Matthew’s Gospel: Cool story; just enough dragons

I’m loving our current series on Matthew’s Gospel at Creek Road… the catch is that it might make blogging here a little more irregular than usual over the next 10 weeks.

It’s a series not just inspired by reading Matthew’s Gospel and noticing how much supernatural stuff is happening around its ‘epic’ story; it’s not just inspired by observing that Jesus follows the ‘Hero’s Journey’ common in many epics, it’s not just inspired by Charles Taylor’s analysis of the problem with disenchanted modern-western ‘secular age’ life, or by Tolkien and Lewis’s writings on the Gospel being ‘true myth’… it’s not just a series featuring some pretty fantastic (in every sense) graphic design stuff… It’s all of that… and it has a kids spot series thing with dragons! Cause in some sense the Gospel story is the ultimate dragon slaying story (I mean, seriously, read Revelation — that’s what Jesus does).

You can check out the talks from the series online, and the kids spots, and here’s 13 ‘studies’ written for our Growth Groups… plus some of the team will write blog posts like this one from time to time. Like this one I wrote this week. I’ve often been defensive when people have suggested that Christianity is akin to the belief in fairy stories; I recently decided to embrace it, this post explains why.

“Atheist philosopher A.C Grayling is one of those who wants to dismiss belief in more than the natural world as the equivalent of belief in fairy stories as though that’s a bad thing. He sometimes calls himself an ‘a-fairyist’ because “this properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses.”

No magic. No enchantment. Nothing to answer the longing of our heart for something more, except, perhaps, technology and science. It’s a soul-crushing story. And man-made technology can’t deliver on the desires of our god-made hearts. Technology over-promises and under-delivers. You just have to walk into a crowded space full of people alone-together; captivated by smartphone screens and desiring to be anywhere-but-here, or look at how technology is used to make us more efficient killers, or more brain-addled addicts, to see that technology crushes hope and desire as much as it might answer them.

The story of the Gospel answers our longing for meaning beyond simply the natural; in Jesus, the fully divine, fully human, hero we our desire for life to be enchanted is met with the one who shows us how the natural and supernatural overlap and are completely inter-woven, rather than separate streams of reality.”

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

“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.”

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

 

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.

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

 

Grill a Christian: Question 2. How does heaven work?

Question: “How do we know that we can remain good in heaven? Free will isn’t taken from us, so we can still make mistakes? Once in heaven can people be sent away? What makes living there different to here? And what will we do in heaven? No one will need anything.”

These are great questions. I think the big difference the Bible promises between us and our will now, and us and our will for eternity is that our character is perfected. It’s not that we won’t have free will, it’s that our free will won’t be lead astray by our self-serving nature (free will is a sort of paradox anyway, because God is also totally sovereign and working through every moment of our existence, because he is the ground of our being — as in, we exist ‘in him’). When you have perfect freedom, in the context of perfect love, where there is no crying, or mourning, nor pain, nor the ‘old order of things’ (which is what Revelation 21 suggests the new creation looks like), our mistakes won’t be mistakes, they’ll be exercises of our free will that don’t cost anyone anything. It’s perfect rest and recreation, for eternity. I find this question hard to answer because I find eternity quite hard to fathom. I think there are a few things that the Bible suggests are true about eternity that probably help answer the questions here, even if somewhat indirectly.

1. Heaven is earth. Perfected. Renovated. We’re not living on clouds, God’s good world is being refreshed, renovated, and renewed for his people to enjoy the way we were made to. So, whatever good stuff you do now, you’ll do then too. This is a little speculative, but I suspect we’ll not just have the world to explore, but the cosmos.

2. God will remain infinitely amazing, and we will be finite creatures moving towards the horizon of eternity (so becoming more and more infinite I guess, and knowing more and more about the love of God, and who the God who made the world is, and what God is like). He doesn’t stop being creator, and we don’t stop being creatures — we don’t become omni-anything in the new creation, we as creatures have a beginning, but as ‘new creations’ we have no end, while God has neither beginning nor end. So we, I think, will grow in the knowledge of God for eternity. I suspect this means we’ll also grow in the knowledge of our own capacity and what being loved by God frees us to do, so we’ll, I think, become more creative (like God), and thus capable of creating more wondrous things over time. I’m fairly sure the imagination continues to exist in heaven, and we’ll continue imagining and creating things, like we were made to. Otherwise heaven will be not as much fun as earth.

3. Nobody will ‘need anything’, sure, but wants are actually valid, even if parents try to tell you only to worry about things you need, not things you want. And we’ll still want to know God, still want to love, still want to create, we’ll still want to do all the things we were made to do as people made in God’s image, and we’ll be free-er than ever to embrace our (new-created) humanity in a way we’re unable to now because sin gets in the way, so does death. The stuff you can’t imagine achieving in your life time will no longer be impossible. I like to think we’ll have an eternity to explore the far flung reaches of the universe, and that God might well keep expanding the universe into eternity, so we’ll never run out of new things to play with.

4. People can’t be sent away. Probably the best passage to read to answer these questions (as well as Revelation 21-22) is Romans 8. It’s close to my favourite passage in the Bible.

This bit is the best bit:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 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. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

Question: How will we know the Joy? If in this life it’s kind of like ‘you can’t know joy without pain, happy with out sad, bad without good’ how will we know that we are experience Pure Joy in heaven? Will people become complacent or tired?

