or are said to be “victims”, victims of all sorts of misdeeds or abuses of power, of discrimination or other things. Accordingly, there is no possible virtue nowadays if it does not at least extend to the care for victims. Crime-fighters have precisely to deal with victims (or their surviving relatives), so they would lose any moral credibility if they did not show empathy and compassion towards these victims or relatives.
As a consequence of all this, many of the crime-fighters in T.V. series are so ostensibly virtuous and so conscious of the heavy burden they carry that they never laugh or even smile. The character of Horatio Caine is a striking example, as well as Aaron Hochner in “Criminal Minds”, Leroy Jethro Gibbs in Navy C.I.S., and the list goes on. The crime-fighters have gotten so much younger, and yet they have lost the lightness of youth. Like Atlas, they carry the whole world on their shoulders. There is only one step that separates these characters from a quasi-Christic Saviour-syndrome, and the figure of Horatio Caine, for instance, crosses this line quite often, especially every time he pronounces some deep wisdom while putting on his stylish sunglasses. On Youtube there are extensive collections of these “wisdom and sunglasses” one-liners by Caine, and some of these collections have already been visited by nearly 2,000,000 people! Caine’s one-liners show two things: On the one side, the pompous nature of the ritual contrasts with the nearly content-less banality of what Caine really says in such “very special moments”, like: “What seems to be an accident is in fact no accident at all. “On the other side, there is nevertheless the quasi-Christic dimension of this ritual: Putting on the sunglasses is a way of giving extra weight to the sentences that follow, like when Jesus used to declare: “Verily, verily, I say to you…”. The difference is that in Jesus’ case, the sentences that followed were far from being nearly content-less banalities, but turned the world of His listeners upside down.
Fairy tales – too good to be true…
When everything is said and done, these more sophisticated T.V. crime series are fairy tales to an important extent. They are literally “too good to be true”, because these crime fighters are so young and beautiful, and because they are incredibly virtuous – as individuals, but also as a team. Accordingly, there are never or only very seldom conflicts among them; and if there are, then these conflicts are of a kind that does not take away anything from anybody’s virtue; additionally, the conflicts are solved rather easily and in a more than exemplary way. What is also above reality is that these crime-fighters (almost) never make a single mistake and solve every case.
These series make us believe in a manichean world that is neatly separated into two completely different types of people (like in the Western mythology): On one side, there are the crime investigators who stand for an unmitigated moral virtue. They fight a threatening evil that is not in everybody, but “out there“, in a small number of evil people who commit their horrendous deeds because they are either mean or sick. The criminals personify a kind of evil that threatens all the good and law-abiding people, but it is in no way in these decent people. Thefore, those who watch are also entitled to feel themselves as morally virtuous; the best proof for this is that they are naturally enclined to revere the good police officers and to be appalled by the evil criminals.
Another myth lies in a routinely applied over-abundance of scientific and technological means. But the most relevant dimension of fantasy is perhaps not so much in this literal “over-kill” of scientific and technological prowess that is at the heart of every C.S.I. variation. It is not either in “Criminal Minds” and the pluridisciplinary high-power of super-brains flown in to rescue the local police. No, the most incredible fairy tale stuff is the core message of “Cold Cases”: Even if there should be past and un-resolved cases, be it from 20 or 50 years ago, we are going to re-open these cases and to solve them without any exception. In reality, finding the (true) culprit after such a long time happens only seldom and then often with a tremendous portion of luck. Besides, every police force in any Western country are so desperately drowned in all the present crimes to solve that they are hardly able to open unresolved past cases, and certainly not systematically.
Where fairy tales become dangerous
Now, as even moderately skeptical minds could concede, fairy tales may be OK as long as it is clear to everybody that they are just fairy tales. But sophisticated fairy tales inherently aspire and manage to disguise convincingly that they are fairy tales. Worse, we even expect them to do so.
And this is the point where the whole matter with these crime series gets important and even dangerous. Unrealistic stories can create or strengthen expectations “in the real world”. Such expectations become visible when journalists interview victims (or their relatives) after a trial verdict and ask them how they feel. Very often, there are the same answers:
** Either, the criminal or wrong-doer has not been sentenced to the highest possible punishment; then these victims or family members declare – often under tears or shouts – how scandalous the whole thing is and that the justice system is once more much too soft on crime.
