Procrustes, whose name means “he who stretches,” is arguably one of the most intriguing characters in Greek mythology. He was a devious villain who kept a house by the side of the road in which he would offer hospitality to passing strangers. The guests were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night’s rest in his “very special bed,” which Procrustes described as having the enchanting property of matching the exact length of anyone who lay down on it, magically of course. What Procrustes left out of the description was the method by which this one-size-fits-all miracle was achieved: as soon as the guest would fall asleep in the special bed, Procrustes would begin his villainous procedure, stretching the guest on the rack if they were too short for the bed or chopping off their legs if they were too long—a rather unfortunate way of making everyone conform to his one-size-fits-all bed.
Procrustes’ infamous allegory has found its way into our language when we describe something as “a procrustean bed” or “procrustean effort,” or simply call something “procrustean.” It denotes an asserting of a set of assumptions and subsequently forcing everything to fit those assumptions even when they do not fit—like forcing a round peg to fit a square hole.
It should come as no surprise that people guilty of “the procrustean way” also tend to formulate problems in such a way that the solutions to those problems demand precisely the very tools and processes that they (rather providentially) just so happen to have at hand, and which they are already skilled at.
Social psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote of interpreting the world through a similar single lens when he developed what he later called “the law of the instrument” or “the law of the golden hammer.” This describes the consequence of over-reliance on a particular idea, tool, or interpretation. In The Psychology of Science in 1966 he suggested that, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then you will treat everything as if it were a nail.
It is a one-size-fits-all approach to life.
A relatively harmless example of this is in the 2002 movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the patriarch of the family, Gus Portokalos, believed that a squirt of Windex was the solution to all that ails humanity. Any ailment “from psoriasis to poison ivy” could be cured with a quick spray of Windex. No matter what the presenting problem was, Gus would point to his bottle of Windex and then spray: a classic force-to-fit strategy of dealing with reality. And we in the church do this very same thing whenever we become enamored with a single defining solution or formula and then reformat all our theology to suit—whole theological systems and denominations are built on precisely this impulse.
Von Balthasar suggests that many theologians throughout history have had a bad habit of isolating some fragment of knowledge upon which they begin imposing their own speculations … procrustean theology is the result. We see this throughout the centuries as numerous historical players and agencies have scrambled to make the message of the Scriptures fit their prior experiences, understandings, organizational brands, or preferences, and then demand compliance from their respective adherents. And God help the poor wretches who did not fit. Christendom (the name itself implies an imperial assumption of domination and control) has subsequently forced, often with great violence, much of reality and culture to fit the formulas. Christendom managed to do even more violence to its dissenters than Procrustes himself—their methods of torture also included the stretching of, or the removal of, limbs, but went way beyond this to include flaying of the skin, emasculations, drownings, and, the ultimate torture … burning people alive in the public square in the name of God.
Or consider some other forms of reductionism … such as reductions in our concept of church. There are now more than 25,000 denominations worldwide—each of these constructed around selective visions drawn out from the grander view of the church in the Scriptures. Many of these define and distinguish themselves based on structure, leadership, on baptismal mode, understandings of atonement theory, belief in predestination or free will, whether adherents speak in tongues or not, whether one uses musical instruments in worship or not, etc. Each of these have their favored Bible verses but therefore they are reductions.
It is surely an act of God’s sheer grace that over its lifetime the church has managed to get a lot of things right, but it must also be acknowledged that we have managed to force fit the greater biblical truths into innumerable reduced doctrinal formulas, which are then in turn used to bolster the reduction of a greater truth. One can say that almost every denomination is in some way a victim of Procrustes.