Love thy neighbour

Love your neighbour as yourself — Jesus

We live on the greatest street in Brisbane. At least I believe we do. Here’s how you can challenge us for the title, and why you should.

streetscape
Life on our street is great. Geography is part of this, of course, our quiet suburban street has handy access to the one of Brisbane’s main arterial roads, is close to a major shopping centre, and is a dead end backing onto a large sporting field. But the thing that makes this street great is community.

It’s our neighbours.

We didn’t build this community, we joined it, we were welcomed into it, and we know we belong in it. We’re not the newest people in the street anymore, and we’ve been able to be part of inviting others into this community, but it’s been a valuable time for us to think about what it means to be good neighbours. And this is important. It’s important because community is good for people; and isolation is bad.

Neighbouring is fundamental to who we are; in our national psyche “everybody needs good neighbours,” and in our family’s Christian framework, we believe we’re called above just about everything else to love our neighbours — and that’s, of course, a call to love any fellow human, our ‘global neighbours’ but it most definitely includes the people we live in closest proximity to; those in our streets, apartment blocks, or whatever other form of geographic proximity to people you experience.

We’ve lived in quite a few houses as a couple now, and both lived in plenty of houses before that, and our experience of neighbours has been mixed. We’ve lived in a townhouse complex where we barely said hi to the other residents, we’ve lived next to friends we loved dearly before moving in, we’ve lived next to people who became friends who we shared meals with, and in a cul-de-sac where people, including us, would appear and disappear through remotely opened garage doors and never even make eye contact. I think for various reasons, including a growing individualism, and a materialism where ‘every man’s home is his castle,’ where toys and man caves, and their female and family equivalents, exist to keep people satisfied behind the threshold of the front door. We’ve, at least in my observations of city life, lost the art of hospitality. But that’s not true on our street.

We have regular get-togethers: spontaneous weekend barbeques, afternoon beers, street parties for Australia Day, October Fest, and Christmas (especially for the turning on of the street’s Christmas light displays), cooking competitions — like our recent chicken wing off. We have an Easter Egg hunt. We held a street garage sale. We help out with odd jobs — renovations, furniture moving, concrete slab pouring, chasing runaway dogs, and electrical work (well, that’s the friendly neighbourhood sparky, great guy, I’m more than happy to recommend his services to you). Beer and coffee seem to be pretty much on tap. Our kids play together, we babysit for each other, some people holiday together, there’s a street Facebook group which people treat like our own Uber service, and notice board. We bake for each other. We create pot-luck banquets from our combined leftovers. We pet-sit. People exercise together. We philosophise. We share our stories. We listen. We laugh. The dads plot and scheme together and cook up amazing ideas like a trailer mounted cool room that holds 12 kegs, with three of them on tap… That’s not all of it, and I’m not responsible for any of this (except the coffee).

I love being out on the street with my neighbours. I often peer out the windows hoping to see someone else outside. We’re friends. Genuinely. People are choosing to renovate rather than sell up and move somewhere nicer. This stuff amazes me. We talk often about how amazing this community is, and how organic it seems. We’ve talked about amping things up with more incidental stuff (and some dreams of a street brewery), some of us have spoken about trying to develop a culture of shifting life to the front yard — a concept described in this book Playborhood — that I think is fascinating. We make space for the introverts too. People come and go, dipping in and out as required, others stay and stay, a couple of Saturday nights ago I found myself dragging my laptop out onto the street at 11pm to work on a talk for church (not for the next day), because I’d planned to do that from 6pm, and didn’t want to leave the fun.

Not everyone in our street is part of this ‘community’. We invite everyone to major events — like Australia Day and Octoberfest. We try to talk to anyone whose passage up the street is obstructed by our afternoon beers. Some people choose not to take part, some are more involved than others. Most of the long term people on the street, especially the families, are part of what goes on. It’s welcoming, it’s open, it took us a while to realise this, and we don’t have the same history as others do with each other — but genuine, deep, friendships take time to build, but that process can be accelerated with social lubricants like beer, coffee, and generosity. Which my neighbours offer by the bucket.

I’m not saying this stuff to brag about what we’ve done, or how good we’ve got it. Though I’m constantly excited. I didn’t build this. I’m saying this because I think our Aussie culture sorely needs this. Your street needs this. You need it. It’s good for you, and for your neighbours.

I’m learning what it means to be a good neighbour from some of the best. And it seems easy. It seems to be something you could do too. But I suspect it seems easy because a culture has been built here for a long time, from some pretty strong convictions that everybody does need good neighbours. It’s actually not easy, until it is. It’s a bit counter-cultural. It takes intentional breaking down of barriers.

But here’s what I believe. Not just because I’m a Christian, and it fits, but because I think good neighbours — good communities — are absolutely essential for human flourishing. And we’re losing this part of our shared life — and you can do something about it.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Community is a fundamental human need. It’s not really optional, as much as some of us might think we can get by without it. Neighbours, the TV show, is right. Everybody needs good neighbours. There’s plenty of good academic data out there connecting wellbeing to belonging and community. And there’s plenty of social science and science stuff out there to suggest that community or tribal instincts are historically important for adaptation and survival, and this isn’t just about breeding.

If we’re to take the Christian account of our humanity seriously — we also see that we’re social animals. We’re made to be part of a community. This will feel different for different people — introversion and extroversion mean community has different costs and benefits, but no man or woman is made to be an island, even if sometimes we wish our ‘castles’ had a moat to cut us off from the rest of the world. The first two chapters of the Bible are, in part, about establishing this truth — that we are relational beings, that we’re made in the image of the God who is a community — Father, Son, and Spirit, and that our bearing of this image is a function of our community, or relationships, so that we need more than just ourselves — we need ‘male and female,’ and in the Genesis 2 version of the creation of humanity, we’re told community — relationships — are necessary for human flourishing, for things to be the ‘good’ that has been God’s aim in creating the world.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” — Genesis 1:26

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18

The Bible’s picture of paradise, of ‘the good life’ is people living in community with one another, and with God. The flipside in the Bible’s story, essentially the story of paradise lost (and ultimately found again) is that we’re told our experience of relationships, or community, won’t always be great. We’re still made in God’s image, but our decision not to align our lives with his plans for the world comes at the cost of our relationships. We’re self-interested before we’re other-interested, and often our interest in others is framed in terms of what we can get more than what we can give. Which is interesting when it comes to Jesus’ description of the greatest commandments, these are a recipe for re-finding ‘paradise’ — for life being ‘good’ again.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  — Matthew 22:37-39

This command, along with Jesus’ version of the ‘golden rule’, which tells us to do good to others, not just avoid doing bad (like other versions of the golden rule from other wise people), has been pretty influential in the cultures — western culture — built around Christian thinking. But it’s not just a “Christian” thing, nor is good neighbouring. It’s fundamentally part of our wiring, and happens wherever humanity happens; just with our inherent selfishness also part of the mix.

For Christians, good neighbouring isn’t a means to some other end — its not a sales strategy for Christianity (though if you’re a good neighbour, people might listen to you or ask you questions from genuine interest), it is what we’re told to do. We have a particular motivation to be good neighbours because it’s what Jesus told us to do.

When good neighbouring happens, for any of us, it’s a taste of paradise. When community happens, when it really happens, when it is built on neighbouring, on others-centred love, it produces really great stuff. It’s a picture of humanity as it was made to be. A taste of paradise. One of the best fruits of Christianity’s undeniable influence in western society is these words of Jesus do occupy a space somewhere close to the heart of our western identity; even if we want to reject all the mysterious spiritual stuff.

How to love your neighbours (like ours love us)

I’ve done my best to ask around about how this happened. The history, or story, of our street. I largely put it down to one guy, at least so the story goes. A natural born community builder who bought into the street a long time ago; when his house was ‘the party house’ — and it was a party house which drew some other people who moved into, or lived on, the street into its orbit. The geography stuff is a factor, the dead end makes it easier to congregate on the street, or in the park, but really it was one guy who was intentional about being open to new relationships, because as I talk to him, he is utterly committed to community, and the way he builds it is through profound generosity. This generosity is infectious, and it may well be that there’s a statistical anomaly that means I live around some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but I think its also just this expectation that gets built over time that generosity to those you live in community with produces benefit, not cost.

People seem to think our street sounds good and desirable. When I tell them what’s going on, or post photos online, people say things like ‘you’re lucky to have that’ — I don’t think it’s luck. I think we’re lucky to have landed here, sure, but it’s the product of a few people taking the time and expending the effort to deliberately build a thing that expresses something deeply true and good about our humanity. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the result of love, and a desire for real community.

So here’s some tips I’ve gleaned from learning this story and watching our little community operate.

  1. Be intentional 
    This doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t accidentally love your neighbours, you do it by deciding that’s a thing you want to do, and prioritise. You do it by meeting people, learning names, going out of your way to contribute to the lives of those around you at every opportunity. You do it by creating opportunities. By doing things on your street, in your home, and inviting your neighbours to be part of it.
  2. Communicate
    Community requires communication. Part of this is just smiling, waving, and speaking to each other in passing. It requires trying to get to know your neighbours. Knowing people’s names is only half the battle. If you’re going to do a chicken wing cook off it’s not just a matter of cooking some wings and hoping the smell will draw a crowd. A Facebook group might be a little intense — but its probably worthwhile grabbing phone numbers for people on your street, or in your complex, for neighbourhood watch or runaway dog purposes, maybe you could put together a directory, with people’s names — and that’ll help you remember who’s who, and give you a good reason to meet new people on the street as they arrive. Don’t spam these lists or try to sell stuff to your neighbours in some crass way. Love is not a means to some other agenda, it’s an end in itself. But these sorts of contact lists might be a great tool for creating the sort of events that will build your community. Like a chicken wing cook off.
  3. Be welcoming
    There’ll always be people on your street who you get on with more naturally than others. But if you just pick a few friends and shut everyone else out, you’re not building a community, you’re building a commune. One of the nicest things about our community is how inclusive it is. We’re a pretty diverse bunch when it comes to age, stage, politics, religion, and vocation — sure, we also have much in common in terms of ethnicity and a few other things — but everybody gets invited to things, and everybody is welcome. There seems to be a commitment to putting up with one another through some things that in another street could lead to a blood feud. We’ve had a few pet related mishaps, and I’m constantly amazed that people put up with our barking dog and my bad jokes.
  4. Be generous
    I tell lots of people that I don’t think I’ve had to buy a beer since we moved in. I think that’s probably true. And it’s not just beer — I mentioned some stuff above, but we’ve been given clothes, toys, a spit roast thing (that I’m going to convert into a coffee roaster), a home-welded chicken coop far beyond my capabilities, plenty of time in the form of dog-sitting… and some other incredibly generous acts of service from different people. We’ve found various ways to give back, but we still feel like our neighbours have been more generous to us than we have to them, and so, we’re always keen to be generous to the street whenever, and however, we can. I get the sense this is true for most of us. Someone has to start this cycle though, in order to create a culture, and that might simply look like doing some baking, or cooking some meals, or pitching in with some odd jobs as you notice them when you’re hanging out in your front yard.Generosity includes hospitality. You can’t expect all neighbouring to happen on the street. That can get uncomfortable after a while (though most of us have readily accessible picnic chairs). We’ve got to the point on our street where our kids will, upon invitation, quite confidently wander around our neighbours houses and yards. And we’re pretty happy for our neighbours to drop in or come round too — like for Family Feud viewing parties. For us to do this sort of thing requires us to be comfortable with the fact that the stage of life we’re in means our house will never actually feel tidy, and we’ve just got to roll with that.
  5. Shift to the front yard
    This is a big one from Playborhood. And it’s counter-cultural. All our fun stuff is still in our backyard. Our trampoline (built at night with the help of our neighbours), our veggie patch, our swingset and sand pit. And my beloved hammock. In this we’re not alone, Aussies have become back yard types. Secluded. Fenced in. Enjoying the serenity and privacy of our own little kingdoms. The back yard is important for our family’s sanity, but most of our incidental ‘street time’ comes from keeping an ear out for activity while we’re inside, or from deliberate loitering, and playing with our dog, in the front yard. The park and the quiet street make this easier. Most of our neighbours kids are older than ours, and are often out riding, or playing, or making home movies; and ours are always keen to join their big friends.
  6. Create traditions
    This one is the most fun. We’re gradually building an events calendar that features regular signature events, with incidentals like birthdays and spontaneity padding things out. These things get a life of their own the more fun people have with them. One of the guys bought a bunch of steins for Octoberfest that he gave to each of us. There’s a perpetual Golden Drumstick at stake in the wing off. The Christmas Lights get bigger and brighter each year. Our kids almost drowned under the sea of Easter Chocolate. These things add a richness, and we’re often talking about the next one and planning how we might improve it (which gives us plenty to talk about — and relationships start out with those awkward conversations about the weather, then move through talking about shared interests, before you get to the deeper level of trust and understanding). These traditions shape the life of the community, and help us figure out what we value, and they’re fun.
  7. Have low expectations
    This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. What we enjoy on our street is the fruit of relationships that extend back many years before we arrived. But I don’t just mean have low expectations about how quickly this will happen so that you seek to make incremental steps towards community, I mean have low expectations of each other. This is counter-cultural stuff. People are busy. People are suspicious of strangers, and about people who are over-enthusiastic about things that look intense… but community is good for us. That’s my belief, and experience. Not every street has someone like our pioneering neighbour who build community naturally, or other people moving in with the same values. You might have to be that person. Don’t expect people to sign up, expect that you’ll have to model stuff, take the first step, and carry the cost (at least initially) of growing a community.

Do you have good neighbours? What are your tips? Chances are my actual neighbours will see this, because we’re Facebook friends. They’ve probably got some ideas too (and I trust that I haven’t given away any trade secrets)…

Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot’ — everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

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Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

 

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

 

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City,the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

Daredevil, Easter, heroism, and the triumph of light over darkness

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

Warning: Contains some spoilers for Netflix’s Daredevil (probably both seasons, but definitely season 2).

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I love Daredevil. It is, perhaps, the most compelling superhero franchise currently occupying the silver screen or the small screen (or the very small screen depending on how you Netflix). I’ve written a bit about the unique version and vision of heroism Daredevil represents in the Marvel universe, and why I find it so compelling, so if reading thousands of words about heroism, myth, and comic universes excites you, feel free to dip back there before proceeding here… There’s also this great Christ and Pop Culture piece about season 1.

Daredevil is a hero incarnate. A hero not just of his time, but of his place. He is a product of Hell’s Kitchen, it is his home, its people are his neighbours, and he is going to save them. Or at least defend them from darkness. The irony, of course, for those not familiar with the Daredevil mythos is that Daredevil spends all his time in darkness — both because he is blind, and because he only comes out at night. He operates in the shadows. The darkness/light metaphor seeps through season 2 of the Netflix hit. His enemies are ninjas, they’re fighting over who possesses the “Black Sky” — a weapon of such power that it would overcome the world, and the season explores the darkness of the human heart, and how we humans, left to our own devices, are more likely to produce darkness than light. Even, and perhaps especially, because our heroes are these mixed bags. Daredevil is fantastic because it is anthropologically honest. Good and Evil aren’t so black and white.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This season introduces two more vigilantes to the crucible of Hell’s Kitchen, one of my favourites, The Punisher, and Daredevil’s femme fatale, Elektra. Their introduction upsets the delicate balance of the Kitchen, which is always just one gang war away from total chaos. Hell’s Kitchen itself is a particularly dark and gloomy place in Daredevil’s universe because his universe is the universe of the Avengers in the aftermath of ‘The Incident’ — the total destruction of Hell’s Kitchen, at least in part, by the very heroes who fought vibrant, explosive, battles against ‘mega’ enemies in order to ‘save the world’. One of the implicit elements of the worldview of the typical New Yorker in this parallel universe is that if salvation looks like Hell’s Kitchen, then count us out. We don’t need that sort of saviour. The tension these new vigilantes creates is the question of how much these ‘heroes’ are saving the city, and how much they’re shaping it. This is especially true for Elektra and The Punisher who don’t share Daredevil’s compunction on the question of taking human life. For Daredevil, a practicing Catholic, every human life is sacred and has the potential for ‘goodness’ that shouldn’t be erased simply because of the dark reality of the human heart.

This is how our stories work. Honest story telling requires honestly confronting the reality of the human heart. It’s been this way for quite a while, and it’s largely a product of the world we live in and our political reality — our lack of any sense of security because an enemy can now strike in any way, at any time, in any place. Such is the nature of modern warfare and terrorism; perhaps never more clearly real for us than in the events of this week in Brussels.

In 1949, while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, novelist William Faulkner reflected on the uncertainty of his post-World-War-II time, and the impact this had had on the sort of stories being told. He was worried that the writing of his time was not anthropologically honest because it wasn’t really grappling with anything beyond the immediate; and the fear produced by a sense of present distress or crisis.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” — William Faulkner, Acceptance Speech

I wonder if we’re getting closer. I wonder if the current trend towards a gritty, low fi, dark reality, complete with anti-heroes and complexity and shadows, in all our story telling — be it Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, or Daredevil is us being able to balance the fear of our times with the sense that what is truly to be feared is actually what is within each one of us. Maybe that’s confronting and scary. It certainly seems more honest, though sometimes it can be pretty depressing; such that our stories, and our heroes, no longer inspire and uplift in the same way that Gandalf, Aragorn, or Samwise Gamgee could. George RR Martin, the author of Game Of Thrones, suggests his books are an attempt to grapple with this reality, though this quote from an interview with the ABC, begins to suggest that maybe our hearts become dark because the places they beat in are full of darkness, and that’s what is required to bring light…

“I like grey characters. I like people who have both good and evil in them ’cause I think real people have both good and evil. There are very few pure paladins in the world and there are very few totally evil people. We all have the capacity for heroism in us. We all have the capacity for selfishness and evil in us.

How do you play this Game of Thrones, this cut-throat game? Do you play it according – clean and noble, according to the rules that you’ve been taught? You do that, you could very well lose your life and you could lose the lives of people that you love and your family or your children, because the other people that you’re playing with are not playing by the same rules. So then do you compromise your principles and get down and dirty with them and play it in the rough and mean way that you think might be necessary to win? Well then maybe you survive a little longer, but what have you become in the end? I mean, these are issues that I think are very much worth talking about, not only in fiction, but of course we see this reflected all around us in the real world, the constant struggle of ideals versus Realpolitik.” — George R.R Martin, ABC Interview

Daredevil, the cultural text, not the character, is also a product of a particular era of comic book mythopoeia — the universes and stories created within the universes of our ‘post-modern’ comic books are all grappling with darkness in a bid for more honesty; particularly in the comic genre. This all began, in some sense, with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight version of Batman, and Allen Moore’s Watchmen, but their approach, worlds away from the hopeful optimism of early Superman stories, leaves us in a pretty bleak place.

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Daredevil fits within this broader cultural oeuvre. Daredevil, aesthetically, is relentlessly dark. It’s part of the way we’re brought into the world of the blind protaganist, but it’s also in keeping with this modern approach to story telling. It explores these questions; but with a note of hope. A note that comes because at its heart, Daredevil is not so cynical about the human condition. His Catholicism leads him to see a glimmer of hope in the heart of each human, and so for his city. It’s faith in something transcendent that holds Daredevil apart from the Dark Knight’s Batman, and, within the Marvel universe, from The Punisher. Daredevil has hope that he’s part of the solution — not part of the problem — for Hell’s Kitchen. That he can make his place, his city, better, by bringing light into a dark world. Where season 1 was an extended exploration of the good samaritan, season 2 is a deliberate exploration of what a hero incarnate looks like. His efforts are not well received, because others in his world are particularly cynical about heroism — and who can blame them as they pick up their lives from the rubble left behind by Iron Man and Co. The nature of heroism is on view, and debated, and discussed, throughout the season. The Punisher’s ‘grim reaper’ approach to justice is literally put on trial, while Daredevil/Matt Murdock is always on trial with the people in his life, some of whom know what he gets up to at night, and others who don’t. Matt shares his life with very few people, there aren’t many in his inner circle — just Elektra, his mentor ‘Stick’, his best friend and lawyerly colleague Foggy, his nurse Claire, and his colleague/love interest Karen. At the start of the season Karen is the only one in this inner ring who doesn’t know Matt is Daredevil. She’s also the most disillusioned with Matt and least forgiving of him, in his contributions to society as a lawyer, as a result.