** Or the highest possible sentence has been rendered, and then the family members of the victim have very often the same – and quite astonishing – reaction: They express some form of relief (“OK, what was necessary and what we were entitled to expect has finally been done”) and then come up with ever the same strange statement to which we will have to come back: “Now we are at last able to begin our mourning. ” Fueled by all kind of fairy tales and unrealistically inflated expectations, such statements are quite remarkable and even somewhat frightening. They show attitudes that go far beyond the limited sphere of what victims and relatives think of trial verdicts.
As was previously stated, the best T.V. crime series speak about much more than guns and blood, about more than evil criminals and their final ruin. These series carry with them messages about what our society wants to be and what it wants to fight at all costs. These series show us a materialistic and affluent society that puts some of its highest values on individual freedom. But it does so today in a way that differs substantially from how it did 50 or 60 years ago. Today’s society stresses individual freedom, but dissociates it from two aspects that were until recently thought to be inseparably linked to freedom: risk and responsibility.
Dissociating freedom from risk and responsibility
Today we seem to aspire simultaneously to two things that have always been considered as mutually exclusive: freedom and security. Nowadays more and more people have the possibility to live the individual lives that they wish to have – with some restraints remaining; they also think that they have a right to do so, even beyond their own strength; they believe that society or the State does have to provide the necessary means for them to realize their dreams:
** Such expectations imply in the first place that society (or the State) is not allowed anymore to interfere with individual freedom by imposing moral or legal norms that would limit this freedom, as long as the individual lifestyle does not cause too much damage to anybody else.
** But expectations go at least one step further: More and more people feel entitled to be guaranteed protection against all damaging events that might threaten or imperil their individual way of living, like illness or the loss of work. Such expectations of security go as far as to think that those who are not able to achieve their goals by themselves should be given the means to do so.
All this shows that if individual freedom is highly affirmed in our society, risk and responsibility are more and more shifted to somebody else, especially the State. This has consequences for fighting against crimes: Many believe there is an absolute right to be protected against any type of violence (war, crime, etc.) without any exception. And if – God forbid – it should happen that they should be personally confronted with violence, then they feel that society literally owes them to catch the wrong-doer and to punish him with the utmost severity.
This adds a new aspect to how we look at the over-abundant display of scientific and technological marvels in all the TV series of the C.S.I.-type: This luxury of means is not only the expression of a highly developed society, which has reached an incredible degree of scientific and technological sophistication. It also expresses an affluent society with endless means. Only the maximum is just good enough. The State owes the victims (and/or the members of their family) the allocation of every possible resource; otherwise, the State has failed these victims.
How unrealistic expectations have “landed in reality”…
Such expectations used to be considered as unrealistic and even as wrong. Nowadays they have “landed in reality”: More and more people believe that a perfect protection against any violence or wrong-doing is literally and unconditionally due to them. And if society should nevertheless allow violence or wrong-doing to be committed, then the victims are entitled to three things at least: a) a prompt investigation with an over-luxury of scientific and technological devices ; b) the harshest possible punishment of the wrong-doer and c) a compassionate consolation delivered to them by psychologists specifically schooled in this art. In “C.S.I. Miami”, this task is the chief investigator’s final honor and duty: At the end of every episode, once the criminal is found and handed over to justice for the vigorous judgment that he deserves, Horatio Caine personally goes to meet the dead victims‘ relatives in order to offer them one more sign of what is due to them. Similarly, in the reality of our Western countries, there is no spectacular accident, no violent crime or no other tragic event in the public sphere without a ritual phrase in news-reporting: “Victims and by-standers were offered psychological aid provided by specialists.”
So, all the fairy-tale-type fantasy stuff may have invaded the real life of our society, but – perhaps – without being (much) more than an illusion or a delusion. And this illusion or delusion may consist in the still unrealistic belief that if you are victim of violence or another wrong-doing, it would give you true peace of mind to see the wrong-doing investigated, the culprit punished (even in the harshest possible way) and some “psychological aid” offered by specialists.
Illusions or delusions about punishment and consolation
Of course, if there is no investigation, no punishment and no consolation, peace of mind is still much further away. But the true question to ask is: Even if investigation, punishment and consolation are realized to such an extent, will this give a true peace to the victims or their family?