I think we’ll know joy because we’ll remember life now. I hope we won’t become complacent or tired because one way heaven is described is as perfect rest, where work and play are unfrustrated by our shortcomings. So work exists in the Bible before sin, but exists as a sort of unfettered playful creativity with the good things God made.

CS Lewis writes some cool stuff about the fleeting sense of joy we experience here in this world and the overwhelming joy we’ll experience, by comparison, in the new creation. Especially in the Weight of Glory (and also in Surprised By Joy). Some bits are about Greek poetry and stuff, which was what he lectured in at university, but you can skip that pretty easily and still get something out of this. I think. Here are some great bits from the Weight of Glory.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…

…Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries. The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire.And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” …If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know. The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like Him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple…

…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life. At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind, and still more the body, receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body.

 

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

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 // 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

SNIPPET // CS Lewis’ rule for literary criticism

I’m reading a bit of stuff CS Lewis wrote on writing, in this case an essay called On Science Fiction. He has this little gem of a rule buried in the essay.

//

“Of articles I have read on the subject [science fiction writing] (and I expect I have missed many) I do not find that I can make any use. For one thing, most were not very well informed. For another, many were by people who clearly hated the kind they wrote about. It is very dangerous to write about a kind you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look very much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel. Criticism of kinds as distinct from criticism of works, cannot of course be avoided… But it is, I think, the most subjective and least reliable type of criticism. Above all, it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works. Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett.

“Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaller, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist”

“Even if it is a vice to read science fiction, those who cannot understand the very temptation to that vice will not be likely to tell us anything of value about it. Just as I, for instance, who have no taste for cards, could not find anything very useful to say by way of warning against deep play. They will be like the frigid preaching chastity, misers warning us against prodigality, cowards denouncing rashness.”

“Do not criticise what you have no taste for without great caution. And, above all, do not ever criticise what you simply can’t stand. I will lay all the cards on the table. I have long since discovered my own private phobia: the thing I can’t bear in literature, the thing which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, is the representation of anything like a quasi love affair between two children. It embarrases and nauseates me. But of course I regard this not as a charter to write slashing reviews of books in which the hated theme occurs, but as a warning not to pass judgment on them at all. For my reaction is unreasonable: such child-loves quite certainly occur in real life and I can give no reason why they should not be represented in art… And I would venture to advise all who are attempting to become critics to adopt the same principle. A violent and actually resentful reaction to all books of a certain kind, or to situations of a certain kind, is a danger signal. For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is ‘Ugh! I just can’t bear this sort of thing,’ then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words — ‘arch,’ ‘facetious,’ bogus,’ adolescent,’ immature,’ and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.”

Stuff & Things: 5 December

Stuff //

Guernica // What Will Happen to All That Beauty

I mentioned I’d been reading deconversion stories this week. I’m not sure if this is actually a deconversion story, but it’s powerful stuff.

““We have become and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things…” 1 Corinthians 4:13.

These are Paul’s words, from his letter to the church at Corinth. He crisscrossed the known world to establish and support the newly formed, and continually persecuted, communities of Christ. Despite his eminence—and I realize this is unfair—Paul has always struck me as humorless, as an incredible curmudgeon. It is surely the case that a great deal of my vexation with him has to do with a kind of nostalgia for the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, though more consistently benevolent and loving, more evolved, one might say, makes me long for His predecessor. I miss the messy, wrathful God of the Israelites, roaring out of dust clouds or burning on mountaintops. Vagaries, the mysteries of death and suffering, and of wonder, are on the surface of that God. He was at once the Israelites’ avatar and the source of everything they were and could be. In the New Testament, His contradictions are obscured, or at least softened, by the sacrifice of the extraordinary figure of His son. Nonetheless, in both testaments, the Jews and early Christians are the protagonists of a grand narrative of the underdog, an epic poem of the oppressed. The God of the Bible, for all the ways He has been twisted into monstrosity by the various agendas of our human history, has always been the God of the trash, of the forgotten and forsaken. Certainly, He was the God of American blacks and of their struggle for liberation.”

Also in Deconversion stories // How I Lost The Religion of My Childhood // Frank Schaeffer: The Atheist Who Believes In God // Why I Miss Being A Born Again Christian

 

Kingdomview // John Frame’s 30 Tips for Theology Students

Someone asked me for my tips on getting the most out of Bible College the other day. If I’d already seen this list, I would have just sent them a link.

CBN // CS Lewis Final Interview

When I was digging about for links between David Foster Wallace and CS Lewis I unearthed this gem.

Wirt: Would you say that the aim of Christian writing, including your own writing, is to bring about an encounter of the reader with Jesus Christ?

Lewis: “That is not my language, yet it is the purpose I have in view. For example, I have just finished a book on prayer, an imaginary correspondence with someone who raises questions about difficulties in prayer.”

Wirt: How can we foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ?

Lewis: “You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into his Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgment.

“But we can block it in many ways. As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colors, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

“There is a character in one of my children’s stories named Aslan, who says, ‘I never tell anyone any story except his own.’ I cannot speak for the way God deals with others; I only know how he deals with me personally. Of course, we are to pray for spiritual awakening, and in various ways we can do something toward it. But we must remember that neither Paul nor Apollos gives the increase. As Charles Williams once said, ‘The altar must often be built in one place so that the fire may come down in another place.”

McSweeney’s // I Am An Artisnal Attorney

I could have posted 10 different McSweeney’s articles, such was the backlog in my Feedly… but these will suffice.