“This city really needs heroes. But you’re not one of them” — Karen

There’s a really nice pay off to this line at the end. One of the things the Daredevil writers do well is launch things at the start of a season that get some closure at the end. Another little parallelism comes with Matt/Daredevil’s threat to prevent Kingpin — the villain from season one — from ever having the satisfaction of living in New York with the woman he loves; as they both acknowledge that they are a product of the city as much as they hope to shape the city, and Matt’s own realisation that he could leave New York, perhaps, for the woman he loves.

“Now you’re thinking you can serve your sentence. Hop on a jet. Go to her whenever you like. Live somewhere like Monaco, or, I don’t know, wherever you fat cats go to sun yourselves. But you can’t. You can visit her, but you’ll never live with her. Because this is New York. Wilson. You live here. This is your jungle. This is your blood. Like it is mine. She will never come, and you’ll never leave.” — Matt Murdock to Kingpin

“We’ll keep moving. We’ll change identities. We’ll hide. They’ll never catch us. What do you say?
“I say let’s go to London. Madrid. Tunisia. There are sexy places to hide.”
“Hey, I’ve never been further north than 116th street so…”
“Because you love New York.”
“And I’d give my life for it, but there is one thing in this world that makes me feel more alive. And that’s you.” — Daredevil and Elektra

This comes at the end of a long ‘heroes journey’ for Daredevil, where he’s increasingly, and deliberately, alienated himself from his neighbours and neighbourhood, because he believes that’s what is required to save them. In doing so he risks becoming excarnate — detached from the consequences of his actions, and the real motivation for them, and unable to achieve the sort of transformation that can only come to Hell’s Kitchen if he inspires from beside, rather than ‘rescuing’ from above. It’s the people — his neighbours, his community, who he served beside who kept him grounded as the ‘good samaritan’ in season one. And this is risky business. Here, perhaps, is the most overt Daredevil/Jesus moment in the series.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…”

“I’m done Claire. No more law. No more friends. At best they’re a distraction. At worst I put them in jeopardy. From now on I need to focus.”

“You may feel like you are a ship lost at sea, but if you isolate like this you really will be. You’re cutting off your own anchor. And every minute that you spend standing, hiding, in this suit of armour the more separate you become from the very things that you want to protect. Your friend is in a hospital bed down stairs. Stop playing the loneliest little soldier and start being a human being.” — Claire and Daredevil

Being Daredevil is exceptionally costly for Matt, but it seems to be his cross to bear. The journey he’s on in this story is very much a journey to remind himself that he needs real connection to other humans — he has to forget that one lesson from his mystical mentor Stick. His friends don’t understand the cost he pays to save them. They’re busy dealing with the same fears — the same existential crisis — as the rest of the city; the same questions about heroism and salvation, the same balance between desiring mercy and justice; while in the main, knowing exactly who the masked vigilante is. And mostly they just want Matt to be their friend. To walk away from the mask; from the mission. This is Matt owning his identity, and his mission, while being disowned by his closest friend, Foggy. Expressing these human fears. Fears that Daredevil might actually be causing the problem. Denying that Daredevil is the saviour and calling him not just to step down from his cross, but to walk away from the mission and try something more effective. This is a Peter/Jesus moment.

“I came to talk to my friend, not the vigilante.”
“They’re the same person Foggy.”
“They weren’t always”
“Either way. I have to do this. As we speak there are horrible things happening in this city.”
“Of course.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you…”
“You don’t get to create danger and then protect us from that danger. That’s not heroic. That’s insane.” — Matt and Foggy

For Jesus of course, he didn’t abandon his friends, but was abandoned by them. And there’s a sense that this is true in Daredevil, because Matt/Daredevil’s greatest desire from these friends is that they understand him, trust him, and support him. That’s why he finds succour in his friendship with Elektra; she understands him. She also represents the ultimate test of his ability to save or transform someone, she’s the test case to see if redemption really works; if moving someone from darkness to light is actually possible. She’s aware of the darkness in her heart and is prepared to face up to it.

There’s an incredible degree of theological insight in Daredevil. Especially for Christians. Especially as we prepare for Easter this weekend. The majesty of the Christian story rests on the word that spoke the universe into being — the ‘light and life’ of the world — becoming human. Breaking down the distance. Drawing near. Being ‘one of us’ — speaking words in human language, that build and create life in very different ways to the words spoken in the beginning. The glory and humility of the incarnation is precisely this — that God didn’t step down onto a cross never having broken bread with those he came to save, but that he offered his life for the friends, the city, the world, that had abandoned him.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:15

 

When we’re at our most honest, as humans whose hearts are dark places, living in a darkened world of our own making, when we’re honest we have to admit that it’s not just the darkness that we’re afraid of, the light terrifies us. The prospect of a saviour who might pull us from the default patterns of existence — from the darkness where we’ve grown comfortable and accustomed — is terrifying. Daredevil has confronted this darkness, and chosen light — and he chooses to see the light, or the potential for light, the image of God, in everyone else. Light and life are sacred for this blind martyr.

What I loved about Daredevil is the way it explores heroism and celebrates the hero with dirty hands — the hero who steps into the mess with those he is trying to save. The hero who confronts darkness and grapples seriously with brokenness; not just brokenness in the world, but brokenness in himself. By season’s end, it seems Daredevil the good samaritan, the ‘crucified’ saviour who is prepared to lay down his life for his city, has a real shot at transforming the city. There’s this poignant piece on ‘true heroism’ in the final episode that has nice little links back to the Avengers if you’re paying attention, but also asks a bigger question that shows, at least in part, where Daredevil, and his imitators, won’t actually produce lasting change in New York.

“What is it to be a hero? Look in the mirror and you’ll know. Look into your own eyes, and tell me you are not heroic. That you have not endured. Or suffered. Or lost the things you care about most. And yet. Here you are. A survivor of Hell’s Kitchen. The hottest place anyone’s ever known. A place where cowards don’t last long. So you must be a hero. We all are. Some more than others. But none of us alone. Some bloody their fists trying to keep the kitchen safe. Others bloody the streets in the hope they can stop the tide. The crime. The cruelty. The disregard for human life all around them. But this is Hell’s Kitchen. Angel or devil. Young or old. Rich or poor. You live here. You didn’t choose this town. It chose you. Because a hero isn’t someone who lives above us keeping us safe. A hero is not a God, or an idea. A hero lives here, on the street, among us, with us, always here but rarely recognised. Look in the mirror and see yourself for what you truly are. You’re a New Yorker. You’re a hero. This is your Hell’s Kitchen. Welcome home” — Karen

There’s something very true and very real about the necessity of the ‘incarnate’ hero — the hero from within the community, with a close and abiding love of the place, the world, that birthed them. But we are shaped by place. Profoundly. We breathe the air and drink the water and imbibe the values of a place; and so ultimately Daredevil will have the same impact on the city as Kingpin. He’ll craft his community into his image. And though that involves more goodness and light than the next person, he, like you and me, is still flawed. He shows this, in one sense, because he’s both prepared to alienate himself from his community to save his city, and ultimately prepared to give it all up for a woman who understands him and makes him feel ‘more alive’ than New York. He’s still the product of his humanity, and those in his community whose hearts are that grey mix of black and white. And so the transformation or salvation he offers, good though it might be, is not the sort of hero our fearful world needs.

Ultimately his heroism is also not enough to defeat death — even if he chooses not to kill, because life is sacred, death still relentlessly pursues those in his city. And death is the ultimate form of darkness. Daredevil, interestingly, and without much editorialising, finishes at Christmas time. Which is interesting, especially watching it as Easter approaches. Because it’s in these moments still celebrated in our calendars that Jesus offers something more compelling than Daredevil — and more complete than simply a heroic example. It’s this point that the profundity of the Christmas — where the incarnate divine saviour who doesn’t just live above us to keep us safe, but is the God who becomes one of us — and the tragedy and triumph of Easter where this saviour enters the darkness of death and the tomb and raised to life to save us, and defeat death, that real hope is found. Our stories, our heroes, will, so long as they are purely human, always have black-to-grey hearts. The evil in each of us, and the death that results, is real darkness. It’s what we fear. It’s the enemy to be defeated. And our dark hearts are ill-equipped to really achieve that. We need real light. Otherwise its the blind leading the blind.

That line from Solzhenitsyn“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” is profound. Because in Jesus — in the Christmas and Easter stories — we see a hero enter the story whose heart is undivided, it’s pure light, and a God who willingly destroyed a piece of his own heart to deal with evil and death once for all. We see what real light looks like, and how darkness is overcome. We don’t just see a hero nailed to a cross, we see an empty tomb. And so we know what it is to no longer live in fear. We know what a better story looks like.

 

 

When Henny Penny meets 1984’s Winston: The sexular age and seeing the world as it really is

The sky is falling. We must tell the king — Henny Penny & Chicken Little

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I feel a little like I’m a chicken, just kicking back in the coop, chewing some corn or something, and watching Henny Penny running around yelling that if I don’t get off my perch and spit out my corn the sky will fall on my head.

Do you ever feel like that?

There’s a fair bit of hysteria in my coop about life in this new sexular age. The result of the secular world we live in where reality has been flattened so only the material questions of here and now matter, butting up against the sexual revolution, where only sex really matters. Materially speaking. Stephen McAlpine sums this sexular age up best. So read him (see also Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age and James KA Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular). But we Christians are the enemies in this revolution, perhaps rightly so, because we keep standing against it, and when we’re not standing, we’re running around trying to convince one another that the sky is falling in, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.

It makes sense, if this sexular age is a real thing, that the people of this age will seek to indoctrinate the children of this age to worship the god of the age. It makes sense that the people of this age will set out patterns of relationship that conform to the image of their god. That’s how idolatry works. Always. Alternative patterns. What doesn’t work is calling people to follow our pattern of life without giving them the way in. To do that is just cruel.

There’s a fair bit at stake. Potentially. So it makes sense. But I think our best bet, and the thing we’re actually called to do as followers of Jesus, is to spread our wings and give Henny Penny a comforting hug, but also reach out to those doing their best to bring the sky down on us. Those driving the revolution. Because they’ll need a hug when they realise the revolution doesn’t deliver (and it’s just our job, metaphorically) even if they don’t.

Just to be clear — the hug I’m talking about is extending the love of Jesus to the people of our world, the knowledge that he is the real king, and the only lover capable of meeting the expectations people are heaping on their sexual partners. We get so worried the sky is falling in we forget our job is to love those who are afraid, and love those who its going to fall on, even as they pull it down on our heads.

If you’re reading this and you feel like you need a hug because of how Christians keep telling you to live — where you can or can’t stick your bits, or how to think about who you are, then I’m sorry. All this stuff we believe about sex and gender and life in this world we believe because following Jesus makes us see everything differently. If you’re not prepared to accept that God might have something different to say about sexuality to the inner workings of your mind, or to the education system in Australia, then you’ll probably find this post super awful and hate me. I’m sorry. But I’m writing specifically to Christians, basically to tell them to stop telling you to live like you’re a Christian.

I’ve been particularly struck by the intra-Christian hysteria this week when it comes to our snowballing response to the Safe Schools material being introduced in our secular (sexular) schools, and to preparations for the plebiscite on gay marriage. There are plenty of these out there, some of the more measured responses include this blog post from Akos Balogh that has gone a little viral asking for the Christian position to be respected — for our students to be safe from bullying, and this story from the Presbyterian Church’s Moderator General (the guy responsible for chairing our national assembly who functions as a bit of a lightning rod for the denomination) David Cook about a meeting with Malcolm Turnbull seeking clarity about a gay marriage plebiscite.

“We want all students to be safe at school and free from bullying, whatever their identity. But my concern is that your material risks not only causing harm to some of the vulnerable LGBTI students (e.g. through the minus18 website), but it also creates another class of ‘outcasts’, whose only crime is to hold a different view of sexuality/gender than Safe Schools.” — Akos Balogh, Dear Safe Schools: I have questions

David Cook describes meeting the Prime Minister, in a delegation put together by the Australian Christian Lobby. He reports:

The issues which concerned us were:

  • The framing of the question to be answered in the plebiscite.  Would we have input into this so that it did not unfairly encourage the preferred response of either side?

  • The question of religious freedom both during and after the debate, if the plebiscite is lost.

  • If the Commonwealth was  to provide funding for campaigns, how would such funding be allocated?  The campaign in favour of single sex marriage in Ireland outspent the traditional campaign, 15 to 1.

  • When will the proposed Bill to change the Marriage Act and enable the plebiscite, be available?

  • Will the PM do all in his power to ensure equal access to media for both sides of the argument? — David Cook, Malcolm in the Middle

 

I have a huge amount of respect for David Cook (and for Akos), but especially for David’s contribution to the church in Australia in training up Gospel ministers — evangelists. I know both these guys to be pretty reasonable, and what they’re asking for seems so reasonable. Fair even. I don’t entirely share some of their thinking, because I keep remembering how poorly we stewarded the ‘public square’ for the sake of minority groups being safe, when we were the dominant social power. We were probably especially, at least anecdotally, damaging to the LGBTIQA community, who are the primary beneficiary of both these current issues.’

It’s certainly not just Christians who make the world feel unsafe for people at the margins, but we’ve been a bit culpable either in participating in bullying, or not using our power to stop it (and then you’ve got boxing champions and professing Christians like Manny Pacquiao and Tyson Fury kind of proving the point that the link between Christian faith and bullying can be quite direct). This is why we’ve got to be careful when Christians are allowing for hate speech laws to be thrown out so we can debate the plebiscite robustly. There’s a fine line between debate and debasement when some people claim to be speaking for God.

For David Cook, at least, the fear that the sky will fall seems quite palpable, and it seems to miss the point that the sexular age is already here. It’s not going to be brought in by this vote, this vote will simply codify what Australians already think (whichever way it goes). And I suspect because the average Aussie’s pantheon of gods includes freedom, sex, and free sex, they’ll be voting for the side that best represents their objects of worship.

“Changing that Act will change society; genderless marriage will lead to genderless families, no more mothers and fathers, just parents; genderless living will be used to encourage children to choose whichever gender they would like to be.” — David Cook

Both David Cook and Akos Balogh essentially mount arguments against change on the basis of protecting our personal freedom, or liberty, as Christians. Which sounds noble, and I totally agree with their thinking. I just don’t think it’s going to work (have a look at Stephen McAlpine’s aforelinked post for a start). I think we’re trying to topple one modern idol sex with another freedom when they’re so closely interconnected that the alternative idol is more likely to consume us as we wield it, than destroy the arguments we are deploying it against. If this makes sense… An argument for individual liberty ends up becoming an argument for people being free to choose their gender and their approach to marriage.

“There is no doubt we are facing a very different Australia in the future when such curbs on liberty become part of the policy platform of a mainline political party.

Neutrality will not be an option in the debate leading into the plebiscite.  The church, usually reluctant to enter into politics, needs to take the lead in having an educative role.

We need to be much in prayer at this time and the silent majority need to speak up.” — David Cook

I’m a bit confused. Do we want groups of people curbing the liberty of others, or not? If we make the argument about liberty and are only worried about our liberty then we’re falling into the trap of being pretty inconsistent.

“I would rather stay home and read a book but that is not an option for any of us.” — David Cook

“The sky is falling in. The sky is falling in. We must tell the king.” — Henny Penny

When the sky is falling in, we certainly can’t just stay home and read a book. We have to do something. We have to change people’s minds! And the Sky is falling in. It is. But we seem to be making Henny Penny’s mistake and turning to the fox — in this case, the state — to deal with the problem, not the king. You don’t help people when the sky is falling by putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

We need to do something, but getting out the vote isn’t it. At least I don’t think it is. When we say things like this and expect to be convincing, we’re missing two fundamental Biblical truths.

  1. In response to human sin. God gives us over to a broken way of seeing the world, with new (broken) hearts and minds (and we used to be part of this ‘them’). See Romans 1.
  2. In the transformation and renewed mind God brings via the Spirit to those who follow Jesus, God changes the way we see the world back to how it should be seen by giving us new (new) hearts and minds. Without this mind following God’s pattern for life is simultaneously impossible and futile. See Romans 8, 12

Idolatry and Double-Think

War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery. — George Orwell, 1984

Up is down. Black is white. God is sex…

This Romans 1 passage works corporately, it’s about all of us in Adam. Since the beginning of the Bible story people are born seeing up as down. Seeing things as God, and God as some small thing. We’re not born knowing who God is from his world, though we might have an inkling, we’re born already suppressing the knowledge of who God is because that’s human culture. That’s how we get sexular ages. Consensus views that are opposed to God. To deny this is to deny that sin affects every human heart and mind from birth. But this isn’t a get out clause because we all repeat that deliberate act of suppression, so Paul says:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

When we humans invert the created order and make created things into our gods — which is the hallmark of the sexular age, where our worship is directed towards sex, and our sexuality frames our understanding of who we are at our most fundamental level — our thinking changes. It’s natural that our thinking is shaped by our love and habits — by the story we see ourselves living in… but it’s not just that. This re-seeing the world, re-imagining the world, isn’t just us choosing to see the world through the lens provided by our new god — sex — the real God is also, at least according to Romans 1, confirming these new patterns for us. This is part of the judgment of God that comes on people when they turn to idols… There’s this repeated statement in Romans 1, the idea that God gives us, humanity, over to a new way of seeing when we exchange him for idols. He ultimately changes the way humans (and so, human cultures) see the world. Our hearts and minds are shifted by what we worship, and by God to what we now worship, as a punishment.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…  Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. — Romans 1:24, 28

This is talking about every single person in this world. The only thing that changes the way we see the world — helping us see war, peace, strength, freedom, and sex, rightly, is that we see the world as God made it to be seen because he first works in us. We can’t do this seeing on our own, nor can we expect our arguments to make people see their own way out of their idolatry. This requires, as an old school Christian dude Thomas Chalmers put it “the explusive power of a new affection’ — until someone loves Jesus more than they love sex, or another idol (perhaps individual freedom), more than they love sex, these very reasonable arguments we make seem like doublethink. I can no more convince someone that I should be free to disagree with their view than I convince them that up is down.

This truly expulsive power comes from one place. God. And it comes as we share the love of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus, not as we call people to simply change the way they see the world starting with sex. We just look like panicked chickens when we do that…

The Noetic Effect of Sin meets Common Grace

There is a sense, I think, where living out and speaking about sex following the pattern of the created order, not our sexular age’s order, does bear witness to God and his goodness. This is why I’m so keen for Christians to stay involved with marriage for as long as possible — rather than pulling stunts like getting divorced or withdrawing from the Marriage Act if our sexular government broadens the definition of marriage. People do still, despite the warping of our minds, have a taste of what has been lost. I think this is actually what Paul is talking about in this hotly contested passage in Romans 7.

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. — Romans 7:18-19

I think what he’s talking about here are two aspects of every person’s humanity — what it means to be like Adam and Eve. We’re made in the image of God, so know what we ought to do; but we’re also made in Adam’s image, and shaped by our idolatrous hearts, so keep doing what we shouldn’t. This reading fits with the way Paul appears to hark back to the Fall and the way he describes human behaviour that parallels the unfolding of human history in Romans 1, and the way he contrasts Adam and Jesus throughout the argument. Plus it works with where he goes in Chapter 8, and the solution to the problem — for both Jew and Gentile — being the Spirit of God marking out the children of God who will restore creation from its cursed frustration.