Here we have to return to the astonishing statement often heard from relatives of crime victims, when they say that maximum punishment is nothing less than a pre-condition for finally being enabled “to begin with our mourning”:
** Suffering and grief, a profound sense of injustice and even anger are natural and even legitimate reactions experienced by most crime victims (or their surviving relatives). But there is also a point where many of these victims or relatives sense that they have to find some way to overcome these negative emotions or at least to put them “at some distance”. Often, this point comes when they feel that otherwise they would risk being overwhelmed and even properly devoured by their grief, trapped in an increasingly hateful resentment.
** There is not much of this wisdom in the statements about maximum punishment as a pre-condition for the beginning of mourning. Statements like these are a subtle way of giving not less, but more room to grief and resentment, of strengthening an attitude of harsh judgment. Such an attitude may have good reasons, but it can easily become self-destructive. Resentment and hateful grief are a deep and dark well. It is extremely difficult to dry it up. It is an illusion to think that maximum punishment could really help in this drying up. And, very often, people do not go far, if ever, beyond this “beginning” of mourning. Instead they remain in the same state of mind and wait for something else that would give them another reason to “go further on” with their mourning. Usually such a reason does not come along, except for a sudden glimpse of the wisdom that has been mentioned before…
The tyranny of compassion
The other big illusion or delusion is about consolation. When Horatio Caine, after having solved his crimes and arrested the culprits, regularly goes to meet the victim’s relatives, this is suggested to be (with the appropriate music and some additional visual devices) a heart-felt and noble empathy, even a truly efficient con solation in their grief.
How stupid do they think their viewers are? Do they really believe that such gimmicks have anything to do with true compassion or consolation when they show how this style icon rushes in, delivers some hollow one-liners while putting on his sunglasses and then dashes off again? Answer: Yes, they do present all this as the real and true stuff. And what is even worse: Many people have come to believe them.
Our Western societies now live under the yoke of what sociologists call the “tyranny of compassion”. This tyranny shows every time a car or a train accident of any importance happens, a plane crash, a spectacular or particulary revolting crime, or a natural catastrophy like an earthquake, etc. If any of these events occurs in a Western country, all the important politicians and personalities of power, as well as the representatives of the concerned churches or religious communities, are strongly expected to show up at the site of the event, and – even more – at the funeral of the victims. The full-range media presence regularly transforms such funerals into gigantic symbolic ceremonies of collective mourning and national cohesion.
Realistically, politicians or the media just cannot develop a true and deep relation of care and compassion for the victims. They rush in and then dash off again. But if the politicians did not show up and did not accomplish some very precise (and hollowly stereotypical) gestures of empathy, the same media would certainly stir a huge uproar of public indignation and accuse these politicians of showing by their absence a horrendous amount of cold-hearted selfishness (“The President was not even ready to interrupt his vacation !!!”).
When funerals are transformed into gigantic symbolic media events, this is regularly resented by the victims‘ relatives as painful and intrusive. They do not feel much of the compassion and the consolation that is said to be brought to them. These relatives often feel properly dispossessed of their family's funeral. They see themselves degraded to the rank of staffage, of little-bit-players who are just good enough to cry in front of some cameras. But if they should want to complain about the phony sides of the whole circus, the same cameras and microphones would be taken away from them in a hurry. The same cameras and microphones would nevertheless return if some politician had not shown up and if the victims’ relatives were ready to complain (under tears or shouts) how offended they are by the unbelievable amount of cold-hearted selfishness this absence shows and that such a shocking behaviour even hinders them from beginning with their mourning.
Horatio Spafford’s hymn: much more than nostalgia
It is time to move on from Horatio Caine to Horatio Spafford. Such a move is not a nostalgia trip. It is not about bringing back the long-gone “good old times” that we love in all these past hymns, with their slightly awkard language, as we love to reminisce about the white Christmasses of our youth. Nostalgia is often a disguised way of admitting that the regretted past times do not have any relevance today.
Instead, Spafford’s hymn shows exactly where the spirit of our time may have gone wrong. It shows us another, perhaps old and yet new way of dealing with evil, suffering and death. It shows when and where we have come to tell ourselves fairy tales about all that is allegedly owed to us in our (over-)affluent society. What happens when all the “owed” things are not secured (any more)? How do we face suffering and agony? It is here that Spafford could show us something competely different.
Spafford: a fortunate man who suddenly had to face tragedies
Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was an American lawyer and businessman who had come to wealth, among other things, through the real estate property that he owned in Chicago. He was also a Bible-believing Christian and a personal friend of then-famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Perhaps above all, Spafford was a family man who, with his beloved wife Anna and their four daughters, considered himself to be blessed beyond measure.
