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Divergent and the Gospel (Part II): Vanquishing Weakness, Cultivating Strength

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This is a follow-up to my previous article exploring the intersection of Divergent and the Gospel. See that article here.

"The future belongs to those who know who they are." -- Jeanine Matthews

When I lined up on opening day to view the Divergent film, I was not expecting to hear these words. When I heard them, I thought, "Hey, those lines weren't in the book!" I re-read the book over the weekend to discover that I was correct. What is more is that those words are not in the Divergent trailer either. In the trailer, Jeanine Matthews asserts that "the future belongs to those who know where they belong."

Knowing who one is does not equate to knowing where one belongs; one's being and one's community, while connected, are not the same thing.

This disparity between the book, the movie, and the trailer got me thinking: does the gospel call us to belong to those who are just like us?

That's what the faction system stipulates. But when we attend to the New Testament witness we find exactly the opposite. Jesus assembled a motley crew of tax collectors, zealots, fishermen, and devout women.

Jesus' fellowship was marked by its difference.

The Apostle Paul addresses and valorizes the differences making up the church at Corinth. Paul writes, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many" (1 Cor. 12:12-14). Here too we find membership in the body of Christ arising from the complex and diverse work of the Spirit, not innate characteristics (e.g., encouragement, spirituality).

Should churches be places for people who think and act just like we do? Are faith communities about cultivating homogeneity?

I still had these questions rattling around in my mind on Sunday when I showed up at my own beautifully messy and diverse community of faith, First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. My pastor, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, preached an insightful sermon that helped me make sense of this conundrum. She preached on Hosea 7 and in her sermon she pointed to the ways in which we are "half-baked." In other words, we cultivate our strengths without seeking to overcome our weakness.

My pastor was also right to recognize that those traits that we tend to nurture are often the characteristics with which we are born. Those who extol chastity tend to be chaste; those who praise discipline are often inclined against entropy. The unofficial motto of the 21st century church might be "come as you are," but that does not mean we are supposed to remain that way.

Jesus calls those who would follow him to vanquish their weaknesses while cultivating their strengths. That's why a community of difference is so important for our spiritual development. God, after all, wants us to be "perfect" (Mt. 5:48). My pastor taught me this Sunday that what Jesus means by this call to "perfection" is that God wants to see us made whole.

Christian perfection -- wholeness -- cannot be achieved all by ourselves. Veronica Roth recognized this. Tris tells us, "My mother told me once that we can't survive alone, but even if we could, we wouldn't want to. Without a faction, we have no purpose and no reason to live" (Divergent, 20). This point is reiterated later by Marcus, the leader of the Abnegation faction, who declares, "[In the factions] we give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life" (43).

The faction system into which Tris was born strived to eradicate certain qualities that were believed to be responsible for the world's disarray. While it is laudable that this system cultivates individual's strengths and attempts to purge them of their weaknesses, the gospel calls for more than the development of a single strength. The church, though flawed and always seeking to be made perfect by the Spirit, helps us to vanquish our weaknesses as it also cultivates our strengths. The word Jesus likely would have used in this context connotes a movement toward wholeness, a becoming complete.

The church is a place where our innate weaknesses are brought to light before the gospel. The way of God in Jesus Christ is less about who one is than who one is becoming. Divergent's Tobias articulates the thesis of the story when he states,

"I think we've made a mistake. . . . We've all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don't want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest. . . . I continually struggle with kindness" (405).

Faith communities steeped in diversity (e.g., racial, ethnic, sexual) can foster our becoming by creating generative spaces for belonging. That's where our future really belongs.