Death at the Museum: (or reflections on a tour through Hobart’s MONA)

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”  — James Brett, Museum of Everything Curator, MONA Exhibition, describing the room featuring these guns and a few other men imagining the glories of war from the sidelines.

We went to Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) yesterday; and I was reminded that I have a love-hate relationship with modern art. I can appreciate some of the playfulness, and the imagination. I can celebrate the integration of technology and a narrative. I can enjoy, even, the task of determining ‘does the emperor have clothes on’ at each twist and turn through a carefully curated modern art gallery. But I find modern art, typically, so stifling. So caught up in the ‘here and now’ of our existence; so lacking the ‘backcloth’ of certain belief in something beyond us (to borrow a C.S Lewis metaphor from The Discarded Image). The best modern art is, as philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, ‘haunted’ by the loss of something beyond here and now; the loss of something infinite or transcendent beyond space and time as we experience it.

Whatever art, is, or whatever art does, as we experience it, it both helps us see the world and reflects the world as we see it; if we’re in this sort of frame of reference where there’s nothing beyond the here and now then our art helps us to grapple with that reality as it, itself, grapples with that reality. And if the here and now is all there is, then you might expect modern art to both show us, and help us see, what is important in this sort of world, or it might function as something like the opiate of the masses, distracting us from the utter finitude of our existence.

Mona is a privately owned museum; the hobby of David Walsh, a guy who got super rich as a professional gambler. MONA’s website describes the museum as:

“Mona is one man’s ‘megaphone’ as he put it at the outset: and what he wants to say almost invariably revolves around the place of art and creativity within the definition of humanity. We know that sounds lofty, self-important. But we must be honest with you: our goal is no more, nor less, than to ask what art is, and what makes us look and look at it with ceaseless curiosity.”

One man’s megaphone.

One man with a certain sort of curiousity, but also a certain sort of outlook on the world. One way to make art communicate a certain vision of the world, if you’re not going to make it, is to curate it. And Walsh set out with a particular communication agenda that continues to dominate the Mona experience. Ten years ago, before the museum opened, he told an interviewer there’d be two overarching themes to the gallery: sex, and death.

“The pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death are, according to Walsh, the two most fundamental human motives. All ancient art expresses the need for one or fear of the other, he says, and these themes remain common in contemporary Western art.”

There are also plenty of bars, where you can enjoy a drink. Sex, death, and partying. These are the things that occupy our hearts and minds if this life is all there is. In the materialist account of life (and Walsh is an atheist) then these evolutionary impulses are undirected by anything beyond our own sometimes inexplicable internal urges; and perhaps this is where Walsh is probing with his curatorial curiosity; or his exploration into what art is, and how art and creativity work within our humanity; maybe he’s trying to explain why we have these urges at all, why not some other things? He writes frequently (on his blog, and in Mona published books) about the relationship between evolution and art; art that explores these constant themes.

“We think art is useful by definition—useful, in a deep biological sense. We think that it has played a part in the perpetuation of the species (and maybe, then, it has a lot to answer for).” — Mona Introduction

These words have been bouncing around in my head all day, since our walk through the gallery…

“Fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe… isn’t that what we all do. I think so.”

This quote, from the Museum of Everything exhibition, from a room that came in the course of a journey through the ‘interior life’ of humanity resonated with me. I posted the quote on instagram with the picture above, because it does ring true. This particular room stayed with me; it opened with a series of paintings of battle scenes from a man deemed too frail to go to war, fringed by self portrait photographs of a man holding a series of invented weapons depicting himself as a war hero; a man telling a story of war away from the frontlines, with himself as the hero. The exhibition’s curator, James Brett described the appeal of this room so sublimely; ‘fragile men depicting themselves as masters of the universe’ — and there is a universality of this posturing, especially now that we have a ‘material’ world, where we have no God, or gods, to master us. It’s true not just of the men featured in the room, or of a general human experience in the world where the ‘here and now’ is all we have, and ‘leaders’ like Trump and Kim Jong Un seem to play this out writ large… it rings true of Walsh himself, and his museum-as-megaphone, or ‘museum-as-weapon.’

Mona is a striking and at times confronting exploration of Walsh’s twin themes; the pursuit of the ‘good life’ in the face of death; good life with no hope of life beyond death. But there’s nothing new about his particular understanding of the good life… sex, death, and drinks at the bar at the end of the world — or the ‘Void bar’…

“We believe things like art history and the individual artist’s intention are interesting and important—but only alongside other voices and approaches that remind us that art, after all, is made and consumed by real, complex people—whose motives mostly are obscure, even to themselves.

That, and we want you to have fun. Settle in at the Void Bar. Have a drink.” — Mona Introduction

Sex. Drinking. Death.

There’s nothing new about this approach to life if there’s nothing more out there… When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth back in the first century AD, he suggests this is basically a description of life in Corinth; that our impending mortality leaves most of us with a bucket list that looks a lot like ‘have as much sex and fun as you can’ to stave off death, or at least live in some sort of denial, to, as Walsh put it when setting out, live life around the “pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death.”

Paul says the religious practices of the city of Corinth looked a lot like this (‘rose up to play’ is a euphemism, by the way, for the sex that happened at ‘religious’ and private dinner parties).

“The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” — 1 Corinthians 10:7

The catch is; Paul isn’t just talking about the city of Corinth here, he’s actually quoting directly from the Old Testament; for as long as people were recording the texts that were curated into the Bible as a story of our humanity, people were dealing with life in this world by pursuing sex and drink.  Paul even says that’s the logical thing to do, if the whole God thing isn’t real and story of the Bible isn’t true. He says:

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” — 1 Corinthians 15:32

Again, he’s quoting the Old Testament here… but also just describing how we should approach life if the here and now is all there is… And that’s why I have a love-hate relationship with modern art, and why I can appreciate what David Walsh is trying to do with his megaphone; at the very least he’s trying to give humanity a wake up call to stop us destroying each other and the planet and to start enjoying what time we have.

But I find his megaphone depressing.

I find the idea of life presented by Mona, by modern art, and by the belief that the here and now is all there is of little comfort in the face of death. I read Walsh’s blog posts and feel a weight of sorrow, and mostly a sense of hopelessness. If the evolutionary story is all there is, then it leaves me ill equipped to touch the void; and not even a drink from the bar will numb that sense of loss of something bigger. Being left with ‘tomorrow we die’ is being left with not much at all.

Walsh writes a lot about death; there were these two particularly poignant pieces on the Mona blog, where he’s often explicitly dealing with the death of people he loves, and his own mortality. Here’s a response to being questioned about whether or not he fears death:

“I fear dying, as my biological nature compels me to, but that I contrive, through my evolution-given capacity to reason my way through my world, to see it as an undesirable side effect of the astonishing good fortune of having been born in the first place.” — Springs Eternal, David Walsh, MONA blog

He goes on to talk about the vast improbability of existence in an infinite universe (elsewhere he seems to be a proponent of the multiverse theory of infinite universes). Then, in another piece, he shares the lyrics of a song he wrote pondering the deaths of his friends Donna and Mark, a poem he asked Sting to set to music (there’s a link to the song there). Here are some of the verses from the end of a piece titled ‘O Death Where Is Thy Sting (a reference to a passage in 1 Corinthians 15, just after the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ bit, but prompted, obviously, by Sting’s name). It’s an ode to our mortality.

Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

But…
For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her. — David Walsh, O Death Where Is Thy Sting, MONA blog

Death gets us all. That’s his message. Dark triumphs over light. That’s his message. The darkness of death will swallow all of us.

