2005 Commencement Coverage
Story | Photos | Commencement address (Kingsolver) | Baccalaureate address (Axtell)
TAMING THE DRAGON
The 2005 baccalaureate address for Centre College
by Rick Axtell,
Associate Professor of Religion and College Chaplain
the moment you've waited for has finally arrived! That's right--the sixth installment of the Star Wars epic has arrived at your local movie theater. Finally, we'll find out how Anakin Skywalker went over to the dark side. And in the process, as with all good mythic storytelling, we'll find ourselves pondering moral choices in a world populated with monsters and
Dragons and beasts appear throughout this sermon too, because this common mythic imagery might help
us interpret the significance of the historic events of your college years.
My reflections begin in Mexico's
Yucatan peninsula where I spent my first semester leading a study abroad
program.In the fall of 2001, I was in Merida preparing to greet my students, as you were moving into your dorms. So we didn't meet during your first
semester at Centre.
But there's a profound memory we
all share from those early weeks in your college career.
I was at a little seaside
restaurant on the Caribbean coast with 23 Centre students just beginning their
second week in Mexico.We'd fallen
asleep the night before to the soothing sound of waves lapping on a moonlit
beach.Our conversations at breakfast
were about snorkeling, and touring ancient Mayan ruins.
One by one, faces began to turn
toward the TV above the counter.
Within minutes, we were sitting in stunned silence as we watched a
jet commandeered by Saudi terrorists slam into the second tower at the World
Trade Center; and then the Pentagon.
As it dawned on us that our beloved nation was under attack, we knew
that nothing would ever be the same.
were here in Danville--your second week of college--sitting in that same, numb
shock, recognizing that same terrible truth.
You are the first graduates
whose entire college careers have proceeded under the shadow of that monstrous
You know that you enter a fearful world,
where monsters lurk in the dark corners of our social experience.
Now, your senior year has reminded you that the monstrous comes in
Just after Christmas, we again
found ourselves glued to our televisions, watching nature's fury wreak
unparalleled destruction in south Asia.
The tsunami's waters devoured
coastal villages whole, chewing up entire populations--men, women, and children
swept away in a watery chaos so total, so random, so violent that we shuddered
and cried for the sheer magnitude of innocent suffering.
200,000 human beings perished; seven
countries still drenched in agony.
We can scarcely grasp the enormity
of it--and we speak in metaphors:
"The sea rose up like a monster."
Last spring, my
second semester abroad was in England, and I was fascinated by one image that
appeared everywhere, including the stained glass artwork in the great
cathedrals I visited.It's the
story of St. George, the patron saint of England.
You've heard the legend of St.
George and the dragon.The
dragon was a menace that terrorized the countryside, poisoning people with its
breath; breathing flames that scorched the innocent; prowling as a constant
threat to the peace and security of the land.
The people tried to appease the
dragon with offerings of sheep--or even human sacrifices.But even this
wouldn't satisfy the dragon.
Finally, the king's daughter was chosen, and she faced her cruel fate
dressed as a bride.
But George attacked the dragon,
pierced it with his lance, and led it captive so all could see that it had been
tamed.St. George would accept no
reward but the assurance that the people would support one another and show
compassion to the poor.
This was the key to taming the monster that lurked among
them: Take care of one another.
No dragon would ever overwhelm them
Taming the dragon.Students in REL 110 are
surprised by how often dragon imagery recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible. It shows up first in Genesis.
You see, the Hebrew creation narratives were
influenced by an early Mesopotamian mythology with which the Hebrews were
certainly familiar.Recall that in
the story of the ancestors, Abraham and Sarah first came from Mesopotamia. Any migrant from Mesopotamia would have
known these stories.
For example, the Babylonian story of creation portrays a deity who slays a Dragon
named Tiamat.The Dragon is
portrayed as a sea creature--the symbol of Chaos--and the act of creation is a
triumph of Order over Chaos.The
body parts of the slain dragon become the various components of the
Although the Hebrews' theology was different, they adopted this imagery, so common
to their time, in the beginning of Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis also portrays the triumph of Order over
Chaos: the primordial Dragon.
