Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Gospel According to Wicked


Last month, I was lucky enough to watch the play Wicked for the second time. I found it even more clever and hilarious the second time than the first. I was also struck by the Gospel message that one can gain from the play.

(Spoilers ahead. But honestly, the play is like seven years old or something, and based upon the Wizard of Oz. If you’re spoiled by something here, it’s your own fault.)

Wicked is at its core a story about two very different women: Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, later known as Glinda the Good Witch (the "ga" is silent). The two women meet at school, where both express an interest in studying sorcery; through a mixup, they end up being roommates. As the play begins, it is presented as a sort of Ozian Odd Couple--the green, unpopular, bookish, sarcastic Elphaba at first glance appears the complete opposite of her blonde, popular, snobbish, rich-girl roomie.

But when you step back and watch the characters' motivations throughout the play, you begin to realize that in actuality the two are very similar. Both are motivated by an overwhelming urge for acceptance. It is the heart of their philosophies in life, their actions, their decisions...I can argue that the search for acceptance is the key dramatic driver for both women.

Consider Elphaba. She was born green, the child of two worlds--her mother conceived her during an affair with the then-unknown Wizard. She has a natural gift for sorcery, and is very smart and has a great deal of compassion. But she craves acceptance. She slavishly serves her handicapped sister, in the hopes of gaining her father's and sister's approval. She tries to keep her natural talent for sorcery bottled up, for fear of upsetting her father. She is obviously and clearly hurt by the way people look at her and react to her, even though she uses humor as a defense mechanism. When she finally does agree to use her powers, we find that it is out of a secret desire that the Wizard will give her normal skin coloring. When Galinda gives her (in jest) a pointy black hat, she wears it proudly to the dance--thrilled that someone finally accepted her.

Next, consider Galinda. She has money and looks and popularity, but she is more than just a dumb bimbo or a punchline. She too is in need of acceptance. She puts down those who are less fortunate in a way that makes herself look better. She seeks out popularity, flaunts her wealth and position, and adores being adored. She immediately falls for the most popular boy in school (Fiyero), more because of how she will look than because of true love. She accepts a position working for the Wizard--whom she distrusts and despises; she justifies the position, but by the end of the play we know that the allure of fame and adoration is too great for her to turn down. In the end, it is overcompensation at its base: she is so afraid of being not accepted for who she is, that she seeks out shallow popularity everywhere. Her acceptance is an inch deep and a mile wide.

These two women are the heart of the story, and their yearning for acceptance is one of the key themes. In different ways, we see that they cannot achieve it. Galinda confuses acceptance with popularity; thus, her entire life is a Barbie-imitation put-on. She does not allow herself to be herself, to feel real things, to interact in healthy ways, to be vulnerable. She sacrifices her morality and--eventually--becomes separated from her best friend and fiancee over her yearning for acceptance. Even by the end of the play, we see a bittersweet Glinda--she has the popularity and power she always dreamed of achieving, but is alone. Has she really achieved acceptance for who she is? How can she, when no one even really knows her?

On the other side, we have Elphaba. Elphaba tries to gain acceptance through works. She is obediant to her (obviously unfair) parents. She is servile and self-sacrificing to her sister--who takes obvious advantage of her feelings. When she and Galinda become friends, she does so with depth and vulnerability and complete outpouring of her heart. She is a teacher's pet. She always fights to do the right thing, no matter the consequences. She creates the race of spying winged monkeys in an ill-advised attempt to gain the Wizard's favor. Her entire first Act is spent trying and trying and trying to be "good enough" to meet society's standard--but she can't.

To the Christian, this is a very good analogy for the state of our souls. We all, at our hearts, desire to be accepted by God and other people. We are creatures designed for communion (both horizontal and vertical), and that is a crucial part of finding joy in our lives. Almost all of us, if we are truly honest, feel at our core that we just aren't good enough. We are guilty of too much sin, or are just too different, to be accepted just as we are. If people really knew our skeletons, our secret desires, our quiet sins...they would hate us. They would not want to be with us. We are not up to what society (or God) would find to be an acceptable level.