There is little comfort here; certainly nothing like the comfort offered by belief in the resurrection. If his megaphone is being used to proclaim such emptiness then the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ — or the more classically Aussie: ‘drink and have sex,’ life is a gamble — message is of cold comfort. Those things aren’t paradoxically held in tension with death; the reality of death obliterates them. You can’t do what Walsh hoped Mona would do via art — avoid death — if death will swallow us all.

Ultimately modern art with its obsession with the here and now, material world, being all there is just confronts us with the impending reality of our death; it’s either subtle, hovering in the background somewhere, or as overt as the ‘death room’ at Mona with its MRI scanned sarcophagus. Yes. Mona is at least honest enough to confront us with the reality of death and the grave; but then to simply invite us to eat, drink, and be merry, in response.

But Paul tells a better story; and his song, recorded almost 2,000 years ago, removes the ‘sting’… Because ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ is not his first word, or the final word… it’s the  back up plan; it’s what you do if there is no God, and if this stuff isn’t truer and more beautiful.

And there is a God.

And there is a better story.

We don’t want darkness to destroy light; or death to destroy life; or to be the next in the queue. We do want to avoid death. Because ultimately that’s what being human is all about — participating in God’s story. A story where death is the enemy, where God is light and life.

The story of the Bible explains life to us better than art (and has been the subject of so much art that confronts us with this right up to the modern era). It tells us that life beats death; that light eviscerates darkness, and that meaning is found not by confronting our mortality, but by experiencing resurrection. We can confront death without fear; and our art and stories — the works of our hands — and our lives themselves can point to something higher and grander than the here and now (or help us see the here and now in a new light). If life is a gamble; go all in here.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. — 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

 This changes everything.

A tale of two epitaphs: The haunting of Port Arthur tells a bigger Australian story than it seeks to…

We’re on holidays in Tasmania. It’s stunning. We’ve been to snow fringed lakes, and stunning bays, and we’re now enjoying historic Hobart. Yesterday, en route to Hobart, we spent some time in Port Arthur at the world heritage listed historic site that is the best preserved remnant of Australia’s convict history; it was a prison settlement, and like most historical sites the place itself, and its architecture, tells a story that functions as a backdrop to the stories of lives lived and lost in our nation’s past.

Port Arthur’s historical site, of course, occupies a more recent place in the Australian story and our national psyche. In 1996 it was the site of Australia’s last shooting massacre, when a young man named Martin Bryant entered the historic site and sprayed staff and visitors with bullets, taking 35 lives and leaving 23 people wounded. This shooting led to a significant change to Australia’s gun laws, and left an indelible mark on the historic site; where there’s now a moving tribute to those who were killed or wounded in the massacre, and to those brave people who rushed to the aid of the victims. It’s a solemn monument to a significant moment in our national story.

What fascinated me more than the conditions of the prisoners, government officers, and settlers in the historic site was the prominent space given to Christianity in the lives of both the convicts and the establishment. The church that met on the hill above the settlement hosted services attended by 1,100 people per Sunday. The building that hosted these gatherings was, from 1836, a grand, convict-built, sandstone structure in prime position on the hill; a prominent and unmissable reminder of the place of Christianity in the lives (and attempted reform) of those sent to the colony, a constant visible presence reminding those living in the community of the inherent dignity and value of all human life; a reminder it appears at least some of those in charge of life in the prisons took on board (according to the records quoted in signage on the site).

The parsonage — the home of the protestant minister who ran services at the church — made for interesting visiting and reading. It told the story of three of the chaplains to the community — the first, Rev Durham, was staunchly anti-Catholic, but also advocated for better treatment of prisoners, and for the church to be responsible for education in the community, and a letter from one of the convicts claimed that he’d won the respect of those he was sent to minister to — the convicts. The second chaplain, Reverend George Eastman, had a classic minister’s family, with kids who apparently ran amok, disrupting all sorts of things happening around the community; he too was held in high esteem in the community, but he died on site, and one of the signs in the parsonage particularly struck me, it quotes his epitaph. The words on his grave stone seemed to me to be great words for a preacher of the Gospel to aspire to, but also told the story of the role of the church in a settlement where death was common, and the church did indeed play a prominent role in helping us face our mortality; or rather to offer hope beyond death. The Port Arthur site includes a small island in the bay, the Isle of the Dead, which functioned as the cemetery.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

What stunning words. This man’s ministry to others in the face of death spoke from beyond the grave. A good kind of haunting. The kind that leads to hope; a testimony to glorious immortality for any who put their faith in Jesus. The best we Christians have to offer society; and perhaps the reason the church was so prominent in the early life of this settlement, and other parts of colonial Australia. The Hebrews quote is from a chapter of the Bible that speaks of faith.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. — Hebrews 11:1-4

What a testimony to this man’s ministry and the place of the church in the colony. To a church operating as a city on a hill; a light in the darkness; a voice of hope beyond death. A position reinforced by the environment; a story told by this historic site.

But the story doesn’t end there… because the story of Port Arthur’s historic site is a haunting one; and perhaps more than anything else it is haunted by the loss of a voice like this, or a church like this. And perhaps here there is something of the story of our nation; a parallel haunting story.

The pastor who replaced Rev. Eastman, Rev Haywood, arrived to a settlement in decline; the prison was closing, and to top things off, he started to believe that the parsonage was haunted by ghosts; perhaps Eastman’s. He moved out of the house, then left the settlement in 1877 when the prison closed. The parsonage became the post office. Christianity was moving away from the centre of the community. 7 years later the church building caught fire, just the outer walls remain; a haunting but powerful monument to the place of religion in a site littered with buildings in similar state of disrepair; none are quite so grandly designed or constructed as this building though.

Next to the old church is a much smaller chapel style building, St Davids, which still functions as an Anglican church to this day. When it was commissioned in 1927, the local paper wrote: it’s “a pretty little building, erected in a prominent position in the township in the shadows of the ruins of the old church. It is a welcome addition to the buildings of the township” (the page of the paper available at that link has an interesting little report on a church service at Davey Street Methodist where the address was given by miss Barbara Storey — which tells two fascinating stories about the church in 1927, one being that sermons were summarised in the city’s newspaper, the other being about women preaching not being particularly newsworthy). Prior to the construction of St David’s (in the 50 year gap between 1877 and 1927) services had been conducted in Port Arthur’s town hall, the old Asylum. Now this quaint little building runs regular services in the shadow of a grand, but skeletal, church building that was the town’s most prominent structure; it looks like it could comfortably seat 40 people; it’s a haunting story about the place of the church in Australia; but not the only part of the site that tells this haunting story. Where once there was a grand building, serving 1,100 people per Sunday with the hope of the resurrection, and helping people confront death, now there is this quaint building — that once made the newspaper — providing a handful of tourists, and perhaps some locals, that same message.

The church still has a place in Port Arthur, it’s still kicking along, but it is part of an historic site; a tourist attraction, a relic of an Australia past; representing something every bit as ghostly as the other stories of the past you’re confronted with in your walk around the site, and offering something about as plausible to the average Aussie punter as Rev. Haywood’s ghost sightings.

This wasn’t the most haunting part of our tour of Port Arthur for me. I’m more into ancient history and recent history than the history of colonial Australia; and I can remember exactly where I was, as a 13 year old kid, when I first learned about the Port Arthur shooting. It was a Sunday. I was at youth group, sitting on the stage steps inside the Presbyterian Church building in Maclean, and some of my friends were talking about it. It’s one of those news stories where you remember where you first hear it… It left an indelible mark on my memory; a haunting. Even.