That is when tragedy struck twice within a short time. From October 8-10 1871, a huge fire reduced major parts of Chicago into ashes; thousands had all their belongings destroyed; Spafford lost almost all of his real estate property and much of his fortune.
A few weeks after the fire, Spafford planned to take a trip to England with his entire family; some urgent business suddenly held him back in Chicago, so his wife and his four daughters had to travel alone and he would follow some days later. The family boarded the ocean cruiser SS Ville du Havre. In heavy fog, the ship was hit on the Walisian coast by a transport vessel and sank within a few minutes. Spafford’s four children drowned; only his wife Anna managed to survive, clinging to a piece of wreckage until she was picked up by another ship; she was brought to Wales where she telegraphed this message to her husband: “Saved alone”.
A few days later, Horatio Spafford crossed the Atlantic on another ocean liner to join his wife. During the trip, the liner’s captain indicated to him the spot where the tragedy of the Ville du Havre had probably happened. Spafford went down to his cabin, struck by grief and taken away by sadness. There, in the following hours, he wrote the lyrics of the hymn that was later put to music by Philip Bliss: “It Is Well With My Soul”.
What today’s talk shows would make of Spafford’s tragedy
Before taking a closer look at these lyrics, it could be interesting to venture a guess about what today’s media would make of such a story. “Reality TV” or “soap talk shows” have become perfectly fitting formats for such tragedies. These formats usually operate with the same rather cheap plot. Accordingly, the Spafford couple would meet and chat with an interviewer of the “confessor type”, like Oprah Winfrey, somebody who succeeds to bring even incredibly private people to pour out their most intimate emotions and to give them the impression that they always wanted to do just that.
So, the Spafford couple would speak of how they met, of how their children were the sunshine of their lives – and not their material wealth (“You can’t take it with you, right?” “Exactly, thank you so much for this very deep insight…”). Then, under a few discrete sobs, Anna would say something like: “In fact, I am already dead, my life has ended with that of my beloved children.” Horatio would hold his wife’s hand and then take a more combative posture, saying that he would do everything it took so that justice be done in this tragic affair; he would sue the two shipping companies and – eventually, once these companies would be condemned to pay maximum damages – he would be enabled to start with his mourning…
Is such a scenario a cheap and malignant caricature of our present society’s “metaphysical horizon”? Perhaps not so much. A particularly well-kept and painful secret of our post-Christian culture lies in the stunning trivialization of beliefs even among the so-called well-cultured elites: Accordingly, it is in hardly sophisticated ways that such a post-religious society deals with suffering and death. And now that “authenticity” has been elevated among today’s most essential “values”, it has become legitimate for these cultured people to come forward with beliefs in such matters that would have been considered as embarrassingly hollow not so long ago. Now they are warmly welcomed, especially if they are professed under tears or shouts…
Spafford’s lyrics are far away from today’s “values”
If we turn now to the lyrics of Spafford’s hymn, we are struck immediately at how different they are from today’s predominant “values”:
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say:
It is well, it is well with my soul.
In today’s language, Spafford would be considered as a victim. Many would say that he was betrayed by what was then one of science and technology’s most brillant achievements. As the much exploited and commented example of the “Titanic” shows, luxury ocean liners like the SS Ville du Havre were there to express humanity’s most shining prowess. And precisely these wonderful achievements had come to fail on Spafford and did not prove to be safe enough. Yet, Spafford’s lyrics are far away from self-centered lamentations or bitter accusations. There is nothing of a “free and secure life” that would have been owed to him and there are no recriminations against God. His lyrics are similar to Job’s statement in the Hebraic Bible: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll”. This beginning is just astounding. Spafford expresses his entire life, until then, in two lines: He thought himself to be blessed beyond measure, but then was hit by a succession of tragedies and set-backs. It is all the more remarkable that in the midst of these setbacks – which seemed to get worse and worse – he could find such a rational way to “put things at distance”.
In reality, this search for distance has not a rational, but a spiritual foundation. “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say… ” shows that true distance does not come from the time that goes by since tragic events, but from the life-long experience with God and from the building-up of deep trust in divine providence whatever the circumstances. Because of this life-long intimate proximity to God, good and bad experiences alike do not destroy or even shake the believer’s fundamental trust.
Remarkably, he does not say: “It will be well with my soul”, but “It is well… ”. “Well with my soul” does not reflect mere rationalization or sheer will power, but appeasement in his innermost being, a most intimate reception of Jesus‘ words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).
