In the study of literature, the term “subtext” sometimes appears. For example, the subtext of a play is made up of the unspoken thoughts and motives of the characters, what they think and believe in the contrast to what they say.
It is possible to take this literary term and apply it to ordinary life. If the characters in a play can contribute to a subtext, so too can you and I and the people we know. Indeed, the drama of each real life can have its own subtext. The possibilities are manifold.
Here are a few subtexts of this sort. They may fit people you know or people you can imagine.
“Work hard to be normal.”
“Nobody’s going to push me around!”
“I’ll be a better parent than my parents were.”
And one more, “I’ve got to be a success or else.”
A play can have a subtext. Real people can have their personal ones. Let’s take this a step further. Can a society have a subtext, maybe several?
I think so. During this season of Lent, some of us have been reading and discussing the book Affluenza, which takes a look, both serious and comic, at the epidemic of always wanting more. In light of this, I have come to recognize that a strong subtext in our society is: “Consume or be consumed.”
“Consume or be consumed.” We like to be in control, to have. We’re not comfortable with dependence, frailty, or our own mortality. We fear death.
And so we act as though buying more, getting more, keeping more will ward off our inevitable conclusion. We act as though we can prevent death by frequent use of a credit card. Consume or be consumed! The stuff, the experiences, the memories, the possessions, the clutter–we seem to believe that a relentless consumer lifestyle will ward off that final trip to the cemetery.
You and I may say that in our heart of hearts we do not believe this. “Consume or be consumed” does not define how we live. But we must admit that it is a potent subtext for the world in which we live, and it determines much of what goes on around us.
Whether or not we live out thus subtext, it does generate a great tension for many people. One reason for this tension is that “Consume or be consumed” simply does not hold true. No matter how persistently practiced, consumption does not ward off death. Whether early or late, death comes. The mortality rate is 100%. And no matter how grand the mausoleum, you really cannot take it with you. So then, if “Consume or be consumed” is a major subtext of our society, then to that extent we are motivated by something false, we are living a lie.
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Christianity directly challenges this societal subtext, for Christianity rejects both parts of it. Our faith tells us that consumption is not the ultimate good. It is not the purpose of our existence. Our faith also tells us that death is not the worst evil, death does not have the last word. There’s more to life than consumption. The power of death is not ultimate. “Consume or be consumed” is a subtext that entraps in a false universe any who accept it.
The Christian life has subtexts too. Remember that subtext is the content that waits below the surface. It comprises the unspoken thoughts and motives of the characters, what they truly think and believe. In some cases, a subtext bears little resemblance to reality. In other cases, a subtext is true to reality.
We may live faithfully as Christians. We may notice someone who acts and speaks in a way faithful to Christ, someone who makes God real for us. If this happens, what is the subtext? What is the power that is reflected, however indirectly, in that life? The subtext may be something like this:”Follow Christ through death to resurrection.”
Remember this is a subtext. The person loyal to Christ may speak very differently. That person may not talk in the language of scripture or theology or spirituality. But still it’s not hard to recognize that a profound subtext waits underneath. It can be expressed in this way: “Follow Christ through death to resurrection.” Here is a subtext that motivates! Increasingly the person’s life appears as an unfolding, a unique unfolding, of the implications of this subtext.
We’re not talking about something static. Like a drama being performed on the stage, the life of any Christian is not yet complete. Nor can we expect perfect adherence to this subtext of following Christ through death to resurrection. What we can expect is a persistent return to that journey after wandering from that course, an overall movement in that direction.
This is what Paul is writing about in the passage we heard today from his letter to the Christian congregation in Philippi, a city in Macedonia.
His desire is to follow Christ through death to resurrection. He says this emphatically when he tells them, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” This is the subtext of his life, not some version of “Consume or be consumed.”
Paul insists on the whole package. He not only wants to know Christ and the power of Christ’s resurrection, but he wants to share in the crucifixion as well. The two aspects are as one to him. Neither can exist alone. Paul wants a cruciform life. Not simply life by itself, not simply a cruciform death, but a cruciform life. Paul knows his own subtext and puts it out for all to see.
Paul says this to the congregation at Philippi, not simply to vent his feelings, but to teach the church and offer an example. He wants those Philippians to accept the same subtext for their lives.
We can accept this same subtext for the lives we live. Rather than be caught up in the imperative to keep consuming or be consumed, rather than be driven by the fear of death, we can accept a different basis for ourselves. We can choose to keep dying, but not allow death to be ultimate. Instead, we can expect to be raised to new life. We can anticipate final resurrection one time after another.
The life worth living is a cruciform life. It is not a running from death, but a judgment on death, that death is not absolute. Jesus leads the way through death in all its forms to life that proves eternal.
“Follow Christ through death to resurrection.” Let this be your subtext, and you need have no fear: with Jesus, you have overcome the world.
— Copyright 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.