The Golden Life of Bruce Jenner
Having not kept up with the Kardashians myself this of course grabbed my attention. My impressions of Bruce Jenner and those of my generation mostly remember him as the all American bi-centennial athlete who took the gold at the Montreal Olympics in the Decathlon. Olympic Gold was converted into real gold through celebrity endorsements of Wheaties, Tropicana Orange Juice, Nikon Cameras and more. In 1980 Sports Illustrated did a piece on him at his Malibu Beach home depicting him as “Mr. Fantasy”, embodying the ultimate American dream.
Hey, Mister Fantasy Man … otherwise known as Bruce Jenner, Olympic hero, TV personality, rising movie star, enactor of the common man’s dreams: he sails, he surfs, he flies planes, he races autos. He’s living, baby, really living!
At the time the article was being written he was going through a romantic transition, possibly an “upgrade” if one wishes to rate romantic partners. His marriage of eight years (2 sons) was ending and he was now beginning to share his life with a former girlfriend of Elvis, “Mr. Fantasy” of a previous generation. He would marry actress/model Linda Thompson with whom he would have two more sons in a marriage that would last 5 years.
He would disappear from my radar but go onto a third marriage and find reality TV stardom in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, having two more daughters in the third marriage. This marriage would last 22 years until their separation in 2013 and divorce in 2015. Kris, his third wife was apparently not happy at all with his increasingly friendly relationship with his second wife, but the bigger bombshell would drop later.
None of this is what the tabloids are clucking about, however. The big news is that he’s/she’s decided to “transition” into a woman. His mother declares “she’s never been more proud” of her son. The family is “supportive” and people magazine declares the quote that Bruce Jenner is “finally happy”. I’m still baffled by the choice of picture that People selected for the piece. Are they making another statement?
The Elusive Quality of Happiness
I’m not looking to take a cheap shot at Bruce Jenner nor make a statement about people on a transgender journey. What is more interesting to me are competing narratives of desire and our human capacity for fulfillment within them.
Jenner’s mom’s comment was illuminating. Think about these desire narratives:
- The Sports Narrative: Jenner declared world’s greatest athlete. Mom is proud
- The Big-Man-On-Planet Narrative: Fame, fortune, looks, romance, thrills, “Mr. Fantasy”
- The Romance Narrative
- The Family Life Narrative
- The Wealth Narrative
- The Transgender Journey narrative variant of the Narrative of Expressive Individualism “I’ve got to find myself” or “I’ve got to be true to myself” or “I will ‘make it’ if I can somehow find harmony between my external attributes (gender, career, lifestyle, etc.) with my internal intuitive inklings”
One of the most obvious things to note in a story like Jenner’s is both how successful he’s been at how many of these narratives but also how none of these narratives have seemed to finally deliver on what was promised. Now that he’s “transitioning into a woman” one might ask “to what end?” The declaration “finally happy” asserts an “arrival” but despite incredible success in his other narratives pardon me if I fail to expect “arrival” in this narrative as well.
Jenner is not alone
A more contemporary celebrity at the height of their sports career would be Tom Brady. Rising from a humble draft pick position he has become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Just last week he added another Super Bowl victory onto his career. In an interview with 60 Minutes Tom Brady in 2006, after winning his third Superbowl, fathering a child with one Hollywood actress and dating a supermodel had this to say.
Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
I might expect Brady after achieving apex status in one narrative to follow the Jenner approach in pursuing other narratives in hopes of somehow “arriving”. Will Brady too someday decide to become a woman? To say this to him would today probably be perceived to be an insult. Would saying this to Jenner in 1976 also have been perceived as an insult? What about on each of his three wedding days? This simply illustrates temporary each moment’s vision of “the good” is and how chaotic our imagined quest for happiness looks if seen through anything but “the moment”.
I’d love to hear a conversation between Brady and Jenner about “the good life” because it seems that Jenner has lived it before Brady. I’d imagine Brady to state and believe “I’m going to learn from Jenner’s life. I’m going to be more careful and more wise. Avoid the pitfalls. Learn his lessons, and do right where he went wrong.”
Yep, that’s what we all think, but can we really do this? Do we really arrive?
The Liberation Narrative
We’ve been tracking the progress of the children of Israel as former slaves in Egypt. Imagine the moment when their captors tearfully emerged from their homes laden with gold to bribe their former slaves into leaving the land. Imagine the joy of Israel and the other slaves who grasped the opportunity to be slaves no more. Wouldn’t they all in that moment have imagined they would always be happy, now that slavery was lifted? Would they also in that moment like Tom Brady imagine themselves not quite happy or fulfilled enough and say to each other “God, it’s gotta be more than this!”
In Numbers 11 we have a series of murmuring texts where Israel is complaining. In verses 1 through 3 we have a mysterious manifestation of fire outside the camp consuming some of them. The rest of the chapter deals with a much more specific complaint and it is structurally interwoven dealing with leadership themes. This commentary (Ashley, T. R. (1993). The Book of Numbers (pp. 206–207). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) lays it out this way.