“Not long ago, while attending a small-batch honey wine tasting at a meadery with friends, I realized that we bought only organic produce at the local farmers market, ate only free range meat prepared by our traditional neighborhood butcher, and filled our apartments with only free trade, hand crafted furniture. We—and many others like us—insist on authenticity in everything in our lives. We don’t want to eat. We want the fullness that only comes from a meal created by the human experience. We don’t want to drink. We want the buzz that is produced by the draught of a person’s skill. It occurred to me that people who demand realness in their food and homes should also demand it in their legal representation. That was when I became an artisanal attorney.”

Other McSweeney’s // Snopes investigates the Anderson Family Holiday Letter — does what it says on the tin // Speaking for All Christians Exactly Like Me — A Christian novelist reflects on culture // Home On The Range — A long time gun lover is confronted with gun mania, and isn’t sure he likes what he sees.

 

Things //

io9 // Most Amazing Science Images of 2014

My Book, The Movie // Authors try their hands at selecting the cast for hypothetical movie versions of their books.

McSweeney’s // Liberal Arts Thesis Sub-Title Generator (list)

Vimeo // Hipster Designer Aaron Draplin makes a logo

More Aaron Draplin on a Metafilter round up.

Vimeo // We Were Not Made for this World

A Robot walks on a sandy, desolate, planet.

YouTube // Terminator Genisys Trailer: Paradox Edition

Photo Invasion // A guy draws cartoon characters on stranger’s Instagram photos

Some are rude.

7 tips from David Foster Wallace (and others) on writing well

I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way —  a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.

I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…

“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”

And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”

I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).

BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?

DFW:  Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”

Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.

1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”

 

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”

Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.   One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.

The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

Because writing is about a relationship —  a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.

Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.

2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself

“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.

This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen —  DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…

“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.

What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…

“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”

This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.

DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere —  don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.

“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”

 

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.

Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.

Here’s Cicero.

“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” —  Cicero

Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.

4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice. 

“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”

5. Write slow so you think carefully

I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.

But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.

BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?

DFW:  Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.

BAG:   You write everything in longhand?

DFW:  Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.

Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.

“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”

 

“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”

Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.

I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity —  it faded as he found his identity elsewhere —  in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross —  offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).

6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).

BAG:   When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?

DFW:  I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need.   My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that.   My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.   If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?

7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.

“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”

He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.

Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.

I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.

One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.

My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.

And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.

BAG:   Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?

DFW:  Well, for a couple of reasons.   One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do.   Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.

 

 

 

 

God and the God Shot: How the quest for the perfect coffee points to the perfect creator

God and the God Shot

“…The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food…” // GENESIS 2:9

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

God created Coffee. Coffee reveals something about God’s qualities. Coffee is good.

Coffee is proof that God loves us. 

It’s an interesting premise. A great T-Shirt slogan. But does it hold up to scrutiny?

I think it does. Here’s an attempt to prove the premise. This is long. Don’t think of it as a long blog post, but rather, a short e-book. But, for the blog post types – here’s the summary.

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Coffee is part of God’s good creation, God’s creation includes creativity and beauty – he made things of quality to be enjoyed, the purpose of this good world God created was to point people to him, and to reveal his goodness.

Coffee is also proof that we are fundamentally messy.

The way we drink coffee reveals that our hearts are diseased, and that this disease is because we don’t use the stuff God created for what he created it for. The way we consume coffee, and the narrative we surround it with, diagnoses our heart.

We consume coffee, and are consumed by it. We consume coffee, and as we consume it, we consume others and consume our world.

We worship coffee. We are tempted to find our identity in coffee – to use it as a point of pride – or to make it part of the way we control the world. We are addicts. Unable to function without a daily dose.

Whether you call it ‘instant’ (an abomination that literally causes desolation), or ‘specialty’ (where my preferences more naturally lie), you’re introducing a narrative to your consumption that reveals your idols.

On the ‘instant’ front: we trash God’s good creation and the people who work the land, to mass produce low quality crops that we then turn into a dehydrated, chemically-maimed, husk of its former self for our instant gratification. We want total deniability when it comes to process, but want it to fuel our addiction.

On the ‘specialty’ front:  We’re obsessed with control. We spend all our time finding finicky details to tweak for the sake of one iota’s difference, while crafting a narrative for the humble bean that explains just how sophisticated we are as we sip it – even if this means treating people and the planet more ethically, we wear our ethics as a badge of pride and self-glorification.

We engage in what CS Lewis calls the ‘gluttony of delicacy’ and can spend our time and money pursuing a perfect coffee, which doesn’t exist. Chasing a taste of heaven only regarding the creator of heaven and earth as something of an Arthurian punch-line. The chief end of our quest for perfection. Yet. The closest we get to the ‘God Shot’ – the Holy Grail of coffee craftsmanship – the more we realise it is unattainable.

We’ve taken God’s good gift of coffee and turned it into an idol, but even when we’re not worshipping it – the best most God-directed coffee experiences are still a reminder of what we crave. 

Our best experiences of coffee now involve fleeting moments, ephemeral visions of the future, a tantalising window between two worlds, where we pull a few wisps of heaven into a porcelain cup, and have them drift past our taste buds into oblivion. They can’t be savoured for long because they are vapour. There, and then gone. Such momentary bliss is a reminder that we are not yet home. That the world God created has been frustrated by humanity’s choice – corporately, and individually – rejecting him and choosing to use the things he made the wrong way.