In the English
version, when you see words like "the waters" or "the deep"-- the original Hebrew
nouns are often related to earlier Babylonian words for the Dragon of
Consider verse two:
"The earth was formless and empty; darkness was
over the surface of the deep;
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." (Gen. 1:2, NIV). These are images of watery chaos.
So in the Hebrew worldview, before God spoke the
cosmic order into existence, there was
something there; something terrible and menacing--and Chaos was its name.
The rest of this chapter pictures God overcoming
Chaos by speaking Order into existence. A look at Genesis 1 reveals that it's one of the most carefully designed
literary units in the Bible, with a structure artfully crafted in order to
reinforce its message--that the Divine Creator puts Chaos in its
place by creating Order.
1) There are seven days--each paragraph set apart with repeated refrains in
a richly patterned prose.
*Each begins with, "And God
*Each repeats: "And God saw that it was good."
*Each day ends with the
refrain, "And there was evening and there was morning, (another) day."
The intentional sense of Order is impossible to miss.
2) But there's another layer of complexity below the
The structure includes two
first set (days 1-3) introduces created spaces, and the second set (days 4-6)
introduces the inhabitants of these spaces. For example, the land animals created on the sixth day inhabit the dry land set
aside on the third.
It's an amazing symmetry!
3) And it gets more complex. At a deeper level, each paragraph
contains structured pairs of opposites--darkness/light,
It's an intricate, multi-layered literary creation. We marvel, as we do when we observe the perfect pattern of a snowflake,
the double helix structure of DNA, the interconnectedness of a forest
Textually, the chapter's units, refrains, parallels,
and pairs speak to us on a level beyond words of something that is beautiful in its symmetry,
and dependable in its complex patterns.
There is great comfort in this picture of the cosmos. We live in a stable, ordered world.
The Creator subdues Chaos.
The Genesis account again echoes the old Babylonian
imagery when God orders things precisely so that Chaos--"the waters," "the deep"--is kept at bay:
(Verses 9-10, NIV) "Let the waters under the sky
be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear . . . God called the dry ground 'LAND,' and the gathered waters
God called 'SEAS'."
So, the waters of Chaos are still there, like
dragons lurking below the surface of the deep, reluctantly occupying an
appointed place in an uneasy coexistence with the Order that has subdued
Or has it? As Timothy Beal says, in his book, Religion and its Monsters, in the cosmogonic narratives of all these ancient
peoples--Egyptian, Babylonian, Canaanite, and Hebrew--there exists an "endless . . .
tension between order and chaos, orientation and disorientation, foundation and
Our struggles with chaos monsters represent our need
for a sensible and secure cosmic order, and for social orders that are stable and just as well.
And religion serves as a locus for negotiating
between order and chaos (30).
In other words, when we come face to face with this
tension--with this reality about our existence--we are on sacred ground; we encounter The
Mystery, and we find
ourselves asking profound questions of meaning--questions we pursue with awe and
wonder, but also fear and trembling.
Genesis continues with a word about our place in this drama. In chapter two, humans are told "to care for" the garden
we've been given (2:15).
We become God's partners as agents of harmony--keeping Chaos at bay in both the created order and
the social life of our communities.
story of Moses parting the Red Sea evokes the same motif--"the chaotic waters"
are parted and restrained so liberation can proceed; so a community of
emancipated slaves can move--on dry land--toward a just and harmonious social structure; a new Order.
But before that,
Genesis shows us an uglier side of this story:
The Dragon of Watery Chaos re-emerges with fury in
the story of the Great Flood. Always there just below the surface, it
breaks through the boundaries set for it; bubbling up from below, pouring down
from overhead, seeping into the corners of our lives.
For a time, Chaos reigns supreme, and we see its
This Monster devours everything.
We understand this more fully when we return to
Genesis 4, where the human part of this drama
has taken a disturbing turn.
The Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? . . . If
you do what is right, will you
not be accepted?But if you do not do what is right, sin is
crouching at your door; its hunger is for you, but you must master it." (4: 6-7)
Here, too, something is lurking at the
door--crouching, ready to devour us. Here it's called "sin" but it's portrayed as a monster, a dragon just outside the
house, a beast ready to pounce--not unlike rising floodwaters lapping at the
edges of your existence.Chaos!