I think he’s talking about these two big theological concepts — the noetic effect of sin and common grace.

The noetic effect of sin is basically the Romans 1 thing — our ability to know God from what has been made has been utterly frustrated by sin’s effects on our thinking. This effects every sphere, though some smart people suggest it particularly affects issues of morality and the heart, where our idolatry is most likely to be at play, rather than in ‘objective’ areas like math, science and geography, where we’re most likely to be able to infer true things about God’s invisible nature without our human desires and idols getting in the way.

Common Grace is the sense that God remains good and true to all people, even as we become bad and turn on him (even as he ‘gives us over’ to that turning). It’s the sense that God sends rain on everyone, and allows us to figure stuff out about how rain works. It’s that sense that his image remains in each of us, despite our best efforts to shape ourselves into the image of our idols, and that this means we still have some sense of right and wrong…

So in Romans 7, I think that’s what is going on, it’s the tension in every human heart, a tension we appeal to as we live faithful lives and proclaim the Gospel, and a tension that is only really resolved with the solution Paul talks about in Romans 7 and 8. It’s this common grace, the image of God in all people, that gives me some hope in this sexular age, not for the society at large necessarily, but that our faithful witness is not wasted, because God will use our faithful witness to draw people to himself and renew their way of looking at the world by his Spirit.

 

The Gospel leads to right-think

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” — George Orwell, 1984

Something massive changes in our humanity when we trust Jesus. Something changes in the way we see the world. We get the ability to start valuing the righteousness of God rather than the counterfeit righteousness and rituals of our idols. Our stories change, our pattern of behaviour changes, our hearts change, our minds change. Not completely drastically, the ‘delight in God’ that is latent in all of us is reawakened by his Spirit.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  Romans 8:1-2

Here’s why we’ve got to stop pretending the world around us should live like us, and why we should stop pretending they should think like us or even listen to us, if our message is one of individual freedom, or if it challenges the idols of our age. It doesn’t matter how hysterical we are, or how reasonable… it’s the Gospel that is the ‘best book that tells people what they know already’ — that does what books in 1984 do, opening people’s eyes to the truth… our other arguments will fail. Inevitably. So we’re stupid to keep making them.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. — Romans 8:5-8

We’ve got this whole new way of seeing the world because we’re newly human, so we’re actually meant to look different to the world around us.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

We serve a totally different God. Our acts of worship don’t look like the pursuit of sexual freedom for all, but the gift of ourselves to God. We’re supposed to love differently. To understand marriage and gender and safety in different ways. Not call other people to sameness, or call them to respect our ways. Our ways are foreign and weird and involve the death of the gods of the people around us…

The way to help people see things this way is right back at the start of Paul’s letter. It’s the Gospel. Not a call to human righteousness first, but to Jesus.

So where to now?

Here’s what got Paul up out of bed in the morning, and got him loving and talking to a bunch of people whose age was every bit as sexular as our own…

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures  regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake… That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:1-5, 15-17

Maybe if we started being eager to preach this like Paul was, and kept reminding ourselves both who we were, how we became what we are now, and where we’re going, we’d all be a little less anxious about sex, and a little more anxious to see people come to faith in Jesus.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” — George Orwell, 1984

In a real way, both the Henny Penny — the concerned Christian who thinks the world will fall apart if people stop being righteous, and the Winston, (the main character in 1984)  the person living in this sexular age, being massaged by the patterns of this world —  have confused ideas about God.

Where Henny Penny convinced herself that the sky was falling in, and got in a tizz; Winston in 1984 was the product of a system that was deliberately designed to control people via confusion. Henny Penny misunderstood reality, and needed to be calmed down by the king. Winston needed to be drawn from the way he’d been seeing the world by having his eyes opened, bit by bit. Before their epiphanies, that help them both see the world as it really is, both Henny Penny and Winston need love and hugs from those who’ve already found clarity when it comes to seeing the world, and freedom. They need Jesus. They need to be set free. There are lessons to be learned in both these stories about the way idols, or false ideas, plant themselves in our heads. Whether its by misunderstanding something God made (like a nut falling on your head), or being shaped by an oppressive system (like Big Brother), there are things in this world that shape us and take us away from seeing the world truly.

The danger for Henny Penny, in listening to Chicken Little (who doesn’t know better), and leading a band of terrified animals to find the king, is, as the parable goes, that they end up in the fox’s den. The fox capitalises on Henny Penny’s gullibility, and gets to eat a bunch of scared animals.

They ran to tell the king. They met Foxy Loxy.
They ran into his den, And they did not come out again. — Chicken Little

What Henny Penny should’ve done, in the story, was given Chicken Little a hug. She should have told Chicken Little to calm down; that even if the sky was falling, the King would have things under control.

It’s not that the sky isn’t falling. It is. It’s just that we’re actually Chicken Littles, and if we react the wrong way, we’re leading a bunch of people to their doom, straight to the predator’s gaping maw. Big Brother is real. It’d be naive to suggest that people in our sexular age aren’t going to use their power to conform people to the image of the age. To advocate for their idol. Safe Schools is just the beginning. And that will be painful for us as we resist in our own lives, and as we teach our children to resist (by teaching them to follow Jesus). Costly even. But resist we must  — in that we are not to be transformed, ourselves, to be like idols, by these uses of worldly power into the ‘patterns of this world’. That’s a real danger Paul identifies, but the fight is not one fought on our own steam. It happens as the Spirit works in us to shape our minds in a new shape of God’s choosing. That is God’s power. It trumps the power of the world of idols, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I should also say I don’t think resistance means telling people not to be sexular without offering them the expulsive power of a new affection, something to pull them out of their way of seeing the world and into something more positive. This conversation is doomed to failure if we frame it as being about individual liberty — that just pits two modern idols against one another (even if we find one more palatble).  So. Since we’re not in the building of wielding human power, but relying on God’s power as we preach the Gospel — the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” — George Orwell, 1984

Can we please stop calling people to live out obedience to God in their sexuality? Can we please stop acting as though the people we live in are on the same page as us when it comes to sex just because we all live in the world God made? Can we stop acting as though happiness is found in moral obedience, not the freedom the Gospel brings from slavery to idols? Or as though people can simply act their way out of idolatry without God.

If people are worshipping at the altar of sex, or individual freedom, or whatever, then they’re seeing the world through that lens  — and God made them that way, it’s unloving to pretend he didn’t, and pretend they should be like us, without Jesus. It’s impossible. So, can we renew our focus on the Gospel, which makes this possible? Which provides the expulsive power of a new affection?

You can, because of your renewed mind, obviously see what sex and marriage are meant to be, and how idolatry smashes God’s design. But if you try to fight the new sexularism, or any idolatry, on your own steamwhether we’re talking about how we understand sexuality in schools, or what we call marriage — you won’t beat it. Not without God transforming a person’s heart, by his Spirit. The way to ‘win’ is by pointing people to Jesus.

Next time someone is running around as though the sky is falling in because kids in sexular schools are being taught sexular ethics can we remember that nothing changes without the Spirit, and it’s faith in the Gospel that brings righteousness, not righteousness that brings faith in the Gospel? Can you just give the Henny Pennys in your life a hug and ask them to calm down for a minute… The king knows the sky actually really is falling in, and he knows what is going to put the world to rights. He’s already done it, and the invitation to safety and true seeing is there for everyone.

 

 

Re-Enchanting the world — Episode 4: Deus In Machina

In which we return to the discussion of enchantment, super-heroes, and the power of a good story in firing the imagination. To refresh your memory, dip back in to Episode 1, Episode 2, or Episode 3. Also, since episode 3, my friend Craig had a great piece on Marvel v DC posted at the Gospel Coalition.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? — CS Lewis, God In The Dock

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron

Epic stories — myths — are only as compelling as their hero. Sometimes, in modern storytelling, the formula has been broken so that the ‘hero’ is not heroic at all, but is relatably conflicted. A character at war within himself or herself, and so our modern stories have gritty anti-heroes, or we view stories sympathetically through the eyes of a villain. This leads to a certain way of imagining the world, but it probably doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous imagination that leads to an enchanted view of life the universe and everything. I’d argue its disenchanting, and depressing, and pushes us towards accepting a gritty, immanent, version of reality and trying to make the best of it.

Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero

Epic stories that occur within an ‘immanent’ reality — where the here and now is everything — struggle to move us, or to invite us to see what things could be, rather than simply seeing how things are. In episode 3 we considered the sorts of immanent heroes in our modern myths, and suggested the incarnate hero — the hero as neighbour produced by a problem in a place with a view to solving that problem from a position of attachment to people and place is the best sort of immanent hero (as opposed to hero as stranger coming into a problem place). So Daredevil was the best example of this from the modern pantheon of heroes — whether Marvel or DC. But, perhaps haunted by a past where an enchanted ‘transcendent’ reality was taken for granted — or perhaps because of that gnawing human sense that we’ve lost some infinite thing — epic storytellers (including the writers of modern comics) have long played with the need for a more transcendent sort of hero. An otherworldly stranger who steps into the world to pull us from a mess, while helping us see life in the world properly. These storytellers often depict someone who steps into the machinery of life and our world with a transformative agenda — the saviours or villains in these stories are ‘outsiders’ — wholly other — like Thor, or Superman. These heroes who come ‘from above’ often function in a way old timey epic writers labelled Deus Ex Machina — as Gods in the machine; unlikely solutions to complex human problems, who turn a story on its head. The downside of these transcendent heroes is that unlike immanent ‘from below’ — the friendly, neighbourhood, hero — we can’t immediately relate to them. They are strangers. The visions of virtue they offer is almost always ‘other,’ or there is a chasm between us and them, in their alien or godlike nature, that we cannot hope to cross.

Here’s my thesis for this post: A really good enchanting story  — a story that will push us towards a more complete view of the world, a more virtuous life, and a better ability to imagine a transformed world and life, will involve a godlike saviour figure coming into the machine, but will also have enough connections with our humanity that we are left with a pattern for living and imagining. Real re-enchantment will involve the transcendent and the immanent being held appropriately in tension, it won’t involve one collapsing into the other.

Epic stories — enchanting stories that give us a transcendent account of life —produced through the ages have charted this course between the nature of the divine and the implications for life in this world of this divine nature carefully. In some ancient stories — Greek myths, or even older myths like the Enuma Elish — deal mostly with the life of the gods, and treat humanity as an incidental bi-product, or even a distraction, these stories function to explain the nature and state of the cosmos, sometimes to account for the disinterest the divine world takes in our piddling, momentary, existence. Such stories were more difficult to churn into an ethical framework for hearers because the divine nature is so detached from life. Other epic stories where the gods step into the world to fight with or for a particular human cause are much more grounded, and so, have lasted and essentially been adapted into our modern myths — never more obviously than in the case of Thor who bridges the ancient gods, or epic heroes, with the modern. These stories, transcendent stories, serve us best when the heroes — or gods — interact with us in such a way that they ‘save us’ and in saving us, provide a pattern of life that will prevent us getting into the same trouble again. That’s what real salvation looks like; a path out of disaster. In an essay on epic heroes through the ages, Roger Rollin wrote on this sort of epic hero and their sociological function — both within the story, and within the community that tells the story.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

In another essay about comic books functioning as modern epics, or myths, David Reynolds considers the formula that modern ‘epic’ narratives — including comic narratives — follow.

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Our post-modern epics, or myths, sometimes provide us with this sort of heroic saviour figure who stands apart from the human mess, but increasingly are not. Our heroes — for example, either Tony Stark as Iron Man, or Batman in his ‘Dark Knight’ iteration — are now flawed humans. Our ‘legendary heroes’ are not Holy messianic saviours figures. They are the reverse. Pious readers can’t jump to Jesus from these heroes any more when ‘baptising’ the stories for Christian consumption. They’re now left using these stories to explore the human condition. Because our heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, are all too human, they’re too like us. They don’t depart (mostly). But their presence actually leaves us without a model worth following, because they’re following us, just with superpowers, or fancy gadgets. The stories Rollin and Reynolds describe pre-date our post-modern ‘epics’, but actually diagnose the problem facing a world — or comic book universe — filled with flawed, fallen, characters.

The Marvel Universe needs a saviour

The Marvel Universe, in its modern cinematic/TV iteration started out a bit like a ‘harmonious paradise’ but the fall of this world didn’t just come about through villainy, it came because of the power put in the hands of flawed heroes who go to large scale war with super villains. Increasingly the stories told in this universe are dealing with the fallout in the universe that comes because Marvel’s heroes aren’t actually selfless. They’re profoundly selfish. They’re (even Thor) flawed and they’re (except for Thor) very human. Daredevil, of course, and now more recently, Jessica Jones, now live in a world, a New York, post ‘the incident’ — the wanton destruction of the city that happened when our heroes went to war with an enemy from the outside. Our stories are no longer stories of regaining paradise, as much as grappling with our inability, via flawed heroes, to do anything but perpetuate our fallen state. In the last post in this series we considered an alternative to the ‘hero as stranger’ — the ‘hero as neighbour’ — which is a game changer in an ‘immanent’ story, but not particularly helpful for epic stories that hope to help us see reality as enchanted, or to find meaning beyond the moment.

Good stories — enchanting stories — give us a way out of a purely immanent existence by inviting us to connect with a more fully meaningful view of life. A touch of the transcendent. There are those who are so fully invested in an immanent view of the world — the belief that the material realities of this life are the only realities worth exploring — who might dismiss a transcendent sphere as even worth exploring. Which explains much of our gritty storytelling.

The Marvel Universe does not just need good neighbours. Those who don masks to express the sentiment caught up by the hashtag #illridewithyou, it needs a saviour who leans down, offers a hand, and says #illhelpyouup. Neighbours are destined to be tainted by the universe — the environment — that has shaped them and their priorities. Let’s call it Batman Syndrome — Batman shapes Gotham, just as Gotham shapes him, and so an altered Batman shapes Gotham in an altered way, and in the end they become each other… This isn’t salvation so much as reconciliation, which is an immanent hope, but a transcendent story — a hero who is both in the city, and apart from it, offers a different hope. A hope untainted by a poisonous environment…

Immanent stories — these stories of becoming always end in tragedy. They describe the world as it is, and offer a compelling picture of love to fellow journeyers. But love is costly sacrifice, taking on the traits of your environment as you take on the environment for the sake of the other, or with some utopian vision that helps you lift the gaze from catastrophe to slightly more palatable catastrophe. Think Gotham without the Joker, or the crime bosses, and Hells Kitchen without Kingpin. But there’s always another villain around the corner. Transcendent stories  — enchanting stories — don’t end in catastrophe, but what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. In his masterful On Fairy Stories, in which Tolkien outlines why we need enchanting stories, and the elements of these stories that lift our gaze from the immanent and offer us an escape from a broken reality as they move us when we participate.Tolkien embraced the idea that enchanted stories were a form of consolation or escapism — he said that’s absolutely the point, because we need to escape in order to re-imagine life. Tolkien speaks of the eucatastrophe as the perfect happy ending, a taste of joy, a vital element for enchantment, and one missing from our modern epics/tragedies.

The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

If the Marvel Universe is to have a happy ending, if the journey towards destruction that is both the result of its horrible villains, and the ‘heroism’ of its flawed saviours, it needs a virtuous hero to arrive who is untainted by the mess, who offers a vision for salvation, who is prepared to walk the talk, and who can truly restore and perhaps even renovate the ‘paradisiacal’ conditions we all have the sense we were made to enjoy. It needs a eucatastrophe brought about by a hero who brings a taste of joy. In ancient epic storytelling this sort of arrival on the scene of a potentially tragic story — a resolution bringer — especially when delivery seemed improbable, was called a deus ex machina, ‘a God from the machine’.

The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine

Which brings us to the latest instalment in the Marvel Universe. Avengers: Age of Ultron. And two literal gods from the machine — Ultron, and The Vision. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is all too aware of the problems created by the trajectory the Marvel universe is on, and so he, the flawed but altruistic genius, fashions a solution in his image. He attempts to create a godlike machine, a shield that will protect the world from any threat. And in this attempt creates a god from the machine — a god, Ultron — who in his godlike assessment of the situation, as he digests the entire internet, decides that humans are the problem. Ultron emerges as a new threat to humanity. An immanent, destructive, literal, God from the Machine.

Incidentally, while he might fall foul of some of the criticisms perennially directed at the deus ex machina — that he represents a contrived and convenient villain — Ultron is the embodiment of one of the greatest apocalyptic fears of the modern, secular, immanent. mind. He is the incarnation of a very modern, very immanent, concern; artificial intelligence that turns on us. He is the worst version of the ‘singularity’ — an immanent vision of the apocalypse.

Ultron is a creation of Tony Stark’s flawed utopian vision, a god from the machine but apart from humanity — a fusion of metal and code — soulless, without whatever non-physical reality it is that makes our humanity human. Ultron is an eerily immanent figure. Ultron’s imagination of salvation and transformation of the cosmos is one we need saving from. He is God in the Noah story, but without compassion or hope for humanity. In fact, some have suggested that Ultron is a secular rendition of the popular conception of the ‘God of the Old Testament’, while The Vision, his counterpart, or anti-thesis, is Jesus.

In the visage of Ultron, and then The Vision, we see a Dystopian, and then a Utopian, retelling of the same old immanent myth — a myth where humanity makes gods in order to pull us out of human made problems. Where we ultimately face a moment of crisis, or judgment, and need a saviour. Ultron wants to wipe out humanity — Noah style — The Vision wants to save us. Hero style. Both are the products of the same mechanical eschatology — this technological singularity — the apocalypse writ large, just in binary. In this eschatological frame we must pin our hopes on a saviour from the machine, because only a machine god will be enough to save us from the raging of the machine.

Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.

Bruce Banner: Ooh, it’s definitely the end times.

In this, the Marvel Universe shares an eschatology — a view of the end times — with the secular world that it is produced by. Our modern secular eschatology tends to involve a catastrophe for humanity either at the hands of the machines we create, or the world we destroy. The apocalypse is always, in a serious secular sense, and especially in our stories, a catastrophe of human making, requiring a human solution, or some super-human intervention. Nature is against us because we meddle, or the machine is against us because we aren’t careful enough in deciding which levers to pull, or what to combine. And, this is pretty much the origin story of every non-divine hero or villain in the Marvel universe. This apocalyptic stuff is about as epic as our (popular) story telling gets. This is where we ponder what the epic storytellers of old pondered — immortality, the limits of our humanity, and what the heroic life looks like in our time. These are our epics.  And. They are still thoroughly disenchanting. The world is mechanical — we’re in trouble because we’ve pulled the wrong levers, we’ve built the wrong machines within this machine. The only hope proffered for our world is a god-from-the-machine. A machine god. Our future is tied to this ‘singularity’ moment — its just a question of whether we produce a judge or a saviour. A machine who is patient with our human faults, or who sees them as a glitch to be immediately eradicated. If this is the best we can imagine, then we’re in trouble when it comes to trying to find meaning in our world, meaning that sees the world — and life in the world — as something more than mechanical.

Ultron: “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.”

 

Ultron: Do you see the beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor. My swift and terrible sword and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers; turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing! When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world, will be metal.

 

Ultron was meant to be both ‘judge’ and the incarnation of a better, inspirational, version of humanity. In the Noah metaphor he wanted to both bring the flood, and build the ark. Only Ultron, as a human creation, falls. He is tainted with the same problems as those who created him, the ‘fallenness’ of humanity, and our role in the apocalypse is not tied to our flesh, but our nature. 

Helen Cho: “The regeneration Cradle prints tissue; it can’t build a living body.”
Ultron: “It can, you can. You lacked the materials.”

 

Ultron: I was meant to be new. I was meant to beautiful. The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror… I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky and see hope… I’ll take that from them first.