“In death as in life…”
The forth stanza takes these ideas even further:
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou shalt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
Spafford shows here a deep understanding of the thinking that the Apostle Paul develops in his letter to the Philippians, especially in the powerful verse: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1,21). Spafford links Paul’s thoughts to the image of the river Jordan “rolling above me”. Once more we have the drowning powers of death, the over-whelming sorrows which are able to hold a soul in deadly captivity. Spafford was well-placed (and especially in that particular moment) to observe in himself the might of these destructive powers. His lyrics fully recognize the reality of these powers, but they are not the last word that is spoken in these matters: “For in death as in life Thou shalt whisper Thy peace to my soul”.
There is another precious allusion here: Elijah in the Hebraic Bible waits for God in the roaring thunder, in the powerful and perhaps even frightening display of divine majesty; but God reveals Himself in the almost imperceptible breeze (1 Kings 19:9-18). This episode is – long before Jesus – a stunning and properly revolutionary manifesto of meekness. And it shows that God’s power is not just stronger than the powers in this world, not just a more efficient destruction of destructive forces. No, God’s power is of a completely different nature, grounded in love and in nothing else. It is consistent with this nature of God’s power that Jesus underwent suffering and death before overcoming them. This is why Spafford can say that the very Jesus who spoke the fiercest storms into ceasing is the One who whispers His peace to a grieving and tormented soul.
Where the hymn gets appalling for atheists
From there Spafford’s thinking flows naturally to the second and the third stanza of the hymn:
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blesst assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul,
My sin – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought ! –
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
Here things get properly shocking for some people. If atheists should read the lyrics, they would be full of scorn. The expression “though Satan should buffet” sums up for them what they misread as stone-age beliefs and fears. And they would be literally speechless that even cultured people like lawyers and businessmen could hold on to such beliefs.
The same atheists would also be disgusted that Spafford speaks of “my sin…” in such a moment and that he even insists to say: “my sin, not in part but the whole”. How can this man think about of his sin amidst a situation of over-whelming grief? Here is a grief-stricken man who has good reasons to be angry with the whole world and especially with God. And yet, even in such a moment, this Christian manages to mortify himself. Richard Dawkins would see here one more proof that religious education is child abuse because, even as adults, these Christians still reproduce what he considers to be perverse mechanisms of self-annihilation.
Such interpretations misread completely what Spafford wrote. If there is a shift in this stanza it is certainly not from “victim” to “culprit”, not from justified grief to perverse self-mortification. What Spafford writes in substance is: Everything in my life seems to indicate that death and evil win. Instead, what my life really stands for – if it is taken globally and at the most profound level – is God’s victory over evil (including my own evil) through Jesus Christ’s victory on the cross, through the Living God’s triumph over and through death. Spafford does not use “my sin” to argue that he would have deserved the over-whelming tragedy that has just happened to him. And he does not say either that this horrendous event would make sense. Even amidst tragedies that will never make sense, it makes sense to go on trusting God, and to trust Him as the Living and Holy God who overcomes evil and death.
When evil, suffering and death will be overcome
Finally we move to the last two stanzas of the hymn:
But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel ! Oh, voice of the Lord !
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul !
And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll:
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
As it has been said, Spafford was a man who aspired to see the big picture. Being a cultured man and a true intellectual with enormous will power, he wanted to put his horrendous experiences at reasoning distance. But his hymn goes far beyond the rational side of things or the dimension of the will. It extends to the realm of the soul and reflects a truly holistic approach. Spafford stands for someone whose intellect, will and soul are transformed by his faith. His faith in God not only enriches the three dimensions, but gives all of them a new orientation. And “faith” means here a vivid relation with the Living God.
All this will be particularly real when faith will become sight, when the whole picture will be unveiled. If Spafford longs for Jesus‘ return, it is not in an abstract, theoretical or intellectual sense of the word. From a holistic perspective, he longs for it as a horizon of true restoration and definitive healing: Suffering and grief will not only cease, but be overcome; and the clouds will finally be rolled back.
Jesus‘ return as horizon of restoration and repair makes it all the more remarkable that Spafford says : “It is well with my soul”. Peace is given now in the most concrete and real sense, but his grief and his desperation are nevertheless so powerful that they will only cease at the ultimate end.
