from the desk of…”Anonymous”

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By Victor Doughty, Lt. Colonel

The longstanding controversy over the true identity of the author who penned the words of William Shakespeare has been re-ignited by the recent release of the new motion picture “Anonymous.”

In this film, the Elizabethan-era bard who brought us Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and King Lear is not the Shakespeare we know and love but Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In a tale that takes great liberties with what we do know about that time period, we are introduced to the “real” genius behind the popular productions performed at the Globe Theater. Prevented from publishing these works in his own name by royal politics and the proper decorum of the age, de Vere is forced to look for a way to anonymously present his plays to the world.

Through a series of unlikely events, a talented but illiterate actor, Shakespeare, becomes the channel through which these works reach the London stage, allowing the true playwright to remain anonymous. For the 17th Earl of Oxford, this anonymity provides the identity protection he needs but at the expense of the public recognition for his creative work that he so desperately seeks.

Anonymity is a theme that finds expression among the creative arts in church history as well. A glance through The Salvation Army Song Book or any hymnal will reveal several offerings of anonymous origin. Some of the best-loved songs and hymns have come to us from anonymous sources: “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “The First Noel,” “How Firm A Foundation” and “Would You Know Why I Love Jesus?”

According to Charles Nutter, the writers of these songs “had such humble opinions of their work as to feel it was not worthwhile to attach their names to their productions.” They “had no thought whatever of writing anything of interest or value to others, and least of all anything that would be used in public worship; but, on the contrary, they were simply writing to give expression to their own religious experiences, feelings and aspirations.”

It seems only natural that one would want to take credit for what one creates. We live in a culture that values, recognizes and rewards individual achievement. Our society believes in giving credit where credit is due. And yet, more than one person has wondered “how much more might be accomplished in this world if nobody cared who got the credit.” In a message calling contemporary Christians back to the first principles of the Jerusalem Church, Kim Harrington underscores this thinking when she writes: “The people [of the Jerusalem Church] went everywhere, and everywhere they went they shared the word, and they did it without worrying about human recognition.”

Anonymity can be an important virtue and a useful exercise in humility as in the example of refusing to broadcast personal accomplishments. At the same time, Tim Challies warns that as Christians we must avoid living as “anonymous, impersonal people in a largely anonymous, impersonal world.” Os Guiness writes: “More of us today are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in human history.” As a result of this increased anonymity, caused by increased mobility and fewer close-knit relationships, we need greater accountability than ever before. Challies concludes: “Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live in solitude. We need community. We need accountability. And God has anticipated our need by giving us the local church as the primary means of this accountability.”

Nowhere is the reality of modern anonymity more prevalent than online. A woman known only as Marilyn posted the following on the Internet, entitled “The Incivility of Anonymity”: “In our virtual world of connecting and relationships I am increasingly disturbed by the incivility of anonymity. Because online someone is known as ‘heroicsteve’ or ‘bigpurple’ or ‘neonatalpenguin’ or ‘picnictime,’ they are free to say whatever they want. Civility is not only lacking but nonexistent.”

This incivility of anonymity extends far beyond the Internet into every aspect of our daily lives. As Marilyn points out, this incivility is evident “in driving, in coffee queues, at check-out lines and in movie theatres. Because we don’t know the person, its OK to treat them rudely…What’s important is that they have taken away my right to convenience, to quiet, to being first in line, to any number of things that I want and so I can treat them as I wish.”

As Christians we must be prepared to embrace the anonymity of humility, having the mind of Christ and taking on the very nature of a servant as so clearly presented in Scripture. At the same time, we must escape the kind of anonymity that separates us from each other in the body of Christ and isolates us from a world that so desperately needs our willing hands and loving hearts.

May it be said of us and our witness as it was said of Shakespeare: “And he will be remembered as long as words are made of breath; and breath, of life.”

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