Receiving the Message from I Am the Messenger: A Tillichian Perspective on the Impact of Literature

Elizabeth Gershon

            In this Judeo-Christian culture, the story of Jesus the Christ and his death and resurrection has had a powerful influence upon the art, literature, music, and other expressions of the human condition. Artists have chosen many different ways to comment upon the religious narrative, whether by appropriating it to affirm the tradition or by twisting it to negate it. Even without deliberately referencing it, many artists draw upon Christian themes, such as resurrection, sacrifice, and redemption, because they resonate across the spectrum of human experience. As Christian theologian Paul Tillich expresses, “The great works of the visual arts, of music, of poetry, of literature, of architecture, of dance, of philosophy, show in their style both the encounter with non-being, and the strength which can stand this encounter and shape it creatively” (Culture 46). Tillich’s systematic theology, explanation of faith, and elucidation of the relation of culture to religion provide tools for examining the influence of religion in literature. Written for a young adult audience, I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak tells a story of how a young man without a direction in his life is transformed through a series of messages. By analyzing Zusak’s novel with the assistance of Tillich’s work, one can see how even secular expressions of pop culture can point to and be a symbol of ultimate meaning.

            Set in Australia, the novel revolves around Ed, a 19-year old man who is content to live on the outside of society without any hope of a future. He drives a cab, lives in a dilapidated home, and lacks communal ties. After witnessing a botched bank robbery, Ed receives a playing card in the mail, an ace of diamonds. Written on the ace are three addresses where Ed must deliver a message. By the end of the novel, Ed has received four aces, each with a different set of messages to deliver. The novel’s action is centered upon Ed and how he conveys the dispatches and how the messages change his life and the lives of the people who receive them.

            Although he does not physically sacrifice himself, Ed is a Christ figure. His task is to deliver messages, given to him from an unexplained source, to various people in his community. Zusak’s creation of a Christ figure does not place any emphasis upon the divine nature of Jesus the Christ, nor does it use the symbol of Christ as a model of perfection. Zusak’s Christ aims to bring “aletheia” to people. The truth Ed brings heals the fractured lives of the receivers. Because of this healing function, Ed acts in a similar manner as Tillich’s description of Jesus as the Christ, or the New Being. Ed does not have divine knowledge or a grasp of all the universal truth, just his messages. “He is the truth in so far as his being—the New Being in him—conquers the untruth of existential estrangement. But being the truth is not the same as knowing the truth about all finite objects and situations” (Systematic 2:131). Though very different, every recipient needs some form of healing from Ed. By the end of the novel, Ed recognizes he is not a simple messenger: “I’m not the messenger at all. I’m the message” (Zusak 357). Ed is the message, or truth, to those who he encounters. Through himself as truth, he brings healing.

            However, Ed is a flawed Christ figure who does not understand what his purpose is or why he must help others. He views himself as simply following the directions of the cards. More than one person regards him as a saint, but Ed cannot see it. One of his first message recipients, Sophie, needs Ed to help her run. Though it seems insignificant, Sophie’s running is her passion, but the racing has crushed it. Sophie cannot free herself during competition to run like she does when running on her own. Ed gives her the ability to connect to nature and recapture her love of running. Once she does that, “She’s out of herself. Barefoot. More alive than anyone I’ve ever witnessed” (Zusak 72). It heals her and gives her back passion for her life. Though Ed can see what he has done, he cannot think of himself as anything more than just a regular guy: “‘No, I’m not a saint, Sophie. I’m just another stupid human’” (Zusak 74). Ed cannot acknowledge that he resolved her problem. Ed cannot see beyond his own failings.

            Healing Sophie is one of the first acts Ed performs. Written upon the ace of diamonds are three addresses and times. Ed goes to each address at the time on the card and witnesses different scenes. At the first address, a man comes home intoxicated and violently rapes his wife. Their young daughter sits upon the porch and weeps as it happens. Shocked by the situation, Ed wonders, “Why can’t the world hear? I ask myself. Within a few moments I ask it many times. Because it doesn’t care, I finally answer, and I know I’m right. It’s like I’ve been chosen. But chosen for what? I ask” (Zusak 41). The world cannot hear because the “structure of destruction” works in contrast to the “structure of being” (Systematic 2:60). Because of estrangement, man cannot achieve reunion with his essential nature. This leads to a world focused upon its own idolatrous desires. It also leads to what is traditionally called evil. Ed has come to overcome the estrangement, if only fragmentarily, and heal those who are suffering. And although he does not understand how, he senses that he must help those who are the least: “How do people live like this? How do they survive? And maybe that’s why I’m here. What if they can’t anymore?” (Zusak 43). For the wife and daughter, Ed must remove the violence from their lives. With the help of the mystery message giver, Ed threatens the man with a gun and tells him to never go back to the home again. Without the violence in the home, the wife and daughter are finally able to heal.