Elphaba approached this problem by trying to work her way through it. If she could just impress the wizard, maybe things would be better. If she just took care of her sister, maybe things would be better. If she just, if she just, if she just...a never-ending litany of Law, of rules, of effort. If she just does enough, then she will be found acceptable, despite the color of her skin.

Galinda approached the problem by trying to put on a mask and be what everyone wanted. She sought out popularity--worked toward it as a be-all, end-all goal. If she was just popular, if she could just appear perfect on the outside, then maybe everything would be great. Maybe then people would accept her.

Elphaba's outside was flawed, so she tried to earn acceptance through her inner character. Galinda's inside was shallow, so she tried to earn acceptance through a perfect outer life.

How often do we do the same? How often do we try to gain the acceptance of our world, our church, or even God, by controlling how we look or what we say and do?

Many of us are like Elphaba: we believe that if we work hard enough, do great works of charity and service, tap into our potential, and check all the boxes of the Christian lifestyle, then we will somehow become more acceptable. We think that God, and society, will forgive our failings if we can overcome those by mighty works. So we are generous and active in our community and do our Bible study every single day and never miss a church service. And we hope that those actions gain us acceptance.

Others of us are like Galinda, putting on a mask of perfection, trying to always say the right things and look the right way. We want to hide the internal failures in our lives by appearing to be a good, church-going person. We don't drink, don't smoke, don't swear, don't get angry; we always go to everyone's parties and always give thoughtful gifts and never complain and never get 'deep'. We are everyone's friend, and yet never let anyone "in". And we hope that being popular is the same thing as being accepted.

In Wicked, these two women eventually end up gaining a great deal of love for each other, becoming close friends. That friendship is the first true acceptance either of them have ever gotten.

Then, later, two things happen of great importance. First, Elphaba chooses that she will not serve the Wizard, and gives up the power and prestige to do the right thing. Galinda cannot turn down her temptation for vanity, and thus their relationship sours. Galinda ends up getting exactly what she asked for -- popularity -- but loses the one person in her life who ever truly understood and accepted her. The one person who would have loved her no matter what...loved her for who she was.

Second, Fiyero actually falls in love with Elphaba. It didn't take getting rid of her green skin, or even her pursuing him. He got to know her, and he loved her for who she was. When he calls her beautiful, she says that he is lying; Fiyero replies, "It's not lying--it's looking at things another way." His ability to see Elphaba's true beauty is true acceptance. It is true love, overlooking her defects (both of character and physical) and seeing her as a lovely person. That love transforms even her opinion of herself. It sets her free from her concerns of the world, and she and Fiyero fake her death, going to live a long and quiet and happy life together. True, all-accepting love--that is, Grace--sets her free from her worldly needs. And she leaves the world through her "death", embracing the joy that love brings entirely.

This is what God does for us--He loves us, just as we are, warts and all. We don't have to hide behind a mask of perfection to gain His acceptance; in fact, it is seeking the mask of popularity that ultimately costs Galinda the acceptance she so deeply desires. You cannot gain His love by working for it, even by using the gifts He gives you as intended. You cannot gain His love by pretending that your flaws are not real.

There is nothing you can do to earn God's love. There is nothing you can do to deserve the Creator of the Universe to have His face shine upon you. There is nothing you can do to keep your soul clean from the stain of sin.

And yet--God is willing to see us as holy and pure. That's why He sent Christ to die for us, to wash the stains from our souls.

Stop trying to wear the mask of Christianity. Stop trying to earn God's favor. Admit to yourself and to Him and to the world that you are a broken sinner, a flawed person trying to do your best. Admit that you don't have it all together, and that you won't during this life.

And bask in the fact that He loves you anyway. That He thinks you are special. That He thinks you are pure. It isn't lying--He is just looking at things a different way.

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