Hulga Hopewell was an atheist. At thirty she held a PhD in philosophy, lived with her relentlessly shallow mother, and sported a wooden leg. A hunting accident had claimed her real leg from the knee down two decades earlier.
Her mother had named her Joy. As an adult Joy had legally changed her name to Hulga. As it turns out, “Hulga” fit her much better than “Joy.”
Bitter and condescending, Hulga wielded her intellect like a weapon and wore it like a suit of armor. She wasn’t about to fall for the phony hopes of religion or the moral conventions of society.
As she put it, “I’m one of those people who see through things to nothing.”
Everything and everybody will eventually let you down. Only fools and dimwits put their trust in anything beyond themselves. She believed in nothing.
Hulga Hopewell was true to her family name. She hoped well, according to her own nihilistic creed, by refusing to fall for hope.
Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters, Hulga is in for an existential lesson at the conclusion of “Good Country People.” And we’ll get to that lesson in due time. But for now I want to keep Hulga’s spiritual posture in mind as we think about the religious leaders who confronted Jesus in the Temple at Solomon’s Portico.
They said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24)
Maybe you hear this question being asked with expectant excitement. Like little children on Christmas. “Has Santa come!?!” “Are you the one? Are you the one? Are you the one?”
But I hear a different tone betraying a different state of the soul. Apparently Jesus did, too. Or else he wouldn’t have responded with, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” (John 10:25)
The religious leaders aren’t looking for confirmation that their dearest hopes have come true. On the contrary, I suspect that they have grown jaded. They’ve seen too much of the world’s hypocrisy to be taken in by anyone’s apparent sincerity.
Everybody’s motives stink. Everybody’s agenda is selfish.
They’re not asking Jesus to present acceptable credentials before accepting him as the Good Shepherd. They’ve given up on the whole shepherd thing as one more scam. One more illusion to get it over on the naive.
Wisdom boils down to cynicism for them. Any pretense to idealism is just that. Pretense. A ploy for manipulating the hapless. Lucy holding the football one more time for gullible Charlie Brown.
They’ve seen too much. Leaders in both the religious and the political sphere have repeatedly misled the people they supposedly serve. Exploited them. Manipulated them for their own ends.
And so it is with world weary irony that they say, “Don’t keep us in suspense.” In other words, “Right! You’re a Messiah. As if there could ever be such a thing.”
They don’t believe because they’ve given up on believing in something greater than themselves.
Let me explain. Believing is more than granting intellectual assent.
Believing in Jesus means to stake your life on his love for you. To devote your life to the world he says he’s making. To die to self in order to rise to a radically new kind of life that we cannot know fully until our earthly life is no more.
To believe means to yield to our desire to be made whole by a power greater than ourselves. By someone beyond ourselves. To let go of the life that we can make of our own schemes and agendas and connections and status and power. To let love in the flesh shape us in its own image.
You could say that believing means to hope well. And hoping well makes us vulnerable. To rely upon another person puts us at that person’s mercy. And in a world littered with betrayal and dishonesty, manipulation and fraud, trusting becomes an act of courage.
Sure, there’s always some doubt when we trust what someone else, even Jesus, will do for us next. We can’t know the future. We can trust in it. Paradoxically, cynicism is not doubt. It is certainty. Certainty that nothing is trustworthy. Faith and hope are for suckers.
But the alternative—to surrender to cynicism’s ultimate conclusion—is to live in a fractured, lonely world. A world where nothing is worth believing in. And only nothing.
And that is one of Hulga’s shattering lessons.
Convinced of her own intellectual superiority, Hulga agrees to meet a young, unsophisticated bible salesman in the barn’s hay loft for, well, a roll in the hay. She feels almost guilty for taking advantage of the dull, naive 21-year-old boy.
They kiss. Her first kiss. And in passionate confusion she relents to his odd request. He wants to see how to take off her wooden leg. “It’s what makes you different,” he says.
Once the leg is off, he taunts her and then takes her leg with him as he descends the ladder from the loft to the barn floor. His head reappears at the top of the ladder just long enough for his parting words.
“I’ve been believing in nothing since I was born.”
Cynicism masquerades as worldly wisdom. But it is a spiritual coward’s path. An excuse for detachment and inaction.
Putting our trust in Jesus to guide us and to nurture us, to sustain us and to stretch us, will seem laughably naive to some.
Jesus-followers believe in the power of God’s love to liberate the oppressed, to heal the wounded, to restore shattered hearts, and to reweave tattered relationships. We stake our lives on it. We act as if Jesus will do this through us.
We believe in something. In somebody. We believe that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.