This ‘God Shot’, and what we do with coffee, is a simultaneous testimony to our limits, our brokenness, and God’s goodness.

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WHAT IS THE GOD SHOT

“It is a homage to God in a way because when someone talks about a God Shot, it is something so special, so unique, so perfect, it’s almost as if God Himself has blessed it.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com, ‘Defining what is the God Shot,’ 2002

 

What is the God Shot? You could do worse than reading this 12 year old attempt at a definition from Mark Prince. It’s hard to describe exactly what separates the God Shot from the great shot. There is a certain quality that lingers. That you identify when you find it, and that tugs at the edge of your palate when you don’t. The God Shot has a certain Je ne sais quoi about it that one can’t really begin to describe without dipping into foreign tongues to borrow words. It’s a picture with colours beyond the average spectrum.

Perhaps it’s like asking someone to imagine a blue yellow that isn’t green – our heads can conceive of such a fantastical construction – but picturing it is beyond us.

This is the God Shot. It brings impossibilities together. It is paradox in a cup. Or, as Mark Prince puts it while trying to find words…

“…the God Shot is the ristretto shot maximized to the point of achieving something that David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace) and many other espresso purists before him have sought: coffee that tastes as good as fresh roasted coffee smells.

This is the fleeting thing. It really is.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com

Specialty coffee tasters describe coffee with all sorts of ‘tasting notes’ – something akin to the things you’ll read on the label of a bottle of wine. There’s a tasting wheel that invites people who spend a lifetime honing their senses of taste and smell to describe the flavours and aromas of coffee – and the sides of the wheel very rarely meet. The God Shot brings them together.


Image Source: coffeesnobs.com.au

Here’s how to spot a God Shot in the wild… it’s a multisensory thing…

“The God Shot is a double ristretto shot that looks special from the moment it starts slurping down from the portafilter spouts. The colour of the streams is always a dark rust-red colour, and often a sense of tiger striping, with alternating lines of lighter rust with darker rust, can be seen. In the cup, the shot is 100% crema from the get go right up until the end of the pour, and the black nectar starts to form as you complete the shot. It can take up to 30 seconds or longer for the crema to settle in the top third of the cup, leaving the bottom two thirds an opaque black. The top of the crema is quite often a dark ruby rust color with no traces of over extraction (blond or beige spots), but often something called tiger-mottling, or specks of darker spots where the intense, highly concentrated colloids and flavours of the espresso draw show themselves – these are the barely-solubles that made it to the cup.

The aromas as you lift the cup to your nose almost overpower with the intense, pure smell of what the roasted and ground coffee smelled like moments before. As you swirl the shot to release even more aromas, the true God Shot will almost overwhelm you. Then it comes time for the first sip. You’ll know at this moment, if you didn’t already, this was something unique – the mouthfeel is beyond almost anything you’ve sampled before – the aromas, tastes, colloids, flavours, you name it, they all coat the tongue and seem to constantly hit the perfect notes on all four major taste areas of your tongue. They compete with each other, but always seem to compliment the areas of sweet, sour, bitter and sharp on the tongue.

As you swallow the shot, the back of your mouth and throat get the final joy – the espresso coats this part of your mouth and doesn’t want to give up. Where a normal espresso shot may leave bitters and an unpleasant tang in the throat, the God Shot gives such an amazing sensation of mild bitters and sweets that it is almost as if your mouth doesn’t want to lose this sensation – it wants to keep it around for a while.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com, ‘Defining what is the God Shot’

MY QUEST FOR THE GOD SHOT

Of the perhaps six thousand coffees I’ve consumed in the last eight years (at a rate of two a day, which is conservative)- this is when my chemical romance with C8H10N4O2 truly blossomed (it’s not really about the drug though – the effect of caffeine gets in the way of the consumption of delicious coffee as far as I’m concerned) – there are around six coffees that I remember – and salivate over just a little bit – six that I experienced as ‘God Shots’ – purists would say that by adding milk I’ve adulterated the untamed beauty of the espresso, but milk, too, is a gift from God to be enjoyed. And the creative coupling of milk and coffee is a match surely made in heaven.

I poured two of these six myself – a Brazilian and a Tanzanian – within a few months of each other.

The other four were from cafes – I can’t name dates, but I can list places. And flavours. One came from Coffee Dominion in Townsville, one was from One Drop, one was from Shucked Espresso, and one was from Merriweather – these three cafes are in Brisbane. Two of these were on blends that were carefully orchestrated and calculated to stimulate and excite the senses. I’ve had exceptional coffees from cafes too numerous to mention. But these are the memories that stick. Feasts for the senses.

  • The Coffee Dominion coffee reminded me of butterscotch.
  • The One Drop coffee was on a day that I was flying up to North Queensland in my first year back in Brisbane, and I still remember the toffee-apple after taste as I drove home.
  • The one from Shucked was a Costa Rican that evoked a strong sense of lemon meringue pie.
  • The coffee from Merriweather was two Sundays ago – I don’t know quite how to describe the blast of sweet fruity flavours that cut through the milk in my flat white. You know a coffee is good when you text the roaster to thank them.

These moments stand out in what is almost literally an ocean of coffee. Well. About 175,200mL of coffee.

175 litres of exceptional coffee.

Coffee made in the best cafes in Australia. Coffee systematically and methodically produced at home, or at the hands of some of Australia’s best baristas. And despite limiting the search to the cream of the crop the God Shot has appeared for me 0.1% of the time (if my maths is right – it rarely is). Even if I add my next 20 or 30 favourite coffees we’re still at less than 1%.