 

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers. People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there. Children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end.

The Vision is an interesting saviour. He is the machine incarnate, embodied to step between humanity and machinageddon. If Ultron is the machine passing judgment on the planet — part human — in the comics he’s described as “every inch a human being—except that all of his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials,” and part god from the machine. He’s the embodiment, or incarnation, of Stark’s personal assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S, some transcendent matter in the form of the ‘infinity stone’ embedded in his head, and synthetic human flesh on a metallic frame.  The J.A.R.V.I.S component is of Stark’s making, the infinity stone comes from the gods — or from beyond the earth, but the creation of the synthetic body was Ultron’s initiative. The Vision’s making is an act of a machine god, but his breath  — his life — comes from mankind and some transcendent life force via the infinity stone, and some lightning from Thor. The infinity stone is part of the fabric of the cosmos, which, in the Marvel Universe, was created by one God, a God who is not Thor, but is infinitely greater than him. 

Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots… Infinity Stones.” — Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

“…and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal—the final judge—hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of all gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!” — Thor on God, The Mighty Thor Annual #14 (1989), Marvel Comics, cited in Marvel Wiki, One-Above-All

The Vision is a bit-part god; a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of us, a bit of machine, and a few parts divine. Age Of Ultron positions him as a godlike saviour figure from above and below. He is a virtuous godlike character with enough purity to wield Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. He is, in this sense, a fusion of the immanent — flesh, code, and metal, and the transcendent — Thor’s lightning and the infinity stone. His divinity is hinted at with lines like:

I am not Ultron. I am not J.A.R.V.I.S. I am… I am. — The Vision

But he’s ultimately a ‘god’ within the cosmos, within a pantheon of equally not infinite gods, while the Living Tribunal stands apart in infinity, a distant deistic god. Thw Vision is called on to save from within the universe — part god from above, part god from below, this real god, kicks back, not intervening in the world as the universe falls apart. According to Thor at least, he’s the transcendent one who could really fix things. The infinity stones are something like a bridge to his power, but other than these stones, the transcendent is only incidentally connected to the immanent in Marvel, these bit part gods — The Vision and Ultron — like their Norse counterparts, are more immanent than transcendent, limited by how great the gap is between any of them and this real transcendent power, limited in power and to a particular place. They are finite.

Despite his godlikeness, and his name, The Vision does not have much of a vision for salvation. He should be able to save the universe, and yet, even as he destroys Ultron, he essentially admits humanity is doomed. Perhaps because humanity is not equipped to imitate his non-human virtues.

Ultron: Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
The Vision: I suppose we’re both disappointments.
Ultron: [laughs] I suppose we are.
The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed!
The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbelievably naïve.
The Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

The Vision is the ultimate #illridewithyou hero, only, he’s not human enough to carry it out like Daredevil. He remains ‘other’. Despite his incredible power and capacity to transform the world, he’s no more inspiring or enchanting than Daredevil, he just seems less likely to be shaped by his environment. While remaining ‘other’, The Vision, like Thor before him (and like Superman) is not ‘other’ enough, godlike enough, to bring a real solution into the picture for humanity, nor is he imitable enough for his solution to be democratised. The Vision only delivers temporary relief to the Marvel Universe, and so as an example for us as viewers looking to have our imagination shaped by an epic hero, falls short. The Vision is a god from the machine, but not the Eucatastrophe, or re-imaginative transformation, the Marvel Universe requires. There is no denial of the ‘universal final defeat’ Tolkien spoke of; in fact, such defeat is seen as inevitable even by the ‘saviour’ — whatever joy that is offered is immanent joy — The Vision’s ‘grace in our failings’ or beauty in temporality. These are immanent joys; the joy of the ‘journey’ alongside others, the joy in the moment, the joy in the struggle, rather than the joy of the destination.

The Vision v Jesus: God from the machine, or God into the machine

“… there is a new archetypal plot formula found in North American popular narratives which operates as follows: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition…” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

“[The eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” — Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The Vision is not this hero — he’s not this sort of god. So he does not bring that sort of joy, or hope. He is, ultimately, a product of the cosmos, born, in part, from outside earth but always from within the material realities of the universe. He’s a ‘god from below’ — destined, like any other epic hero, to grasp after something transcendent, that ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (to quote David Foster Wallace), and destined to stand beside us as we share that sense. He offers no road back to paradise lost — infinity lost. Because he hasn’t been there or seen it for himself.

Tolkien wasn’t writing On Fairy Stories to engage with the Marvel Universe, but he does speak about how Jesus is a better eucatastrophe than The Vision. Jesus is both the archetypal #illridewithyou hero who walks the path we walk, only with virtue, and the stranger-saviour who wears the cost of our broken pattern of life without joining in and perpetuating it. He comes into the world and takes steps towards restoring paradise precisely because he does not follow the pattern of a caped crusader. He absorbs the corruption of the world, he takes it upon himself — he becomes sin and death, but he is equipped, by virtue of his transcendent, divine, nature, to break the human cycle rather than perpetuating it. In his full humanity, and his offer of resurrection is able, also, to provide a pattern of life that might see hope

The Vision might be a secular Jesus figure, but he’s a cheap Jesus. Jesus is not a bunch of bits stitched together by a bunch of broken people, bringing their own brokenness to the table. He’s not part human, part machine, part divine — its in his paradoxical fusion of full divinity — or transcendence — with full humanity — or immanence — as a hero simultaneously from above and below — a God from the machine, and God coming into the machine in one person — that makes Jesus both the archetypal epic hero, and the eucatastrophe this world needs (and that the Marvel Universe could do with too). It’s these two natures working in symphony that means Jesus was able to enter our journey and secure a heroic victory over death on our behalf, while also inviting people to touch the infinite; to see the finite world as ‘enchanted,’ filled with divine meaning because he is both the one who holds all things in his hands, and the one whose hands were pierced by spikes to remove the threat of universal final defeat, and to provide a path and an invitation to us to join him in paradise renovated. These hands bring the finite and infinite together.

The Gospel is the best epic story, and Jesus the best epic hero, according to every formula for assessing such stories. Jesus provides a vision for a future world — the Kingdom of God — and invites people to follow his example in bringing a taste of this joy — being bringers of ‘eucatastrophic’ moments as we follow his example of the epic life. This has been a key belief of epic tellers of the Christian story from the early days of Christianity, here’s Athanasius, an old dude, reflecting on the nature of Christ in a way that seems to parallel with the modern archetypal hero story… the same story The Vision was expected to live out, but admitted he could not…

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.” — Athanasius, On The Incarnation

 

According to Tolkien, Jesus, in the Gospel, is the prime example of the Eucatastrophe — the true eucatastrophe that all fictional eucastrophes draw on. Jesus is better than The Vision because he is better than any epic hero. His story is more compelling, and should stoke the fires of our imagination better than any other story, and lead to a more enchanted view of the immanent and transcendent meaning of life in this world than any other, this should lead us to make better art, tell better stories, and live better stories. Here’s a passage from On Fairy Stories.

In the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a faroff gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite. I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know. — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

 

What does an advancing Australia look like? On anthems, home, and welcomes

Australians all let us rejoice, For we are young and free…

t-shirt
Image Credit: Flogged from a site I won’t link to that is selling this hideous ideology-as-T-shirt-slogan.

It seems some Christians who love Australia are joining in the chorus of angry voices shouting variants of the “if you don’t love it, leave it” slogan at some Muslim school children who left a room while their classmates sang the national anthem in a Victorian school.

I don’t get it. I mean, I get that the national anthem is the closest thing we’ve got to a sacred song in terms of our nationalistic religion, and so walking out is an act of impiety, at best, and sacrilege, at worst. And so I expect certain sections of the community to be up in arms when believers from another religion don’t follow these cultic practices, or appear to be insulting them. But I’m confused, a little, on two fronts. The first is what sort of freedom we’re rejoicing in as we sing the national anthem if it doesn’t include the freedom not to sing, the second is how to navigate the murky pool of Christianity and patriotism, or nationalism, without forgetting that we too, are exiles, and that we too, are called to not bow the knee to nationalistic cults if such knee-bowing represents a betrayal of our religious convictions.

… we are young and free

Are we? What sort of freedom are we believing in, as Australians — and as Christians in Australia — when we echo the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan? Is there any greater curtailing of freedom than to force people to participate in something that clashes with their fundamental view of the world, or of citizenship? Do we really want to be throwing citizenship in a pluralistic, liberal, democracy — one that believes in ‘freedom’ — up against religious belief and practice? Isn’t that a privilege that we as Christians can only rely on if we deliberately forget our history — the story of the emergence of the Church, indeed, the story of the incarnation of Jesus — against hostile worldly empires? That’s the story of the Old Testament, and the story of the New, it’s the story of the Early Church, and the story of the Reformation.

It seems to me that Christians calling on faithful Muslims to leave because they can’t align their religious beliefs with Australianism, in order to be consistent, would historically have called Daniel to leave Babylon, the Israelite exiles to no longer ‘seek the welfare’ of the pagan cities they were carried off to, and would have called early Christians to pack up their bags and flee the Roman empire. It seems they’d be forced to ask, in essence, Jesus to bow the knee to Caesar.

It seems, not to be too dramatic, that if we adopt the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan to throw it at our ‘ideological enemies’ — those whose religious faith is at odds with our own — we’re in danger of becoming a bit like the Pharisees at Jesus’ trial. There’s a risk that we might become so keen to end the ‘freedoms’ of a competing religion, Islam, that we’ll sign up with any common enemy of Islam at the cost of our own soul.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”…

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12, 14-16

Christians have always had a funny relationship with the secular state. With worldly notions of nationhood. We want to live in such a way, as foreigners within our ‘home’ country, that people see where home really is, and to what kingdom we truly belong as citizens.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

Just after this little passage, Peter describes what it looks like for Christians to live as exiles in a hostile world — a world, or empire, that crucified the king of God’s kingdom. He outlines a path towards radical change and transformation. He describes why Christians might feel a sense of pride, or belonging, as we sing a nation’s anthem (without feeling like we’ve necessarily sold our soul in order to join a civil cult).

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people,but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

Honouring the emperor — participating in the empire — never extended to worshipping the emperor or participating in a litmus test based on nationalistic religion. A Christian in Rome was free to not pray to the emperor — a Roman rite of passage — while still feeling like they could live in Rome and contribute to public life, ‘doing good’ and while still honouring the emperor.

In a Christian framework, you don’t have to bow the knee, or offer a sort of lip service, to the nationalistic cult. You have to participate in public life for the good of the people around you, out of love for neighbour and enemy. A letter, called the Letter to Diognetus, from some time in the second century, describes the Christian approach to life in the world, life, as it were, as exiles.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

The Christian message, if reduced to a shirt slogan, is not just the anti-thesis of love it or leave it, it’s not just that we look around us at our earthly home and say “if you do love it, stay”, but we look towards our eternal home and say “we love our home, come”… and the way we live now — our hopes, our practices, our participation in the public life of our place — reflects this slogan.

It might seem specious to equate the worship of a Roman emperor with the singing of a national anthem, but if the sentiment behind “if you don’t love it, leave it” or the sense that a person is, or isn’t, truly Australian based on their desire to sing the anthem or salute the flag truly represents an understanding of what it means to really be a ‘citizen’ here, then it’s not far off. In the early years of the church, when the Roman Empire was looking to weed out this disruptive sect that was threatening civic life as those in power knew it — such was the transformative power of the Christian ethos — the test applied to Christians, a citizenship test for people who considered themselves exiles in the empire, was to see if the Christian would bow the knee to Caesar, to deny Jesus. The Governor, Pliny, describes his application of this test — and motivation — to the Emperor, Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

In response, Trajan says:

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it —that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

Is this the tradition we want Australia to stand in, is this what we want freedom to look like?

Are we asking these Muslims to deny their faith in order to participate as citizens in our nation? What are Christians doing standing behind those demands — if not a sort of obvious fear and desire for self-preservation built on some sort of belief in Australia’s ‘Christian heritage’?

We, Christians, have always celebrated our ability to live as exiles — and our commitment to not bowing the knee to Caesar, selling out Jesus for the sake of belonging in our worldly kingdom. We’ve lost that in the era of Christendom, and as we’ve simply assumed a corollary between the civil cult and Christian belief. For as long as Anzac Day services are held in Christian churches, with prayers led by Christian ministers, we’ll believe there’s a close link between the two, and so, the Muslim will be the outsider. But days are coming when the laws of our land will place similar constraints on Christian belief, and we might face very similar tests to these Muslim students about where our allegiance really lies. In these future days we’ll be looking to the sentiment expressed by the anthem — a desire for a nation built on freedom — and we might remember days like these where we weren’t so quick to extend that freedom to others.

It seems odd that we don’t want to extend this freedom — to be defined by a religious citizenship — to citizens of other religious kingdoms. Sure, the values of those kingdoms might be at odds with their host nations, and such kingdoms might indeed seek to change the nature of their home culture, or transform it according to their religious vision of the good and flourishing society, but aren’t we all actually compelled to do that? Isn’t this what pluralism, and freedom, looks like? Isn’t this what we sing about when we talk about Australia being a land we want to share with those who’ve come across the seas? Isn’t there an irony here in terms of what European settlement did to the Australian culture it was met with on arrival?

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Isn’t courageous combining, placed alongside the ‘freedom’ of the first verse, an aspiration to live well together. To share the table of our ‘boundless plains’ with others, even if they don’t agree with us? Isn’t the unity we’re called to express in the act of singing this anthem a unity that transcends whether or not we choose to sing the anthem, and is located more in a common desire to live together for the sake of the nation of Australia ‘advancing’ towards some advancing view of the good life? And what sort of good life are we talking about if it involves the excluding of certain freedoms.

Obviously this unity requires a certain desire to ‘combine’ with courage, rather than to not combine — but assimilation isn’t really courageous combination. It’s cowardly. It involves a fear of the different, rather than a celebration. From what I can tell of the motivations of those young Muslims who did not sing the anthem with their classmates, it was not a repudiation of a desire to see Australia advance in this way, but a desire to simultaneously be committed to their religious convictions, to live, as it were, as citizens of two worlds — the world created by their religious beliefs, and the world created by a common love for Australia. Like any story that becomes part of the outrage cycle, we’ve now got extremists posturing for both camps.  The Herald Sun reports that the initial rationale behind the withdrawal was specifically linked to a religious practice.

Principal Cheryl Irving said during the month of Muharram Shi’a Muslims do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning.

“Muharram is a Shi’a cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussein,” Ms Irving said. “This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12.

“Prior to last week’s Years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played.

“The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music.”

These students bravely took a stand on the basis of their convictions about the world — if these were Christians the Christian commentariat would be lauding their bravery and describing their actions as martyrdom. These students then, despite this obvious difference, returned to the gathering — an act of courageous combination with a view to participating in life with their peers, as Australians. This is, I would’ve thought, the sort of Australia we join to sing into being. Songs have the capacity to powerfully shape actions and ethics — that is one of the many reasons that Christians sing together, and it’s why nations and sporting teams create songs which foster harmony within the group. Singing the anthem is, in a sense, a speech-act, a declaration of an ideal. Perhaps this is why we mostly skip the second verse. Perhaps this is to recognise that modern Australia is not advancing the way we hoped. Perhaps it’s to put our guilty consciences at ease about the way settlers treated first Australians, or maybe it’s about our wavering commitment to sharing with those who come across the seas, and a sense that our boundless plains, or generosity might not be so boundless after all. Perhaps the second verse makes us uncomfortable because it calls us to live beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe we need to return to this ideal — whether we sing it together, or live out this courageous commitment to combining with those we disagree with for the common good. This is the Australia the anthem envisages, and so, creates as an ideal. A nation built on the courageous combination of people and worldviews, and commitment to generous sharing of our natural resources, with ‘those who’ve come across the seas.’ That, more than anything, is a gift given to us by the continued undeserved generosity of the first people to share Australia with sea-faring settlers. I’m blown away, with great regularity, by the willingness of Indigenous Australians to conduct ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremonies at different events, and with the generous manner that Indigenous elders participate in discussions about asylum seekers.

In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Songs really are powerful. Songs really do give us a sense of home — perhaps this Muslim tradition has actually recognised something powerful that Christians have forgotten, at least if we don’t think the singing of the anthem is a big deal. I have no doubt that Christians can sing the anthem with gusto — particularly with a vision for how we might act out these words in a manner consistent with our faith, and with our calling to live as exiles who do good for the benefit of those around us, and so they might know the truth of our belief. It’s interesting that in that correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, the governor mentions that his investigations have established that Christian practice involves singing what, in the face of the belief that the Emperor was divine, a truly subversive song:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food —but ordinary and innocent food.

Our singing loses its subversive power if we either deny the significance of the singing of the national anthem, and thus call on religious people to sing it without question, or if we assume it is a song that can truly represent our view of good citizenship apart from our true citizenship in the Gospel. Our songs, our Christian anthems, contain the subversive truth that should shape even our singing of the national anthem as it shapes our view of home, and of where we belong. Perhaps the best we have, at this, is the one that the Apostle Paul quotes in Philippians. Perhaps this should be our anthem, and perhaps it should shape our approach to other kingdoms — be it the kingdom of Australia, or the various kingdoms envisaged by our Muslim neighbours who put their trust in interpretations of the visions of the ‘good life’ as described by Mohammed. Our vision of the good life is captured in the example of the one who truly lived ‘a good life’ — who was crucified for refusing to compromise the nature of his kingdom in the face of the Empire he lived and walked in, and who, through his crucifixion, was crowned as the real king of the universe. The one who invites us home.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

It’s only when we forget this song, and the vision of the world it brings, that we start to believe others refusing to sing Advance Australia Fair are worth condemning. This song compels us to invite people to an eternal home, rather than calling them to leave our temporary one. It also invites us Christians to ‘courageously combine’ with each other, for the good of those around us, to, in the words which precede this song in Philippians “have the same mindset of Christ” as we live to see the nation we live in truly advance as it transforms. The result of owning this song as an anthem is never to ask people to leave — but to extend hospitality, and ask people to stay.

A letter to our Immigration Minister re: #Abyan

The debates around asylum seekers and the complex nature of the global refugee crisis often involve more heat than light. This is me trying to throw a little bit of light into the mix. The story of the suffering Somali Refugee Abyan has gone through at our hands has led me to shed tears, and led me to cry out for something different. Something that breaks this cycle.

Love, love is a verb.
Love is a doing word.
Feathers on my breath.
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter. — Teardrop, Massive Attack

The story of Abyan, the pregnant Somali woman (allegedly) raped on Nauru, has been belting my brain about this week, and my heart. It’s such a compounding of personal, national and international tragedy that it has driven me as close to despair as the story of Aylan Kurdi. Abyan’s situation is the result of many evils, and she has been tossed around on an ocean of horror — literally even — from Somalia, to a journey involving leaky boats and people smugglers, to Nauru, and into the hands of this evil man.

I despair at the lack of options on the table for Abyan at every step on this journey. I despair at the lack of choice. I despair that her dignity has been taken from her — a little more — at every turn. And that I, as an Australian, have been complicit in some of this, and that we in our prosperity, have the potential to offer dignity and freedom much earlier in the piece, and the responsibility to offer it now. As costly as this will be for us in dollar terms. The problem is that we keep trying to outsource this cost to our government, to be paid for by our taxes, sure, but we want to wash our hands of the decision making, and keep them clean when it comes to dealing with the mess. Our government — our politicians — then become the people we send in to clean up our horrid mess, and we crucify them because their hands get dirty. That doesn’t seem fair either.