            The second address on the card brings Ed to a lonely, elderly lady, Milla. “It kind of depressed me to think a human could be so lonely that she would comfort herself with the company of appliances that whistle, and sit alone to eat” (Zusak 48). Like the third message for Sophie, Ed does not have to overcome some great evil. Instead, he must figure out how to help Milla overcome her deep sadness. Being an individual in this world can lead to great loneliness: “In principle, there are no limits to his participation, since he is a completely centered self. In the state of estrangement man is shut within himself and cut off from participation” (Systematic 2:65). After the death of her husband more than sixty years ago, Milla lost her connection to other beings. In order to help end her suffering, Ed must become her bridge to the world. By pretending to be Milla’s long-lost Jimmy, Ed provides the companionship Milla craves, the same companionship all beings crave.

            Upon the second card, which is the ace of clubs, a simple sentence is written: “say a prayer at the stones of home” (Zusak 113). As Ed lacks a true family home, it is difficult for him to figure out where to go. Soon a man gets in his cab and directs Ed as to where to go. Someone knows of Ed and his brother’s special hiding place. After discovering the stones, Ed views three names scrawled on it. The first name is that of a priest whose church is suffering. The priest lives among the people of the city who need him most and yet it does not help him build a congregation: “He admits that if his church was any kind of shop or restaurant it have closed down years ago” (Zusak 143). Ed recognizes that what he can do for the priest is fill the church. Without followers, the church cannot continue to exist. The church fulfills an important role in the life of the community and the life of the faith. “The life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions but also in the inner life of its members” (Dynamics 118). The priest fills an significant void in the lives of the people around him. They need him. But, without a church, he cannot continue in that community. By helping the priest gain a congregation, Ed will guarantee that the community keeps its shepherd. After Ed fills his church, the priest tells him: “‘You know, they say that there are countless saints who have nothing to do with church and almost no knowledge of God. But they say God walks with those people without them ever knowing it’” (Zusak 156). Though Ed denies this, it is clear that Ed serves a special and more ultimate purpose than as a mere messenger.

            The second person Ed must visit, according to the message of the ace of clubs, is Angie Carusso. Like many mothers, Angie does everything for her children. She releases her entire self to the world. Through this emptying of self, she has failed to retain her individualism. “Self-loss is the loss of one’s determining center, the disintegration of the unity of the person” (Systematic 2:61). Ed reminds Angie to take time for herself with a simple act—he buys her an ice cream cone. She never purchases one for herself. Just her kids. Ed’s gift reminds Angie for just one moment that she is important as well.

            The final name on the card presents a difficult challenge for Ed. Gavin Rose is a 14-year old jerk and a bully; however, he comes from a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic mother. His elder brother Daniel bullies him instead of being his ally and mentor. Ed knows he has to change that. He decides to give them a common enemy by beating up Gavin. Ed does not want to utilize violence to help Gavin, especially as Gavin is so young and has no chance to rescue himself, but Ed knows sometimes suffering can lead to healing. “Suffering is meaningful to the extent that is calls for protection and healing in the being which is attacked by pain. It can show the limits and potentialities of a living being” (Systematic 2:71). Pain often serves a purpose. It can lead to a positive result when it is done to bring about the end of suffering. And Ed’s beating of Gavin gives Gavin and Daniel a bonding moment, which is key to bringing them closer together as a family. Daniel finally protects his little brother and thumps Ed.

            True to its nature as the ace of spades, the third card presents a more difficult challenge for Ed. He must dig deeper to find who he must help because the names listed on the card are a complete mystery. Fortunately during a prophetic dream, he realizes the names are those of writers. He discovers the addresses of the people he has been sent to help in books of the authors’ writings. The first of those addresses leads to the Taptupu family on Glory Road. They seem to have it all, except working Christmas lights. Although it is a tiny detail, Ed recognizes tiny things often bring great joy: “It’s not a big thing, but I guess it’s true—big things are often just small things that are noticed” (Zusak 221).  Zusak uses the Taptupu family to subtly impress the image of Ed as a Christ-figure on the reader’s mind. After the family receives the lights from Ed, they give him a gift of a small stone with the pattern of a cross. The mother tells him it is “for remembering” (Zusak 227).

            The second address of the ace of spades turns out to be his mother. Ed’s relationship with his mother is volatile. She treats him as inferior compared to his siblings. As result of the cards, Ed and his mother finally have a painful talk about why she treats him so horribly. His mother has kept her pain bottled up inside of her. She finally tells Ed that she hates him because he is like his alcoholic father, but that: “‘It takes a lot of love to hate you like this’” (Zusak 245). She simply wants Ed to make something of himself, to leave the area and change the pattern of his life. She worries he is becoming his father. This release of emotion allows Ed’s mother to begin to heal. While the message was not for Ed, it also begins to heal him as well.