I’ve got fancy equipment. I’ve tried roasting my own coffee. I’ve tried sourcing coffee from the best roasters wherever I go. I’ve read about coffee. I’ve practiced and honed the craft of espresso extraction. And my success ratio is significantly smaller than the percentage of God Shots to shots.

I drink more coffee at home than out, but God Shots from elsewhere outnumber the coffees I’ve produced three to one.

HOW DO YOU PRODUCE A GOD SHOT?

Mark Prince’s symposium of baristas (surely the official collective noun for a group of baristas?) agree that while the God Shot requires the perfect preparation – the perfect preparation is no guarantee of a God Shot.

The God Shot will not be tamed by human ritual or superstition.

The God Shot is not subject to the whims of the one searching for it, but one must search in the right places.

“Do everything right, and hope for the best.

That’s it. Do your prep the right way – make sure you’re using the best quality specialty coffee beans you can get, fresh roasted and well blended. Make sure your grinder is working in tip top shape and it is a top notch grinder. “Be at one” with your grinder, as in know how your grinder will react to the beans you put in it, know about the tiny things such as humidity, ambient air temperatures, age of the beans and the like, and adjust the grind accordingly.

Make sure your espresso machine is set up right, and running right. Know the proper temperatures and boiler pressures your machine needs to pull off a great shot. Keep your equipment clean.

Prepare your portafilter with all the skill and experience you can muster. Dose the exact proper amount. Level it off, get ready to tamp, and do your tamp. Tamp and spin and wipe. Flush the grouphead for a second or two, even on the commercial machine in a high volume shop. Lock and load, set up the cup and brew.

And hope (or more appropriately pray) for the best.

Do the things right, and you’ll get a great shot of espresso every time. But great doesn’t equal a God Shot. Why? Even the most seasoned, professional and passionate Baristas know they can pull great shots, but also know the God Shot only comes if the stars are aligned, the moons in phase, Jupiter is in Venus, yada yada… oh yeah, and for some who believe in it, God looked down, and decided, yes, this one is worthy, I bless it.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com

The religious pursuit of the God Shot highlights the problems with all human religiosity – we don’t control God via a series of buttons, variables, and levers, which can be carefully balanced to deliver us a desired outcome. The God Shot mocks our desire to be in control.

THE GOD SHOT AS (UNATTAINABLE) JOY

My experience of the God Shot is fleeting – and I’m not alone. But it’s also what keeps me going back for more, hoping that I’ll taste it again.

This reminds me of CS Lewis’s (and Rammstein’s) concept of sehnsucht.

CS Lewis writes about the fleeting experiences of joy we have now, in this world, and how their fleeting nature reminds us that we are not yet home. We are not where we were created to be – our world is not what it was created to be. Coffee is not yet what it was created to be. And the gap between our experiences now and what we anticipate – the gap that drives our longings – our cravings – and their final satisfaction… that’s this sehnsucht.

“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves. It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given–nay, cannot even be imagined as given–in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.”

// CS Lewis, PILGRIM’S REGRESS

This is the same sense I think I feel when it comes to the fleeting experience of the God Shot, and the desire that sparks… CS Lewis also speaks of joy in similar terms…

“All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”

// CS Lewis, LETTERS

He speaks of this momentary experience of joy – which, again, describes these six coffees.

“It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…”

// CS Lewis, SURPRISED BY JOY

 As an example of joy, provided by something God has created, the God Shot (and the quest for the God shot) reminds us that God is good, and that we are not home. That we are only seeing glimpses of heaven in our coffee cup. It’s a bit like the God Shot – both in its presence and in its absence – helps us see what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in chapter 3.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

// ECCLESIASTES 3:11-13 

THE GOD SHOT AND THE HEART

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…  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

// ROMANS 1:21, 25

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 5:23

Coffee is actually good for your heart (and many other aspects of your health). But the way we consume coffee reveals that our hearts are profoundly diseased in a non-medical sense, and this disease permeates our every action, and our every use of the good things God has made.

Our hearts are diseased in such a way that when they control our hands and mouths we perpetuate this disease – inflicting it on others.

Our use of coffee – when it’s not properly directed to giving glory to the creator for what he has made, joyfully co-creating with his good gifts – falls into two opposite and equally pernicious uses of God’s world. We trash it, or we worship it. While both ends of the coffee spectrum – instant or specialty – can involve trashing or wrongly treasuring creation (rather than the creator), they tend to gravitate towards either pole.

Coffee helps diagnose our diseased hearts. We speak casually of coffee addiction, when what we really mean is dependence. We’ve become slaves to this created thing. The labels we apply to coffee – at either end of the quality spectrum – reveal our idolatry. Instant coffee. Specialty coffee. The narrative we use to surround our consumption of coffee is part of the narrative of our lives – and if it isn’t connected to God, this is a problem. 

THE SIN(S) OF INSTANT COFFEE

Instant coffee is symptomatic of the spread of our destructive disease into God’s world – the root cause may well be described as idolatry, but it’s the idolatry of self. Instant coffee. Instant gratification. An instant fix. Caffeine is this tool we’ve harnessed to further our ends, and instant coffee is the most efficient delivery mechanism that maintains some sort of veneer of pleasure (or connection to God’s wondrous coffee bean – I mean, you could take caffeine tablets or inject caffeine – but who’d want to do that?).