I was blown away by many things at the recent Faith and Public Office Conference (12 of them here), one was the metaphor of ‘dirty hands’ — the cost that comes with being someone who bears responsibility in public office, who has to navigate complex moral issues on our behalf, and bear the cost of often attempting to choose the lesser of two evils in order to do good. Politics can be a messy game. It’s easy to throw stones from the sidelines so that we never dirty our own hands. It’s easy to get outraged, to grandstand, to say “not in my name” — but to never put your name on the line, like our politicians have, and to never offer to get your hands dirty.

The catch in this situation — in Abyan’s story — is, I can’t see a good or convenient way out of this mess, like many can. I absolutely recognise that other people think differently on this — and are free to. But, I’m not sure the ‘clean’ answer was not simply for our government to allow her pregnancy to be terminated. Some may argue that this is the ‘least messy’ option, or even a good option, but as a Christian who believes life within the womb is human life, I don’t think ‘termination’ is a ever a ‘good’ option (it may be a least bad option — like in situations where there’s a genuine choice between the life of a mother, and her child). If I’m being consistent, it always involves the ‘termination’ — the death — of a human life. At 14 weeks, this life within Abyan, is moving, it has a beating heart. It has just learned to “grasp, squint, frown, and grimace. It may even be able to suck its thumb.” I know this because when you want to keep a baby, you treat it as a life from the moment you know it is there, there are websites and books where you read about this stuff, and you chart the milestones (especially on the first, after that, it’s all a bit passé until they take that first breath and you know you’ve run the pregnancy gauntlet).

Despite the obvious (and consistently drawn) link to unborn children in the film clip to Massive Attack’s Teardrop (featured above), I think the song is about the cost of life in this messy world (here’s a little account of the life of Elizabeth Fraser, who wrote the lyrics, including what she says the song’s metaphor means for her). I think it, both lyrically and in the video, explores the cost of life lived with death — or mess — or our broken humanity — as an ever-present consequence. The fragility of life. It’s better, perhaps, not to be born into this world, except that birth is the path to life, and life itself is inherently good. Even though it hurts. I think it offers stumbling love — love as a verb — as the solution for us as we navigate this together.

Teardrop on the fire.
Feathers on my breath.

You’re stumbling into all…
You’re stumbling into all… — Teardrop, Massive Attack (I took a while to settle on the ‘official’ lyrics of this song, because nowhere on the internet seems to agree, but José Gonzalez’s cover is relatively clear)

What does love look like here? For Abyan? In this mess? Love, I think, looks like being prepared to stand beside Abyan, to bear some of the cost, to lay down something of ourselves for her sake.

I should be filled with the same grief at the picture of an ultrasound of a refugee baby ‘terminated’ — aborted — as a result of our solution to this complex global issue as I am by the picture of a child who fled evil but didn’t make it into the care of a nation like us. I don’t think Abyan should be forced to carry the cost of this evil — any of it — perpetrated on her for the rest of her life either (I expand on this a bit in the letter below, so before you send me hate mail, read that, and then send me hate mail). In isolation, there’s no ‘good’ outcome here — but people aren’t meant to live in isolation, we’re meant to carry the cost of evil together. To dirty our own hands for the sake of pulling someone out of the mud of these horrors (in part, lest these horrors also pull us into the mud).

Ultimately what happens to this life — this baby — will be, and should be, Abyan’s choice. But at the moment, at least if we’re talking about this pregnancy as involving a life, she has no good options. We all make life and death choices about those we have a responsibility for, every day, I’m about to feed my own kids a healthy breakfast — and the choice not to serve them an unhealthy breakfast will shape their lives. But this isn’t a decision she should make alone, and it’s not a decision she should make confronted with only terrible options. That sort of decision compounds the horror of this horrible set of circumstances. I like the idea, throughout the Bible but best articulated in Deuteronomy, that our decision making is generational. That we shape the people who come after us as we make decisions that end up being decisions made on their behalf — and what marks out people who follow the living God of the Bible, is that we choose life at every turn, even if it costs us — a pattern we ultimately see in Jesus, but one that’s there in the opening books of the Bible, this was the choice facing God’s people in the Old Testament:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” — Deuteronomy 30:19

This choice is harder than it sounds. The Old Testament is the story of people failing over and over again to choose life. Making messy decisions that compound messy decisions. Generationally. We need to choose life over and over again — at our cost — to break this messy cycle in our lives. This, again, is modelled at the Cross, where Jesus chooses his own death, in order to bring life to others. He gets his hands dirty, and pays the cost. So we might live, and so that we might take up our cross and offer to lay down our lives, or get our hands dirty, for the sake of others.

I was challenged by all this — the brokenness of this situation, the ‘dirty hands’ metaphor, and the example of Jesus as a way out, the call to ‘choose life.’ So I wrote to the Hon Peter Dutton MP, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and offered to get my hands dirty. Well, in a generational sense, I offered my family’s hands.

Robyn and I have offered to adopt the unborn baby, and find some way to also care for Abyan. The ‘why’ is a bit buried in the letter. So here it is:

“I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.”

I should have said “we” here, because Robyn, without hesitation, said yes to this crazy idea. And I love that. Adoption like this may not be what Abyan wants, it probably isn’t, but I guess my desire for her is simply that she have choices beyond the choices she faces today. I want for her, and for the many like her, that they have not just the same decision making capacity, dignity, and freedom they’d have without the suffering they’ve experienced and fled from, but that this would be increased because they have the offer of stumbling love from their global neighbours to add to the mix. So our offer, really, is an offer to love Abyan according to whatever terms she, and our government, might allow.

The tragedy is that there are many Abyans. The global refugee crisis creates stories like this every day. We’ve heard Abyan’s story because it has been brought to our attention, but our responsibility extends to Abyan, and beyond. Are you prepared to dirty your own hands? Maybe it’s time you told someone, someone who has had their skin in the game — via politics — for some time. Maybe it’s time we stopped haranguing — however gently — and started offering our empathy, and our assistance.

And so:

 


Dear Peter,

I’ve been praying for you, and your office this week (and for many weeks, but especially this week). I lead a church community in South Bank, Brisbane, and some of our number are refugees in the community on bridging visas. I’ve heard their stories and I know just how complicated the refugee issue is globally, and locally. I know its a situation where there are no ‘good’ or easy solutions. That millions of people have been displaced, are hurting, and are needing care. I want to make the following offers, and I explain why below.

1. I would like to find a home for Abyan’s child, it seems that a decision has been made that this child will be born. I would like to spare Abyan from as much cost involved in this decision as possible. And I would like to pay it. I’m sure there would be people in our church community who would be willing to adopt Abyan’s child, because I spoke to my wife this morning and we would be happy to adopt this child. There may be others more fitting. But somebody needs to make this offer.

2. I know this one would involve invoking your Ministerial prerogative, but I would like to offer our community’s care to Abyan, so that if she wishes, throughout her life, she might have a relationship with this child. But I would find housing and an appropriate amount of counselling and care for her within our community, or the wider Christian community in Brisbane.

My prayer for you, offered every time a story like this hits the paper, is that you would continue to act with wisdom and increasingly act with compassion. I think we can always have more compassion, and the refugee crisis is getting worse, so our compassion must keep increasing. I believe the outpouring of offers of support from within the Australian community in response to the Syrian crisis is a turning point and an example of what this might look like. People in the community stand ready, willing, and able to open our homes to those in crisis. We’re prepared to open ours for as long as it takes.

I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.

I know this situation is complex. It’s a mess — and not of our making. It’s horrific and I thank you for bearing the cost of that horror, seeing and knowing things that most of us would wish to remain ignorant of. Making decisions on the basis of data that we don’t have.

I know also, that in our prosperity, Australia has a role to play in providing that care and this role is often outsourced to the government. We want to wash our hands while yours get dirty, and at our worst, we want to point at your dirty hands as evidence of a lack of compassion, when we could instead be extending them to help.

I read the story of Abyan and her rape on Nauru with horror. Horror because there is no way that I, as an Australian, put her in this situation, as much as the people smugglers and her decision to get on a boat with them, and the horrors in Somalia are also responsible. This is a horrific situation and it is a confluence of global and local horrors. It grieves me, and moves me to compassion, as I trust it does for you too. But I know there are no easy solutions.

This situation grieves me in a slightly fuller sense, too, because like many in our community I believe there is a human life quickening in the midst of all this horror. A human life who is not guilty of the crimes committed in Somalia, by people smugglers, or by the rapist on Nauru. A life that will join an ocean of casualties from this refugee crisis without the freedom to choose between a UN camp or a rusty boat. As a Christian who believes in the inherent dignity of life — both Abyan’s and this child’s — I should feel the same when I see a picture of an ultrasound as I did when I saw that traumatic photo of Aylan Kurdi. I recognise this child’s life is in the hands of his mother, where it should be, we all have responsibility for the lives of those around us, and we all make life and death decisions, of sorts, in myriad ways, every day.

I’m not seeing many choices on the table for Abyan though — she does not have the freedom we might expect in Australia to make these life and death decisions. There aren’t that many ‘good’ options on the table here, because good options cost someone something, and good options are hard to find in situations that just seem to leave everyone with dirty hands. But I believe in these situations you’ve got to offer your hands for the sake of others. Especially if you ever want to credibly speak out against people making decisions who have offered their lives in service to our country and its interests. So, this is why I have made this offer, and why I continue to pray for you and yours. For wisdom and compassion.

I know that conventional lobbying would involve me starting a petition or something at this point. I’m not interested in playing that game. I’m interested in offering costly solutions to complex problems. I will share this letter with my network, online, in the hope that others will be moved to offer the same response to situations like this, but I want to assure you this is not an act of grandstanding, this is jumping the fence and asking to play on the field.

If you have any other ideas for ways our church community could help bear the cost of this global crisis, I would love to hear them. You, your family, and your department are in my prayers. Thank you for serving us as a member and minister of our government.

Regards,

Nathan Campbell

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. A trap, as a PR hack who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living, that I genuinely believed was deadly.

So what’s happened. Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.

 

 

Re-Enchanting the World — Episode 3: We can be heroes (and we need heroes we can be)

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton


Image credit: Marvel.com

“Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to…When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamourise a way of life, and all other things shine in their light.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

Ok. So here’s my theory — one I’ve found some support in elsewhere — if you want a form of popular art that performs this function in the modern west, where we have figures who are clearly heroes — superheroes — battling figures that are clearly villains, and ‘glamourising a way of life’ — by embodying virtues of the current age, then it’s our humble comic book superhero stories that do this. They do it because these are the popular stories of our age — but they also do it because they self-consciously present us heroes of our age. This means if we want to change, or re-enchant, our current view of the world, these stories might be a vehicle to do that. The problem is that these stories are products of a modern view of the world — just as ancient stories were a product of an ancient view of the world, so we may need a healthy dose of ‘enchantment’ thrown into the mix if these stories are going to raise our eyes to a greater significance of reality. To pull us towards the ‘transcendent’ or the idea that the world has a meaning beyond physical, material, reality.

In a piece of fairly bizarre timing, Christ And Pop Culture (one of my favourite websites) launched a new column this week called Panel Discussion, an exploration of the world of the comic book. The first cab off the rank was a piece titled Comic Books as Modern Mythology. This piece operates on the premise that: “The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.”

This is a view supported in a couple of more scholarly works on Superheroes and their function in our culture. For example, this essay ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ that compares our modern heroes to ancient heroes like Beowulf.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

…And this book Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths by David Reynolds, who looks to Socrates and Plato and their understanding of the function of myth in conveying truth about the world, and fostering virtuous character, to suggest we should read these modern stories asking similar questions that we (and others, historically) ask of their ancient equivalents — epic myths:

The cultural function of mythic heroes such as those from Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures has attracted significant scholarly attention. Yet, what is the relevance of those ancient heroes today, and what are we to make of their hitherto academically neglected modern equivalents, popular superhero figures, such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? A culture’s prominent narratives become that culture’s myths, reinforcing cultural values and disseminating norms of social behaviour… — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Reynolds charts three ages of comic book mythology — the gold, silver, and bronze ages. He draws the boundaries of these ages in slightly different places to some sort of comic convention — suggesting ‘golden’ age heroes appeared in stories from the modernist world, up to and including WW2. The heroes in this age served the establishment. Silver age heroes emerged after the war, with the creation of Spider-Man. They have more human flaws, this period spans the gap from modernism to post modernity and its stories introduce a greater sense of world-building and story integration. Bronze age heroes are all dark, gritty, post-modern and somewhat nihilistically hopeless — a product of our cynical age. The ‘epic’ function of superheroes developed over these epochs.

The shining ‘heroes’ of the ‘golden age’

Heroes, as the central characters in our modern works of art — especially stories — show us how to live. They become combatants in the mission to help us see the world rightly — they’re products either of an enchanted world embedded with meaning, or a mechanical world where heroes are made, mostly accidentally, not born with a divine purpose. Most of our modern comic book heroes are products of a mechanical, or immanent, world. They’re (largely) spawned by the immanent world going very right, or very wrong — science, and science gone bad, accounts for the super-powers of plenty of our heroes.

When they are their most ‘epic’, or enchanted, heroes don’t just show us that dragons (or villains) can be defeated, but at their best present us with a path to immortality. That’s been a theme of the epic tale since Gilgamesh — see also the Arthurian knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Grail.

It’s interesting to consider what a quest for immortality — or an epic quest — looks like in an immanent world, where the infinite is collapsed into the finite. What does salvation look like in this sort of frame? The secret to immortality is likely to be either a product of scientific innovation, or immortality will be dismissed as a pipe-dream, and replaced with the quest for some more rational form of immortality — like a name that lasts.

Often, in epic stories where the hero is clearly mortal — like, say, Beowulf  — immortality is captured when a hero’s name lives on, on account of their glorious deeds. Immortality in an immanent world is about making a name for yourself. A name that lasts. That’s the best a modern myth can imagine, or aim for.

Heroes model virtues. But not just any old virtues — virtues set against the backcloth of the current view of the world, or, they may embody a virtuous ideal, linked to an ideal vision that they are working towards — within the story, and as the story (as a tool of a story teller). Heroes, through these stories, articulate a picture of human flourishing. We readers are invited to share this vision, but we’re invited more to see the character as embodying a certain type of heroism, a type of heroism that we are free to imitate in our own world. Heroes are model imaginators — they help us see the world as enchanted because they model what it looks like to have an imaginative vision for the transformation of the world, and show us a bit of what it might cost to change — to re-create — the world as we know it to the world as we imagine it could be.

Heroes that only solve very ‘domestic’ issues are a little too small. Epic heroes — heroes that may pull us somewhere other than where we are — need a sense of being larger than life. They need to shine. They need to stand for something bigger than themselves.

“All of these heroes are larger than life; some are merely larger than others. But what the hero is and does in terms of objective reality are less important than what he represents to our inner reality. The local man who saves a child from drowning is of less enduring interest to us than our fictive or historical heroes: the former wants symbolism, and unless local mythopoeia provides him with it, we tend to displace him in our consciousness with the more value-charged heroes we seem to need.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

And, as Chesterton says, the heroes of these stories teach us to kill dragons, or vanquish evil — they fight evils that are larger than life too. Everything is exaggerated. C.S Lewis agreed with him, he says heroes, especially enchanted ‘radiant ones,’ provide us with a more comforting picture of the defeat of evil than even thinking about real, immanent, heroes, like the police.

“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened… For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” — C.S Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to be Said

Despite the new ages of comics-as-epics that make the characters more human, flawed, and twisted by their agenda — the golden age hero, or how they were used — might teach us something about a hero can be presented to people in this epic sense.

‘Golden age’ heroes as propaganda

There’s a fine line between characters being orchestrated to deliberately depict a cultural view of virtue and the stories these characters appear in functioning as propaganda. This is a fine line that has, at least according to David Reynolds, historically been obliterated in America, in the form of comic book stories, especially in the so-called Golden Age, and especially in the archetypal heroes from the DC world, Superman and Batman.  Their origin stories, heroic powers, and their respective ‘missions’ position them to be perfect carriers of an ideological agenda.

Superman is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to earth as an infant. As a Kryptonian on Earth, Superman is gifted with an array of superpowers ranging from superstrength to x-ray vision. Raised by the “everyman” Kent family on a farm in Smallville, Superman was raised to embody the ideal American norms of honesty and justice. As a superhero, Superman is dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman, on the other hand, witnessed the murder of his millionaire parents as a young child, and swore an oath dedicating his life to fight crime. He is at the peak of human physical and intellectual performance. While fighting crime, Batman utilizes a vast array of gadgetry, such as his batbelt, batarangs, and the batmobile. He represents the epitome of human physical fitness and intellectual conditioning and, by extension, he symbolizes how people may unlock their true potential through will and determination. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This propaganda function came of age when America itself was under external threat — during World War 2. It’s interesting to see how the propaganda functions now when the greatest threat is perceived as a threat from within — radicalisation — Marvel has this Civil War storyline that seems fascinating, and may, I understand, even be part of the storyline of the forthcoming Captain America movie. Because Marvel’s characters are participants in the ‘real’ world, they were able to directly participate in the war effort (incidentally, my introduction to Phantom comics was a reprint of the Phantom’s foray into World War 2). Superman and Batman, functioning as the heroic citizen of the ‘every city’ stayed home and played a more symbolic role, embodying a responsible, patriotic, ideal that encouraged civilians to support the war effort via the American way of life.

Superman noticeably shifts his ideology such that his adventures begin linking patriotism to legitimate business, while he consistently thwarts illicit business… The original Superman of 1938, hero of the underprivileged working class, has given way to the new Superman of the war effort, supporting complacent consumerism and upholding the values of the capitalist, industrial empire… most popular comic book characters, like Superman and Batman, also served to remind soldiers of home and “reinforce the purpose of the war in their minds… Since the most popular superheroes of the war effort adopted strong, responsible consumerist values, their following mythoi have built steadily upon those values and that style of crime fighting. However, although the modern superhero finds its cultural roots in consumerism, some recent storytellers have begun to challenge the superhero’s traditional role of blindly supporting hegemonic values…

… the narratives were directly affected by the political and social climate of the time. Not only were they affected by the social context, but they were employed as a means to affect the culture as well, as a medium to spread war-time propaganda. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Comic stories as vehicles for complex ethical questions

In order for comic books to keep reflecting the values of a culture, and to keep providing ‘shining’ examples, comic heroes had to shift from embodying idyllic certainty to embodying questions. The door for this change was opened, at least a little, with the creation of Spider-Man, a flawed hero who wanted to use his new-found powers for gain, only for that to cost him the life of his uncle, which propelled him (along with that line from his uncle: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) into a life of web-slinging heroism. But this trajectory didn’t stop with more relatable, more human, more broken, heroes. It continued into what Reynolds calls the ‘bronze age’ — which he suggests begins with the creation of The Dark Knight version of Batman, and Watchmen. 

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This move ends up producing a depressing — rather than radiant — hero. One who’s not much good for doing anything but keeping us squarely in our immanent frame. Watchmen creator Allen Moore agrees:

“Obviously, we’ve to some degree doomed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom, in addition to those other faults, are incredibly pretentious. I stand accused.”— Allen Moore, cited in Geoff Klock, ‘The Revisionary Superhero Narrative,’  The Superhero Reader

This, in a sense, is a reflection of our modern culture and its cynical inability to find anything virtuous, or anybody heroic. For a hero to re-enchant the world they now have to pull us out of this culture, by giving us something we believe in. But something that is still real and relatable, that grapples honestly with the questions and challenges of life in the real world.

Comic stories as myths that explore models of the (fallen) world

There’s a guy, Joseph Campbell, who is generally held to be pretty cluey when it comes to thinking the shape of myths, and especially the mythic journey of the ‘hero.’ Here’s a TED talk featuring his view of mythology — in which he sees every hero (and every ‘god’) being described as going on a journey that involves a three stage process of: separation, initiation, and return.

It’s pretty fascinating, even if its given birth to a bunch of dumb ideas about Jesus being exactly the same as any other god. This same story — this journey — takes place throughout the ages, the same pattern, but against a different backdrop, the stories happen against the model of the world that produces it.