            The final address on the spade is an elderly man who owns a movie theater. The theater lacks moviegoers. Unlike the priest, the man does not need a large group of people to show up though. All he really wants is to see a young couple watch a film. Ed gives him a chance to relive the days when he had a young love in a dark theater. It is a simple request that brings a great deal of pleasure to the theater owner.

The very last card is the ace of hearts and each clue represents one who is close to Ed’s heart. Ed’s friends each represent aspects of Tillich’s categories of estrangement—concupiscence, unbelief, and hubris. Audrey, Ed’s love interest, uses sex to keep away any type of emotional attachment. Having been hurt by her family, she fears an emotional bond with other beings: “I think she loved them, and all they ever did was hurt her. That’s why she refuses to love. Anybody” (Zusak 23). For her the estrangement from God and the estrangement from other beings, leads her to utilize sex as a means to draw the world into herself, rather than put herself out into the world. As Tillich explains, this is a distortion of love: “Concupiscence, or distorted libido, wants one’s own pleasure through the other being, but it does not want the other being” (Systematic 2:54). If Audrey allowed herself to want another being, she would be vulnerable to him. Instead, she uses sex to keep other beings away. It gives her power over them. When Ed must deliver his last message to Audrey, he must break through the wall she has erected around her heart and connect with her. Ed begins to heal Audrey by turning her focus away from her center and her pain.

            Marv’s failing is hubris. Most people associate hubris with pride, but Tillich cautions against this because: “Pride is a moral quality, whose opposite is humility. Hubris is not the special quality of man’s moral character” (Systematic 2:50). Marv’s universe revolves around himself. Although Ed is having a very difficult time with the messages on the cards, Marv does not pay any attention to his friend. His only concern is amassing money and the annual Sledge Game. His needs are paramount to the point of being ultimate. Marv cannot acknowledge his own failings: “Man’s whole life, including his sensual life, is spiritual. And it is in the totality of his personal being that man makes himself the center of his world. This is his hubris; this is what has been called ‘spiritual sin’” (Systematic 2:51). Marv made himself center of his world after his girlfriend got pregnant. Her father moved the family away and threatened Marv if he ever came near his daughter again. Marv attempts to heal his pain with gathering more and more money to send to his child. But, it will never be enough: “Marv is suffering, completely alone, and he uses all of those things to sweep the guilt from his stomach every day” (Zusak 317). The only way to heal Marv is to make him connect with the woman and child he lost. That is what Ed does. By bringing Marv to the new home of his former lover, Ed forces Marv to open himself up to the world and begin to heal.

            For Ritchie, his unbelief extends beyond God to himself. When Ed finally takes a good look at his friend, he realizes Ritchie is a shell of a person. He is empty, without a job, family, or anything to make him a part of the world. He only has his friends in a superficial way. Ritchie does not connect to anyone or anything: “His existence consists of these late, lonesome nights, waking up at ten-thirty in the morning, being up at the pub by twelve and across at the betting shop by one. Add to that the odd dole check, playing a card game or two, and that’s it” (Zusak 299). Ritchie has lost touch with anything greater than himself, including the world. “Man, in actualizing himself, turns to himself and away from God in knowledge, will, and emotion. Unbelief is the disruption of man’s cognitive participation in God” (Systematic 2:47). The greatest tragedy in Ritchie’s unbelief is that he has so fully turned from God that he has lost any sense of being. In order to shock Ritchie out of this state, Ed calls Ritchie a disgrace. Standing in a river, Ritchie admits that all he wants is “To want” (Zusak 305). It is this revelation that allows Ritchie to begin to heal.

            By understanding Tillich’s structure of being, one can better grasp how the messages begin to change Ed as well as the message recipients. Within the structure of being exist polarities between being an individual and participating in the community, dynamics and form, and freedom and destiny. This is what should be; however, it is not as man exists: “Man is he exists is not what he essentially is and ought to be. He is estranged from his true being” (Systematic 2:45). Before the entrance of the messages into his life, Ed was living a lonely life restricted to his immediate circle of dysfunctional friends. He had no driving force or purpose. He lived in a state of limbo waiting for life to happen, “It makes me think of my life, my nonexistent accomplishments and my overall abilities in incompetence” (Zusak 39). Ironically, though he drove a cab for his profession, he never interacted with the greater community. The cards forced him into encountering other beings. Without the participation with others, Ed can never be a fully developed self: “No individual exists without participation, and no personal being exists without communal beings” (Systematic 1:176). For Ed to heal, he must be given a purpose and a way to connect with both the outside world and his own inner self.