The desert wanderers had earlier cried out for food. Now they want more variety in their food. They want meat.
The complaint is infectious and this time even Moses catches the virus. Their freedom has not satisfied them. Their food does not satisfy them. Moses’ calling and career as prophet and leader has not satisfied him. God’s presence with them at the tabernacle and seen in the cloud of fire has not satisfied them. They are all in an uproar “wailing”. God has caused them evil and they wish their whole story undone.
Where is the Shortfall?
Just as the complaints comes from two sources, the people demanding meat and Moses asking for out of the assignment even if it means his own death, so God will address them in two ways and the stories are interwoven. The people are going to get quail, and Moses is going to get help. God will take from some of the spirit that has been on Moses, the language treats “spirit” here as a limited thing, and put it on the elders. God will send quail for the people, but the quail will not satisfy them, it will instead become something of a curse.
In the midst of the drama there is another scene where two elders didn’t make the meeting and when the Spirit came upon them and they prophesied they did so in the camp. Joshua sees this as a threat to Moses and he makes a haunting statement “I wish that all God’s people were prophets and that that the LORD would put his Spirit on them.” This comes after Moses questioned the ability of God to feed meat to the multitude and God asked he Moses though the Lord’s arm was too short to accomplish this.
So which is it? Is the LORD incapable of making all his people prophets and putting his Spirit on them when he can in fact send quail, even quail that will cause sickness?
From the Burning to the Graves of the Ones Who Craved
At the beginning of the story the anger of the LORD burned and it became literal fire that burned outside the camp. Now with the quail story the anger of the LORD burned and it became a plague for the quail eaters. We naturally read this as something like contaminated quail, but the story is less naturalistic. Not everyone who eats quail dies, just some. “While the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it”. What does this mean and why is it connected with the burning?
Its noteworthy to connect this with New Testament images of what we call “hell”. People are always surprised when I tell them the world “hell” isn’t in the Bible in Greek or Hebrew. Hebrew has “sheol” which really isn’t hell, it aligns with “hades” sometimes in the New Testament. This is less a place of judgment than simply a shadow world of the dead. In the New Testament we also run into the term “gehenna” which Jesus uses which refers to a literal place outside of the city. It was a garbage dump in Jesus day but had been used before that as the worship space for the Canaanite cults associated with child sacrifice and the other indulgent activities that commonly went along with these religions. It is not hard to link the fire outside the camp, the fires of gehenna that become theology’s images of “hell” and the cravings of the people.
It is easy to read this text as an story of an angry God who is petty and demanding and will not tolerate complaint beneath is dictatorial rule. It is also easy to see that this story is in fact about how we are never satisfied and in the end consumed by our desires. We can look at Jenner and Brady and say “wow, they have really arrived” because they have achieved what some of us dream of. Then to our surprise we realize that they still are seeking and their cravings drive them to new women, new goals, new businesses, new families, and even new genders. We watch in amazement, probably slightly aghast at what they become.
CS Lewis in his book on hell pictures a world where everyone can have exactly what they want just be thinking of it. We might imagine that this would be heaven, and in fact despite a bus connecting heaven to hell the majority of residents of hell in Lewis’ imaginative work choose to remain in hell. They simply go on, throughout the ages constructing for themselves larger homes, greater luxuries and whatever it is their hearts desire. The thing they can’t do is maintain relationships with one another, making them utterly alone as they construct and reconstruct their worlds and themselves. They are consumed by their desires.
Hell is a place that can be seen through two realities. It is the expression of God’s anger through his abandonment. Hell is God finally giving us what we want and what this look like is endless craving, endless desiring, never finding a place of rest. The promised land always beyond, in the next narrative, in the next quest, but we never arrive.
The Glib Christian Turn
Now at this point some of you are expecting the glib Christian turn where I tell you “if Bruce would only find Jesus he would be happy.” The Tom Brady quote is in fact commonly shopped by Christian evangelists who make precisely this turn.
What we see is that the Christian narrative is simply placed along side the others and evangelists will say “but this is the only one that works.”
While many Christians will testify that through embracing belief in Jesus they have found a peace that has displaced the endless chasing after things that we see in Jenner’s life, there is a good deal more evidence that plenty of Christians continue to be chase things and fail to find satisfaction.
CS Lewis in Mere Christianity and other places looks at our experience of desire and indeed connects that with God. He follows Augustine who noted that “nothing can satisfy one who would not be satisfied with God.”
Lewis I think would say that in Jenner chasing the dream of the decathalon, the Malibu beach house, the beautiful wife, the perfect family, thrills in planes, cars and jetskis, and even eventually in looking for a whole new level in trying to become a woman instead of a man he is indeed seeking the author of strength and beauty and femininity. This is evidence of a desire for which there is no satisfaction within our grasp.