The memorial garden and ‘Pool of Peace’ are a stirring reminder of this moment in our history; I saw a bloke probably a couple of years older than me, sitting quietly and contemplatively on the corner of the pool for a few minutes, perhaps, as I was, pondering the fragility of human life; being confronted by the spectre of death; haunted, still, by the events of 21 years ago. It’s hard to know what to say in response to death, which is why our mortality and the fragility of life is confronting, perhaps it is why the original settlement buried its dead on an island, a boat trip away from the day to day reality; the water providing a buffer between the mundane and its inevitable end; with the church and the ministry of somebody like Rev. Eastman helping to bridge that gap, and providing the comforting picture of “glorious immortality” — the early settlers seemed to grasp that being confronted by death without being comforted by immortality is something more than haunting; more than ghostly; it is ghastly.

But the memorial, in the main, reminds us of the haunting Aussie story; what we’ve lost because we’ve lost the prominent place of people like Rev. Eastman, and the church has gone from being a prominent visual part of life in our community, to having a small presence in the shadows. So. The ‘Pool of Peace’ offers a thoroughly secular response to the events of 1996; haunting words engraved next to the pool and on its edges, another epitaph, in stark contrast to the words on Eastman’s gravestone:

“Death has taken its toll

Some pain knows no release

But the knowledge of brave compassion

Shines like a pool of peace.

May we who come to this garden

Cherish life for the sake of those who died

Cherish compassion for the sake of those who gave aid

Cherish peace for the sake of those in pain.”

These are poetic words. They aren’t without a sort of limited hope, and in some ways they are words that allow the victims of Port Arthur to do what Rev. Eastman does; to keep speaking; to speak of the cost of evil, and the pain and grief that comes through death. You can’t help but be moved by that garden, these words, and the still waters of the pool; tucked into a part of a site that tells a bigger story of Australian life.

Somehow Eastman’s testimony, his epitaph, stands in stark relief to these words though, and somehow this is where the church might still have a role to play in Australia, even if it is to keep us feeling haunted by ghosts of a past we’ve lost, a place we once had… with a message of ‘cheering hope’ that comforts us in our own ‘isle of the dead’, that comforts us as we stand beside graves, or on sites where death has touched us, or haunted us.

“Long and earnestly the pastor laboured to bring souls to Christ, and oft on his calm isle proclaimed to mourning groups the Christian’s cheering hope. The joyful resurrection morn and Glorious immortality. He being dead yet speaketh. Hebrew X1.4” — Rev. George Eastman’s epitaph.

The church is not yet dead; even if it is starting to feel like a bit of a ghost story, or something that haunts our society rather than comforts it. And there’s a small monument to this in the memorial garden too; and perhaps the brightest moment of our trip came from this monument, this sculpture of the cross with the names of those who lost their lives engraved on a plaque, tucked back in the shadows; behind the ‘pool of peace’; a reminder of the prince of peace, the one whose resurrection secures our glorious immortality; the one who spoke life in the beginning, but who also spoke from beyond the grave.

As we rounded the corner, through a tall hedge, into the monument, there were a couple of kids playing underneath this cross. One, a young girl, stretched out her arms and yelled out, breaking the stillness — her voice rippling across the pool — “Mummy! Mummy! I’m dying on the cross like Jesus”… the man sitting peacefully on the edge of the pool looked up, shocked at this breach of the peace, the girl’s mum hushed her, and beckoned her back to her side.

I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. As I caught the eyes of the sombre fountain sitter. He wasn’t smiling, though his eyes were, a little. As we walked up to the inscriptions on the edge of the pool, I heard this girl explaining the Jesus story to her sister. “They killed Jesus on a cross like that, then they put him in a tomb… and then…”

And then.

Haunting.

Cheering hope. Resurrection. Glorious immortality. He being living yet speaketh.

Even in Australia.

The Book of Strange New Things and our hunt for Utopia in the face of death

“… he used often to say, that the way to heaven was the same from all places, and he that had no grave had the heavens still over him..” ― Thomas More, Utopia

utopia-banner

The first strategy computer game I ever played was a relatively obscure Amiga game called Utopia. It introduced me to Pachabel’s Canon in D, to real time strategy games, to the idea of space colonisation and at least conceptually to the concept of utopia. Utopia comes from Thomas More’s book of the same name; it literally means (from the Greek) ‘no place’ (there’s a bit of a play on ‘eutopia’ which is pronounced the same and means ‘good place’; but it’s a sort of ideal place that one either hopes to create, or that we use as the sort of vision of what could be that we compare all other places against; it’s like the platonic ideal of what any community, city, or nation could be. In some sense when we try to make the world a better place; or to create some sort of new place, be it in our homes or communities, we’re working towards some sort of utopian vision.

Its opposite is dystopia, or in the Greek ‘bad place’; and so much of our modern angsty teen fiction is dystopian; taking places in the sorts of worlds pictured by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell; where everything is falling apart, but most especially human civilisation.

Most of us, more or less, as we get older, feel like the world we live in is more dystopian than eutopian; that’s why the ‘2016 sucks’ thing is a meme, but it’s also true in our personal lives the more we confront death, illness, disease, and human corruption and evil.

Most of us like the idea of striving towards a (e)utopia; so dystopian stories have protaganists who are challenging the status quo to inspire us while offering a sort of resonance with the world we live in, or some explanatory power for why life is what it is, utopian stories invite us to imagine the world as it could be, but they feel so other-worldly and distant.

In Utopia (the game) you play a commander tasked with establishing a colony on a series of planets inhabited by alien races; these races are always hostile, and so your Utopian vision is eutopian only for your own colonists; and it is achieved by military might and conquest, while the island of Utopia in Thomas More’s Utopia was created via conquest; Utopia’s Hythloday, returning to England, suggests that utopias built by princes committed to war are no eutopia at all, and this is part of the problem a true utopia must address.

“In the first place, most princes apply themselves to the arts of war, in which I have neither ability nor interest, instead of to the good arts of peace. They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms by hook or by crook than on governing well those that they already have.” — Thomas More, Utopia

 

Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things is both a utopian story and dystopian story; and brings both the space colonisation of Utopia (the game) together with More’s utopian vision. It is a story straddling two world and telling two simultaneous inter-woven stories about a married couple living ‘places’ apart; Peter, the husband, in a potential eutopia, a new space-colony where he’s sent as a Christian missionary to evangelise the indigenous residents (the humans are the aliens here) at their own request, Bea, the wife, stays at home as the world falls apart in an cataclysm that looks much like John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation.

Faber wrote this story, what he says will be his final novel, as his wife fought terminal cancer; apparently composing, and reading her, six lines of the novel a day towards the end before sending off the completed manuscript as she died. This real-world dystopian story adds a degree of poignancy to the novel where the strain of being galaxies apart with very different missions in very different places proves costly to Peter and Bea’s marriage.

The Book Of Strange New Things is a deeply religious book, in that it’s not just about the difference between eutopia and dystopia, but where God is in both, and where he is in the gap between our hope for reality and reality itself (or perhaps even how God bridges, or doesn’t, certain gaps). It’s a powerful and challenging story; there’s some theological stuff in there that is thought-provoking, and some that I found grating.

Faber is not a Christian, but he grew up in a Christian family and he’s certainly trying to salvage some of the more beautiful and hope-giving parts of his upbringing as he processes the real world of pain and death through the lens of a corporation working towards its utopian vision on a new planet, and his dystopian earth. His Christian protaganists embody the very best things about liberal-evangelical Christianity; there is much to Peter and Bea’s approach to God, church, faith, and mission in the book that I love, but some stuff in how they approach the Bible, humanity, prayer, and God that might have made Christianity more comforting, not less, for the protaganists and for Faber and his wife, Eva.

It’s hard to write about just how profound The Book Of Strange New Things is without talking about the story in a way that might involve spoilers.

