It’s unbearable to be able to look through that door and glimpse all the people you could have been and know that out of all of them, this is the one you became.—Reichmarshal John Smith
The Web of Insanity We Created
In the Amazon alternate history web series The Man in the High Castle, a parallel universe is depicted in which the Axis powers (Italy, Germany, Japan) have emerged the victors in World War 2. As a result, history unfolds quite differently with the Nazis ruling the east of the United States known as the “Greater Nazi Reich”, while the empire of Japan rules the west renamed the “Japanese Pacific States”. Leading the Greater Nazi Reich is former US Army soldier turned SS Obergruppenführer John Smith. As the series progresses, Smith climbs to the top of the Nazi party by becoming the Reichsmarshall of North America answerable only to the Führer himself.
Without diving into the specifics of the show and it’s complicated plotlines, allow me to focus exclusively on Reichsmarshall John Smith. Throughout the show, it is difficult to identify Smith’s ethical compass. Yes, he is a former American who now sits at the top of Nazi power which ought to settle the issue. But at the same time, Smith exhibits redemptive qualities that revolve around his love for his family. In season one of the show, Smith assassinated a doctor who diagnosed his son with muscular dystrophy (a disease which renders one disposable in the Reich) in order to protect his son from being exposed and consequently euthanized. During the doctor’s funeral, Smith provides a glimpse into his character when he says:
A man is only ever as strong as the people around him. The community he serves and the family he swore to protect. Whatever strength he has he draws from them. And for them he must be prepared to give everything—his life for his blood—or else, everything he has done has been for nothing. He is nothing.
This familial love constantly depicts Smith wrestling and contending with the ethics of the Nazi empire— ethics which despite his tireless efforts eventually lead to the state-sanctioned termination of his only son. From this point in the series, it appears that Smith may actually be on the verge of recanting his allegiance to the Reich. However, in the end, Smith doubles down on his allegiance to evil and opts to perpetuate the injustice and oppression of the Nazi regime thus opening the door to his own catastrophic end.
In the final episode of the series, Smith prepares to invade the western states and is confronted by his wife Hellen. “I’ve seen the plans,” she says, referring to a new initiative of concentration camps on the west coast. “How did we get here?” she presses. “You and me, how did we get here? And this thing that we have been a part of, it is a crime.”
Smith’s reply is cold and emotionless, “I know”.
“It has to stop.” Hellen asserts.
Smith’s breaths come heavy. He feels the tension of the moment. But in the midst of that tension, all he can afford to offer is a dead stare followed by the hoarse whisper, “I don’t know how.”
What Smith is referring to is both profound and tragic. The man who once fought against the Nazis has for so long acted only in the interest of self-preservation that he has become one of them. It began with embracing the Reich in order to provide for his newborn son in the wake of a defeated American government and it led, little by little, to the once-good man becoming a part of the injustice and oppression of the Fascist Wehrmacht. Somewhere along the way, Smith lost himself and became entangled in a web of institutional injustice so complex and multifaceted than in the end, he finds himself unable to escape the chain of events of his own making. His character has been molded in one direction and even in the realization of his crime, he cannot walk away.
What we see before us, depicted in the life of this fictional Reichmarshal, is that our decisions can entangle us in a web so strong—or place us in a maze so vast—that by all human capacity we are unable to see a way out. And in many ways, this entanglement of being is what the culture is today contending with. There is a such a vast and overwhelming array of ideas, counter-ideas, ethics and non-ethics, religions and philosophies which coupled with the way in which a man conducts himself in the world—all of his decisions, all of his lies, all of his cover-ups, all of his pursuits, all of his vices and patterns, all of his deeds done and left undone sprinkled with the acts of others, the influence of a fallen world impacting their sense of direction and passion, media and family, school and literature, films and traditions, government and anarchy and undergirded by his own predilections, pathologies, and genetics that each and every human being eventually reaches a point of entanglement too vast to contend with.
Is it no wonder then that amusements appeal so much to our hearts? Is it not obvious how the duties of life can drown us while promising to deliver us from the discomfort? Is it not clear how the promise of the next spiritual guru with his path to freedom and inner peace would attract the soul? Amusements, duties, and transcendence are the ways the culture chooses to navigate the web and to—at last—find some semblance of meaning and peace in their lives. But in the end, as I have contended throughout this series—the systems of navigation crash and the man is left to confront the web of insanity he has created with nothing to guide him.
Purpose of the Church: Unraveling the Pathway Back to God
And it is to this end that God did not simply send Jesus to be our Savior but he also founded the church. The church, as Ellen White puts it, “is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men.” It has the purpose of carrying “the gospel to the world” and is a living and breathing community in which “the final and full display of the love of God” can be seen and experienced.
To put it in different words, the church is a living community in which the entangled soul of the culture can find its way back to the heart of God and experience redemption. The church then has a beautiful mission of unraveling the pathway to the heart of God and helping lead the lost through the web of confusion and the maze of perplexity back to the heart of the father. This is the church’s mission.
