Sunday, July 6, 2008

Notorious Behavior

I have just watched the classic Hitchcock thriller Notorious again. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American convicted of treason in 1946. Cary Grant plays American intelligence agent Devlin, whose assignment is to convince Alicia to go to Brazil and infiltrate a group of neo-Nazis with ties to her father, with whom she has severed ties because of his treason.

Alicia agrees to cooperate with the intelligence agency, and she and Devlin have an affair as they travel to Brazil. Devlin learns that her assignment is to seduce Alexander Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), who had previous ties to Alicia's father and who had shown romantic interest in her in the past. Devlin protests to his supervisors that Alicia would never agree to such an arrangement but is told to let her decide. He does just that, declining to give Alicia any reasons not to take the assignment. It is obvious to the viewer that both are hoping the other will put a stop to it, but neither does. It is only after Alicia marries Sebastian that Devlin admits to himself that he has been in love with her.

Each person had been putting the other to the test, hoping that the other would say no to the notorious behavior that the agency was expecting Alicia to engage in. Each was secretly longing to be loved by the other but was afraid to express this longing. Devlin was almost daring Alicia not to go along with this, and Alicia was almost daring Devlin to tell her not to do it. There were many references by the other agents about Alicia's lack of character, and it was simply assumed that she would do what they wanted.

I think about love that puts the beloved in the position that almost forces scandalous behaviour in order to prove that love is being returned. We do that all the time in our human relationships: "Prove to me that you love me by doing this or not doing that." This dynamic was unspoken but very well communicated to the viewer by the master visual artist Hitchcock.

The biblical book of Hosea tells about a very different kind of love that God has for Israel. Hosea says that God has told him to marry a prostitute named Gomer in order to symbolize Israel having been unfaithful to God. The two have children, with symbolic names of judgment; the last is apparently not Hosea's, as he names a Hebrew word that means "Not mine."

God tells Hosea to divorce Gomer as a symbol of the heartbreak God has at Israel's unfaithfulness. As time passes, God tells Hosea to find Gomer and take her back. He has to pay for her, as she has either fallen into slavery or a lover demands payment to release her. Hosea exhibits scandalous behavior to symbolize what God is willing to do to regain the love of Israel, even though convention demands a divorce and judgment. Hosea is the "talk of the town" for marrying a prostitute who unsurprisingly ends up being unfaithful to him and for then buying her back after divorcing her.

I am drawn to the similar relationship between two other movie characters, that of Forrest Gump and his Mama. In order to get Forest into "regular" school, even though his IQ is below the cut-off, Mama beds the school's Principal. She is willing to be scandalous or notorious for the benefit of her son.

The Incarnation has such a notorious ring to it. For Greeks and Jews alike, a god who becomes flesh is scandalous. The Jewish understanding of God had been thoroughly monotheistic for centuries at the time of Jesus; it was unthinkable that a human being could be God in the flesh. The Greek philosophical understanding of God was not like the popular mythological conceptions; rather, God is that which is perfect Form, Ideal. Anything in this world is a shadow of the perfection of the world of Forms or Ideals, God being the highest in that world. An incarnation of that God was unthinkable. The God revealed in the New Testament engages in this notorious behavior and, in the words of the Nicene Creed:
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and became truly human.
International Consultation on English Texts

(I'm not trying to say that the God of the New Testament is not the same as the God of the Old Testament but that the Incarnation was a new way of understanding that selfsame God.)

In the early church and still in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this doctrine of Incarnation was closely tied to that of Theosis: God became human so that humanity can become divine. In this understanding, salvation is not simply getting into heaven; it is rather being transformed into what God is. The philosophical scandal was that earthly things could be perfected like Forms, like God. God engages in notorious behavior in order to save humanity, and Jesus lives this mission by likewise engaging in scandalous behavior: eating with sinners, touching lepers, talking to women, letting women sit at his feet as a rabbi would let his disciples.

Salvation—theosis—consists of loving people enough to be notorious, enough to break conventions for the sake of people, in order to challenge the existing order for people and for their salvation. Remember that I'm not talking heaven when I use this word. I'm not talking about converting people to Christianity but to the way of Christ, which exemplifies God's scandalous behavior for the sake of humanity. The aspects of Christianity encompassing human relations emphasize
acts of personal compassion and social justice. I'm certainly not living this way perfectly, but I'm looking for a community, even a virtual one, in which we can help one another walk in this way, even when it makes other people talk about us behind our backs.

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