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What Sainthood is Not

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, May 2, 2007

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Jon Krakauer is best known from his gripping portrayal of tragedy on Mt. Everest in his bestselling book, Into Thin Air. But Krakauer has written other engaging books, including Under the Banner of Heaven, his study of Mormon polygamists, and also Into the Wild.

Into the wild is the fascinating story of Chris McCandless, a young man who once hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the vast wilderness. Four months later his partially-decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Why did he do it? Why did this well-liked, successful, young college graduate sacrifice his life in such a bizarre manner? Krakauer decided to investigate this mystery, presenting his findings in the book Into the Wild.

As Krakauer explored Chris’s background, he discovered some alienation between Chris and his family, but nothing unusual. Yet, whereas most teenagers funnel their youthful angst into a drive for worldly success or a rebellious flirtation with fleshly excesses, Chris became increasingly estranged from the world around him. After graduating with distinction from college, one day he simply disappeared. Taking his car and a very few belongings, he journeyed far and wide across America.

But even the freedom of the road was too constraining for Chris. Possessions and relationships were just too entangling. So he set his sights on Alaska, a place as far from civilization as a young American could reach. After a hair-raising trip north, he walked out into the Alaskan wilderness woefully unprepared. According to one of the last people who saw Chris alive, “Said he didn’t want to see a single person, no airplanes, no sign of civilization. He wanted to prove to himself that he could make it on his own, without anybody else’s help” (p. 159). So, with a small rifle, a couple of books, and a large bag of rice, Chris McCandless set himself completely apart from the world — a saint in the most extreme sense.

With ingenuity and determination he managed to survive for four months. But after eating some poisonous roots he became ill and began to lose the strength required for self-preservation. His last journal entry read: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” (p. 199). Shortly after writing these words Chris passed away, 120 days after hiking into the wild, and only 19 days before his body was discovered by the six hunters, only 20 miles from a major Alaskan highway.

Chris’s story is extreme, to be sure. I doubt that you’ve been tempted to walk into desolate regions of Alaska in order to preserve your saintliness. But many Christians, either intentionally or accidentally, end up just about as cut off from the world as Chris McCandless. We can get so wrapped up in worthy Christian activities and so involved in Christian community that we have no time left over for meaningful connection with nonbelievers. Even as we rightly reject the values of our fallen world, we wrongly reject the people of the world, those whom God loved so much that he sent his only Son to save them (John 3:16).

Not only does Jesus pray that we will remain in the world, but also He gives us a very particular role in it:

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world—like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father (Matt 5:13-16).

Notice that Jesus does not present us with an imperative: “Go out and become salt and light in the world.” Rather, he states in indicative, “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.” The crucial question, therefore, is: Will we be who we are in this world? Will we live in the relationship to the world that God has assigned us? Will we maintain our distinctiveness, or become insipid salt and darkened light?

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s easy to be salt and light in the world. Sometimes we Christians can struggle to know how best to season and enlighten our part of the world. And sometimes, our effort to do so meets with resistance. I’ll talk about this in my next post in this series.

Topics: Christianity and the World |


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