The Church’s Failure: From Maze to Maze
However, one dark stain damages the beauty of the church’s mission: its failure. For when I look around at the state of the church today, it is not a beautiful community leading the entangled soul to freedom and simplicity in Christ but rather an entangled community itself. The church today is ensnared in its own web of self-perpetuation and religiosity. Thus, we add to the confusion of a wandering culture by placing before them demands and hoops through which they must jump in order to arrive at God.
Our message is not, “find freedom from the web and the maze” but rather, “Join our maze instead.” Thus, we move people from one state of confusion to another—from Babel unto Babel. No longer is the church actively fulfilling its calling to provide a clear pathway toward God but rather, we seem to have settled at providing a pathway littered with obstacles of our own making.
Do you want to follow God? Wonderful. Now don’t wear this, don’t eat that, come to church this way and don’t worship like that. Make sure you stop listening to that music and listen to this one instead. Here’s the best Bible translation around—it is written in ancient English and most can hardly understand it but you will be fine—the Spirit will help you. And by the way, stay away from those churches and those people and don’t listen to those preachers or read those books. If you are single, allow us to introduce you to purity culture replete with its own set of endless laws on dating, marriage and even dress. Let us bless you with the truth of our hyper-religious dogma so that you can be sure to live a life that is pleasing to God. Oh, and by the way, in the end of time all the deceptions will lead many astray and you can be one of them so be careful. And Jesus? Yes, he is important but don’t forget the little horn is what matters now. And grace, yes that’s OK. Just make sure you keep the law. And if the laws in scripture are not enough here are a mountain of books written by our prophet with thousands more. Good luck. See you at church next Sabbath. Don’t forget to wear a tie.
The above paragraph is certainly a caricature, but it is not inaccurate. Our church is sadly inundated with this mentality. Some manage to pace their demands on seekers by recognizing that people have to grow slowly, but the demand to make the new believer just like themselves never goes away. They might have enough civility not to overwhelm them but the tension is always there and you can feel it when you walk through the doors Sabbath morning.
The church has sadly become as confused as the world, loaded down with the burden of its own institutional self-protection and drowning in its ideological preservationism. It can no longer interact with the culture in a significant way and lead it from confusion to clarity, from perplexity to simplicity, from Babylon to Jerusalem. Pastors know it. Administrators know it. But if you tell any of us that it must stop, our words will sadly echo the despondency of Reichmarshal Smith—“We don’t know how.”
In this sense, we ourselves are blind—lost in our own maze—and yet, our evangelism gives the impression that we are here to guide others out of the maze. But what sense is there to guide others out of a maze if we ourselves are entangled? In the end, we will only succeed at getting the culture to swap mazes—nothing more. And it is because of this ever-present reality, that today the culture opts to seek God outside of the church and away from Christians.
Christians, they perceive, are trapped in the webs of institutional judgmentalism. They perpetuate the abuse of women and the legislation of morality while attending their services, smiles plastered across their faces as they sing of how forgiven they are. And if you want to join them, there is a mountain of complexity that will then be added to your life. And my life is already complicated enough so no thank you. I’ll construct my own religion, read my own books and attend a few Tony Robbins and Deepock Chopra seminars to get some guidance. But overall, I’d rather do this on my own.
Who can blame them?
And We’re OK?
The Man in the High Castle ends tragically. A despondent Reichmarshal Smith speaks to the show’s main protagonist, Juliana Crain. He and Crain have been able to travel to parallel universes and see other versions of themselves in worlds where the Nazi’s had lost the war. “It’s unbearable” Smith begins, as he sits on the edge of a cliff following the death of his wife. “It’s unbearable to be able to look through that door and glimpse all the people you could have been and know that out of all of them, this is the one you became.”
A single, self-inflicted gunshot brings an end to the man who—to all onlookers—had ample opportunity to take a different course. How tragic that in the name of convenience and comfort, Smith lost his own soul. In a sense, he was dead long before he pulled the trigger.
As we contend with the challenges of reaching the secular world, I wonder if Smith is as much a mirror for the church as he is for the culture. Look around us. What have we become? How foreign are we to the original purpose for which we were called? The church today is a performance, a show, and a museum. We use it for our own self-gain. We use it to preserve our traditions, to conserve our customs and dogmas. The church today is a monument of a bygone era and we like it that way. It has lost its way—its soul—in the pursuit of comfort and convenience.
Like Smith, we all know something is wrong but we don’t know how to fix it so we just go along. We go along with organizing programs for the sake of programs. Events for the sake of events. We preach, we sing and we repeat. The world around us drowns in its confusion and when they come to us for help, we repel them with our own discomfiture.
And the worst part is so many of us seem to be okay with it. We are not troubled by our Laodicean state. We are not concerned with the fact that we no longer see the Spirit at work, that our communities do not know of our existence and that our members are not discipling or serving. We spend money on more events, more retreats and more flashy evangelism programs that make us feel like we are moving forward when in reality, we are simply lingering—suspended in the web of our own making.
So then, what are we to do? The call to leadership demands we do more than simply point out the problems. No, we must propose a solution as well. In the next article, I will share a simple process by which I aim to redesign local churches to recapture their essence and purpose. Because the truth is, when it comes to the doctrine of the church it’s not what we say that is problematic in our evangelistic endeavors but rather, what we do and fail to do.
It’s time we did something different.
 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 9.