A Theology of Running Away?

One constant, but perhaps under-discussed, theme within pop culture is the theme of running away. The theme has been a constant favourite of artists and writers for centuries. Back in the 16th century, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet portrayed a couple eloping to escape the obstacle to their love posed by warring families. In our day popular culture, particularly the music industry, has immortalised the theme of running away, with Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car, Linkin Park’s Runaway, Ultrasun’s We Can Runaway, Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue and  Evanescence’s Anywhere being shining exemplars of this theme.
Only the most cynical of Christians will not be moved by these secular tropes, and the normally functioning believer should be moved for good reason. For the theme of running away in secular culture finds a counterpart in both the scriptures and the writings of a number of Christian mystics. In the scriptures, the book of Exodus, depicting the development of Israel, is foregrounded by one of the largest co-ordinated acts of escape. In diverse ways the psalms, prophetic writings (particularly Hosea) and Song of Songs (1:4) have exemplars that similarly depict the almost uncontrollable desire of the author to flee the confines of their present life at the behest of the Divine. St. John of Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul (put to music by the Canadian artist Loreena McKennitt) records his interior journey as stealing himself away from his house and family to meet Jesus in a secret place.
Key among all the parallels between these secular and biblical threads is not just the theme of running away per se, but running away with a beloved one. Running away is almost always an act of elopement in these accounts, the fleeing of the familiar and the constricting is almost always unavoidably connected to the liberating embrace of an object of one’s love. Another parallel is the launch of lover and beloved into a great unknown, a vast expanse of as yet undefined possibility.
The profound similarities found between these literary and musical tropes and the passages in Scripture should make the Christian sympathetic to the attraction pop culture commands when it pumps out in bulk materials calling for one to run away. The journey that the pop song draws the listener into, can sound almost identical to the account in Hosea 2:14, where God promises to allure the beloved out of the city and into the desert.
There is however, something that should stop the Christian from making such secular escapades into full blown substitutes for the biblical version of elopement. While there may be parallels in terms of being drawn by the beloved into the great unknown the biblical narrative, unlike its secular counterpart, does not stop at merely running into a vast expanse of “who-knows-where-we-go-from-here?”. Rather, the biblical draw of the beloved to the lover into the unknowns of the desert, for instance, is but a phase of purification, a readjustment of desire from a distorted love of idols to the undivided love of the one true God. Rather than play out indefinitely, the chasm of the great unknown is but a prelude, and the liberating embrace of Christ is not liberating because it merely frees us from constraint, but because it situates us from the improper constraints of our distorted desires, and into the proper constraints (it is important to note that religion derives from the Latin word religare – “to bind again”) of a home built by the Lord. Thus, liberation is not a running away from home but to a home, be that home the Promised Land or the halls of Heaven itself.
Thus, while the secular may be touching on a God-given impulse to flee the improperly familiar, it is Christian theology that provides the template on how to really run away, and liturgy provides the concrete forum in which the act of elopement can be experienced.
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