My mother was a school teacher, and so that meant there were times when I got to hang out in her classroom after school as she finished up some of her work of the day. In her second-grade classroom, she had an old portable record player, and a collection of records on American folk-lore and legends. There was a record on Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. There was a record on “steel-driving” John Henry and one on Johnny Appleseed.
All legends have some connection to reality, but when it comes to tall tales and folk-lore, that connection is tenuous at best. It’s unlikely that there ever was a real “Pecos Bill” or a “Paul Bunyan”—after all, no real cowboy could lasso a tornado and ride it like a bronc, and no real lumberjack could cut down a forest with one swing of his axe. There may have been a real John Henry, but he’s become so obscured in the legend it’s hard to see him. But John Chapman was definitely a real guy, and his story is just as remarkable as the legends of Johnny Appleseed. Michael Pollan, in his book The Botany of Desire, relates how John Chapman would travel the waterways of the upper Midwest in two canoes lashed together side by side—Chapman in one, and a mound of apple seeds in the other. Chapman was chasing the frontier, planting orchards of apple trees, and it’s easy to see how such a colorful character entered into our nation’s folk legends.
It’s important for us to be able to tell the difference between reality and legend, though. If we set John Chapman aside and only embrace Johnny Appleseed, then we may miss something important. John Chapman’s story—because it is a real story of a real person—is a lot more complex than the legend of Johnny Appleseed. We can read what we want into a legend, but a real person is invariably a lot more messy. Did you know that when John Chapman was out there planting his orchards, apples were not used primarily as food? By far the greatest demand for apples was to produce cider—and by extension, apple-jack (fermented, hard cider). I can’t say what Chapman’s intent was when he was floating down the river lashed to his canoe of apple seeds, but I will tell you there was no mention of hard cider on that record I listened to in my mom’s second-grade classroom. Johnny Appleseed is an abstraction we can turn into a hero. John Chapman is something else.
In John 15:12, Jesus gives His disciples a command. They are to love each other as Jesus has loved them. Now, there’s an awful lot to consider when one thinks about how Jesus loved His own, and how we are to love each other in turn, but I want to take a moment to simply look at this idea of love. In his famous list of the fruit of the Spirit, Paul lists love first, as of primary importance. In 1 John 3:23, John reminds us of what Jesus commands—that we are to love each other. Clearly, in both the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul and John, love is critically important for the people of God. So why isn’t love more visible in the life of Christians? Why do we get caught up in all the enmity and strife, all the rage and bitterness, and why is love so distant?
I think John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed gives us a clue. We live immersed in a society that does its level best to turn people into abstractions. Popular entertainment floods us with stereotypes—flat, abstract, cardboard cutouts of heroes and villains. Political and social polarization forces us to view our opponents through a dehumanizing lens. Those on the other side of whatever issue we embrace are less than people—they are the manifestation of an ideology. Good or bad, we are surrounded by Johnny Appleseeds—abstract caricatures and cardboard cutouts. And we don’t have to love an abstraction.
When we treat others as an abstraction, we can view them however we want. Johnny Appleseed is a folk hero, somebody who just loved people and apples so much that he went out planting orchards all over the frontier out of the goodness of his heart. That’s who we want John Chapman to be. But John Chapman was a real person, not an abstraction. As a real person, John Chapman speculated in real estate, amassed a sizable portfolio of land and wealth, and fostered (willingly or not) a dependency on alcohol. When we create an abstraction, we lose the real person. And it’s not just heroes. When we demonize others, and abstract them into villains, we lose their personhood. And we don’t have to love them.
What Jesus wants us to do is never lose sight of the real person. When we enter into fellowship with others, we are forced to encounter their personhood—with all the messy complexity they bring with them. We have to encounter them with their faults and failures, as well as their goodness. And we are called to love them. God has loved them enough to send Jesus for them, and Jesus wants us to love them, too. So we have to be careful of anything that would dehumanize them and give us an excuse to withhold that love. Whenever we are tempted to view another complex and love-worthy person as an abstraction, when we can’t see beyond the label we put on them, we need to remember that Jesus did not call us into fellowship with folk legends or abstractions. We are called into relationship with John Chapman, not Johnny Appleseed. Being in true relationship with real people undermines our preconceptions and worldly convictions, and we lose the freedom to value our ideology more than others, but it is only in true relationship with real people that we can love and be loved. And love is what Jesus wants.