TALKING ABOUT THE BOYS IN THE CAVE CAN GO WRONG
My friend, the Rev. Gene Borquin sent me an August 4, 2018 article in Episcopal Café, about the rescue of the 13 fellows trapped in the cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand. He asked for my response to “the Episcopal article.” The article was rather like daily devotional literature, meant to inspire reflection. Here is a link to the article by Amy Shimonkavitz, a lay preacher and a postulant to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland: https://www.episcopalcafe.com/the-way-out/
The author reminisced about how she reacted to the drama of the 13 boys trapped in the cave for three weeks. Some of her experiences reminded her of Christian truths, she said. She talked about those. As she went on I began to wonder whether her reflections were valid. How does one evaluate an article or a sermon that describes a meditation?
She essentially did what we all do when we preach based on a true-life story. There are three ordinary steps which she followed. She recalled the narrative accurately in ways that she could reasonably assume her readers could agree was what the story said. Then she gave testimony about how the story had resonated with her, personally. She mentioned emotional points and triggers. As she got these two steps firmly enough behind her she attempted to universalize in ways that she hoped her readers would perceive theological principles. She thought she found why we were hooked on the story. “This is the story of our own rescue.” “Our hearts echo with the same joy of being found.” That’s why we were so enthralled with this unfolding saga and its marvelous outcome, she said.
The question I would raise is, “Did she actually catch anyone on her hook?” Is it true that the reason we were glued to our TVs and computers during the days-long drama is because we felt echoes of our own salvation story being dramatically re-enacted? The unfolding saga mesmerized nearly the entire Thai population and resulted in what is surely an unprecedented massive response by Thai officials who were not acquainted with the Christian narration of salvation, but were responding as humanitarians. But I’ll cut her some slack on account of her obviously writing for Christians who are at least supposed to have joy at being found like the lost sheep. She tied those echoes of joy at the boys’ rescue rather clearly to the Christian interpretation of salvation, including atonement involving the death of Christ. Did the death of the former Thai Navy Seal “recall Christ’s own sacrifice for us in the mission to save us from sin and condemnation”? I cannot question that it did recall Christ’s sacrifice for her. However, I am confident that not everybody made this connection. I think her recitation was manipulated at least insofar as its validity depends on those who are rescued being a type of those who are saved from sin and condemnation. The allegory breaks down at this point. I would argue against saying it was due to sin that the boys went into the cave and got trapped in there by a natural phenomenon. I would argue even more against the suggestion that Navy Seal, Saman, was doing what Christ did. Saman did not single-handedly reverse the outcome that was otherwise in store for those boys. Saman was part of a massive effort that was impelled by a united humanitarian impulse. What Saman was doing was a help, but his death neither defeated nor completed the rescue. He was not a Christ figure. Amy would have been more on target if she had compared the rescue effort to the Good Samaritan.
Her analogy also failed when she talked about what the boys needed to do in order to be rescued. She called it “repentance, turning back,” and said it’s “never easy.” Well, getting the boys out was certainly not easy, but it had little in common with repentance and turning back. It was much more like going on through conditions they had never encountered before. She said, “The boys needed blind trust” in the Navy Seals. (The key rescuers were not all Navy Seals, but never mind.) Actually, because of concern about a panic reaction, the boys were anesthetized as they were brought through the flooded cave. Once they were unconscious, trust on their part had nothing to do with it. It was the rescuers who had to have trust that their calculations and preparations were right, that nothing unexpected would go wrong. The planning was meticulous and left as little to trust as humanly possible, the rescuers told us in post-rescue interviews.
Allegories always fail to catch the essence of a universal principle, whether it is theological or otherwise. Rigid allegories fail spectacularly. Amy wrote a soft sort of analogy that did not try to extract every drop of truth from the narrative or even try to identify the central truth. She settled on how the story of the boys’ rescue moved her to tears and prayer and brought to her mind Christ’s rescue of her. All of us preachers preach, but not all of our sermons are grand. Great preachers are rare. They exceed the rest of us in their ability to find the central truth of a narrative and then challenge those they address to measure their response by the ideal discovered in Jesus the Christ. So her homiletical essay was almost OK.
My response is that she intended to be uplifting for her readers in Episcopal Café and she succeeded. She reached that point about half-way through paragraph five. However, when she went on to tell us that the reason we were moved is because we realized that what was going on in the cave rescue was parallel to what was going on with Christ, she invited dissent, which undoes inspiring uplift. As soon as I say, “Whoa! Few of the people I knew were making that connection with Christ’s sacrifice and the Easter salvation message,” I stop being inspired and began to doubt what it was she said that held the world enthralled.
She was wrong in her main assertion. Our emotional involvement in the boys’ rescue was not because “this is the story of our own rescue.” It may be parallel to the story of our salvation, but that’s not why we wept tears and prayed. The reason we did that is deeper in our human nature than a cognitive theological construction. The parents of those boys cried and prayed because it was their sons in there. Many of the rest of us cried and prayed because those boys were suffering and their chances were slim and we felt desperate for them. Amy distorted almost everybody’s profound emotional involvement and cheapened it by describing it as a metaphor for something intellectual.
For most of us, this cave drama never became about anything that had ever happened to us. Not even those of us who had had near death experiences thought what was happening to the boys was very like what we’d been through. Even the rescuers insisted that this was unique in human history. No boys that age had ever been forced to do what they had to do to get dragged and carried out of the cave.
A theological concept is derived from and not the cause of involvement in something profound that comes to be seen as a divine-human encounter. Theologizing is second-step or second-level. It is one step removed from raw experience. It happens when experience is processed, and that is culturally informed. [Pictures from various news sources show that the boys were not “processing” their experience into a Christian religious formation. Hardly anybody in Thailand was doing that at the time.] Overenthusiastic theologizing discredits Christianity, and this is the wrong time in history to keep on doing that.
The more I think about it the less Amy’s analogy holds up.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.