Peter is selected to travel to this far away planet, dubbed ‘Oasis’ to be a missionary to the native Oasans; hominoid creatures with faces that look like walnuts. The colonisation program is run by a corporation dubbed USIC; it is dependent on the support of the Oasans who provide food, but USIC’s utopian vision (largely true to More’s) requires the colonisation be peaceful and non-imperialistic (how else can the corporation sell its vision to the sort of ‘good’ people it requires to build a new eutopian society?). The Oasans have previously had contact with another missionary, originally supplied as a chaplain to the colonising team of engineers and construction workers to help with their displacement from life back home. They’ve heard bits of the Bible, which they call The Book Of Strange New Things, but the first missionary has gone AWOL and, in protest, the Oasans cut off supply of food. Peter is very important, pivotal, to the Utopian vision; but he doesn’t know it. Bea, his wife, is not selected to go with Peter on the journey, so the novel opens with their goodbyes, and establishes just how difficult a move to communication-in-absence will be for them; Peter highly values intimate face-to-face contact, and is suspicious of technology; the deep intimacy their marriage is built and thrives on will be supplanted, for a time, with communicating via a text-only tool called ‘the shoot’. Both Peter and Bea came to Christianity from messed up ‘origin stories’ — Peter was a drug dealing, drug stealing, addict, while Bea was abused by her family, and then, it seems, by others. They are very real; and their descriptions of life in their church and community are quite beautiful reflections on what it means to be Christ to others.

Once he makes the ‘jump’ to Oasis, Peter grapples with life in the USIC compound, and its utopian vision, while finding something like a sense of a eutopian vision as he lives amidst the Oasans. The Oasans have largely learned english through Bible studies, and trade with USIC (for medical drugs); they’re particularly excited about Jesus (and not at all excited about Old Testament stories of war and victory); they re-dub themselves, by order of conversion, as “Jesus Lover Number X”. Peter concludes that these aliens are largely without sin; but that their fervour for Christianity is driven by the hope of avoiding death. They are genetically frail, with no capacity to heal themselves so that any wound is fatal. These are bodies that need escaping… While Peter is coming to terms with his mission to the Oasans (which is flourishing) and the USIC colony (which is struggling), and the different utopian visions he’s encountering on Oasis; Bea’s world, earth, is falling apart. There are deadly storms, volcanoes, and wars. There’s economic collapse which sees the system in the home city in England totally collapse (starting with the banks and supermarkets). Crime is rampant. Peter and Bea’s church falls apart when the pastor who replaced Peter embezzles money and has an affair. Their pet cat which is something like a child to them is tortured by local teens and put down. Rubbish piles up. People turn to alcohol and the street smells like vomit. Wild storms break their windows and fill the house with mould. Everything is ‘not good’… it’s dystopian. It’s armageddon. It’s exactly the sort of thing USIC is relying on to drive demand for their Utopia.

The gap between Peter and Bea widens not just because of the physical chasm between them, but because their experience, their communication, their realities are so different; and it’s not just a question of whether their love can survive, but whether faith and hope can survive too across this gap. There’s also a real question being asked about where real hope is found for humanity; because death continues in the utopia of Oasis; and communities built without friction, conflict, intimacy, or love, don’t seem to offer much hope to anyone. Everyone in USIC compound operates as the sort of ‘buffered self’ described in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. They don’t share their stories with one another; in fact, to do so is discouraged. They just do their jobs; they’re homo economicus; humans whose sole purpose is to produce results that will create USIC’s utopia. Peter needles away at their buffering layers of protection; always on the look out to bring the barriers down, to learn something of the more porous, more dependent, humans within these artificial shells. But at the same time he’s buffering himself when it comes to communicating with Bea; she is porously leaning on him for support in processing dystopian earth, while he can’t, or won’t, put words to what’s going on for him, or in his mission and he struggles to care about anything that isn’t totally proximate to his day-to-day reality, and his pursuit of his own personal utopia; a community of Oasan Jesus Lovers. His buffers are down in the Oasan community; where he sub-consciously ‘goes native’ such that he achieves a certain amount of clarity about USIC’s vision.


As a brief aside, I’m not sure aliens can be ‘preached to’; nor are they necessarily in need of ‘redemption’… redemption, in the real book of strange new things, the Bible, is for the whole frustrated creation but it comes via the redemption of God’s fallen image bearers (Romans 8). Sin, ultimately, is about humans deliberately choosing not to bear God’s image; to represent him. It’s a human thing caught up with our telos; our created purpose. It’s quite possible that if alien life is found those aliens will be ‘without sin’ (I tend towards thinking this won’t happen, because I think because the universe is centred on Jesus, it’s also geared towards being ‘centred on humanity’). This, to me, undermined the premise of the story a little, though the story is fiction and does at least imply they aren’t sinful…


Bea, who’d led Peter into Christianity, ultimately tosses in her faith, or seems to; the dystopian reality becomes too much, especially in Peter’s absence. The story ends with Peter handing the Oasans his Bible, tearing down his ‘buffers’, and making a hasty return to earth; because he realises his place is by Bea’s side. He’d rather be in a dystopia offering hope through intimate love, than removed from the face of suffering in a ‘Utopia’ still confronted with the reality of death. But we’re left hanging on the question of what he finds when he gets there; and even whether this was the right thing to do.

Death looms large in this story. One of its defining and haunting messages is perhaps that no eutopia can be found in a world where death happens, only dystopia. Real hope has to confront death head-on. It can’t just sanitise the information we receive and hide us from messy and sick people so that we pretend it’s not there. People on Oasis still die; sometimes suddenly, and death still hurts and haunts even in a culture where attachment is discouraged (USIC selects its workers largely on the basis of having no attachments at home, and a likelihood that they won’t forge them on Oasis).

The tension in the narrative hangs on what a good life looks like in the face of death; and whether this goodness is best expressed pursuing a potential utopian future, or amidst the suffering in the dystopian reality; a tension no doubt supplied by Faber’s own life. Questions within this frame are raised about where God is in proximity to death, and what hope looks like amidst death with or without God. This is also where protaganist Peter’s Christian faith, and mine, significantly diverge, and where, perhaps, some real hopeful answers to Faber’s questions; human questions can be found. One thing I love about The Book Of Strange New Things is that there’s enough ambiguity in the ending, and Peter’s journey, that I’m not totally sure where he ends up on this particular question. Peter is essentially a neo-gnostic; his belief is that we’re a soul in a sack of meat; where, in a recent post, the secular neo-gnosticism believes we’re a sack of meat driven by our ‘mind’ and our ‘feelings’, Peter still believes there’s a transcendent part of us waiting to escape to a truly Utopian future (the last bit of The Book Of Strange New Things he translates for the Oasans is Revelation 21-22). Peter’s hope is not in the resurrection of our bodies; bodies destroyed by our dystopian existence and ravaged by sin, disease, and death; but in our soul’s return to God. And this hope is not enough.

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

Peter loses his faith; or at least embraces doubt. In part because he is confronted with the miracle of embodied existence, but also because he consciously decides that real treasure; real ‘utopia’ is embodied, and is about being with the one you love in the midst of dystopian circumstances. His closing words are extra poignant given what was happening in his life are a powerful account of where Faber may or may not have found some sort of utopia in the midst of his suffering. After his wife sends him a message urging him to stay on Oasis and not return, Peter says:

“Safe or unsafe, happy or unhappy, my place is by your side. Don’t give up. I will find you.”

