Where We Fear to Tread



In a quiet town not too far from here, the minister sat typing at his desk. It had been a busy week, and this late hour on Saturday night, alone in his study was the first moment he could find to finish his sermon for the next morning. He typed and typed, clicking away on his keyboard when all of sudden he heard it…three soft knocks at his study door.

He wasn’t expecting anyone. The last meeting of the night ended hours ago. He said, “Come in.” But the door stayed closed, and he heard nothing more. He paused for a moment, unsure of whether he should check to see if someone was in the outer office. But he returned to his sermon.

Typing again, he was startled when he heard it once more…”knock, knock, knock.” This time the knocks where louder, and he bolted from his chair, sprang to the door, flung it open…but there was nobody there. The minister, trembling now a little, peeked around each corner of his doorway. He stepped into the darkened outer office.

“Hello. Is anybody here? This isn’t funny.” Hearing no response and seeing nothing out of the odinary, he wondered whether there was a youth group lock-in on site he didn’t remember or whether the pipes in this old building were playing a trick on him. He laughed to himself a little as he went back into his office…“darn kids.”

Then his blood ran chill when he saw the figure behind his desk. Shrouded in black and shapeless, the figure seemed to hover there, silent. Then his heart raced as he saw the figure stretch out one bony finger toward him. And he screamed when he saw the hooded, looming figure and its bony finger…highlight the text of his sermon and press delete!

Telling stories that scare us like this one is a tradition for many of us. Whether we tell our stories around campfires, in movie theaters, or in other ways, being scared, being frightened, is one way many of us in our human family spend time together. But why?

Dr. Margee Kerr is someone who thinks a lot about why we like to be scared. She is a professor of sociology and teaches very popular courses on fear and being scared. She is the author of the recent book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. In her book, Dr. Kerr takes blood-curdling adventures into some of the most frightening places on earth. But she also describes some of the work she does in addition to her teaching. She is a haunted house consultant. She advises some of the most terrifying haunted houses in the world…on…well…how to be even more scary.

She perfects her discipline by evaluating responses to surveys about what scares people, and she finds ways of working these ideas and fears into haunted houses. And in some of the most entertaining passages in her book she shares experiences of watching people respond to the very scenarios she helps to create. She actually goes into these haunted houses and sits in places behind the scenes where none of the customers can see her and observes. In fairness to Dr. Kerr, she confesses to the creepiness of this habit, but it’s part of the job.

She watches the mayhem unfold: Spouses and partners pushing one another into danger; people bumping into walls in a mad dash to escape the imagined danger; the chilling terrified screams are ear splitting. But she sees other things, too.

From her creepy post, she notices that the instant groups of people are out of danger, or out of their perceived danger…they laugh. People exiting haunted houses are “smiling, laughing, hugging, and giving each other high fives.” They are elated and they seem closer to one another, leaving with their arms draped around one another’s shoulders and often holding hands. It’s a bonding experience.

According to Dr. Kerr, two elements are essential to make this bonding experience work. First, people participating must be mature enough to know that they are in a controlled environment. A young child who goes to a haunted house, unaware that it is fiction, could be traumatized, not elated. Second, people participating must know that the danger is fleeting, temporary, and will end when they move on to the next thrill or exit the haunted house. The underlying awareness that we are safe is what allows the bonding experience of being scared around campfires, frightened in haunted houses, and startled in movie theaters. But being scared is more than just good, old fashioned fun. It’s big, big business.

Take films, for instance. One of the ways films are evaluated for success or failure is take the ratio of how much it costs to make the film and how much the film grossed in theaters. This is the same model used for looking at any investment. If we put $100 into an investment and get $150 back from our investment, then we had a 50% return. If we apply this to films, we start to see something interesting. And, in particular, we see something, well, startling, when we look at the film Paranormal Activity.

The cost of this project was $450,000. It grossed just shy of $90 million dollars. For those of you not gifted with a facility for simple math, that is a return on investment of 19,756%. And, the next two films with the greatest budget to gross receipts ratios are also horror films. Fully half of the top ten films with the highest rate of return of all time are horror films. Scaring people can really pay off it seems.

But what happens when you take away these safeguards of maturity and knowing it’s all only meant in good fun? Well, then I guess you get the United States Senate.

The pastoral part of me hopes and prays that we have not all been watching and listening and reading about the back and forth this week over the Affordable Care Act. As it stands this hour, the senate majority leader seems to be scrapping any plans to replace the way that tens of millions of people receive health insurance with anything and plans simply to try to repeal that law altogether. And this kind of fear, the kind of real fear that our very health can be in jeopardy, is not a joke. It’s not a bonding experience.

Dr. Kerr addresses this kind of fear, too. She warns that fear is being used more and more and more “to sell products and to shape political debates.” And she doesn’t only fault public figures and politicians. She writes,“Viewer-hungry news outlets manipulate our fear response and our brain’s inability to distinguish ‘real’ threats from the abstract and anomalous terrors across the globe that appear within seconds on our smart phones and TVs. We live in an objectively safer world than ever before, but we’re bombarded with fear-triggering messages and worried about issues that likely won’t affect us and are far from our control. We are arguably consumed with fear.”

And so much of the fear we know now, this brewing anxiety, is loosed upon us by analysts or pundits or advisors, but they also go by another name: critics. People who are making a fine living by tearing down the ideas of other people, without offering a solution, an answer of their own. Stripping away a means for providing healthcare to tens of millions without a way to replace it, for instance, is the kind of bald-faced, blind criticism that threatens many of our own feelings of wellbeing, and threatens our physical wellbeing as well.

