Doctrine is not limited to the Church. Everybody has doctrine, a set of precepts that define our experience and environment for us, providing us strategy for navigating both. When doctrine tracks with reality, it helps; when it contradicts that reality it handicaps its believers. I recently saw Denzel Washington in a bravura performance in the movie, Fences. The metaphor is an oft-postponed fence Washington’s character, Troy Maxon, intends to build around his home in 1950s Pittsburgh.
Troy Maxon’s life doctrine is that black people will always be oppressed by racism on the one hand, but he is a self-made man on the other. The first elephant in the room prompts the question of how he can be a self-made man if he is always prevented from success.
Troy’s doctrine has a basis in reality, as many doctrines do. There was serious racism in the America of the fifties; remnants persist today, but it is not an existential reality. Subsequent American history and his own experience reveal the truth. He has a good-enough job with city sanitation to own his own home. When he believes he deserves a promotion, he argues it with his white boss and gets his promotion. Yet he remains an embittered man until his death, blaming his own shortcomings on the system instead of repenting and addressing them. Meanwhile, he is to some extent a self-made man – if we understand the term to mean a hardworking earner of his home and limited prosperity. But no one in God’s world is truly self-made; Troy is the beneficiary of his amazing wife and of other people along the way, like the white supervisor, who care enough about justice to listen to his argument for promotion. He benefits from his children who love him despite his harshness toward them.
Advertisement - story continues below
Based in reality or not, Troy Maxon’s life doctrine fails the reality test at every turn, yet he adheres to it as though it were spoken by God. Whenever we do what he does, there are consequences – ugly consequences.
His life’s ambition is to play Major League baseball. He lives in the era that saw first Jackie Robinson and later a myriad of black players make it big in the big leagues and change America forever with their courage and athletic gifts. One of them – Henry Aaron – went on to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. (Sure, there were those who hated Aaron, but they would have hated anyone toppling the Babe.) He believes he has been denied his dream entirely by racism. The reality is that Troy was just not good enough to play in the Majors. But his bitterness moves him to stomp on his son’s athletic ambitions; he rationalizes his abuse by imagining he is protecting his son from inevitable disappointment instead of crushing his spirit.
The self-made-man delusion has consequences just as devastating, and striking more lives. He imagines his family is somehow his property because he provides them food and shelter. This justifies his condescension toward his son by a previous marriage and the outright abuse of Cory, the younger son with the chops to play big-time football if his father will get out of his way. His wife is an amazing woman in all ways and he loves her like a fish loves water. Yet his view of life likewise gives his chronic adultery a pass, even to the point that a baby is born, the mother dies, and Troy brings his daughter home to be raised by his wonderful wife – who agrees to it. He appreciates her sacrifice, but never really understands what he has done to her and to their marriage.
Because he is self-made and forever at war with the unbeatable system, Troy does not listen to anyone. He blows off steam with friend Jim – because he needs to – but Jim’s wise response goes unheeded. Eventually he contracts a fatal disease and dies in his self-imposed pain and isolation. Worse, he leaves another generation of Maxons addictively trying to live up to his standards though he is no longer around to belittle their effort instead of loving them in it. The pathology of his false doctrine lives beyond him.
Advertisement - story continues below
It doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is repentance, but like any other addict Troy needs to want his freedom more than he wants comfort. The rest of us need to want that freedom – available only in surrender to the Giver of real life – more than we want to enjoy even another memorable performance by Denzel Washington. Only then can worshiping and serving God trump our pet theory of everything.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.