But is it instant? Really? We do not question. We don’t need to. Instant coffee is simply fuel, not fun. It’s all science, no art. Pure utility. It is instant. Quick. Cheap. Easy. To focus on the process is to miss the point – or, a lack of focus on the process is precisely the point.

‘Instant’ is a counterfeit claim. It’s not instant (it’s also arguably not coffee). But we want to be ignorant of everything leading up to our fix lest it reveal the deception inherent in the name, and the narrative.

The soluble instant coffee crystal is produced by a convoluted process that, in its lack of care for the world and its people, is both symptom and symbol of our corrupt hearts. It’s a symbol of our quick-paced, fix-driven world of convenient utility and productivity, and a symptom of the corruption we sow wherever our diseased hearts pump sin around our bodies and into our actions.

Our consumption of ‘instant coffee’ involves our consumption of the world around us – consuming both people and planet on the altar of our own convenience.

While much of the world’s coffee – including coffee at the specialty end – is produced in under-developed countries, and many coffee farmers are underpaid (passing that underpayment on to their workers – or slaves) – instant coffee uses the cheapest and nastiest coffee grown in the worst conditions.

The drive to supply the ever-increasing insatiable desire for coffee (largely in the developed west) is leading to deforestation in some of the planet’s most significant rainforests.

The coffee grown for instant coffee is much less likely to be ‘ethical’ on either the environmental, economic, or personal front than anything further along the spectrum towards specialty. This is because the people drinking it care less about quality, and less about process.

Instant coffee is not mankind creatively using God’s good gift to bring life. It’s destructive. This destruction spans the entire process – from planting to packaging, and arguably includes the way the coffee itself is treated – roasted without care, batch produced, dehydrated and crystallised using either extremely hot air or snap freezing. Subjectively speaking it’s hard to see how the generic approach to coffee production – where the only distinction in quality or process appears to be which process is used to crystallise the coffee – can point you to the good and creative creator better than specialty coffee – but if you love the taste of instant, and think you can drink it to the glory of God, then go for it. But remember…

“Most of the ethical problems in today’s coffee industry occur with poor quality Arabica coffee (ie Arabica which is grown at low altitudes, and poorly processed) and most of the world’s Robusta. This low cost coffee predominantly ends up in jars of instant coffee. Many of the large companies that use this coffee don’t purchase based on quality, their most important factor is price — as low as possible.”

// Five SensesWhat is Ethical Coffee

Here’s a rule of thumb. If something you enjoy, that you didn’t produce by the sweat of your brow, is really cheap, then someone else has paid the price. It could be this kid.


Image Credit: The Atlantic.

THE SIN(S) OF SPECIALTY COFFEE

“…the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols… The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth…”

// Calvin, INSTITUTES, I.XI.8

Lest you think I’m only prepared to point the finger at the side of the coffee spectrum I’m biased against – the specialty end of the coffee spectrum is every bit as pernicious. Where instant coffee denies the significance of process, specialty coffee celebrates it – praising the human ingenuity of farmer, roaster, and barista. The idolatry associated with this emphasis on process and control also sees the end user forging their identity on the basis of their consumption decisions.

You are your coffee order. I’ve got no doubt this is true, because it has, at times, been true for me. Here’s a description of the modern obsession with the designer life based on curated choices…

“We declare our individuality via our capacity to consume differently — to mix purchases from Target with those from quirky Etsy shops — and to tweet, use Facebook, or pin in a way that separates us from others . . . Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them.”

// Anne Petersen, ‘Basic is just another word for class anxiety,’ buzzfeed.com

If you want to order the ‘single origin honey processed Costa Rica De Licho as a double shot, three quarter latte, with the milk at 62 degrees’ and you know what each of those things contributes to the taste, and you care so much that you won’t accept any less – then you’re probably engaging in what CS Lewis calls the Gluttony of Delicacy.

“She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern?”

// CS Lewis, SCREWTAPE LETTERS

Sound familiar. Enslaved to sensuality? The woman described in the Screwtape Letters is one being led away from God by her particular tastes, her desire for her needs to be met in just the right way.

“You will say that these are very small sins, and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

// CS Lewis, SCREWTAPE LETTERS

Specialty Coffee is much more likely to be ethically produced. Partly because specialty coffee producers are generally nice people and want to do the right thing, and partly because partnerships on the ground with coffee growers will produce a guarantee of supply and allows the specialty industry to have some control over growing conditions – ensuring a better quality crop. Here’s the thing – such is the disease of our hearts – that even our most altruistic moments are part of a ‘triple bottom line’ approach to life – there’s a sense that we are ethical in our decision making because it is a way to buy some sort of indulgence to mitigate our consumption of the world around us.

We are often ethical because it makes us feel better. If we this wasn’t the case then the ethics of a particular coffee wouldn’t be a massive marketing tool. We’d care more about whether or not ethical systems like Fairtrade actually work (they don’t really, relationship based coffee purchasing seems to be the most ethical approach).

Or, we’re ethical because we see the good that our conscientious purchasing decisions do for someone else, and  feel a sense of pride that  our consumption is making a difference, which frees us to consume more, and invites us to continue to find our identity – or our point of difference – in just how special our decisions are. For us, and others.

The way our diseased hearts affect even our good deeds is the result of what Martin Luther called humanity curved in upon itself (or, in Latin, incurvatus in se) – even our good deeds are directed to our own glory, not to God’s. Even our good use of the coffee bean becomes a chance for us to celebrate our own ingenuity.