And as he prepares to board the ship back to earth, he ponders the words of Matthew 6, and 28, that he has committed to memory.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ He thought of Matthew’s last words, and the meaning they could have for two people who loved each other: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

He’s turned those words in on themselves; made their focus embodied life here and now, but this is a product of Peter’s emaciated Gospel; his neo-gnostic gospel offers no real hope in the face of death, and it’s that Gospel Peter was leaving; the idea that hope in the face of death is about escape from this existence, and the miraculous reality of our bodies, left Peter running towards embracing this embodied existence. I don’t feel like either of these options offer real hope in the face of death and dystopia; certainly not the sort of hope that makes our hearts sing, and our bodies strive. It’s not the stuff dreams can be made of; because our dreams, and the singing hearts that inspire us towards anything are the product of our embodied existence.

Faber is right that real hope in the face of death must be embodied. I’m just not sure this means we need to toss the Christian God out of the picture. Because the Christian story is the story of God’s embodiment; that a divine person, Jesus, fully becomes a human person.

Real hope in the face of death isn’t about changing Jesus’ promise “I am with you always” to be about your presence with the person you love (though it might shape your presence with the one you love); it is found seeing ‘God with us’ as a fundamental promise that begins now, and stretches into eternity, beyond death; a promise that creates a utopia.

Real hope doesn’t just confront death head-on, it confronts it fully acknowledging that we are embodied creatures; and this is what perhaps is satisfying in a secular sense for Faber, and readers who’ve moved beyond belief, with the ending of the story. Peter acknowledges death as an embodied person by heading back into dystopia to love with his presence amidst suffering; there’s a sort of immanent hope in this, that our momentary experiences of suffering might be relieved or shared in the context of love… but this is also where Peter’s Christianity is ill-equipped to help him serve either the Oasans, Bea, or the USIC utopia.

Peter’s Christianity is described, sympathetically, throughout the book, but what he does with death is on display when he’s invited to speak at the funeral of a USIC employee, Art Severin. He breaks with convention by bringing Art’s buffers down; sharing much of his life story (from his files) with the assortment of colleagues who made it along for the ceremony. His message of hope in the face of death is a message of dis-embodied hope; of the release of Art’s soul:

Art Severin isn’t here anymore; he’s somewhere else, somewhere where we can’t be. We’re standing here, breathing air into those funny spongy bladders we call lungs, our torsos shaking slightly from the pump action of that muscle we call a heart, our legs getting uncomfortable from balancing on our foot-bones too long. We are souls shut inside a cage of bones; souls squeezed into a parcel of flesh. We get to hang around in there for a certain number of years, and then we go where souls go. I believe that’s into the bosom of God. You may believe it’s somewhere different… ow you’re in the next life, where your body won’t let you down anymore, and you don’t need insulin and you don’t crave nicotine, and nobody betrays your trust, and every mystery you racked your brains about is clear as day now, and every hurt you ever suffered is OK now, and you’re feeling pity for us down here, still dragging our heavy bodies around.’

This is a demonstration of the neo-gnostic anthropology he spells out as informing his approach to the physical differences he encounters in the Oasans.

“In the eyes of God, all men and women are naked. Clothes are nothing more than a fig leaf. And the bodies beneath are just another layer of clothing, an outfit of flesh with an impractically thin leather exterior, in various shades of pink, yellow and brown. The souls alone are real. Seen in this way, there can never be any such thing as social unease or shyness or embarrassment. All you need do is greet your fellow soul.”

Much like the secular neo-gnostic advocate of a non-binary approach to gender, Peter believes the body is a meat sack and the real us lies somewhere within (or beyond) that physical reality. As he brings the Gospel to the Oasans he starts to realise that the death of the body really matters to them (it’s later that he realises they can’t heal themselves, and that ‘our bodies are miraculous’); this exchange comes as he tries to help them understand that God’s people are the church (ฐurฐ in Oasan, because they can’t say ‘s’ or ‘ch’ or a bunch of other sounds). Kurtzberg is the chaplain who went AWOL…

Jesus Lover Five, in the front row as always, swayed to and fro in disagreement. ‘ฐurฐ iสี ฐurฐ,’ she stated. ‘We are we. God iสี God.’ ‘When we are filled with the Holy Spirit,’ said Peter, ‘we can be more than ourselves: we can be God in action.’ Jesus Lover Five was unconvinced. ‘God never die,’ she said. ‘We die.’ ‘Our bodies die,’ said Peter. ‘Our souls live for ever.’ Jesus Lover Five pointed a gloved finger straight at Peter’s torso. ‘Your body noรี่ die,’ she said. ‘Of course it will die,’ said Peter. ‘I’m just flesh and blood like anyone else.’

Jesus Lover Five had fallen silent. Peter couldn’t tell if she was persuaded, reassured, sulking or what. What had she meant, anyway? Was Kurtzberg one of those Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalists who believed that dead Christians would one day be resurrected into their old bodies – magically freshened up and incorruptible, with no capacity to feel pain, hunger or pleasure – and go on to use those bodies for the rest of eternity? Peter had no time for that doctrine himself. Death was death, decay was decay, only the spirit endured.

Peter’s new gnosticism is hopeless; it’d only be a real comfort to us if our experience of existence — our humanity even — was not so thoroughly linked to our bodies. It’s a promise of no longer being human; which is not good news at all, and which undermines the very good news at the heart of the Gospel; that Jesus became human, not just as he walked the earth, but eternally. The Oasans challenge him to reconcile his view with Corinthians; Peter realises they’re talking about 1 Corinthians 15, which in a hint of Faber’s own dissatisfaction with Peter’s answer, Peter realises he hasn’t memorised because he has never preached it. His Gospel is, at this point, only half a Gospel. He flicks his Book Of Strange New Things open and reads:

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,’ he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ Reading the words aloud, Peter reconnected with why he hadn’t ever used them in his sermons. The sentiments were sound enough but the rhetoric was a bit more bombastic than he felt comfortable with. To do those words justice, you’d need a highly dramatic delivery, a touch of thespian pomp, and he just wasn’t that kind of orator. Low-key sincerity was more his style. ‘What Paul is saying here,’ he explained, ‘is that when we give our souls to Christ, the part of us that dies and decays – the body – is clothed with something that cannot die or decay – the eternal spirit. So we have nothing to fear from death.’ ‘Nothing,’ echoed several of the Oasans. ‘

That’s not at all what Paul is saying. But this view, this negative view of the body-as-temporary-meat-sack, underpins Peter’s faith, his sense of human dignity and his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus itself; what’s a little odd is that his approach to ministry, his ‘missiology’ is very embodied and ‘incarnate’ and this is so thoroughly inconsistent with his actual beliefs.

He only wished he’d had the chance to explain more fully how prayer worked. That it wasn’t a matter of asking for things and being accepted or rejected, it was a matter of adding one’s energy – insignificant in itself – to the vastly greater energy that was God’s love. In fact, it was an affirmation of being part of God, an aspect of His spirit temporarily housed inside a body. A miracle similar, in principle, to the one that had given human form to Jesus.

Peter’s Jesus is only ‘temporarily’ human, as we are, and so the hope his Jesus offers beyond death is something like being reconnected to the source of the ‘energy of God’s love’… which is so ephemeral as to be almost totally meaningless. Before he realises how death is a looming and distressing reality for the Oasans; driving them to Jesus; Peter kicks off his mission and his delivery of the Book of Strange New Things with his translation of Psalm 23.

And, from the first page, he read Psalm 23. ‘The Lord be He who care for me. I will need no more . . . ’ and so on, until he reached ‘I will dwell in the home of the Lord for ever.’ Then he read it again. And again. Each time he read it, more of the Oasans read it aloud with him. Were they reading or reciting? It didn’t matter. Their communal voice was swelling, and it sounded melodious and clear, almost entirely free of vocal impairments. ‘He bid me lie in green land down. He lead me by river where no one can drown. He make my สีoul like new again. He lead me in the path of Good. He do all thiสี, for He be God.

