Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

Character studies

To return to the initial set-up for this series, I said that in the teachings of the church and Bible, simplicity of character is preferable to complexity or complications. I don't know if I've won anyone else's support for that proposition relayed from Fr. Maximos, but I've convinced myself. And yet...nevertheless.... What does this mean? Do we prefer simple cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers who didn't smoke, cuss, or drink anything stronger than sarsaparilla and remained faithful to their horses on whom they rode into the sunset rather than succumbing to the flirtatious temptings of the town floozies? Or do we really prefer more "complicated" cowboys like Butch Cassidy and Sundance or the antiheros who wore black instead of white in the spaghetti Westerns?

Our whole culture was subjected to considering a variation on these questions when former President Clinton was revealed as a philanderer and, once caught, tried to weasel his way out of the accusations against him by saying, "I did not have sex with that woman," and shortly afterward had to admit to meaning by that only coital sex, not other creative alternatives that most people would and do say constitute "having sex." But the point is not Mr. Clinton as much as the public reactions to him. His public approval ratings plummeted, but most people thought he should be allowed to serve out his term in office and many liberals even rejoiced that at last an American leader had taken our highest office into the same realms long known in Europe, Latin America, and some other parts of the world. And the culture has had to contrast the double-mindedness concerning Clinton with the visceral hatred for his successor, George W. Bush, whose character, including his good marriage and family values, have been both major vote getters from the general electorate but simultaneously the source of ridicule and disdain by those factions, especially in the media, who set him up as "holier than they" only to knock him down as a phony, hypocrite, and failure.

If we want to accept the teachings of church and Bible on simplicity and complexity or "cunningness," do we have to consistently prefer uncomplicated characters, and do we have to always aspire to be such characters ourselves? Yes. But when it comes to human beings, there are always mitigating circumstances. Can a philanderer reform and become a saint? Read the Confessions of St. Augustine, who was, and did. There's a common myth (quite possibly a true myth) that women generally, or at least often, prefer "bad boys" or "dangerous" men to good and safe ones. There's certainly enough truth to this to have created a body of works, ranging from literary classics to pulp fiction romance-genre novels, in which the hero is ususlly a rogue or at least "rogueish." But the appeal of such characters is complicated, too. Some women gravitate to abusive men and defend them even after asking the police to arrest them, but some prefer bad boys because they are convinced that, under the right loving conditions, the bad can be cured and the antihero turned into a hero. If it were as simple as always going for the "simpler" character, Richie Cunningham would have, in a perfect world, had more dates than the Fonz. But the appeal of the Fonz was that even though he projected stereotypical bad boy edginess, when the chips were down he would, eventually, do the right thing.

Where does all this leave us? I found a quotation today that seemed to sum it all up well—

Christianity presumes that each human is a mixed bag, with some impulses pulling us toward selfishness and egocentricity, while others yearn toward oneness with God, and resulting self-sacrificial love for others. It’s not a matter of bad people versus good people, but of a tumultuous blend within each human heart. The person who resolves to pursue the hard path toward reconciliation with God must treat his inner impulses with careful discernment, and resolve to put aside anything that hinders.

—Frederica Mathewes-Green, in At the Corner of East and Now:
A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy


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