            For Ed, one of the most important polarities is freedom and destiny. The cards represent his destiny. Through the aces, an unknown puppeteer has given him a task. However, the cards do not tell Ed how to perform the various tasks. It is his freedom that allows Ed to creatively act upon the messages. Ed’s unique perspective of the world shapes how he decides to act upon each person’s dilemma. Freedom and destiny work in tandem. “Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history, and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny” (Tillich 185). Destiny does not simply happen to Ed. He is not powerlessly riding through life. His freedom allows him to make choices. On the flip side, destiny gives his freedom direction. Without the cards, Ed’s life lacked any directed action. He floundered in a dead end job. Destiny helped give him somewhere to go, something to achieve.

            Another thing Ed’s life lacked was faith, which should not be confused with some sort of belief in something that cannot be proved. “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern” (Dynamics 1). Before the cards begin to show up, Ed does not have anything about which he considers ultimately important. Beyond any form of a faith tradition, Ed does not even have some secular pursuit that carries ultimate weight for him. There is no passion in his job. Delivering the messages upon the cards becomes Ed’s ultimate concern. “If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name” (Dynamics 1). Ed places all of his energy into the messages and subjects his entire life to doing right by the cards. He recognizes that the cards represent far more than small acts of kindness. They change lives. Ed believes in the power of those changes.

            Zusak could have chosen any method by which to have Ed receive messages. It is important that he selected playing cards, and even more significant that he chose the ace. The ace can either be the highest or lowest card depending upon the game one is playing. In a sense, the ace is the alpha and the omega, a reference to the Christian conception of God. Cards are also used for gambling. To risk his self by giving the messages to strangers requires a gamble. Ed jeopardizes a great deal, including bodily harm, to ensure delivery of the messages. For Ed, the cards become holy. “Innumerable things, all things in a way, have the power of becoming holy in a mediate sense. They can point to something beyond themselves” (Systematic 1:216). He places great significance in them and their messages, “Before I went to bed last night, I placed it in the top drawer of the cabinet in my bedroom. Nothing touches it. Nothing breathes on it. The drawer is empty but for that card” (Zusak 32). Ed elevates the cards to a special place in his life. They take on a new meaning that goes beyond being playing cards with writing upon them. Because the cards point to something greater, they are not mere signs. As Tillich believes, “…the religious symbol, the symbol which points to the divine, can be a true symbol only if it participates in the power of the divine to which it points” (Systematic 1:239). The cards and their messages become an ultimate concern that work to heal Ed’s fragmented self.

            At the end of the novel, the reader learns a mystery man has orchestrated Ed’s life and the events of the cards. The man arranged everything that would happen to Ed and in Ed’s world. He knows all Ed will say and do. He is the author of Ed’s life. The mystery man knows so much that Ed suddenly wonder if he even exists. The man replies by handing Ed a piece of paper with the conversation on it, “It says, Of course you’re real—like any thought or any story. It’s real when you’re in it” (Zusak 354). As the author of Ed’s life, the mystery man represents God. The entire “story” rests upon him. As the foundation of it, the mysterious stranger acts as the “ground of being.” Without him, the world could not exist. “God participates in everything that is; he has community with it; he shares in its destiny” (Systematic 1:245). The mystery man participates in this world by directing Ed in the delivering on the messages. “He never is a spectator; he always directs everything toward its fulfillment” (Systematic 1:266). He breaks through and gives additional help to Ed in the form of letters or through people. He allows Ed some freedom in how he heals the recipients, but the mystery man is always guiding the process. In order to give hope to the world, the “author” put in motion the events that changed both Ed’s lives and the lives of the people around him. The mysterious stranger explains: “‘I did it because you are the epitome of ordinariness…And if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of’” (Zusak 353). Like Christ, Ed comes to the world to offer hope. Christ came as an ordinary man, like Ed, to deliver his message and hope of healing to the estranged world. As the message, Ed is in essence the logos: “The Logos reveals the mystery and reunites the estranged by appearing as a historical reality in a personal life” (Systematic 2:112).

             As a Christ-figure, Ed reveals truth as he heals the people of his community and himself by finding faith and ultimate meaning in four playing cards. Markus Zusak’s novel I am the Messenger is an example of how a piece of secular, popular culture can lead to ultimate meaning. By reading this novel in light of Paul Tillich’s theological works, one can see how Ed accomplishes his mission and becomes the New Being. 

           

Works Cited

Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1957. Print.

---. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-1963. Print.

---. Theology of Culture. Ed. Robert C. Kimball. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. File.

Zusak, Markus. I am the Messenger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.