“Myth has to deal with the cosmology of today… a mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working… then, you’re out of sync.” — Joseph Campbell, cited in David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

It’s interesting to consider the stories that are produced by the ‘cosmology of today’ — a cosmology that is not enchanted, that is immanent, in many ways they’re the stories we see in The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Myths reflecting the real world means the bar is lower for us, as readers, to enter the story, and helps us see our world with fresh eyes. Reflecting the real world means reflecting the world in its brokenness. And it does. The world presented in these stories is a broken world. Broken, in part, by villains. The heroes want to help perfect the world, according to their utopian vision, while the villains want to stop them, either to keep the world the way it is or to see it fall apart even more, or indeed to continue the affects of the Fall. Vreekill is a villain from a 1940s Batman/Superman crossover story who invents a machine that makes steel fall apart. He embodies this sort of villain-as-truly-fallen trope.

“Vreekill’s bald head and functional costume signify him clearly as a ‘mad scientist’. There is no exploration of the psychology that leads Vreekill to use his discovery for the pursuit of crime:

“With my machine I can become the most powerful man in the world! I can hold it as a club over those who deal in steel constructions.”

This is clearly not a sociological view of the roots of crime. The mythology underlying the text is that of the Old Testament, and, most specifically, the Temptation and Fall. Vreekill is a prototype for many ‘Fallen’ characters which Batman and other superheroes have encountered through the years — the Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Ozymandias. All are corrupted by power, and power in the particular form of knowledge. ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ promises the serpent in Genesis 3… If history is to be understood as a progress towards Utopia, a significant tension can be adduced between superheroes (assisting this process) and villains (thwarting the Utopia builders, or ‘those who deal in steel constructions’).” — Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology

 

So heroes have this job of representing the ideals of our modern world — especially ‘unfallen’ ideals, and pulling us back towards the paradise lost at the Fall — part of that paradise, I suggest, is a rekindling of our capacity to see the world as enchanted, as an artwork itself that points us to the great artificer. The God who spoke this world into being and continues to sustain it, the God whose divine nature and character are on display in this world, if only we were able to see them.

Marvel v DC — The man of iron v the man of steel

When it comes to modern comic book stories — and comic book heroes — that achieve this for me — it’s the Marvel characters that most connect me to modern ideals. I’d rather learn how to live from Iron Man, or other Avengers, than from Superman and the Justice League. As a disclaimer: I don’t read the comic books, but I watch the movies and TV shows, so it may be that my reflections are easily dismissed by real comic fans.
I don’t know how much my preference for Marvel is determined by the question of the space the stories take place in — that Superman is in the fictional ‘every city’ of Metropolis — I suspect that’s only a marginal factor (see Episode 1). I think its more to do with the ideal on display in each world.
When some of my friends were discussing my last question — what difference the city setting makes — my friend Craig Hamilton made the observations that:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay.”
There are DC characters who break this type — Arrow, and The Flash are less archetypal than Superman, and, indeed, Craig points out that DC has deliberately become more Marvelesque (Marvellous?) over time.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths that DC, in my opinion, tried to become more Marvel-esque. In the post-Crisis DCU they shipped in John Byrne and Frank Millar to redefine Superman and Batman. You can’t get more Marvel-esque creators than those two.”

The ‘man’ in the mask (Marvel) v the ‘masked man’ (DC)

In a piece in the Christian Research Journal titled ‘The Gospel According to Marvel’ a guy named Jason McAteer made a similar observation.

“The biggest difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel heroes are ordinary people disguised as superheroes. Whereas DCs Superman is really an alien (Kal-El) disguised as an average guy (Clark Kent), Marvel’s Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker dressed up in red Spandex. Even DC’s Batman is using the persona of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to distract from his true identity as a vigilante hero. Bruce Wayne’s drinking and womanizing is all an act. Contrast Marvel’s Iron Man whose true identity is Tony Stark, a millionaire playboy who really is as obnoxious as Bruce Wayne pretends to be. Marvel heroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to a Golden Age DC character such as Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. The original DC heroes are mostly aliens (such as Superman and Wonder Woman) or self-made men (such as Batman). Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, are flawed ordinary people who gain unusual powers. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, usually through accidental exposure to “radiation” of some sort or another. Furthermore, Marvel heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime.”

I think this is true — and its part of the reason I prefer Marvel’s heroes to DC’s. One of the implications of this ‘type’ of heroism on display in the DC world is that DC’s heroes can be so idealised that we’re unable to relate to them, and as a result, unable to imitate them. They hold up such a strong ideal that we can only dream about doing what they do. These dreams might still enchant us, and cause us to see goodness and virtue differently, but goodness and virtue always appear just that little bit beyond us. Because the real Superman is not Clark Kent, but the heroic guy in the cape — the masked man — we’re not invited into the story via the relatable human brokenness of the hero, we’re invited to enjoy the story as pure idealistic myth.

Superman is always ‘other’ — always fully super (except around kryptonite) — and only ever disguised as human (somehow this doesn’t annoy me as much when it comes to Thor). There’s nothing particularly imitable about Clark Kent, who, when trouble strikes, disappears in order for Superman to appear and save the day. You know that underneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise there’s a godlike figure waiting to emerge to save the day. Iron Man is always Tony Stark in the suit. And when he puts the mask on he’s the same guy, just wearing a suit that lets him make a difference. The humanity is the driver of the story and the source of narrative tension, his humanity is not a disguise, a mask he wears to hide his real identity

Identity is an interesting motif in superhero stories — in the Marvel world, especially the world of the Avengers, the heroes don’t have a ‘secret identity’ — they are who they are. Even in a Marvel story where the hero keeps who they are a secret — like in Spider-Man — the hero’s identity is the human, Peter Parker puts on a mask and becomes Spider-Man, Spiderman doesn’t take off the mask to become Peter Parker. You could compare Stark’s Iron Man and Bruce Wayne’s Batman at this point — both use their significant means to transform the world according to their imaginative vision of a better place. Stark is a complicated mess of arrogant over-confidence and a real desire to do good, the stories he features in function as stories of his sanctification — he moves through that journey towards humility, even if he always remains true to himself. His personal demons are things he works out as a human, and they’re exaggerated when he puts his super-suit on. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s actual identity. The Bat is the manifestation of his damaged psychology. We wrestle with his demons when he puts the mask on and becomes himself. Batman is Batman, and like Superman, Bruce Wayne is an alter-ego. A projection. A persona he adopts — even though Batman is thoroughly shaped by the young Bruce’s experiences — these experiences fundamentally change who Bruce Wayne is. Wayne’s foppish ‘adult’ persona is an act, a disguise. We know the real, heroic, Bruce Wayne is revealed when Bruce puts on the mask, not when he takes it off. This is following an ancient pattern of behaviour of mythic heroes who only become ‘heroic’ by revealing their true selves in and through violent chaos.

“Heroes cannot, however, remain lambs: crises call for lions… crises usually require violent solutions. Violence indeed seems to be the reality of their worlds, and it is in violent situations that heroes are defined. Superman is somehow more “real” than the mousey “Clark Kent,” Batman more “real” than the do-gooder “Bruce Wayne.” Indeed, in this “civilian” alter ego, each of these heroes is suspected of being, like the youthful Beowulf, “slack, a young man unbold.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

Ultimately I find Marvel’s heroes more compelling, and more useful for looking to for models of workable heroism and/or virtue. It’s interesting that my gut-feel preference is also for their city setting, and their exploration of the consequences of ‘heroic’ action in the real world, rather than for DC’s fictional ‘every cities.’  

Marvel v Marvel: Iron Man v Daredevil

Marvel’s world has two types of hero — much as DC’s world does in Batman and Superhero. Heroes shaped by a modern sensibility. Heroes best typified, at least for my purposes of comparison, by Iron Man and Daredevil. They’re both typical modern heroes in that they’re essentially loners, thrust into a network of relationships at least, in part, because of their desire to make a difference to the world. To re-imagine it as something different.

“A new kind of popular hero had emerged: the self-reliant individualist who stands aloof from many of the humdrum concerns of society, yet is able to operate according to his code of honour, to take on the world on his own terms, and win. For Americans, the historical path from Munich to Pearl Harbor coincides with the emergence of Superman and Captain America — solitary but socialized heroes, who engage in battle from time to time as proxies of US foreign policy. A darker side of the Lone Wolf hero is embodied by the Batman, a hero whose motivations and emotions are turned inward against the evils within society, and even the social and psychological roots of crime itself. The tension between these two veins in the superhero tradition remains to the present day.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

Daredevil adopts the cowl of the Batman like ‘Lone Wolf’ hero, while Iron Man operates in a similar vein to Superman, without his humanity ever being compromised. In fact, its his full humanity that makes him compelling — even as his imagination causes huge destruction on the global landscape.
When it comes to the modern cinematic heroes that I find most compelling as myths that help me see the world differently, I like Daredevil. I like the idea that Daredevil — at least the Netflix iteration — operates in a world where people are truly enchanted (ala Thor), or super-human products of science gone wrong (ala Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America), or are humans with a big imagination for how transformation might take place — but whose ambitions sometimes end up causing more destruction than hope — ala Iron Man — but while this is true of the world Daredevil operates in, he is grounded (as is his world).
I like Iron Man because he’s a flawed guy trying to do the best with what he’s got. He’s both incredibly human, and incredibly super-heroic. Daredevil has smaller ambitions, and lives in a world dealing with the mess these guys created, but also sees the world differently to the people around him. He isn’t endowed with superpowers, but more intra-powers. His senses are sharpened by the loss of his sight. It’s fun to imagine Daredevil as a guy who is imitating Iron Man, simply without the means to do quite so much damage, and without the same grand ‘global’ vision.
“I see a suit of armour around the world”. — Tony Stark (Iron Man), The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stark has a big vision, and the incredible resources to make it a reality. He bankrolls the Avengers for this purpose (in Age of Ultron — when S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t around). His vision for the world is, as it turns out, quite destructive. And its only when he listens to those around him — in humility — that the destruction is mitigated. But this destruction comes at a cost, on a local level. And that’s where Daredevil steps in. He’s in the same world, and he’s left to clean up Stark’s mess.

“[Daredevil] carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.” — Alex Pappademas, ‘Giving the Devil His Do-Rag Why Netflix’s Daredevil is The Least Marvel-y Marvel Property Yet,‘ Grantland

Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is the sort of hero endemic to Hell’s Kitchen, and to the sort of world shaped by Stark’s grand vision meeting his humanity. When Stark goes to battle for his vision, the collateral damage is immense. Stark acts global, while Daredevil acts local. Even Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) the villain in the Daredevil story mocks him for his transformative vision being too small. Daredevil plays the heroic game on a local level, not a global one.
Fisk: You first. That’s what I thought. You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Daredevil: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer.
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you… only on a scale that matters.

The world of Netflix’s Daredevil is a product of Stark’s vision, but the localisation of its story is part of the way it paints a compelling and heroic vision for those who encounter it as ‘art’ in the functional sense. Daredevil is the model of a localised hero. A real flesh-and-blood hero for our times, and your place.

Despite the difference in scale, both Daredevil/Murdock and Iron Man/Stark are flawed heroes, bringing their humanity to the table as they work towards their transformative ‘heroic’ vision — the better world they imagine. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly describe a sort of approach to heroic life that’s a bit like Tony Stark’s — or at least like Iron Man’s at a particular stage of the story arc in every Iron Man/Avengers story — and like Matt Murdock’s — as he alienates his friends through the pursuit of his vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen — this serves to make these guys a bit more relatable as characters, and makes their heroic triumph a triumph over the limitations of their human nature, as well as over whatever is going on in the world.
“The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one,  that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet, a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognise the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue.” — Dreyfus &  Kelly, All Things Shining
I can totally relate to this. Daredevil/Matt Murdock can relate to this too, on a smaller scale. Coming out of this over-confidence and into an approach to service that involves humility and teamwork is part of the journey of most Marvel heroes. It’s the journey we’re invited to take as we use the lens of these stories to examine our selves, and to truly see a path to decision making in our own life. These stories always play up the heroes as paradoxically fully human and fully super.
Christ and Pop Culture published a great piece exploring Daredevil’s model of heroism — of martyrdom even. There’s some great stuff in this piece about the complex relationship between heroism, violence, suffering in traditional superhero stories, and an exploration of how Daredevil breaks this pattern — including the relational disconnect that comes when the hero understands themselves as ‘suffering for’ the city, not suffering with it, that seems to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the damage the fight for a city does to a city (seriously, read the piece). Daredevil/Matt Murdock even breaks the pattern of ‘self-confidence’ — or has it broken — through his relationships with others. Unlike Stark, it’s a bunch of ‘normal’ others who choose to be heroic, rather than superheroes, that move Daredevil away from arrogance, and towards a new and different sort of virtue.

“Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name… Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them…

Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant…I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.” — Julie Ooms, Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Good Samaritan, Christ and Pop Culture

Daredevil’s local, incarnate, form of heroism is overtly influenced by a religious — even a Christian — vision of heroism. The Good Samaritan functions as a metaphor throughout the series, developing this vision of a heroism built on incarnation and sacrifice.
“Claire: You know, the only thing I remember from Sunday school is the martyrs… the saints, the saviours… they all end up the same way. Bloody and alone.
Matt: I never said I was any of those.
Claire: You didn’t have to.” — Claire and Matt Murdock, Netflix’s Daredevil
The pay off for this metaphor comes when Fisk, himself, makes it clear that he is not the good samaritan, he and Matt are not as similar as he claimed (see above), it turns out that the from-the-community-hero, Daredevil, is good Samaritan. The neighbour to those who are suffering.
“I’m not a religious man but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story There was a man. He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by saw the traveler. But he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler. But he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine. And he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. [sighs deeply] I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.” — Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
Despite its religious allusions, Daredevil is a hero for an immanent age — a hero borne out of a community, and its concerns, in response to an external, but still immanent, threat. Fisk is not a demi-god, like Loki in The Avengers. He is a villain — a devious, wealthy, businessman — with an alternative vision for Matt’s city. He has no interest in pursuing immortality, his interest is in shaping his city, according to a virtuous vision, by loving his neighbour. He’s the perfect hero for a gritty, earthy, real, disenchanted age. Embodying the best bits of the post-modern milieu of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, but offering the hope that a visionary hero (albeit a blind hero) might be able to effect positive change on the city they belong to, rather than spiralling into a bleak and vicious cycle. The note of hope comes via the offer of a solution proffered in the form of this virtuous, incarnate, connected, hero — whose heroism is on display both under the mask, and apart from it. Murdock’s fight against Fisk, his fight for his city, is simultaneously carried out by the masked hero and his unmasked alter-ego. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same. Matt Murdock, the lawyer who has a vision for something greater for Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock, the vigilante, who steps in to fight the battles the law is unable to reach. In both fights he suffers with the people around him, and that’s the way he attempts to mitigate some parts of the ‘fallenness’ of his immanent world. But though he avoids the aforementioned traps of the ‘Golden Age’ figures like Batman and Superman, and, more narrowly, the depressingly hopeless traps for vigilantes grappled with in the Miller-esque ‘Bronze Age,’ Daredevil is still a flawed ‘epic’ hero — he doesn’t offer a path to enchantment, or to immortality. We still need transcendent heroes.

Superman, Iron Man, Daredevil and the God-Man: Our quest for an imitable, but transcendent, hero

I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that stories about our mythic heroes either tend to emphasise the human nature of the hero or their super-human nature.
There’s been plenty of stuff written comparing Superman to Jesus — and the similarities are evident —but I’ve always had are a couple of problems with the metaphor because Superman is never actually human, and so he’s never someone who can truly be imitated. Superman, in his ‘human incarnation’ is an imitation human.
Classical, creedal, Christianity has always been exceptionally keen to emphasise that in his incarnation; Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. He’s not a superhero play-acting at being human, or a human play-acting at being super. He is not masked — a human playing at being God, or God playing at being a man. He is, in a sense, God unmasked. God made fully known. There is no transcendent God apart from the God made known and on display in Jesus. There is no disconnect between his human nature and his divinity. His identity is not confused, a bizarre mish-mash of humanity and hero where we’re left asking if the real Jesus is human or divine. He is fully both. He makes no secret about his identity. Both his humanity and his divinity are heroic — in fact, its as these parts of his being work in concert, in harmony, that we see a path to true heroism.
In fact, through these aspects of his being — his humanity and divinity — working together we are invited to move beyond our immanent existence and participate in his transcendent nature. Unlike Superman, who always remains fully other, Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, and in the Christian story this participation comes as God’s Spirit dwells in us.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:20-23
Jesus also makes the ‘transcendent’ immanent. He becomes flesh and blood. Truly human. And his humanity is enough to mediate the triune God’s transcendent nature to us.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” — John 14:9-10
And rather than heroically wielding power to perpetrate violence to solve the violence of the world, hiding behind a mask to avoid truly facing this violent reality, or to somehow buffer himself from his violent nature — as some sort of divine avatar — Jesus submits himself to violence in order to defeat it.
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name — Philippians 2:6-9
A hero who adopts this ‘transcendent’ view of heroism, and the world, doesn’t live for the immortality of their own name, but secures immortality — a share in Christ’s heroic victory — by living for his name. And rather than epic, radiant, larger than life battles against super-villains, real heroism looks like humble service in accordance with the divine pattern for life, as agents of the divine will. This is what makes us shine, and what gives the world a new, enchanted, lustre. We’ll be ‘bigger’ than others because we are noticeably less ‘warped and crooked’…

“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” — Philippians 2:13-16

It’s this story — this hero — who invites us to see the world through fresh eyes, who enchants it again, and also provides us with a new model of virtue to imitate in an ‘immanent’ sense — physically, in this world. Marvel’s heroes, in their very human ‘immanence’ — especially in Daredevil’s gritty local, incarnate, immanence — give us something to imitate — but in most cases they don’t give us something ‘other’ — a sort of saviour who can truly save us from ourselves. A saviour who can pull us from our humanity by offering us a humanity that is not flawed, and a real path to immortality — a path our immanent heroes can only dream about treading in fictional worlds that don’t age or change. Jesus does what these heroes fail to do, and provides us with a new way to see and imagine the world. The real world is changed by its heroes, heroes who capture and articulate a vision for world creation and the creation of meaning for us as we look at our world through their eyes. In a future episode I’ll unpack the idea of Jesus being a God coming into the machine (a deus in machina) — an unlikely happy ending — and the implications this has for our view of heroism.
The disenchanted world we live in needs heroes — both from above, and below — if its any hope of being lifted from despair, of the effects of the Fall, especially death, being dealt with, and if we’re to have ‘radiant ones’ people who shine like the stars, to imitate. The beauty of Daredevil’s incarnate heroism is that it provides us with a place to start. We start by doing something, anything, just that little bit heroic.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 2 — The mission to re-image-ine the world

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

lookingup
Image Credit: Marvel.com

Before I explore a little more on the nature of the heroes of our modern myths — especially the characters from Marvel and DC’s universes, and the question of how, or what, sort of ‘worlds’ we might find in art, stories, and our imaginations, in order to re-enchant the one we live in, I thought I’d lay out a little more of what I’m thinking behind this series of posts, and describe the dilemma a little more concretely.

Is imagination dead — or did we make that up?

In the last post I quoted C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image — in which he explores the movement from a medieval view of the world that was entirely ‘enchanted’ and mystical outside of the realm of fiction. He speaks, in this passage, of the way even the commonplace, the natural, was a means by which people imagined something beyond themselves, and of the damage done to our means of seeing when we only really see things for what they are, and for our own sake.

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

In this sort of world, art and story help make these symbols sing. Stories operated as a bridge between the earthly reality and heaven. They help draw out this sense of meaning and enchantment.