Psalm 23 is not simply a promise that our souls will depart an coagulate in some sort of nebulous divine life; it is a promise of re-creation; that the image God breathed into; the human body he formed will be raised and restored to its former glory. The Psalm is full of references to Eden; to the creation of man; but also to the ancient ceremonies of restoring an exiled ‘image’ of God (a statue) to its function of serving and representing God in his temple. The promise of a restoration of the soul is not some empty ‘you’ll depart and that longing will be quenched’ but rather ‘you’ll be made new and given divine life’; embodied life, as one of God’s creatures made in his image. It’s the promise of Romans 8; which the redemption of the cosmos (God’s grand temple) depends on. It’s a promise — a hope — that hinges on the rest of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, the hope of real full-bodied resurrection free from the scourge of death and disease; and of our dystopian inclinations; where our humanity contributes to the ongoing sense of eutopia, rather than bringing ruin. This isn’t just about some sort of releasing of our soul… if only Peter had been more inclined to hang on to the truth at the heart of this passage; if only Faber himself found comfort in these words… because this is the real hope that drives us towards utopia…

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. — 1 Corinthians 15:42-49

It’s a promise — a hope — God guarantees by the now-permanent humanity of his son; the one whose body exists beyond death, who offers a true Utopian vision; who bridges the gap and provides the way ‘to heaven out of all places’; a path from dystopia, and a vision of hope beyond pain, suffering, and death, a eutopian vision that Peter ultimately couldn’t bring himself to give to the Oasans in translated form (except that he hands them his own complete Book Of Strange New Things).

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” — Revelation 21:1-4

Both the novel The Book Of Strange New Things and the real Book Of Strange New Things are worth reading; both offer Utopian visions. Both know that our human intuition that real hope is embodied is real. The novel takes that intuition and invites us to ground our response to death to being with those we love in our dystopian here and now; the other is profoundly good news; eutopian news; that both invites us to see that the here and now matters, and that love helps, but also offers us hope through and beyond death when we taste the love of the infinite God who made the world utopian, and who, rather than standing distant from our suffering and death, entered into the dystopian frustration our sin causes to do something about it.

 

 

The suffocating sense of no safe place to ride and how to breathe again

tyler

Tyler: An exit-door procedure at 30.000 feet. Mm-hmm. The illusion of safety. You know why the put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile, you accept your fate. — Fight Club

The news this week has been awful. It’s awful every week. But this week in particular, for me, because it has reminded me that we exist with what Tyler Durden in Fight Club calls ‘the illusion of safety’… we’re never really safe; and the news this week has so totally robbed me of my sense of safety.

The illusion of safety has been torn from us; and I want an oxygen mask and the euphoric docility it promises. I want to forget the world isn’t safe and to go back to my day to day existence free from fear.

That’s seemed harder this week. First the horrible, tragic, nightmare at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and then today, this horrific, awful, heartbreaking story of a Brisbane bus driver whose life was suddenly and dramatically taken while he was sitting in his bus at the bus stop on the street of a suburb very close to mine. The thing that gets me about these stories is not just the experience of the victims and their families; but the witnesses. And in the bus story — the helpless passengers on the bus not only had to experience the trauma of witnessing the attack, but 11 were treated for smoke inhalation as a result…

I don’t really want to leave my home. My wife and daughter are travelling by bus today, it’s so easy for me to imagine them, or me, being on the bus when that senseless, deadly, act of violence took place. It’s terrifying. And that’s the point. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the passenger seats along with those who witnessed the horror; or in the queue for the ride at Dreamworld… I don’t just feel the shock of grief at the random and pointless destruction of human life; but the fear of witnessing something like that. I don’t want to be confronted with death; I want to stay safe… but more than that, as a parent I definitely don’t want my daughters or son being scarred by witnessing this stuff.

I want to keep them safe.

But I can’t.

I want to ride safely on the bus, or a theme park ride, but I can’t.

Where are the oxygen masks?

When will they drop down to numb this fear; the thing that confronts us when we face up to death and tragedy. I can only imagine the grief being experienced by the family and friends of those killed on that ride, and the bus driver… We can only imagine it, but that is not to say we don’t feel it, the sorrow, the anger, the sense that something is wrong and the world has changed forever through this loss. The imagination is powerful; its how we are able to empathise, but it’s also what makes us feel fear when the world becomes unsafe.

How do we face these realities so that the fear flees? Where do we go to re-capture the illusion of safety? Where’s our oxygen mask? Is there some way to restore the sense that the world is safe, if not make it safe?

The irony is that roller coasters are a sort of controlled environments; or they’re meant to be; a machine made to help us face our fears while being in control. When I heard the story of the tragedy at Dreamworld I had two responses; first, I remembered my one visit to Dreamworld, as a child, and how much our family loved the particular ride. Second, I remembered this obscure interview about how ride designers design rides as stories that I heard on the ABC radio, and this quote about what rides do:

“They are a choreography of movement and emotion. The best coasters know how to pace themselves and pace the rider; not only for the biggest scream, but the biggest highs and lows… Thrill rides are a safe way to do something slightly, seemingly dangerous, even though they’re not. They’re statistically very safe, but they get you close to the feeling of being out of control; the feeling of falling; the feeling of ‘oh no I’m going to die’… Coasters are ‘fear minus death equals thrill’… ” — Dave Cobb, Roller Coaster Designer on 612 ABC Brisbane in January this year.

Statistically very safe. But not totally safe. Sometimes deadly. Sometimes the ride ends in tragedy. Roller Coasters are ‘storytelling machines’ perhaps especially when the statsWhen you get told the risks involved in any medical procedure or activity it’s always ‘1 in x thousand’ and we just write that risk off, but to borrow a line from The Whitlams, if she’s one in a million, then there are five more just in New South Wales.

We live like the passenger on the plane, with the illusion of safety.

And sometimes that illusion comes crashing down.

Well, when we read the news that illusion comes crashing down.

Death sucks. And I mean that both in the ‘it’s terrible’ sense but also in the ‘it’s a black hole that swallows up things that are good’ sense too.

So what do you do when life confronts you with this news; when it feels like it is rubbing your face in it; when you open your browser to your favourite news site and are confronted with death at a theme park, or the senseless killing of a public servant in the middle of a busy suburban street?

Where do we go to feel safe? Is that even possible?

Where are our oxygen masks?

I think there are two real options. Three if you count denial; but I’m not sure empathy really allows that; the sense that it could’ve been me, or I could’ve witnessed it… if we aren’t eye witnesses any more then the media, and social media, is doing a pretty good job of making it just as though we were there; inviting us to relive the moment and take part in a digital post-mortem. There’s CCTV everywhere — and of both incidents. But there are two options. There’s the Tyler Durden option, and there’s the Jesus option.

There’s another pretty big moment in Fight Club where Tyler Durden is training; and breaking; his anarchist recruits. This speech plays over the montage.

“Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart. This is your life. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else. We are all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world. You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes that we wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car that you drive. You are not your khakis. You have to give up. You have to know that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.” — Tyler Durden.

This is Durden’s version of the oxygen mask. It’s meant to buy him an army of soldiers willing to face death in order to ‘live life to the fullest’; at least as his vision of the full life requires; the life lived free from the fear of death, and free from being defined by your possessions; free to experience unfettered pleasure in the moment before death hits.

This is the approach so many of us modern people take; we’ve cut ourselves off from a sense of meaning beyond the material, and beyond ourselves, which means the only way we can face death is pile all the pleasure we can into the moment we have.