The story continues:
Now Cain said to his
brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field."
And while they were
there, Cain attacked his brother
Abel, and killed
him.Then the Lord said to Cain,
"Where is your brother Abel?""I
don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"(4:8-9)
Here is Cain's tragic question--an excuse,
really.The question is a
denial of human responsibility.This is the
dangerous spirit of Cain.His
question reveals a profound alienation that already exists: "I am not responsible."
And the Lord said, "What have you done?Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me
from the ground." (4:10)
Recall that something was lurking at humanity's
door.What opens the
floodgate? What allows Chaos to
overflow its appointed boundaries to overwhelm us? At least here, one thing that releases the dragon from its lair,
unleashing its fury, is the spirit of Cain; the question of Cain:
"Am I my brother's
What do these passages mean for us in this sacred
space between order and chaos?
Yes, Chaos will
be a part of our existence.And,
because we cannot control it, the one thing we can do, as St. George said, is
to take care of one another.Be
responsible for one another. Restrain the forces of Chaos by creating
harmonious and caring communities.
On the personal level, that means that when Chaos rears its head, as
it will inevitably do, we must rally to
protect its victims from being devoured or drowned.
We are to be one another's security; our brother's/sister's keepers.
If we ask Cain's question, the dragon has won.
On a social-political level, it means that we must
challenge any institution, leader, or power that aligns itself with the ways of
the Dragon, justifying monstrosities with the language of order and
security.Arrayed against ever-new
incarnations of the monsters from which they presume to defend us, the
authorities of this world too often unleash Chaos. The powers themselves can become the Dragon in all its awesome
So we must stand in relationships of healing as the
"keepers" of brothers and sisters who might be devoured in the process.
if we ask Cain's question, the dragon has won.
Even in the "so-called" Centre bubble, all of us
have been aware that monsters of "the deep" lurk just below the surface--
*sometimes in the form of unspeakably tough personal tragedies--Prescott Hoffman, Ian
Crump, Jack Thompson, heartbreaking losses in some of your own families;
*sometimes through our experience of some of the
outrages in our history.
In fact, our times require us to confront the Dragon
of Chaos in its many public
manifestations as well.What does it look like today? Let me mention three of its most savage faces.
1) As always, the Dragon appears with the beastly
visage of POVERTY. One sixth of the world's
population lives on less than a dollar a day.
It is the great scandal of our time that this misery
exists in the face of an unparalleled luxury, unimaginable to most of the
Poverty, of course, was the real story of the tsunami.
The generous outpouring of aid was inspiring. But effective, long-term responses will require us to examine why fishers in Sri Lanka and India, or service
Thailand's beach resorts, or coffee pickers in Indonesia, lived in such
deplorably inferior conditions that whole ramshackle villages were simply
You see, the Chaos Dragon, in the grotesque form of
POVERTY, had been doing its abominable work for years when those waves hit.
Am I my
If we ask Cain's
question, this dragon wins.
2) This dragon has given
birth to progeny with a countenance so ghastly we prefer not to look. For even as the world remembers the
heroic liberation of the Nazi death camps 60 years ago, a monster by the name
of GENOCIDE mocks the refrain "Never
Again" as it prowls unabated in the deserts of Sudan.
"Listen Cain! Your brother's blood cries out from the
AM I my sister's keeper?
If we ask Cain's question, these Dragons have
3) For us, it was TERRORISM--sudden, indiscriminate and brutal--that peeled back
the assuring veneer of our secure routines to reveal the precarious nature of
existence.And as we engage this
enemy, we may find that this beast, too, is one of POVERTY'S blood relatives.
In all of these forms, the Dragon of Chaos is still
there--and we know it.And we fear
It is worth considering this new awareness as you
graduate.How easy it is to go
overboard trying to create some sure bulwark against the threat of Chaos. In our culture, the symptoms of this self-protective
impulse are obvious--a relentless quest for
wealth, security, and ordered comfort; elaborate security systems and
defenses . . .
