The Egyptian Spiral (or Retroactive Stockholm Syndrome)

I remember when Derek Webb’s controversial album, Stockholm Syndrome was released in 2009. I immediately (and certainly in good company) went to Wikipedia in order to make a better guess at what this title was suggesting.

If you clicked the link (or if you just know) you know that Stockholm Syndrome is “a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them.”

Great … so we know that now … But why would a composer of expressly Christian music title an album after such a condition?  To be up front with my position, I believe that Webb, with this album (at least the title–I won’t be discussing the lyrical or musical contents in this post, though they are enlightening) is engaged in a tradition of critiquing cultural and religious institution that can be traced all the way back through some of the earliest Biblical literature.

One shining example of this concept (or something like it) can be found in a comparison of the Egyptian oppressors (Exodus 1-14) and the Israelites after they have been delivered and are established in the Promised Land (Samuel & Kings).  Rob Bell & Don Golden’s 2008 book, “Jesus Wants To Save Christians” was the first to enlighten me to this reading, but as I have since learned, the pair are following a well trod path of Biblical scholarship in drawing their conclusions. The line of interpretation goes something like this:

535258_10100227865831969_1278124752_nIn Exodus 14, Israel is delivered from their slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh, narrowly escaping the pursuing chariots and horsemen of the Egyptian superpower (chariots and horsemen are mentioned over 10 times in the chapter). From this point on in the narrative, chariots are a sign of an oppressive force, against which Israel is helpless without the help of God (Joshua & Judges) … until King David ascends to the throne, and more significantly, David’s son, King Solomon.  David is the first fully accepted King in the new nation (following Saul’s unfortunate stint in the role), and Israel begins to “settle in” to statehood under his leadership.  Not once under David’s leadership, however, is the delivered and established nation recorded as possessing chariots (with the possible exception of the story from 2 Sam. 8, when David’s army defeats the Philistine army and captures their chariots). But David’s son and successor brings with him to the throne a turning towards Egypt.

Literarily, Solomon cannot be missed as a connection to the Egypt of Israel’s past.  He forms an alliance with Egypt, marries the Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kgs 3:1), and begins amassing … you guessed it: Chariots! (1 Kgs. 10:26). The temple that Solomon builds “for YHWH” he builds on the backs of slave labor (1 Kgs. 9:15).  Like Egypt, Solomon’s Israel is massively wealthy (1 Kgs 9-10), but as becomes clear in the story, that isn’t the only thing the two have in common.  Under Solomon, as Bell puts it, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor.”  The threatened becomes the threat.  These recently delivered people get one successful king under their belts and fall immediately into the Egyptian Spiral.

The power exerted by those Egyptians … the display of wealth … the ability to reap whatever you desire from the labor of others … it was all too attractive for the former slaves to turn down when the opportunity finally arose, and the captives fell back in love with their captor in a kind of retroactive Stockholm Syndrome.  This is one example from the Biblical narrative, but it is a particularly central example, as the Exodus, Moses, and Egypt will all serve as a starting point and as types for the rest of the Old and New Testaments.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Derek Webb intended for his fifth album to be a kind of musical exegesis of the Hebrew Bible (though I’m sure it would be within his capabilities); instead I imagine that Webb is doing with Stockholm Syndrome what artists do at their best–commenting on the world immediately around him. More specifically, he saw in the American church of the 21st century a tendency to become that by which it had been oppressed, or, to put in in his own words, “to fall in love with the things that destroy us.” Then he wrote about it.

As the church in America continues to shrink, becoming the subject of growing criticism and a regular venue for infighting, it may be wise to pick up, yet again, on this line of interpretation.  In what ways have we, the American Church, entered the Egyptian Spiral? What have we fallen for that is destroying us? Who are we oppressing? Have we gotten rich and powerful, building great cathedrals “for God” [and for ourselves] by way of channels and systems that enslave people? (I realize that this last question is a HUGE one, and that it is unreasonable to throw it into the mix without further explanation. For now I ask the question to encourage corporate self-examination, and without a pre-determined answer in mind.)

There is no question that the Institution of the American Church has become very powerful in the last century, but at what point does power begin to blind us to our own experience of deliverance, and the divine mandate to live mercifully as we have been shown mercy?

If, as a church, we are to proceed in faithfulness to our God–to partner with God towards the cause of the oppressed and enslaved–then we must learn to recognize and resist the Pharaohs of the world wherever we find them … even if it be in our own mirrors.

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