- Jenner desired women and pursued it with Chrystie, Linda, and Kris and now womanhood.
- Jenner desired fame but found it elusive and fleeting. Now what he probably wants is privacy.
- Jenner desired wealth but found you can never be wealthy enough.
Lewis might say that Jenner desires woman but will not be satisfied until he has its source. He desires affirmation through fame but will not be satisfied until he is finally affirmed by his maker. He desires wealth but will not be satisfied until he in fact possesses all by possessing the source of all things, or rather, being possessed by it.
Moses’ Measured Longing
It is interesting in the passage that while God is sufficient to give the people quail, the quail does not satisfy. Moses implicitly longs that God would give his spirit, apparently from Moses which is where he took the spirit the text says, and give it to all his people. Is the limit of the 72 a limit on God? Wasn’t God able to deliver on the quail?
I would suggest the limit of the 72 was the limit of Moses.
What this points to is a new and better Moses who would commit his spirit into God’s hands and as a result of this the Spirit of God would be committed far more broadly.
The One Safe Desire
The point of all of this is that we are made to desire and we live in a world that cannot satisfy our desires. We are built to desire good things but if our attention is focused on those desires they will consume us. The life of Bruce Jenner is a parable of desire. I do hope he’s happy with the changes in his life, but from what I know of human nature it will not be “final”. His life is a parable of non-finality. Am I being mean to Jenner? No. I’m just articulating our condition here.
Jenner, like the rest of us was made to desire that which we can, in this life, not fully possess. The only safe desire, however, is the one that Moses settles on. While the people are consumed by their desire even while the quail are between their teeth, Moses, similarly unfulfilled has a hope that the mouths sick with quail cannot know.
Our desire can be the source of fleeting happiness and joy but it is mostly the source of our misery. The lives of the rich and famous are parables to us of the futility of finding ourselves fulfilled with the desires we imagine can be satisfied in this world. There are many good things that will crush us if we make them into ultimate things.
Jesus comes to us as we’re being consumed by our own desires and invites us to stop locking on them and instead lock onto him, the only safe desire. His is the strangest because he declares that it is, in fact, unnecessary. We are invited to seek him, but he bluntly says again and again that he receives us more than we receive him. He saves us, we don’t save ourselves with him. He completes us, we don’t use him to complete ourselves.
Moses longs that God would take the spirit from Moses and share it with all of the people, but Moses is insufficient. Jesus at the cost of his life shares his spirit with us. It is his gift to us.
Our desires cannot finally be satisfied in this age or in this life. What we do is live with the promise that all our desires, for women, for womanhood, for fame, for goods, for community, for affirmation will all be met not when we possess our source but when our source fully possesses us. It is in that union which is our certain gift that we will receive all things.
In the mean time it is the expression of satisfaction that we are to live out of, gratitude. If we can’t yet be fully satisfied, and in fact have to live with a degree of self-denial, then it is in gratitude that we find joy. When we receive romance or womanhood, when we receive food or drink, when we receive affirmation or wealth, when we respond in gratitude, then we receive its joy. When we stop seeking these things but seek instead the source of these things and the promise of all these things through Jesus the giver and guarantor of these things the thrashing around of longing is diminished.
To me the best illustration of this is Mabel.
This is from John Ortberg’s book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”. It’s an amazing story he got from Tom Schmidt from pages 24-28
“The state-run convalescent hospital is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless and lonely people who are waiting to die-. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and it smell of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.
“On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.
“As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new nurses arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf and alone,for twenty- five years. This was Mabel.
“I don’t know why I spoke to her—she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, ‘Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.’ She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, ‘Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.’
“I said, ‘Of course,’ and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, ‘Here, this is from Jesus.’
“That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomach aches, and then the cancer came too. Her three roommates were all human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was often overpowering.
“Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word-for-word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns.
“It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say….
“During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to *think about. The question occurred to me, ‘What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?’ So I went to her and asked, `Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?’
“And she said, ‘I think about my Jesus.’
“I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, `What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote. .
I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know … I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied…. Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old- fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.
“And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day, Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so. When I am sad He makes me glad. He’s my friend.
“This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening—and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?
“The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.”
Here was an ordinary human being who received supernatural power to do extraordinary things.
Here was an entire life consisted of following Jesus as best she could in her situation: patient endurance of suffering, solitude, prayer, meditation on Scripture, worship, fellowship when it was possible, giving when she had a flower or a piece of candy to offer.
Imagine being in her condition and saying,”I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . . . I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied.” This is the Twenty-third Psalm come to life: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
For anyone who really saw Mabel—who was willing to “turn aside”—a hospital bed became a burning bush; a place where this ordinary and pain-filled world was visited by the presence of God. When others saw the life in that hospital bed, they wanted to take off their shoes. The lid was off the terrarium. Then the turn came, with a catch of the breath, and a beating of the heart, and tears. They were standing on holy ground.
Do you believe such a life is possible for an ordinary human being?