Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Swiss Family Robinson and the Christian Life

Last week my wife started reading The Swiss Family Robinson (in adapted form) to the kiddos. I love it when she does this. A year or so ago she read a children’s redaction of The Pilgrim’s Progress and even the littlest ones loved it (and the illustrations).

The story has been on my mind a lot lately, and the stupidest question I had was, “What kind of Swiss name is ‘Robinson?’” It’s not, obviously, and the title should be emphasized as The Swiss Family Robinson, not The Swiss Family Robinson. In other words, the Swiss author (a pastor) is telling the story of a Swiss Family like Robinson (Caruso). The first few chapters tell of the shipwreck and the initial scavenging of supplies from the ship. Unlike modern versions of the castaway genre, however, there seems to be little hope, indeed, no expectation of rescue. The Family wrecked, apparently alone on the island, and they just go about making the best of it.

All of this raises an important question about our identity and purpose as Christians. If you strip away any consideration of worldly comfort, i.e., hardwood floors and granite countertops; vacations and leather seats in your automobile; if you strip away considerations of worldly recognition, i.e., making an impact on this world, a contribution to society; if you even take away the children and grandchildren and enjoying future generations, what do you have left? What is the purpose of living?

This is the situation of the Swiss Family. On a desert island with the means for survival but nothing else: no hope of rescue, no possibility of marriage and children for their sons, only growing old and dying on this island with the animals to bury the last survivor. How then would you live? What is the purpose of such existence?

Some cultures (and subcultures) would find nothing and commit suicide. What’s the point, after all? Why struggle to survive day to day when death will still come at the end? The modern castaway stories are not so bleak: Gilligan and Co. always had a scheme of rescue. Even the Tom Hanks movie ended with his rolling of the die and leaving the island, his leap of faith upon the waters on a makeshift raft. I’m not sure we can existentially handle the possibility of a life without the world. Suicide or the hope of rescue would be the only options. More can be said about this.
However, the biblical witness does not see a difference in castaways with no hope of rescue and citizens living in this world with family and community all around. The Psalmist writes,

You turn man to destruction, And say, ‘Return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in Your sight Are like yesterday when it is past, And like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; They are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers” (Psalm 90:3-6 NKJV).


“As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children” (Psalm 103:13-17 NKJV).

And Solomon,

“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ What profit has a man from all his labor In which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, And turns around to the north; The wind whirls about continually, And comes again on its circuit” (Eccl. 1:2-6 NKJV).

The biblical witness tells us that despite the number of toys, the power and influence we may achieve–even the good that we may do–all is temporary and, well, meaningless. Despite the company and comforts we have all around us, we ought to think of ourselves as citizens on the Island. As the Septuagint of Psalm 103 reads, “Remember, man, that we are dust” (LXX Psa. 102.:14).

So again, what is the purpose of the few years we have in this life? If you were to find yourself separated from all humans with no hope of ever returning, like the Swiss Family who will die within their generation, what would you do?

How would you keep on living?

What would be the point of it all?

The way you answer that question is the most important thing in your life.