The death of this way of seeing the world — and stories — in both the world, and the church, presents an interesting challenge for Christians. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church to:

“Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. “

Paul wants us to see the unseeable with our hearts and minds. He wants us to imagine.

How do we do this without a bridge? How do we do this in a world that tells us both that this is nonsense, that ‘things above’ are nonsense, and so seeing anything but the world as it is, is a waste of time — thus devaluing both stories, and a sort of meaning through enchantment. How do we re-build this bridge and make this sort of setting of heart and mind possible for ourselves, and invite others to join us? That’s the challenge at the heart of this little series, even if it might at times seem to mostly be about superheroes.

This sort of approach to finding meaning in the world wasn’t a medieval invention, this was how most people everywhere saw the world right up until the enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age (a transition C.S Lewis, and others, pinpoint as involving a movement from seeing the world as a creation to seeing the world as ‘nature’. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are a couple of secular philosophers who make similar observations about the ‘disenchanted’ world to C.S Lewis (and James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor), while suggesting to think secular thinking necessarily ‘disenchants’ is to buy into a hollow form of secularism.Dreyfus and Kelly think there’s much to learn and admire from ancient thinkers that keeps us from nihilism, or an empty and hollow experience of the world. They wrote a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in which they chart this movement towards disenchantment.

“The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit? To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance…” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly describe the way that stories like the Odyssey and The Oresteia functioned in Ancient Greece to shape the way people saw and participated in the world such that stories function to help define art as: any workmanship created to focus our attention on meaning or enchantment in the world.

The Oresteia manifested and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidigger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art. The Greek Temple is his primary example of artwork working.
Like the temple, the Odyssey was a work of art for the Homeric Greeks. It was the sacred work, in other words, that manifested and focused the practices paradigmatic for the Homeric world. The Odyssey disclosed the existential space in which shining heroes like Odysseus and Achilles and shining examples of the erotic like Helen, as well as bad guys like the suitors, made sense as possible ways of life. When sung about, these figures gave direction and meaning to the lives of the ordinary Greeks in Homer’s world… The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them… they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world. — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

The death of ‘enchantment’ could easily have become — and perhaps in some senses has become — the death of the imagination. If everything that happens is reduced to the ‘natural’ — to chains of cause and effect — we lose a sense of mystery or ‘enchantment’ when amazing things happen because we approach these amazing things trying to figure out what lever has been pulled to produce that particular result. When we have an explanation we potentially simultaneously lose a sense of enchantment, wonder, gratitude, and potentially imagination — All Things Shining doesn’t argue that this is necessary, just that it is possible and logical, and does happen.

There are alternative expressions of the imagination if imagination is what we use to construct meaning in our world, and look for the means by which we might create, or re-create, things that transform our world for the better. But our modern dilemma is we don’t see the world the way people in the past saw it, we’ve moved from seeing it as a cosmos, or creation, pointing to something greater than itself, to being a universe guided by ‘nature.’James K.A. Smith describes this challenge:

“The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

He expands on this dilemma a bit later…

“In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being… the shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

And again…

“It’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning — a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

“…we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed… Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” — the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space… One can understand the trajectory that leads from this cosmic imaginary to materialism; if the immanent is going to be self-sufficient, as it were, then the material has to be all there is.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The search for meaning beyond the transcendent or ‘super-natural’ will still involve imagination— All Things Shining is a perfect example of such a quest for meaning (so too, Douglas Adams and the answers he gives for this quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but this move — as those examples demonstrate —  has an impact on the stories we tell ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves, and, as a result it changes the images we present as ourselves.

The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important… The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Imagination still operates, even if it operates with a different sense of wonder. We all become mini-Archimedes, our imagination is limited by the cause-effect nexus. Real change to the world as we experience it is simply a matter of finding the way to bring about that change in a material sense — a natural sense. We start seeing the world as a machine — subject to natural, physical, laws, and ourselves as machinists, inventors, or mechanics. The world can be moved and tweaked, and re-cast. So long as we find the right way to shift the gears. We are in control.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

And yet, in the face of the ‘infinite, cavernous, anonymous space’ we are very small. Very, very, small. And so too are the changes we can hope to make on the world. So too, becomes our sense of what we know and understand about the way the world works. Because we are oh so very finite. A fleeting breath in the scheme of eternal space and time. Even though we’re so minute, we still — by nature — are beings that crave meaning, a sense of a bigger picture, and we’re people who want to interpret information using some sort of system. This realisation that we are finite, and the belief that the material world is all there is, does not necessarily kill our ability to experience wonder at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the world — but these are things that must be incorporated, via imagination, into a “way of constructing meaning.” A belief that there is ‘no meaning’ is actually an imaginative construction, not in the sense that it is made up, but in the sense that it is the thing we tell ourselves about meaning in this world. But how do we choose this system? How is this imagination shaped? It is shaped, in part, by the way we see the world — but it also shapes the way we see the world. Could it be that it actually comes down to the question of what way of seeing the world is the ‘shiniest’…

Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart suggests all of us intuitively construct and ‘imagine’ meaning on the basis of a system we think is the most beautiful (according to whatever aesthetic we adopt – be that a sort of Occham’s Razoresque elegant simplicity, the beauty of the explanatory power of the scientific method, or a more mysterious or ‘enchanted’ approach to the world that includes a transcendent creator standing behind, or guaranteeing, existence). Or, as he says it:

“If one adopts the position of a certain account of how being, knowledge, and language are related, that is one’s position – ultimately because one finds the particular depiction of the world it affords especially compelling, even inevitable, for reasons that are finally aesthetic.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Our imagination is a way of assessing truth claims about the world through a sort of aesthetic lens. Enchanted world or not, there is some part of our thought process by which we assess, participate in, and finally, shape the world.

Dreyfus & Kelly, Smith, Taylor, and Hart would all seem to agree on this point: we underplay the role that imagination plays when it comes to living in, and understanding, the world to our detriment. Imagination is, in some way, what anchors us, but also what propels us. If we want to restore something mysterious and ‘other’ about the world we need to see it with a renewed imagination — this will require, I think, four things from us:

  1. A re-image-ination of ourselves,
  2. this, in turn, will require that we learn from art depicting a new sort of hero who is both grounded in reality, and who seeks to transform it,
  3. the ability to create and appreciate other-worldy stories which help us see our own world (and forests) in a re-enchanted way, and,
  4. if we really do see the world as a ‘machine’ a deus in machina (God entering the ‘machine’, as opposed to the deus ex machina — God from the machine) which completely changes the nature of the field we’re playing on. An unexpected entry in the story which ultimately saves us from ourselves, and pulls us into a new way of seeing and imagining.

I’ll suggest in the next few posts that the comic book universes of Marvel and DC both provide something akin to each of these (though in a deus ex machina way, not a deus in machina way), so too do the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis’ faery stories. They certainly provide a model that provides for what I think is an interesting conversation partner in this meandering effort. Even if I’m only writing to myself by now…

An invitation to image-ination

Imagination is on display right from the first moments of the Christian story.

When God says “Let there be light” this is an act of imagination that produces an act of creativity. The world itself is an expression of God’s imagination, and, rightly understood plays a role as one of Heidigger’s ‘works of art’, remember, that quote from All Things Shining: “Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to.” There’s a really compelling theory from Biblical Scholar John Walton that encourages us to read Genesis 1-2 as God setting up his cosmic temple, an ‘artwork’ that points us to him, and gives us a place in which to truly know God, and through that, to truly know ourselves, and truly fulfil our function as his divine image bearers.

The world of the Bible is a world ‘shot through’ with meaning. An enchanted world in which, when we rightly understand the world, we encounter the transcendent and experience it as natural. A natural world that in its natural state — before we trash it and ourselves — was meant to point us to the character and nature of God.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” — Romans 1:20

Here’s a thing. In Ephesians, Paul uses these same Greek words ποίημα and κτίζω to talk about humanity. Our job, as God’s creations — his artwork — his images in his cosmic temple — is to focus people on the life we were created to live, and the imagination we were created to see and transform the world with.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10

 

What seeing the world this way requires is imagination. But imagination isn’t just the thing that leads us to see the world as ‘enchanted,’ or to create enchanted worlds in our stories and art — imagination is required to see the world we live in as it is, and as it could be, and to work towards transforming it. Imagination is the thing that underpins creativity  — in a sense its also the thing underpinning God’s creativity in creating the world when he speaks, a thing that he has pictured is created, and he can declare it good and fit for a purpose according to his imagined design. In creation, God is able to turn his imagination into actuality.

 

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Part of this likeness is expressed in creating via imagination just as God did in creating the world. In Genesis 2, Adam demonstrates his God-given imagination by co-creating with God, he invents names for the animals God made in Genesis 1, ruling over them and bearing God’s image through an act of imagination.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” — Genesis 2:19-20

As Genesis plays out, into a line of genealogies, one of the thing the narrator notes is that people make art — or use their imaginations — as they spread throughout the world.

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” — Genesis 4:21-22

The problem is we stuffed up this job. Our imaginations failed us. Instead of imaginatively acting as representatives of the living God, we imagined dead things were god. We imagined God did not exist. We stuffed the world. We stuffed our heads. We lost our ability to imagine properly.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:21-23

This exchange had a cost. For us and for the world. Part of the cost is our inability to imagine — or to see the world clearly — to see it as shot through with meaning. To have any sense of the transcendent. We’re left with little old immanent us, in our little, contracted, immanent world, living little immanent lives when we were made for the infinite, we were made to make beauty, and life, and carry the image of the one who made us into his world, not trash it and trash the world.

A re-invitation to image-ination

The implications of this failure to imagine — or to image-ine — have an impact on the planet. And, subsequently, on our ability to know God’s nature from creation, because creation no longer reveals who he is. It reveals how we’ve damaged it.

The Gospel — where we meet Jesus — is an invitation back to seeing the world with imaginative eyes, and seeing our role in the world and the way we might be part of its transformation so that it does what it was made to do through our co-creating. Through our imagination. Especially through our imaginative and deliberate carrying of God’s image.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  — Romans 8:19-21, 29

God’s children — his image bearing imaginators — arrive on the scene again through Christ. The one who truly acts in an imaginative way to spread God’s presence through the world, by living out a more beautiful story, and inviting us to be a part of it. Over the next few posts in this series I’ll continue unpacking the idea that our story is better and more enchanted than worldly alternatives — our story of the transcendent becoming immanent — is more compelling than any other. And part of re-enchanting the world is really believing this to be true.

If the world has become machine-like for some, any ‘gods from the machine’ (deus ex machina) that provide happy endings in our stories come from below, not from above. They’re products of an immanent world. Our God comes into the machine and re-enchants it. It’s no longer good enough to experience the natural as black and white. It is re-cast in vivid colour. It is a pointer to the sort of God who acts to shape a good world, gives it to us, sees us trash it, and then acts to re-shape and re-claim and re-imagine and re-enchant it by sacrificing himself. Stepping into the story and laying down his life. Just when it looks like those in favour of the ‘immanent frame’ have won out — as a person of the Triune-God-in-the-flesh is nailed to a very physical cross — the transcendent triumphs.

The Christian story is a story of people being rescued from themselves, and from the consequences of our actions by God coming into the machine — a Deus In Machina (but we’ll get to that in a subsequent episode).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:14-20

This is Paul’s version of this story. An invitation to imagine again. To see the world as enchanted and held together by God again. To see it — and ourselves — as shining art, not created by our flawed hands, but by God’s perfect hands marred by nails and blood, that lights the way for people to live better, fuller, more wondrous lives, and to be invited to start re-imagining and re-creating again. Our calling, in the light of this story, is to imitate its hero (and we’ll get to this next episode). But in short, Paul’s words towards before this passage, and then at the end of Colossians are a pretty good place to start when it comes to figuring out what an ‘enchanting’ life looks like.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. — Colossians 1:9-12

… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:9-14

Our job is to offer a better story. To tell this better story. To help people see the world anew, and aright (and we’ll get to this, too, in a subsequent episode. Nothing like a cliffhanger).

Our job is to re-cast the world such that our story is more satisfying and compelling than alternatives. To re-enchant the machine, by using the complex beauty of the machine and its intended use to point to the inventor. We do this by living the story, and believing it to be beautiful and enchanting.

Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Though he’s talking more about how Christians should frame their attempts to persuade others of the truth of Christianiy — which necessarily involves a movement from a dis-enchanted world, to an enchanted one, Hart essentially thinks that the thing required to break people out of the immanent frame is not more, or mere, rationality. It’s a more beautiful truth. Whatever is most beautiful — the best story — that makes sense of the most data, that is what people should believe.

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity – and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty… Christian thought has no stake in the “pure” rationality to which dialectic seems to appeal – the Christian ratio, its Logos, is a crucified Jew – and cannot choose but be “rhetorical” in form; but it must then be possible to conceive of a rhetoric that is peace, and a truth that is beauty.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

This, I think, is what this description of what it looks like for our self to be renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator — to re-imagine, and re-image, the world by telling a beautiful and enchanting story that helps people see with the world with both their eyes and hearts.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:15-17

Confessions of a politically religiously motivated radical who wants to see the world as we know it come to its end

I am a religious radical. I confess that my religious beliefs are my primary motivation for how I live in this world, and I believe my actions to be consistent with bringing about the end of the world as we know it. But. Don’t panic.

dontpanic

In How (Not) to be Secular, Christian Philosopher James K.A Smith unpacks fellow philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory that the modern, secular, world has collapsed everything supernatural into a sort of ‘rational’ natural basket.

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

Or, as Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

“My universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

To me, Douglas Adams is a bit like the Lewis/Tolkien of this sort of disenchanted world, perhaps even a bit like the wise teacher in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Adams built a fictional cosmos in The Hitchhikers Guide that allows him to fantastically weave his way through the big questions, and implications, of a disenchanted world, giving that helpful piece of advice — “DON’T PANIC” — for anyone who comes to the conclusion that life has no meaning, or that its meaning is 42 (an incorrect answer to “what is 6 times 9”). His point, at one point discussed in a little dialogue between Zaphod and Arthur, is that a world devoid of meaning from beyond itself is a world where a belief in, or search for, a sort of ‘transcendent’ meaning — or any meaning at all — is meaningless, and inaccessible.

“But nothing! Think about it. The Meaning of Life! We get our fingers on that we can hold every shrink in the Galaxy up to ransom, and that’s worth a bundle. I owe mine a mint.”

Arthur took a deep breath without much enthusiasm.

“Alright,” he said, “but where do we start? How should I know? They say the Ultimate Answer or whatever is Forty-two, how am I supposed to know what the question is? It could be anything. I mean, what’s six times seven?”

Zaphod looked at him hard for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with excitement.

“Forty-two!” he cried.

Arthur wiped his palm across his forehead.

“Yes,” he said patiently, “I know that.”

Zaphod’s faces fell.

“I’m just saying that the question could be anything at all,” said Arthur, “and I don’t see how I am meant to know.” — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

One of the implications of this shift is in how we think of the way people are motivated to make choices or decisions. Where, in the past, people saw themselves as actors in a divinely created cosmic play, their position placed, determined, and directed by God’s mysterious plans, now, people assume life is a smorgasbord of choices and we are our own agents, able to place ourselves wherever we want (so we’re more mobile than ever, in terms of social status, education, and physical location, able to determine the course our own life takes, and directing ourselves via our own ethical framework or set of moral rules (sometimes with socially constructed frameworks that make sure other people, or as many other people as possible, enjoy these same freedoms). In this new script every action is ‘political’ because every person is a monarch. According to this new script, no actions are ‘religious’ — even if they are — because religion is just one choice we make among many, and we choose one religion among many equally (in)valid options. Religion, in this secular script, cannot, and should not, be spoken of as a motivating factor for action — because it gets dangerous when it is. In this script religion is, rather, a consequence of action, of choice, rather than a motivator.

“It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.”  — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

There’s been a bit of a secular paradox at play in the reportage of the Parramatta shooting. On the one hand, the government, and a bunch of secular spokespeople, are very keen to eradicate the clear and present danger presented by ‘radicalisation’ — so keen that they’ll throw all sorts of religions into the mix as potential sources for dangerous radicalisation (see Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC), they’ll even throw poor people like the hypothetical “Karen” under the radicalisation bus in order to protect the masses from these ills. If you break the Internet’s First Commandment “Never read the comments” on that article you’ll see that the discussion sort of proves the point of Jensen’s piece, any religious belief, taken seriously, is dismissed as dangerous.

On the other hand, when speaking of the Parramatta shooting, reporters do not speak of the event as ‘religiously motivated’ but ‘politically motivated’…

“We believe his actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism.” — NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, ‘Teen Shooting Linked to Terrorism

The shooter was ‘politically motivated’ by people he met in a religious place. A place of worship. I’m not claiming that his actions were a necessary product of the religion he aligned himself with by faith, but they were almost certainly a product of his faith. Of his understanding of the world and its end. Obviously there’s a massive link between religion and politics for most people of faith, for good or for ill, but I can’t help but think this plays into a narrative that isolates people of faith and robs us of the dignity that comes from being able to make choices about how we understand life and are understood. As a person of faith, putting myself in the shoes of someone who might be robbed of dignity in this sense, I’d like to offer a few alternatives for ‘deradicalisation’ that don’t involve ‘depersonalisation’… I’d like to suggest that the secular narrative being used to disenchant this narrative with a view to de-radicalising it (making these actions politically motivated (immanent) rather than religiously motivated (transcendent) might actually be counter-productive because it might reinforce a sense that the secular west is not interested in understanding those who don’t subscribe to its disenchanted story. I’d like to suggest that perhaps, even within a secular frame, what would be productive, virtuous, and just response would be to treat the perpetrator — and others — as human agents, giving them the dignity of understanding their choices and motivations, without thinking that doing so would either ‘radicalise’ other like minded people, or insult those who share a similar way of seeing the world as ‘enchanted’ and meaningful through eyes and ears of faith. Maybe a better way forward would be to invite those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world — be they Muslims, or people of other faiths — to enter dialogue in the public square that offers alternative ways of seeing the world and its end, through better stories (without shouting them down in angry comment threads).

Secularisation: an exercise in not seeing the emperor’s old clothes

Secularisation in its modern, disenchanted form, and especially the secularist narrative playing out in the analysis of the action of people of faith ends up being a deliberate attempt not to see things as they really are, but also, not to see people as they truly wish to be seen. It fails to give people dignity because it denies them the robes they choose to give context to their actions. When a person of faith acts in a way motivated by that faith the secular narrative is that this is ‘political,’ a category I certainly wouldn’t put first in describing my own actions.

This new narrative is disingenuous and unloving. It doesn’t love ‘political’ actors — or perpetrators — with the kind of just love that requires us to pay real attention to the motivations for action and decide on reasonable and just consequences or solutions. It dehumanises those who do not share the new narrative. It robs a religious person of dignity, stripping their life of the meaning they have ‘chosen’. In this it both undermines the secularist narrative of ‘choice,’ and also deliberately holds ignorance and arrogance in tension — it’s deliberately ignorant, in failing to consider possibilities beyond one’s own ‘eyes and ears’ or beyond a consensus reached by many eyes and ears, and part of this ignorance manifests itself in an arrogant failure to listen to narratives that don’t fit this dominant view. It’s a failure to listen, and a failure to see, other people as they wish to be seen, and perhaps the world as it should be seen.

If the old view of the world was one where the universe was fully clothed in rich, enchanting, meaning, where it was vividly coloured and beautifully formed so that both the emperor wearing the clothes was special, but the designer was clearly a good and creative genius who wished this to be the case, then the new version of the world is one where we, the new emperors, are naked and left to construct an outfit, and dignity, for ourselves.

The secularist assumption is that its those who have stripped off their old clothing who are dressed, while those who hang on to the idea of an enchanted world given meaning by a divine creator, are naked and foolish.

