Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner

That's the question I have been asking all my pals since I read the wonderful article in Sunday's paper by Henry Allen. He is a professor at the University of Maryland. In his honors seminar on meaning and culture he asks students with whom they identify in those classic cartoons: Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner?

(Just for fun, before we go further, in which of those characters do you see yourself?)

The professor discovered that 19 out of 21 of his students could actually identify with the Coyote, root for the Coyote, see themselves as Coyotes. The Coyote, they said ” . . . keeps trying in the face of adversity . . . I feel sorry for the Coyote . . . Roadrunner has no personality . . . Roadrunner is a typical baby boomer, had everything handed to him, feels responsible for nothing except himself.” And being himself one of those baby boomers now nearing 50, the professor was surprised. Was he the only person who identified with the Roadrunner?

As he quizzed his contemporaries he found they agreed with him: “We have to be adept at tap-dancing through life. The Roadrunner thought outside the box. He was like Einstein. He understood that the universe stretches.” “The Roadrunner is the mascot of John F. Kennedy’s ‘new generation.'” “The Coyote believed in Newtonian mechanics and cause and effect — all that worn-out ‘linear thinking.'”

The good doctor began his own private poll and discovered Roadrunner identification was highest in folks who were in their 50s, ambivalence appeared in the low 40s and 30s groups, and strong coyotephilia took over in the under 30s group. “It’s a generation thing,” one student said, “to feel the boomers had it too easy, no responsibility. The Roadrunner is just lucky. It’s the Coyote who tries hard.”

Allen found that the rules laid down for the cartoons by their creator Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers were this: “The cartoons are set in the desert of the American Southwest; the Roadrunner never leaves the road; never is there dialogue, the Coyote is never injured by the Roadrunner, and the audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.”

In the classic cartoon scene the Coyote paints a picture of a tunnel on the side of the mountain and snickers as the Roadrunner approaches at top speed, ready to smash into the rock. Instead the Roadrunner gives his beep beep and runs through the tunnel. Puzzled, the Coyote studies his painting and a truck roars out of it and flattens him.

That’s the story of our new cyberworld, isn’t it? Everyone knows that you can’t start a company and lose money for years and years, then go public with the stock and become a multimillionaire. Everyone — except Bill Gates and all his breed. They just “beep beep” and dash through the non-existent tunnel.

As does Jesus. The Pharisees paint all those “law” pictures — and Jesus cruises through them at top speed. He says and does ridiculous things like healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sinners and accepting the unacceptable. The Coyotes are furious. They finally shut him up in a tomb and paint a rock in front — and on Easter it’s beep beep. “I am risen!”

The great phases of church history are Roadrunner times: like the early church when Christians “outthought, outlived and outdied their pagan opponents.” Or the Reformation, when the Coyote boundaries were completely ignored by Luther, Calvin and the gang; or the great missionary era when the Roadrunner church proclaimed “the evangelization of the world in our generation” or the church in which I was ordained that believed that human justice should and could happen and marched and held hands and prayed and sang “We shall overcome” and beep beep!

But today it seems a lot of folks want a Coyote church — one that stands for law and order and values and makes sure that reimagining stuff doesn’t happen any more. And in this confusing, changing world sometimes a “tamed” church looks pretty safe and sound. Until Easter comes and the trumpets ring and we sing Christ is risen! and reply He is risen indeed! And as the charge sends us into the world and the benediction is pronounced, we hear that “beep beep” and must follow our Lord full speed through the painted tunnels ahead.


DAVID STEELE is a self-described “parson on the loose” whose Tuesday Morning column appears as a regular feature of The Presbyterian Outlook