“Lord, haste the day” expresses his intimate longing, but says also: I am already dead, all I can hope for is resurrection. The end of the hymn expresses a vision of judgment: the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, then adds: “Even so it is well with my soul”. Once more, the statement is just astounding. Spafford has understood that the glorious Christ who will come in power to judge will not trample or destroy anything but – in the contrary – have the highest regard for the human soul, that the Judge will come as a restorer and healer.
In Spafford’s life, the years to come – after this succession of tragedies – brought some form of restauration: He regained his former fortune; he and Anna were blessed with other children. Yet, this meant in no ways that the former tragedies would have been wiped out or that they could be forgotten like a bad dream in the morning. It did not have for Spafford some trivial meaning like “sunshine after the rain”. Rather, the hymn shows how Spafford understood everything that happened to him in the most profound way as concrete signs that suffering and even death were not the last word, that they were not even able to separate him from the Living God and His blessings.
Has today’s Christianity anything to do with “the C.SI. spirit”?
After having reflected about Horatio Caine and Horatio Spafford, let us conclude by asking what today’s Christianity has to with both of them. Perhaps it has more to do with Horatio Caine than it should, and less with Horatio Spafford than it could.
Concerning the proximity to the spirit of the C.S.I. series, there is certainly nothing wrong with the aspiration to be virtuous, even incredibly virtuous. And many Christians rightly contribute to the scientific and technological advances of today and tomorrow. But there are at least two points in which it could be problematic for Bible-believers to accept and promote some of the specific “values” carried along by these series :
** First, there is the spirit of “It is owed to me”, be it freedom without risk or responsibility, be it other things in an over-protected security.
*** The relationship that we are allowed to have with the Living God has not much to do with anything that the Lord should owe us. And His care and providence certainly implies protection, but never in an over-protective sense that would take away or reduce anything of our responsibility as humans.
*** But the wrong values often get much closer than they should, for instance when some Bible-believing Christians come to say in a certain way: “God is my daddy.” Of course, it is not wrong, and even beautiful, to experience God’s fatherhood in a very personal, intimate and trustful way. Things get more problematic when such positions keep us – in some cases rather subtly – from acceding to a responsible and adult life of faith.
*** The emphasis on God as “daddy” is described by some as a regression from Christianity to “Kiddianity”. Sadly, such a characterization has often some truth in it. To take a concrete example that brings us back to the spirit of our time: How do we read Psalm 23 and especially the “valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4)? Do we read it as every generation before us has done so since the Psalm was written, in the sense that amidst the suffering and the evil that actually torment and plague us, we are allowed to hope that God’s sustaining providence will prevail in the end, so that suffering and evil are not the last word? Or do we read the Psalm as “Kiddians”, as spoiled children of over-affluence, thinking that we are entitled to ask from God that He keeps every suffering and evil far away from us?
** Second, there is what is often called the “production of victims and criminals”, in an unwise over-emphasis on these categories dictated by the spirit of our age. Nowadays, the category of “victim” has lost the rather miserable connotation it used to have; many people – among them Bible-believing Christians – aspire and even fight with all their strength for the status and the privileges attached to being recognized as the “victim” of something or somebody. But Jesus never treated anybody as a victim in the way we understand this category today; instead He gave people hope and empowered them to change even most compromised situations. And Christ spoke the truth in love, but he never rendered ultimate judgments beyond redemption. Likewise, Christians would be unwise to endorse the currently dominant tendency to either treat criminals as victims or to submit them to the harshest possible punishment.
The spirit of “It is well with my soul” today
The spirit of Horatio Spafford – as is clearly indicated by the lyrics of his hymn – has not much to do with the troublesome distortions brought along by the spirit of our age. Out of a lifelong relationship of trust with the Living God, Spafford faced the death of his beloved children without ever claiming to be a victim. He never acted or thought as a “Kiddian”, but lived his freedom as a Christian responsibly, accepting the risks and suffering that can go with it.
Out of his intimacy with God, Spafford took the strength to stay away from any self-pity or any bitter accusations towards anybody. And the lyrics of his hymn give testimony to the miracle of consolation that he received in one of his darkest hours. In that, Spafford is more actual than ever and more relevant than many of today’s books of counsels for the time of mourning. As a verse written thousands of years ago says: “Happy is the person who places his confidence in the Lord” (Psalm 40:4).
Andreas Matter-Tanski is a lawyer and economist, practicing economic law (especially tax law) at the Supreme Court of Switzerland.
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