Even though many of you will put your Centre
education to work waiting on tables for
the next few months, you will naturally move toward building lives that are
secure and comfortable.
But the temptation will be to "go over to the dark side"--to be seduced by the self-absorbed
represents one strand within our
So the question that confronts us, in this sacred
space between order and chaos, is how to respond in ways consistent with the call
to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.
This is your charge.
It will require all the tools your Centre education
has given you.
is just part of your dragon-fighting armory.
It will also require a commitment to the well-being of the communities of which you
are a part.This commitment
to the common good
is the countervailing strand in
our culture--so evident in the aftermath of 9/11 and the tsunami.
At Centre, you have been armed for the task of
confronting dragons with the capacity and the confidence to ask the critical
questions.What's even more
important is that you have developed the skills, the political will, and the
compassion to make a difference. You see, one pathology that allows
these monsters to roam the land is the belief that we cannot make a
We can! We must.
There are abundant examples
of people fighting the dragons of our time, armed with the conviction that "we can make a difference."
I think of Jody Williams, a student of International
Relations and Spanish, whose relief work in Central America during the 80s
brought her face to face with the monstrous destructiveness of landmines. She founded the International
Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1992, which grew to 1000 chapters in 60 countries. In 1997, after five years of tireless
work against all odds, they achieved the goal of an international
treaty banning landmines. [I.R./Spanish major . . . ]
Or Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan biologist who launched
the Green Belt Movement--a grassroots network of women who have planted 20
million trees to conserve fragile
African ecosystems and to assist rural villages with sustainable development,
while also boldly confronting African dictators, and lobbying international
banks for debt relief.Last year,
this dragon-slayer won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Closer to home, a vice president at Hilliard and
Lyons in Louisville was troubled by the steady increase of homelessness in our
state's largest city.In 1986 he
saw a worker remove a tray of green beans from a restaurant serving line, and
learned that the food would be thrown away. That encounter led Stan Curtis to establish "Kentucky
Harvest" with the
simple idea that volunteers would pick up food from local restaurants, and
transport it to soup kitchens and shelters.
That idea grew into a
nationwide volunteer movement that has redistributed millions of pounds
of food--food that would have been
You see, there are those who discover a problem and
say, "What a shame" and there are those who respond, "What can I do?" And what a difference these people make!
Your years at Centre give evidence that you have understood
this truth, as you have built Habitat homes, donated blood, and tutored
taught English to migrants, served at homeless shelters, and related to local
kids as big brothers and big sisters. You've raised money for St. Jude and Ronald McDonald House, and you've
written letters about AIDS in Africa, and sweatshops in Nicaragua.
[And let us pause in gratitude for perhaps the
greatest humanitarian act of all--the fact that, in his four years at Centre,
Mike McGee never once ran the flame . . . ]
You have been
your brothers' and sisters' keepers.
We challenge you to continue that pattern as you go
And because so many of you have traveled overseas in
the course of your studies, you know that in this globalizing world, we must
enlarge the definition of brother and sister.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
"Injustice anywhere is a
threat to justice everywhere.We
are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of
destiny.Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The homeless woman living on the streets is my
The campesino in Nicaragua who picks my coffee beans is my
The girl driven from her home in Sudan is my daughter.
The Arab youth with no hope for the future is my son.
If we choose to turn inward and focus solely on our
own interests, there is a monster lurking at the door. "The waters" of Chaos will devour us.
And since we've learned that
Chaos rears its ugly head in ways we could not have expected, we now know the
choices that lie before us:
There can be no giving in to fear, sealing ourselves
off and defending our interests with self-protective layers of security . . .
There can be no tolerance of poverty in our midst,
no silence about torture or genocide, no satisfaction with the splendor of our
cathedrals while homeless brothers and sisters sleep outside the church door.
No, what we can do is stand together, as brothers and sisters, knowing that Chaos is a reality we must live with--yes,
part of the structure of our existence--but it will never ultimately
win, and it will not now reign, when we reach out and keep one
another in our care. When we
we may even find ourselves walking through parted waters on dry and secure
Class of 2005. We're proud of you. Now, armed with compassion, go from here with courage.
You have dragons to
- end -
Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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