But the pernicious influence of this kind of critic is not new. Centuries ago, one of the most lasting and influential essays ever published, “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope, an essay I’ve mentioned before, takes aim at a wide range of professional critics. At the apex of the essay’s argument, Pope turns his gaze to the church. Speaking here of critics, he says,

No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr’d
Nor is Paul’s Church more safe than Paul’s Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angles fear to tread.

This final line is one we hear in so many parts of culture. From Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, to the American Songbook, to one of pop music’s most enduring and often-covered songs of Elvis Presley, “fools rush in,” the first part of this enduring sentiment persists powerfully in our collective consciousness. But we cannot, we should not miss its full context.

Paul’s Church—meaning the entire Christian church—Pope argued had become populated with a particular type of critic. Specifically, he warns that those running the church, those speaking from the altars will talk you to dead. And that those people, who are criticizing the very being and beliefs of others, are doing something, speaking for God, that even an angel would fear to do.

Now, having said that, we can all be keenly aware that at this moment someone is, in fact, standing in a church, on what is essentially an altar before you, and speaking to you about spiritual matters. But in this place, we see church as something different. Decades ago, we decided as a national movement of faith communities, to take a step outside of churches as we had known them. Though both of our strands started there—the Unitarian and the Universalist—though much of our inherent structure comes from Paul’s own organization of churches, we wanted something more. We needed something more. We sought something more.

We found that action, moving toward societal change, and not simply naysaying what others might or might not believe, was our calling. At our best selves, Unitarian Universalists, existing outside of the confines of St. Paul’s church, have the chance to be the kind of critics this world needs, the kind that are not all talk, the kind that show up and do what is needed when it needs to be done.

Some weeks ago, this entire sanctuary was filled, was packed, with members of our neighboring community. They came to talk about ways to provide the vital, the essential, the human rights mandate of health insurance for all. You don’t have to take my word for it either. You can go right on to CSPAN.org and search for “Earl Blumenauer Town Hall on Healthcare.”

You’ll see our beautiful organ in the background. And you’ll see that there is hardly a seat free in this entire place. And you will hear the thoughtful, conscientious, and real-world ways that authors, experts, and local, state, and national politicians believe healthcare can become a reality for all people, regardless of income or employment status. That happened right here.

And one of the things you will hear is almost every speaker begin by thanking this church, not just for hosting the event, but for being a voice that speaks up for justice year after year after year.

And that is so often how we are known. Amid voices crying out only with criticism, we, like many other like-minded groups, look for ways forward. The voice of fear cannot be the only voice in the conversation. And we can see this all around us—even back at the world of film.

There are other films rounding out that top ten with the best return on investment. One is called God’s Not Dead. It is the story of how young people rediscover a faith many hold in this country as something living, something hopeful, and something real. Another one is Peter Pan, the original Disney animated film. The next is Star Wars, Episode IV. For those of us over 30, this film is also known as “Star Wars.” And It’s A Wonderful Life is in there. I mean, c’mon. Then there’s the final film on our list: Grease.

Now I’m not going to try to find too much deeper meaning in “We go together like ramalamalamma gadigakadinga dong.” And I confess, I have not seen God’s Not Dead. But apart from that film, these other films are undeniable classics.

5 horror films, filled with scares, gore, terror, and startling, on one hand. And a set of films about how people come together to help each other. A set of films about a new generation coming into their own. A set of films about giving people hope in their future. Now I am not much of a film critic, but doesn’t it look like there’s something going on here?

Alongside some of our culture’s most morbid and dividing fears, are some of our culture’s most hopeful, celebratory films ever made. Our greatest fears and our greatest hopes sitting right there together.

Our anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone comes to us from a Broadway show that was turned into a film…like Grease. Carousel deals with some weightier topics, though. The afterlife, sin, poverty—it’s a grown-up musical, to be sure. Before the rousing finale we heard today, Billy Bigelow, one of the main characters in the play, struggles with the realities of his life when he learns he’ll soon be a father. Billy works as a carnival barker, someone who convinces people along the boardwalk that his carnival is worth the price of admission. His job is to make his carnival sound exciting and wonderful and he is magnetic and charming on the exterior. But inside, the young father-to-be is terrified when looks alone at what he has to offer a new life, a new child.

He says to himself,

I gotta get ready before she comes.
I gotta make certain that she
Won’t be dragged up in slums with a lotta bums like me.
She has got to be sheltered and fed and dressed
In the best that money can buy.
I never knew how to get money
But I’ll try, by God, I’ll try.
I’ll go out
And make it
Or steal it
Or take it
Or die.

The amount of criticism we all hear every day, flowing from television, twitter, and twenty other sources, from so many voices, can become the inner voice of fear we hear, the refrain we repeat to ourselves. If we, as a community, both here and in the wider world, can do one thing, bridging or shortening that distance between the time that someone is scared, that someone is frightened, and that time when they breathe a sigh of relief because the hope of help is on the way, that work might have the single greatest return on investment of time and resources than almost anything else we can do.

Because Billy’s fear is universal. It’s tied up together with his hopes for the thing most precious to him—his child. And, friends, do you hear that knocking on the door? The next generation is coming. I mean, they’re here. There are hundreds, hundreds, of young people in the Learning Community in our church. And unfortunately, we can’t just keep them in a permanent lock-in. Outside our walls, they are getting as steady a diet of criticism, divisiveness, and open conflict as our culture can serve up. And we owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, to learn how we can more quickly put our arms around the shoulders of one another, to learn how we can laugh together at the fears we share with one another, so that we can show those who follow after us how to face the next death-defying ride, the next terrifying haunted house, the carnival on the boardwalk has in store for us.

Our hope is not our own. It is only hope if it is shared. Though we might be frightened about what awaits us on the other side of the doors we must walk though in our lives, we must rush in, we must be fools for hope, we must be fools for peace, we must be fools together for love. Because ready or not, [knock, knock, knock] here they come.

And may it ever be so. Amen.