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Our Lovely Oblivions: A Life Beautifully Laid Down

Thursday, 16 February 2023  | Matthew Tan


Pop culture is strewn with the dead. Its consumers do not seem to have enough of them. These deaths range from the gratuitous deaths of extras in horror movies, to heroes who die saving someone in distress, to ordinary souls who become heroes by facing up to the awful reality of their death. The question we must ask is why we place such cultural investment with death. Does death hold something we wish to tap into over and over again?

We can find a hint of an answer in John 10, where we read Jesus’s discourse to the Pharisees on the characteristics of a shepherd that a flock is willing to listen to, and the places through which the sheep should go to be assured safe passage and protection from those who kill and destroy. In the first ten verses of this chapter, we see Jesus speak of himself as that place that assures safe passage and lives lived to the full.

When we get to verse 11, the procession of pastoral allegories reaches its crescendo. Jesus identifies himself with the shepherd and — so we read in the English translations — a good one at that. Not just any good shepherd, but the good shepherd. The definite article in the English translation adds a subtle yet provocative edge to Jesus’s claim. His goodness as a shepherd is the gold standard that defines the goodness of other shepherds. Furthermore, the defining characteristic of the goodness of a shepherd is found in the next clause in the verse: the capacity to lay down his own life for his sheep.

For readers of the English translation, it is very easy to read this verse of the Good Shepherd in moral terms. Goodness is defined in terms of right behavior, and the behavior expected is the selfless laying down of one's life for others. The reader might hear the imperative to stop thinking of oneself and do something for others, even if it kills you, just as Jesus would have done. (This imperative would probably be brought home with varying degrees of intensity.)

This moral reading of the Scripture passage is valid, but alone it does not capture the full breadth of its meaning. In particular, though this reading could give some direction to the reader in terms of reorienting his or her actions away from the self towards the other, on its own, at least from the standpoint of this reader, it might not supply the incentive that would motivate the reader to take that all-important first step out of oneself towards the other.

I propose that another reading of the Good Shepherd discourse is possible, one that might address the limitations of a purely moral reading. It takes as its starting point the Greek reading: poimen kalos, where the ‘good shepherd’ is read as the ‘beautiful shepherd’.

It must be noted that this turn towards beauty does not negate the goodness of the shepherd. Rather, pivoting the reading towards beauty broadens the scope of goodness beyond a purely moralistic focus on right behavior. We can see the impact of this broadening by seeing what making the shepherd beautiful does to his goodness. Namely, it provides the motivation for the reader by aiming goodness towards his or her affect. For as one of the three universals (the other two being Goodness and Truth), Beauty engages the most fundamental part of our person, namely our hearts and desires. As erotic beings, beautiful things capture our attention by drawing us towards something that has answered the desires of our heart.

In addition, as Joseph Ratzinger once wrote in On the Way to Jesus Christ, beauty is also something that stuns us. The profundity of the stun of beauty is captured by Ratzinger’s description of beauty as an arrow that pierces us. More than merely being captivated, the pierce of the beautiful opens our very person up. More specifically, as Ratzinger says, the beautiful puts us in touch with the deepest reality of personhood, the ‘personal presence of Christ himself’. In beholding the beautiful, we cannot remain closed in upon ourselves. Stunned by the beautiful shepherd, we become drawn to him, opened as we are by his presence and mindful as we are that our desires have been fulfilled by this presence. It is only in the process of being drawn to and opened up by the beautiful shepherd that we are able to take that crucial first step outside ourselves, what the Greeks call ekstasis, from which we get the term ecstasy.

Only when one is in the ecstasy of being captured by Christ’s beauty that the moral imperative to lay down one's life makes sense. To follow the shepherd’s example in laying down one’s life for another is good, not only because it fulfills an obligation, but because the example laid down by the shepherd is a beautiful one that we desire to emulate. The shepherd has given us an example that, like the arrow of beauty, wounds us. That said, it has wounded us because it has stunned us and captivated our desire, for it has opened us up to the ultimate truth. This truth is the meaning and purpose of our existence, where we become more ourselves by becoming a gift for another. Our being gift is our lives lived most humanly because, in Christ, it is now a life that exceeds the confines of death.

Jesus the beautiful shepherd is a fulfillment of the shepherd that gathers, feeds and carries his flock prophesied in Isaiah 40. It is fulfilled because Jesus makes explicit what is implicit in Isaiah’s prophecy. The pastoral scene in Isaiah is meant to move the reader, because the pastoral scene is a beautiful scene, and the passage in the Gospel of John explains to us why it is beautiful. Read together, the passages make us aware of the beauty of a life laid down for another. This beauty stuns, captivates and leaves us in ecstasy. But our definition of ecstasy means that it cannot be a mere interior feeling. The ecstasy borne out of the beauty of Christ draws us out of ourselves. In being so drawn out by the shepherd, we cannot help but feel drawn to imitate the shepherd’s life, to become another poimen kalos on this side of death, to pierce through and illuminate our culture’s many lovely oblivions.


Matthew John Paul Tan is the Dean of Studies at Vianney College Seminary of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga. He is the author of two books, the most recent being Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus (Cascade, 2016). His work on theology and postmodern culture has been published in scholarly and popular outlets both nationally and internationally. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.


Image credit: The Good Shepherd, 3rd century. Fresco. The Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Appian Way, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

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