Or as Paul puts it, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’…

That’s probably the best chapter of the Bible that points me somewhere safe; an oxygen mask if you like; when it comes to witnessing the suckiness of death and realising that we’re never really safe from its grasp, it could happen any time, even on experiences that are ‘statistically safe’… this is the Jesus option, the one where death doesn’t have the last say.

This bit of the Bible is a good one to turn to after you’ve read the news.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… — 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

It’s that he believes the truth of this message that allowed Paul to stare death in the face, and to pen these famous words that help us face our own death without the same fear.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:55

Death still hurts. It still has a massive cost for us; and especially for those most proximate to it. We’re not meant to turn a blind eye to the enormity of it, or to its wrongness; the Tyler Durden approach might feel true but it ultimately leads to us being totally disconnected from the tragedy of death in the lives of others… which is why ‘members of Project Mayhem don’t have names’… and where the Narrator rebels from Tyler’s design by insisting that Robert Paulson does have a name; he’s not quite ready as his alter-ego to buffer himself off from the reality of death. Being confronted with the reality of death doesn’t mean simply accepting it and embracing stoic fatalism, but finding ways to grieve with and love our neighbours — perhaps especially as we’re grieved by death together — because we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with death. We should lament, but we should also offer the real oxygen masks because death doesn’t have to have the final say.

That’s why Paul is motivated to share the news of life with people; because we have an answer to the scourge of death.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58

We’re handing out real oxygen masks; and the safety offered through Jesus isn’t just an illusion. The promise of death’s defeat is caught up with the promise of life without death, and with God. This is the vision of the good life held up by the Bible and the cause we live for in response to death; Tyler had project mayhem a project designed to strip the ‘illusion of safety’ away; leaving us with chaos. We have project re-creation; the opportunity to point people to real safety.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:3-5

The prayer of Christians facing death has been the same since he left, promising to return; the words the Bible finishes with in the book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

It’s a prayer that recognises the awful suckiness of death; that it is a broken version of reality and that we are right to hate it and feel its awful weight, but that also recognises that God has an answer to death and he gives it to us through Jesus; the one who died and was raised.

Come Lord Jesus.

Not just to bring the illusion of safety; or the acceptance of our deathly fate; but to defeat death and truly make us safe from its touch. Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and John in Revelation, stake the whole of Christianity on their testimony to the truth of this message. This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you witness or read these news stories, or anything that rips the illusion of safety ripped from your grasp, the place to find it again is in the empty tomb of Jesus and the promise that it is the start of something new happening in the world. Jesus is your oxygen mask, but he doesn’t just offer the illusion of safety; it’s real. I’m betting my life on that anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

His name was Aylan Kurdi

Just a heads up — there’s an image at the end of this post that’s incredibly shocking. But that’s absolutely the point and you need to see it.

kids

I have a three year old daughter. Her name is Sophia. I love people to know about her, to hear about her, and to meet her. Because she is a delight. A living breathing smile. Mostly. A picture of much that is good about the world. A delight, but at times, a terror. Her behaviour is so typical of the mixed bag of humanity, one moment she’s cuddling her little sister, the next she’s sitting on her little brother. The same voice that sings beautifully jangled jingles from Disney movies and Colin Buchanan, and Playschool, is occasionally used for dishonesty, but also for honest apologies and that sweet phrase “I love you”… I’ll never tire of that. I see so much of what is good about life and humanity in my kids, and I hope others do too.

Kids are precious. My three year old is precious to me. But she’s not just a terror, she (and my other two children), terrify me. Or more specifically, the thought of something horrific happening to them terrifies me. I’m a significantly more anxious person now that I’m a parent. I’ve taken to caring more for my own well being simply because I want to be around for longer, but there’s this enhanced sense, or an enhancement of my senses, that comes with this new role, and responsibility, to keep my progeny safe and breathing, and to give them whatever I can (but not whatever they think they want) to enable them to flourish in this world. I want them to seek refuge in their home, in me and my wife, and ultimately in God. My children need refuge, they need a home, they need security. And I want to provide that through whatever means possible.

I say this all because despite my heart being so caught up with the delight, and the terror, of parenting, I can’t begin to fathom the life of parents whose existence is so fraught that they must risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, to seek refuge elsewhere. Families like the Syrian family of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body just washed up on the shores of Turkey.

We need to do better. The international refugee crisis is a massive and complex issue. There’s no easy solution. But the thing that will stop us finding solutions is the comfort that comes from not being confronted by these issues.

I was trying really hard not to see the picture of Aylan on social media today because I knew it would make me feel incredibly uncomfortable. And it did. But I’m thankful for the people sharing it because me feeling comfortable, and others feeling comfortable, with not paying attention is what stops change happening.

This is Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Just like my Sophia. And his parents wanted the best possible life for him. Just like I do for my kids, and if you have kids, just like I hope you do for yours.

This is Aylan Kurdi, who will no longer delight his parents, but instead will bring them grief as their terror is realised. Their very worst fear. UPDATE: It turns out his mother and brother also drowned. Tragedy upon tragedy. Grief upon grief.

This is Aylan Kurdi on the shore of a Turkish beach. Shores where the Gospel washed up with the Apostle Paul back in the first century. Shores close to the churches who received John’s letter of Revelation.

I hate death. And this is a universal tragedy. It transcends religious belief and it feels trite to get all preachy in response. But I have nowhere to turn but God when this sort of tragedy happens. Nowhere but God and his promises for a better, death-free world. No thing to turn to but writing, the attempt to articulate my hope for a better future — as an alternative to grief and despair.

Here’s what John records as a promise from Jesus at the end of his letter, in chapters 21 and 22.

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new…
…He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Yes. Come Lord Jesus.

But in the mean time, we can do better, but only if we are confronted with pictures and stories like this and forced from our comfort.

A matter of life and breath

“Ok. Let’s start CPR”

Breath.

We take it for granted right up until the moment that it is gone.

I’m in hospital this week, celebrating the incredible miracle of new life. New breath. For the third time I was there. Physically. Emotionally. Present. There. In the room. Waiting. Watching. Listening.  There, as a mouth opened, and filled a set of lungs with oxygen for the first time.

breath

Breathe little girl.

Thankfully, our little one, has not required CPR. But in a hospital there are many who do. In hospital, life and death exist as the start or end point of different journeys. Hospitals beat airports when it comes to the scale of human emotions. When I walk the corridors I remember the training I was given for news reading — bizarrely — whether its bad news or good, people like the comforting empathy of a warm smile. The smile conveys a subliminal wink and a nod, from a third party, to the idea that life will go on, that everything will pan out. Even if its patently obvious that it won’t. Even if it’s clear that everything has, or will, change. I walk around the hospital with my empathetic newsreader smile plastered on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Just in case. But I listen as I walk. Because the hospital experience, tied up as it is with life and death, is something that feels almost sacred.

“OK, let’s start CPR.”

Life is incredible, and, linked as it is to breathing, breath is incredible. The capacity for the very atmosphere that surrounds us to sustain life is remarkable. Yet like good typography, breath often goes unnoticed. We take it for granted.

I notice it when I’m short of it — in the throes of exercise, or on a cold winter’s night as my mild asthma starts constricting my chest — but other than that its simply automatic. I find myself thinking about breathing if I’m trying to exercise some control over something that I feel like I ought to be more invested in, when I feel the need to still my heart and my thoughts, or when I want to sneak out of a sleeping child’s room unnoticed.

But breath is a miracle.

Breathe little girl.

Nothing reminds you of that faster than a hospital. Where breath is there one moment, and gone the next. Or, more happily, where a breath is taken for the first time.

My newest progeny, Elise, is three days old now. She is alive. She is healthy. She breaths. She is a wonder to me. A beautiful marvel (just like Sophia and Xavier before her).  I’ve spent three days reflecting on that moment where her mouth and lungs opened to receive breath, autonomously, for the first time. It’s true, of course, that Elise has been living on vicariously delivered oxygen for many months now. But this was life without breath. Another miracle.