The secular status quo runs a real risk of dehumanising people according to its own account of meaningful humanism, where our sense of what it means to be a person with dignity, a monarch, a ruler of our own tiny kingdom, is caught up in making the decision about how to live and to channel David Foster Wallace, what to worship. In This Is Water, Wallace points out that our new default is to worship things within the world, immanent things, things that will ultimately eat us alive, and that our secular age is structured in such a way that it wants to keep us exercising our freedom, so long as its directed at these immanent things. So long as we don’t rock the boat. But he ponders whether or not this default is really freedom, or if freedom might lie elsewhere, in questioning the default narrative, and the default ‘secular’ gods.

“And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

 

A radical story — motivated by a view of the end of the world

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. 

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

As he explores Taylor’s understanding of The Secular Age, Smith mentions that part of the movement from an ‘enchanted’ or spiritual sense of reality was a depersonalising move from describing the world as a divine creation (as it had been understood right up to modern times), to simply ‘nature’… a neutral and unthinking thing, at best governed by ‘natural law’…

“The shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence… Now, from the vantage point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature. Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself”…

Part of the fallout of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality (a cause that attracts or “pulls”), eclipsing any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. This, of course, is precisely the assumption behind the scientific method as a way of divining the efficient causes of things, not by discerning “essence” but by empirical observation of patterns, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains””— James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

I can understand why people choose to see the world this way though. The universe is vast and intimidating. Douglas Adams goes on and on about infinity in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and its to explore just how uncomfortable a view of the universe is if it is very infinite, and we are very finite. There’s this thing in the story called the Total Perspective Vortex which promises to show anyone who attaches their mind to its probes just how small they really are. Trin Tragula built the machine to annoy his wife, but when he plugged her into it, it had disastrous consequences.

“To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

“For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is what happens when we strip the universe of enchantment, of meaning beyond the physical. Suddenly the sheer, immanent, physicality of the universe is intimidating, rather than comforting. It’s better to think of it as uncaring, and uninvolved, and as without an ‘end’ at that point, so that we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘end’ wrong, given our new freedom to choose how to live in it. Robbing the world of an ‘end’ — a telos in the old Greek sense — a purpose — in itself, means we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaning. We understand the world as we experience it with our eyes and ears, and we, within the world, are free to come up with our own vision for how things should be, and what things are for, and we’re free to direct our own lives. If people come up with some approach to their own life — an understanding of their own purpose, or ‘end’ that is tied to some broader purpose in the universe, some other director giving things purpose, especially a divine purpose, we treat them with suspicion.

And looking around at all the alternative understandings of the purpose of the world posited by religious people — including some Christians — I share a fair amount of this suspicion. I can totally understand why we’d want to take the shortcut of robbing people of their dignity by stripping them of their metaphorical clothes and leaving them naked. Exposing them and their folly for all to see. But when I put myself in the shoes of those seen as ‘exposed’ it leaves me feeling a little empathy for the religiously motivated person. It leaves me thinking that perhaps this strategy might leave other people of faith, who feel the same way about the world, feeling naked and foolish. Which is a brilliant ‘deradicalisation’ strategy. Except that it’s not. Especially if the ‘secular west’ has a habit of pushing the sorts of people who have faith to the margins, away from the benefits of the ‘secular defaults’ which builds a further degree of resentment.

Let’s come back to that alternative strategy — inviting those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world to the table to discuss solutions to radicalisation, rather than excluding us by lumping us all in together as potential dangerous radicals who want to see the end of the world as we know it.

For those who see and experience the world as shot through with meaning, the vastness of the universe helps build self-esteem. The universe is the stage in a divine cosmic drama that tells the story of the value of human life to the creator of the universe — one vaster than the universe itself. In this drama, especially the Christian version, the creator of all this steps onto the stage, and takes part in the drama, by laying down his life for the actors he made. The cross of Jesus is a new Total Perspective Vortex that puts us at the centre of a vast and infinite world. It gives the world a new end, both in an understanding of its purpose — as the ground upon which God became incarnate, made himself human, died, and promised to redeem — and it gives us a new understanding of how it all ends. Jesus, by his resurrection, promised to be the ultimate and final solution for this world, inviting those who follow him to ‘take up their cross’ becoming part of the picture of what the end of the world looks like. Eating with a radical Christian should be like eating at the restaurant at the end of the universe — you should see and taste the end of the world.

I confess, I totally buy into this ‘enchanted’ vision of the world. I believe the world is ‘shot through with meaning’ – that it’s a divine creation, carefully maintained, damaged by our selfish ‘default’ following lives and crying out for a solution. I pray God brings that solution every time I say anything remotely like the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an incantation of sorts, an act of enchantment, and this is the prayer of a ‘radical’ who follows the God-man.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’” — The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

This is a radical prayer for the world as we know it to end, for the world to meet its end — the kingdom of God. I suspect if our politicians knew what they were asking for when they prayed these words the attempt to further disenchant our ‘politics’ by removing ‘religion’ would gather steam.

I’m a religiously motivated Christian radical. I want to bring about this end. I want to confront people with this story and I want them to see that without it they’re actually naked.

This is what being a Christian radical looks like.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12

It’s interesting that this largely matches up with how Christians were perceived to be living in the early church, in the Roman Empire. Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to his friend, the emperor, Trajan, asking how he should deal with the Christian radicals popping up all over the empire and threatening to end the world as they knew it. The Roman world was also a world shot through with meaning — where Gods existed within the cosmos, and men (emperors) could become gods. Christians threatened this status quo, as we now threaten the secular defaults of our age. Pliny describes their radical behaviour as:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

It was concern for the status quo that motivated Pliny’s query, and Trajan’s response that Pliny was right to put these Christians to death if they wouldn’t worship his divine image, this was his litmus test for deciding who to execute, he spared those who “worshipped your [Trajan’s divine] image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ” — because people who did this were no threat to the established order. Here’s why he says he wrote — because the enchantment/superstition that led Christians to act radically like this was spreading.

“For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

People will do all sorts of things in the thrall of a compelling story, be it secularism, or your garden variety secular -isms like communism, materialism (but perhaps not naturalism, unless its paired with something else — or threatened by something else, which is why it’s a compelling antidote to enchantment). People will die for a secular ‘-ism’, just as they will for a religion (or a religious -ism like Judaism or Mormonism), an enchanted story.

Religious stories don’t just enchant life, but death as well. Often they involve some picture of martyrdom, which is closely tied to our sense of the world’s end, and how it the world. An interesting working definition of a ‘radical’ might not just be someone who is prepared to live by their story, but to die by it.

Being a Christian radical also means martyrdom — death to self — not just in the David Foster Wallace sense of death to the default in order to love others — but perhaps even in a literal sense, laying down our lives to give life to others. This is where our ‘enchanted story’ is fundamentally better for the world than any of the others. Jesus produces a different sort of radical, and a different sort of martyr. The diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are horrified by how willing their meal — a sentient cow — is to die for their good, their food and entertainment, and yet, its this same willingness that Christians have historically shown in the face of death so that others might see the way the world ends. This same horror, for a secular citizen, extends to the idea that anybody might throw away their immanent existence — assumed to be their only existence — for the sake of some ‘religious’ notion.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body? It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”…

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur. “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

I’m totally on board with being terrified by the sort of martyrdom that comes at the cost of others, but I can’t get my head around being opposed to a deliberate exercise of freedom that takes that sort of freedom David Foster Wallace identified to ‘sacrifice’ for others ‘over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ to its radical conclusion. It’s this sort of exercise of freedom, as he rightly identifies, that helps people see the world through different eyes. But it’s when we connect this freedom to the Christian story — where the infinite God steps into his finite creation as a man, and lovingly sacrifices himself for us — that we are no longer haunted by that “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing” because in the ‘incarnation’ — in God becoming flesh — the transcendent and immanent are revealed at once in vivid colour. We see the emperor in his truly magnificent clothes as the God-Man hangs naked on the Cross, exposed in order to re-dress us. This story answers that ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost touch with the infinite, because in it the infinite one finds us, and draws us to him. It’s this story that gives us enchanted eyes and ears by which we now see the world, and imagine a better end  — both in terms of a better purpose, and a better future.

This new way of seeing is what brings the political and religious together. It’s what gives a deeper meaning to a radical life and death. It’s people living this radical story that best displays the enchanting and compelling power of this story. The Cross isn’t just our Total Perspective Vortex, it’s our Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When we stand near it — reliving it by living it each day,  through our words and practices as extensions of our story, as we practice dying to self each day, is what gives people the taste of the end of the world that Douglas Adams could only dream of meaningfully depicting in a secular sense by inventing time and space travel.

Tertullian, a guy from the early church, showed what it looks like to be both religiously and politically motivated at the same time when he wrote to the Roman government, the same government that kept executing Christians

“It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” — Tertullian, Apology

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 1 — Heroic Space: DC’s Gotham v Marvel’s New York; Or, things I thought about while playing Spider-Man 2 with my son

In which I ask why Marvel Comics sets its stories in real cities, while DC creates anonymous every-cities. And consider what this does to us as participants in the narrative.

Spiderman
Image Credit: Screenshot from Amazing Spider-Man 2, US Gamer, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.

Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.

In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.

As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?

I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.

I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:

“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon

Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?

I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.

All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…

Our Disenchanted world

I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.

The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.

But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:

Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.

One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.

“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist

These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.

These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.

Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.

Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?

It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.

Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?

In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…

Comics and the “real” world

Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.

It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:

“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton

The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).

Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.

While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.

The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.

Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger

“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com

The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

 

But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.

“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.

 

What places do to people, what people do to places

“Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.” — Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.

In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.

“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.

“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.

“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.

One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths  — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.

CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.

In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23

Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent

The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.

But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.

“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…

Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…

So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories

 

So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.

Snippet // GK Chesterton on belief via a system of truths

A while back I posted something about how my approach to deciding what is ‘true’ or what I believe is based not so much on skepticism, but on my ability to integrate a new piece of information into the system of truths I already believe (or my ability to adapt the system around new information). I’ve increasingly realised that this systematic approach to truth makes it a little harder to speak about why I believe what I believe in a sort of succinct way to people who don’t believe things I believe, be they foundational (like that Jesus existed, claimed to be divine, and his death and resurrection are a form of proof for this claim), or secondary sorts of things that flow out of those core beliefs.

I think GK Chesterton articulates the challenge this presents pretty nicely in Orthodoxy

“When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab…”

And a bonus. Which I love. On the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith, and how this is something good and not something to be resolved. He talks, first, about the humility the Gospel requires when it comes to an acknowledgment of our utter sinfulness, and the ‘pride’ required for Christians when it comes to saying that we are living, breathing, rulers of God who rule the world on his behalf.

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism — the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them….

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”

And finally, on just how difficult “Orthodoxy” actually is.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

SNIPPET // CS Lewis on science, truth, and knowledge

“In our age I think it would be fair to say that the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education. In discussion with wholly uneducated audiences I have sometimes found matter which real scientists would regard as highly speculative more firmly believed than many things within our real knowledge; the popular imago of the Cave Man ranked as hard fact, and the life of Caesar or Napoleon as doubtful rumour. We must not, however, hastily assume that the situation was quite the same in the Middle Ages. The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences, did not then exist. The ignorant were more aware of their ignorance then than now” — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

How to ‘exegete’ a place

town-crier-reading-the-news
Image: A town crier in the public square, From this fun post about why they dress the way they did

Next week I’m taking a group of students from my old stomping ground, Queensland Theological College, to my new stomping ground, South Brisbane. I had to think of something that a wet behind the ears graduate church planter person could possibly hope to offer these guys that is valuable. And that isn’t just grunt work like door-knocking (the bane of college missions, I can say this now that I’m a graduate and a minister, not a whining student — don’t treat college mission students like an army of grunts who really need to learn how to doorknock or do some suitably mundane thing, make mission interesting and helpful). So we’re going out on an excursion to South Brisbane to exegete the suburb. To read the culture. To think about how we might speak the Gospel into this culture, and live the Gospel as part of this culture. (So, maybe I’m getting them to do my market research, but at least it’ll be fun — as you’ll see below, it’s really just going to involve them drinking coffee and using their eyes and ears).

In Christian parlance we use the word ‘exegete’ to describe the task of reading, interpreting, and understanding a text. In my circles this means interpreting a passage using a framework that we bring to each text — where we ask what God is saying in that passage through the person who wrote it to the people he’s saying it to, the people who first read it, and by extension, us. We ask how it fits in the bigger picture of God’s story, The Bible (Biblical theology), particularly with a view to how it helps us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how it fits with what we know about who God is via the rest of the Bible (systematic theology). We’re guided by trying to understand the historical context, including the language originally used (Hebrew, and Greek). We’re guided by trying to understand the literary context — the genre, the author, the audience. Exegesis is really important for drawing sound conclusions from the Bible in order to point people to the truth it contains.

Good preaching, good evangelism, requires good exegesis. A good understanding of God’s word, and the Gospel.

Exegesis. It’s a good word. Even if it sounds a bit fancy pantsy.

Good evangelism also requires good listening. Good loving of the people we’re speaking to. Not just belting people on the head with what we think.

To be good proclaimers of the Gospel we need to conduct an exercise similar to the exercise we conduct with God’s text, the Bible, with the people we speak to. We need to exegete the culture we hope to speak to — just as loving God’s word leads us to carefully interpret it, loving the people we hope to speak to leads us to carefully interpret them. Exegesis is a sort of attentive listening. We can’t just bring our own pre-conceived agenda to a text, reading it on our terms and bringing our own meaning (that’s called eisegesis). That’s not treating the text with respect. In the same way, we can’t simply shout (or speak) our message to the people around us. We need to listen to, and respect, the people we’re speaking to in order to love them, as much as we need to tell them our good news in order to love them. And we’ll tell them our good news, about the life changing death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that makes it clearly good news if we understand them better.

We need to exegete the people in the places we’re sent to share the Gospel. The best, clearest, picture of what this looks like is found in Paul’s visit to Athens. It’s there in the text of Acts 17, but it’s also beneath the text (and we can make this picture richer through good exegesis). This post isn’t ultimately exploring Paul’s methodology in Acts, its trying to give a guide to what applying this methodology might look like in our time and place. But I’ve bolded the bits here I think are really important for building our own model. The odd bits I’ve bolded in his speech at the Areopagus are where Paul quotes important philosophers and poets from the world of his hearers (and his own world — one is a philosopher from Tarsus). Paul carefully splits his audience by quoting some people he knows appeal to certain thinkers, and then showing some inconsistencies in the tests they’re trying to apply to his message  — his good news — about ‘Jesus and the resurrection’…  Even as Luke writes he demonstrates, himself, a familiarity with the lay of the land in Athens and with who was who in the Athenian zoo. He knows what parts of Paul’s time in Athens are significant to observe and record for the sake of those looking to Paul’s methodology for a model for our own presentation of this good news.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus,where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else [note: Paul is articulating a common, stoic, belief about God here, as well as a Jewish/Christian belief]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Paul is quoting sources his audience is familiar with, though the ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ also has Old Testament roots]

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. — Acts 17:16-34

Paul’s evangelism is pretty savvy. It’s savviness doesn’t guarantee wholesale conversion, but this is Paul speaking in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and because he lovingly pays attention to the people he is speaking to, and takes the time to connect, he gets a hearing for the Gospel, and some people, by God’s grace, and through the work of the Spirit, hear what he has to say and believe. They’re left wanting to hear more about Jesus and the resurrection.

Anyway. How might we do a Paul? Do we need to read ancient philosophers? Or was Paul doing something more like watching reality TV and being an astute observer of culture? It would be easy to make this sound hard, but I suspect as a Tarsus born Roman citizen, as well as being an educated Jew, Paul was simply bringing who he was and what he knew to the act of lovingly and carefully observing the people he spoke to. It’s not rocket science. Evangelism is simply a matter of carefully listening to the people you love, in order to lovingly offer the Gospel as a better path to human flourishing. That’s what Paul does. He says you guys really want to find God. You long for that. Well here he is.

Our modern idols might not be statues — but they tap into, and represent — similar longings, and are part of similar frameworks or philosophies. We’re creatures of desire. Part of presenting the Gospel is understanding these desires as they take shape in different places. You could do worse than checking out the TV guide for the Lifestyle Channel. But desires manifest themselves differently in different places and amongst different demographics. Place is important. Paul operates differently in Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem (though both require a careful exegesis of where he is, and he’s equally lovingly incisive in each place).

This isn’t hard. We invent all sorts of labels for this, like contextualisation. But what we really mean by this is loving the other person. Listening. Understanding. And doing this before we speak. The only reason that’s hard is because our default is still to put ourselves and our truth first. We’re meant to put Jesus first, and then the other. That’s meant to flavour how we speak. So Paul says in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” — Philippians 2:1-5

Listening well, loving well, involves humility. Christ shaped humility. That’s part of living out and speaking the Gospel. It’s the humility that leads us to put others first in the way we speak about Jesus. Because the way we live and the way we speak should line up. Like they did for Paul, in Athens, and in Corinth, where he ‘resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified’ and later says:

I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. — 1 Corinthians 4:17

As I mentioned in a recent post, I love the idea from philosopher Iris Murdoch that loving goodness, virtue even, requires us to unselfishly try to truly see the world around us, and to understand what drives the people around us in order to understand them in a good and loving way. That’s what Paul does, and its at the heart of a virtuous approach to sharing the good news (and its why bashing people over the head with what we believe about them, rather than engaging with what people believe about themselves is frankly an unloving way to undermine our message by through methods that don’t match up).

“…goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I collected some advice from smart people on social media, and I’d written a thing on ‘exegeting a place’ a few years back with my public relations hat still on, which turned out to actually be somewhat sage advice. So. Here’s what I’ll be asking this team of students to ponder as they wonder the streets of South Brisbane (bonus points if you’re a QTC student reading this ahead of time.  The reason I’m posting this now is to ask you, the hive mind/brains trust to suggest better questions to ask when reading a place.

Questions to ask when exegeting a place

I reckon these are some good questions to guide us in ‘walking around’ and ‘looking carefully at the objects of worship’ in a place.

Who

Where do the people here come from? Are they locals? Do they work here? Or is this a ‘third place’ (somewhere they come to play, rest, eat)? What are people doing with their time? Are the cars parked on the road new or run down? What demographics of people are here?

How does life here match the stats? Where would you find stats about this area? See if you can find some. What stands out? How would you find out about the future of this area? Who could you talk to to understand life here?

Are the people working or running businesses here busy? Optimistic? Happy? Satisfied?

Where

What would it be like to live here? Where are the key places/nodes? Transport? Services?

Count the cranes in the skyline. Investigate. What are they here for? What is being built? How does this make locals feel? How might it shake up the fabric of this area?

Where are the marketplaces where ideas are discussed? What are the idols? What are the longings that create these idols? What are the “common objects of love” here? The things that bring people here, and bring people together? Where are people forming community? Where is shared life happening within this community/place? What are the ‘rituals’? What are the ‘festivals’? What is the default spiritual practice?

What

What is ‘life’ like? What’s On? What’s trending? What looks new? What looks old? What looks run down? What looks empty? What looks popular? What art is being produced, displayed, and celebrated here? What are people photographing in this location online (Instagram etc)? What are they reviewing on trip advisor? Beanhunter? Urban Spoon? What are they saying?

What are people spending money on? What are people giving time and attention to?

Why

What are the loves driving people in this place? What are the obvious needs? What stories do you imagine people living in this setting? Where are the ‘philosophers’ behind these stories? What is being advertised on location specific ads here (advertisers do demographic research so you don’t have to)? What does local media talk about (find a copy of the West Ender)? What is the history of this place, how is it present in the present?

How

What observations can you make about this place that would help shape how you proclaim the Gospel here? What sort of things would you do in this community to help people hear about Jesus and the resurrection?