The pitfalls of ‘specialty’ coffee aren’t just limited to the bench seats of your local small-batch roaster. They’re just as prevalent in the coffee laboratory of the home coffee snob, who seeks to outsnob the other shots, to pour the most consistent god shots, to control every possible variable with increasingly complex (and expensive) equipment allowing minute adjustments to be made to the grind size, the temperature, the pressure, the water purity – every variable can be tweaked in the pursuit of that elusive and fleeting moment of joy. Joy that should be found in the appreciation of the one who made the coffee bean, and gave us taste buds. This joy is counterfeit joy. It is pleasure. And we seek to stimulate the senses as they grow and develop. The bar keeps raising. We’re never satisfied. We invest in bigger. Better. Brighter. We become discontent. Upgraditis is another word for idolatry.

Too often the quest for the God shot – for joy, be it in coffee, or any good thing God has made, becomes the ultimate quest.

THE SIN OF DELIBERATELY BAD COFFEE

You may have heard the line that really good coffee is expensive, so Christians should steer clear of it in order to spend that money on important work. Like telling people about Jesus.

I’ve certainly heard it.

I’ve used it about other stuff.

Like free range eggs and the environment (Thankfully. While the archives of my blog represent my thoughts in the past – our thinking grows as we do…).

But I don’t think you can separate using God’s world rightly and excellently from telling people about Jesus quite so easily.

The God of the Bible is good. He made a good world. A beautiful world. For people to enjoy – to find their joy in him, through the things he made. While there is certainly a place for asceticism – forgoing pleasures – in the face of a gluttonous world, there’s also a place for aesthetics in the good world God has made. For Christians to be modelling the best uses of God’s world in order to point people to the goodness of God. Otherwise, why will people listen to us when we tell them that God is good? God’s goodness isn’t just revealed at the cross of Jesus – though it certainly is revealed there. It’s revealed in the world he made, and his love for it. Jesus didn’t just die to gather a people (though he certainly did that) – his entering the world, his death, and his resurrection are part of the redemption of the world and God’s plans for a new creation – where the joy we experience fleetingly now will become complete.

Our presentation of the good news needs to be embodied, and it needs to mesh with people’s experience of the world. Too much of our evangelism is disconnected from reality – and there’s incredible scope for aesthetic and existential apologetics as well as the philosophical, or historical stuff we normally engage in, so long as we navigate away from idolatry.

Personally, I think this rules out instant coffee. But you might love the flavour, and find other people who do to… and you might be able to overcome the other issues – like the ethical issues – associated with instant. We’ll deal with this a bit more below – where I’ll again, make my case against Instant Coffee.

DIVINE ‘HEART SURGERY’ AND THE RIGHT USE OF COFFEE

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

// GENESIS 6:5

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

// ECCLESIASTES 3:11

So the God Shot points us to the idea that we were created for something better, while our attempts to capture and reproduce it show that we are broken. Our hearts are simultaneously wired to point us to eternity, and diseased in such a way as to sow death at every turn and in our every action (the very opposite of eternity).

Here’s a cool quote from author William Faulkner when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949… this is, in part, why I think an aesthetic/existential approach to sharing the Gospel is worth pursuing.

“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, NOBEL LITERATURE PRIZE SPEECH, 1949

His whole speech is worth reading – especially if you work as though the poetry he wants people to be writing is an analogy for the God Shot.

The tension in the human heart is not solved by itself – or, as Faulkner suggests – pointing to some higher version of itself. It needs recreation, intervention, a redefinition of what it means for it to beat for its maker again. It needs surgery.

This surgery happens when God makes an incision into time and space, decisively entering to declare both the true trajectory for history, and the true pattern for the human. So, when Paul describes Jesus become a man, within creation, to Timothy, he says:

“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 3:16

This is God performing cosmic heart surgery. This is God pouring himself out on the world. The perfect pour. A multi-sensory experience that redefines every other experience of the senses. It’s only when our hearts are radically realigned with their creator that we can start to appreciate the good things he made the way they were intended to be enjoyed – as good gifts from a good God.

PUTTING COFFEE IN ITS PLACE

Here’s where Paul goes next when he’s talking to Timothy – this little description of Jesus’ entry into time and space – in the flesh – is how Paul is addressing a bunch of wrong thinking about what to do with delicious and nutritious gifts from God (and, indeed, what to do with everything God made).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 4:3-5

It’s worth breaking this down – Paul tells Timothy that some hypocritical liars who have abandoned the faith will come telling people not to enjoy God’s good gifts that were there from creation. Marriage. Good food. But these things were made by God “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” – and in the context this “knowing the truth” must surely be linked to “the mystery from which true godliness springs” – knowing Jesus. This puts the physical world into perspective. It has value (like physical training), and it frames our labour and our strivings – there are echoes of Ecclesiastes 3 to be found here, because this is where meaning is to be found.

“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 4:8-10

The right response to God’s good gifts is not to reject them but to receive them. With thanksgiving. The right response to coffee is not to baptize it – like Pope Clement VIII but to accept it as already good, in line with God’s good intentions for his creation.

When coffee was first introduced to the western world – from Islamic Africa – it was suspiciously treated as the ‘Devil’s Cup’ – before condemning it, Pope Clement VIII asked to try some and apparently said:

“This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptising it…”

Coffee is good. It is made by God. It is made by God to be enjoyed so that we are thankful to God – not trashing it, or treasuring it (as God) – but treasuring God through it. In the next couple of chapters Paul says a few other things about how we’re to approach good stuff God has made.

“Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 5:23

“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 6:6-8

And here is the clincher.

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 6:17-19

God provides us with good gifts for us to enjoy them. We are rich – especially when it comes to the coffee world – our consumption of coffee is a chance for us to enjoy God’s creation, do good deeds, and be generous to others, with our senses fixed on the true life to come.

USING COFFEE TO TELL GOD’S STORY, NOT OUR OWN

“I am not, however, so superstitious as to think that all visible representations of every kind are unlawful. But as sculpture and painting are gifts of God, what I insist for is, that both shall be used purely and lawfully,—that gifts which the Lord has bestowed upon us, for his glory and our good, shall not be preposterously abused, nay, shall not be perverted to our destruction.”

// John Calvin, INSTITUTES I.XI. 12

So. To wrap up. And here’s where I get a little more speculative – feel free to disagree with me…

Lets assume for a moment that when Romans talks about the function of what God makes it’s not our job to sit passively by why the heavens point people to God.

This seems pretty clear. A long held understanding of ‘natural theology’ -which is basically the understanding that we can know of God from nature – is that nature might point us to a God (enough to earn us judgment), but it won’t point us to God as he reveals himself in his word, and in Christ. So, people then think we should focus on sharing this special revelation from God – teaching God’s word and preaching about Jesus… This might be where the “don’t spend money on coffee when you can spend it on Jesus” idea comes from. This involves ignoring one stream of God’s revelation to us (about his character and qualities) in order to promote another. Why not do both?

“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

So. If what a few people call ‘God’s second book’ – what has been made – is meant to point us to God why don’t we think his people have a responsibility to interpret ‘what has been made’ and use it rightly to point people to the maker?

And. Is there any evidence to suggest this is how we should think of the world God has made?

I think so. The Calvin quote shows this sort of idea isn’t novel. But here’s a cool thing – when God creates his people and puts them in the garden, we’re told about the other stuff God makes.

“The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)”

// GENESIS 2:11-12

This is such a bizarre thing to mention. God made lots of other stuff. But we get this mention of some (presumably) really good things he made. Gold pops up all over the place – including when Israel is escaping Egypt.

“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.”

// EXODUS 12:35-36

We’ve covered our tendency towards idolatry already. The tendency to turn God’s good gifts into God, treasuring them too much. Look what happens when Israel is waiting around at the foot of the mountain while Moses speaks with God.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

// EXODUS 32:1-4

Gold. The good stuff God made, that was there at Adam’s disposal, presumably to help remind humanity that God made a good world (the constant refrain in Genesis 1). It has become an idol. It is not revealing God. His second book is not being properly understood – or taught by his people. Here’s another reference to Gold – being rightly used – from the Old Testament. This is Gold being used to tell God’s story – to bring ‘general’ and ‘special’ revelation, or God’s two books, together. Note that Moses is being given the design for this priestly garb at the same time that Aaron is turning the gold into an idol, and that it specifically mentions onyx (there in Genesis 2), and that it makes mention of the artistry of the human craftsman…

“Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen—the work of skilled hands. It is to have two shoulder pieces attached to two of its corners, so it can be fastened. Its skillfully woven waistband is to be like it—of one piece with the ephod and made with gold, and with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and with finely twisted linen, and finally, that the design, and artistry, has a purpose.

“Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD”

// EXODUS 28:6-12

Coffee is gold (it’s a metaphor – like in those banking ads). 

The pursuit of the ‘God Shot’ so long as it is rightly framed by the pursuit of the God who made the coffee, is a way to both enjoy God’s creation with thankfulness, and point others to it.

As you pursue perfection (while knowing it is unattainable this side of God’s new creation), applying ingenuity, science, and art, to achieve the very best cup of coffee possible – so long as you are not turning coffee into an idol – you have a chance to tell God’s story, and ours.

If God brews coffee in heaven (it may well be tea) – I can’t imagine him serving up anything that tastes like International Roast. I don’t think you can truly reveal God’s character from a cup of instant coffee – not when you see the contempt with which it treats his creation, and not when you make the comparison to the significantly richer double ristretto that tastes as good as ground coffee smells.

This is where God’s good creation meets art, meets science, to the glory of a transcendent creative and good God.

God’s story is the gospel – his story of redemption of our broken hearts, and their realignment to him through Jesus. Our use of the world he made should mirror that realignment, and tell that story. This has to change our consumption habits for the benefit of our neighbours – global and local.

Good coffee is proof that God is good.

Handing in my Skeptic’s Card

handing in my skeptics card

I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…

I’m not a skeptic.

This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.

For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.

I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.

There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.

Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”

The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.

I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.

I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity.  But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.

This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.

New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.

Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”

I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

I’m liking this quote more and more.

I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.

CS Lewis on writing

Craig linked to this list of 8 writing tips from CS Lewis. There are eight of them…

  1. Turn off the radio.
  2. Read good books and avoid most magazines.
  3. Write with the ear, not the eye. Make every sentence sound good.
  4. Write only about things that interest you. If you have no interests, you won’t ever be a writer.
  5. Be clear. Remember that readers can’t know your mind. Don’t forget to tell them exactly what they need to know to understand you.
  6. Save odds and ends of writing attempts, because you may be able to use them later.
  7. You need a well-trained sense of word-rhythm, and the noise of a typewriter will interfere.
  8. Know the meaning of every word you use.