Chess, Dysfunction, and Misfits
Pity the child who has ambition
Knows what he wants to do
Knows that he’ll never fit the system
Others expect him to
Chess is perhaps one of my favorite musicals. A product of the 1980s, with a libretto by award-winner Tim Rice & music from Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus (two members of ABBA), it was critically acclaimed and a crowd-pleaser. It even had some songs on popular music charts, famously “One Night in Bangkok.” The story of Cold War chess rivals from the US & the USSR–and the woman caught between them–it hesitated to provide easy outs from the human condition and colored characters with many shades of grey.
Despite its ups and downs as staged in London, on Broadway, and around the world, its themes of ambition, love, rivalry, greed, and finding-yourself-ness (what Christians call vocation) have passed the test of time across the globe. This particular excerpt, the anthem of The American entitled “Pity the Child,” evokes an image of an isolated child whose genius mixed with a turbulent and ultimately dysfunctional family to produce a toxic arrogance & permanent self-centeredness.
A famous metaphor or term for sin is incurvatus, a Latin word which describes the inwardly-curved soul that is so broken it cannot help but reflect its own inadequacies. How did Freddie/The American get this far? What do we do to people who don’t “fit the system?”
Changing gears for a moment, many of you, dear readers, know that I’ve recently taken on a role as coordinator of the discernment process (in my area) for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.* This is a process in which there are many avenues for entering the servant-leadership of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church–and even within each avenue, many different orders and timings are followed by candidates. And yet, over and over again, we try to force gifted and experienced people of faith–young and old, rich and poor, well-educated and not, white and not, new to the faith and not–into a specific form or pattern. If you didn’t do things in the right order, then that SAYS something about you, right?
Unfortunately, this only reveals the dysfunction which underlies our order and pattern. If we truly valued a diversity of gifts and experiences, then we would be more interested in how these could be shared faithfully to enrich and lead the whole community of faith and less concerned with our own power and priorities. However, whether because we simply don’t know how to act better or we willfully choose the wrong thing (both exemplified by our “hero”), the way we’ve done business breaks individuals and lays waste to their humanity and faith.
Moreover, the dysfunction often manifests as an abusive power dynamic in which the “system” disposes of all hospitality, gracefulness, and collegiality…and then holds the individual candidate responsible! With no recourse, no ability to say no, and no graceful exit, is it any wonder that gifted and motivated and intelligent individuals leave the ministry process in the UMC and move to other denominations or out of ordained ministry period? The ability to correct this abusive relationship between authorized denominational bodies and the lives and futures of faithful people is one of the chief reasons I agreed to spend a lot of time and energy in this new role.
Just like breaking a pattern of abuse in a family as it is passed from parent to child, or spread among siblings or other relatives, changing the culture of an organization takes time and an immense amount of effort. Sometimes it means quarantining off the parts that fail to respond to either compassionate cries or the strident speaking of justice. Starting over is painful, and as we are reminded in the story of the Passion & Resurrection of Jesus Christ, new life always comes at the cost of death to the old self, the old way of doing things, the old systems. For the sake of those who are in relationship now as well as those who come after, we must continually allow those old, broken, abusive, dysfunctional parts of ourselves and our systems to die.
Returning to our story: ironically, Freddie’s “second,” Florence, feels the same sense of isolation he expresses in song, only this time he himself is the cause. She too feels like she’ll never fit in, but the one person who ought to be most sympathetic to her plight is too focused on fulfilling his own ego needs and trying to satiate the eternally-starving monster of selfishness. So, in response to his manipulation of her own history and personality, she belts out the harmonically-thrilling (but profoundly sad) “Nobody’s Side,” with the chorus echoing:
Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Better learn to go it alone
Recognize you’re out on your own
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Their nemesis (at this point), The Russian/Anatoly, is more sympathetic, but ultimately chooses his own intellectual & strategic gifts over fulfillment with any partner or wife, and so proves to be just as crippled as the Americans. It’s a moving but ultimately tragic view of contemporary life that values doing over being and hard work over grace.
Chess is an amazing musical on its own merits, and has a remarkably incisive anthropology as well. It’s currently experiencing a revival featuring Josh Groban and Broadway stars, with Tim Rice’s blessing; perhaps we’ll see a touring or Broadway company pick it up in the US. I hope so…but I also hope we learn from what it can teach us. So also may the Incarnate God teach us the art of welcoming those who will “never fit the system,” while banishing our in-curved desire to “learn to go it alone” from each of our hearts and our common life.
*Official title with the Texas Annual Conference: Dean of the College of Mentors. Analagous to a Candidacy Registrar in other conferences, with some additional oversight and stewardship of the entire candidacy process.