Breathe little girl. 

It’s interesting how much you pay attention to the breath of another. One that you love. Whether its the breathing of a loved one, a spouse or significant other, when you’re in close proximity, or the breath of a child whose life you suddenly feel (and are) responsible for. There’s some sort of nerve-jangling response hardwired into a parent that comes as an automatic response to every cough, whimper, or choking sound. Nothing gets you breathing faster than hearing something abnormal in the breathing of your child. And yet I have no idea how many times I’ve inhaled or exhaled while writing this sentence. Have you counted your breaths while reading this? Of course not. Though maybe you will. And every breath counts.

Our breaths are numbered — whether by an all knowing divine being, or simply by the period of time we’re alive, and the number of times we inhale and exhale before expiring — we only breath a certain, finite, number of times in this world.

As I write these words I’m sitting next to my wife, Robyn, watching Elise sleep and listening to her breath. Listening for abnormalities. Sure. But listening and celebrating the marvel that is human life.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing.

Breathing is so fundamental to our human experience.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

These words are a terrifying reminder that one day breathing will cease. For me. For you. That breath will leave your body for one last time, leaving it, if you can believe what you see in the movies, 21 grams lighter. But dead. Lifeless. 21 grams might not be the weight of the soul, that’s a weird sort of dualism that leaves body and soul more separate than I believe they are. But, if that movie (21 Grams) is right, it is the material difference between a dead person and a live person.

Whatever you believe the soul is, that which vivifies a bunch of cells, it departs with your last breath.

Death sucks. It’s like a black hole that sucks the life and oxygen out of what would otherwise be a pretty spectacular universe.

“Ok, Let’s start CPR”

I heard these words as I walked the corridors of the hospital, on my way from my living, breathing, miracle to the cafeteria which serves up a bunch of salty deep-fried rubbish, and sugar — delicious though it all is — that will inevitably lead to a few fewer breaths for me if I keep indulging in them.

As I left the maternity ward I was aware of a piercing, repeating, alarm, and a bit of motion around the doors of a room at the end of the corridor in the ward I walk through to get to the cafeteria. I heard those words.

“OK. Let’s start CPR.” 

They’re stuck in my head. A twin memory, juxtaposed to that precious moment from the birth suite. Clanging. Jangling. Butting up against the reality of new life. Intruding on a celebration.

I purchased my wedges and waited as the hot oil turned them golden brown. I walked back past the room. It was still. Empty. Without breath. I don’t know what happened to the resident, whether they were rushed away for treatment, or how that story ends. But I do know it’s a stark reminder that all is not right in this world.

Those breaths my daughter took as she entered the world, the breaths she takes now as I sit beside her, will one day cease. As will mine. My wife’s. My other children. Breath is fleeting. Life is fleeting.

Breathe little girl. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes, let’s, for the sake of argument, call him Solomon, reflected on the existential dilemma that this dependence on breath places us in, against the backdrop of just how temporary our breathing is in the grand scheme of things.

Breath. Over and over again he repeats the word ‘hebel’ — a word our translations render as “meaningless,” but a word that means breath. Fleeting. Inhale/exhale. You breathe in. You breathe out. And it’s all over.

“Breath! Breath!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly breath!
    Everything is breath.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-6

This leads to a pretty depressing place.

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is breath, a chasing after the wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:17

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is breath. —Ecclesiastes 3:19

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Breathe little girl. 

Why?

Why is it that breath does not last? That life does not last?

This miracle of new life, and new breath, that I witnessed for the third time this week, why isn’t it an eternal miracle?

Why does life end?

If Solomon had been able to answer these questions adequately, then perhaps Ecclesiastes would be a little less morose. He does turn, in the face of futility, to the only one it makes sense to turn to. The one who gives life.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”…

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath! Breath!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is breath!”…

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. — Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8, 13

Solomon’s dad, David, was also confronted by this same existential crisis, the question of what life means in the face of the stark reality of death.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
   let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
    in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
    without knowing whose it will finally be.

 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?
    My hope is in you.
 Save me from all my transgressions;
    do not make me the scorn of fools.” — Psalm 39:4-8

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expire. And yet, David speaks of hope and salvation… The Psalms, not all of them are written by David, end up a little more hopeful, relying on God’s life-giving character as part of the answer to death.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
 When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
 When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works.” — Psalm 104:27-31

God gives life. God takes it away.

We humans can prolong life by artificially breathing into someone’s lungs.

“Ok, let’s start CPR”

Sometimes by moments, sometimes by years. But never eternally. We just don’t have enough breath, or life, to give. CPR, at its most basic, is the giving of some of the oxygen allocated to yourself, in terms of the finite number of times you’ll breathe in your lifetime, to someone else. It’s incredible. The transfer of life giving breath from one person to another.

But CPR is a temporary fix. It’ll always be followed by death. This, in part, is because we’ve all only got a finite amount of oxygen to spare. CPR is a dying person giving another dying person a bit of their life. Real life needs living breath, the sort that Psalm speaks of, the sort that creates and renews, when God sends his Spirit — breath that comes from the infinite life giver. It’s God and his glory, and his breath-created works that will endure forever. This sort of breath seems the only answer in the face of death, which only entered the world because we rejected God.

This is not how it was supposed to be. The link between life and breath is no accident. For those who take what the Bible says about life and breath and death seriously, our breathing was not meant to cease. We were made to live. We were made to live in such a way that our very life — the essence of our existence — reflected the greatness and glory and existence of the one who breathed life into us. Whatever points Genesis is making about the origins and function of human life, one thing is clear — breath is what separates us from dust. From dead matter. Breath is why we matter, it’s what gives life in this world — first to the animals (Genesis 1:30), then to humanity.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” — Genesis 2:7

This breath is what gives us the capacity to live out our function as living images of the living God. Not simply images fashioned from clay, or precious metals. And, Christians believe the living God continues to fashion every human life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! — Psalm 139:13-17

The other gods of the Ancient Near East had their dead statues. Idol statues that were formed and fashioned by craftsmen, then ceremonially “quickened” in a mouth opening ceremony so they could act for the god they represented— despite this ceremony they remained still, mute, and dead. Breathless.

Idols don’t speak. In part because they don’t breath (have you ever tried breathing without speaking?). And they don’t breath because they don’t live. They don’t help us answer the existential dilemma we’re confronted with at the sound of inspiring or expiring (and just how cool is it that these words are related to breath entering and leaving the lungs?). The consistent testimony of the inspired writers of the Old Testament is that Idols do not speak, or breath, so they cannot inspire… they leave us bereft and helpless in the face of the fleeting nature of life. That’s why the writer of Ecclesiastes finally turned to his Creator.

I look but there is no one—
    no one among the gods to give counsel,
    no one to give answer when I ask them.
See, they are all false!
    Their deeds amount to nothing;
    their images are but wind and confusion.— Isaiah 41:28-29

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Replacing the living God with other stuff is what started the long, slow, march towards death for all people. And eventually we’ll become just like the dead, dusty, stuff we replaced him with.

“OK, let’s start CPR”

Death sucks because in suffocating us of life and breath, it robs us of something that is intrinsic to our humanity and its essence. It consumes the life that was given us in order that the one who gives life might be seen.

Even if we do all in our power to be shaped by other gods, idols that we live for and reflect instead, until breath is taken away, until death happens, we still, in our living, breathing, existence point to the existence of the life-giver. The breath-giver.

The gods of the nations around Israel were represented by dead images, fashioned from dirt. But not the God of the Bible. The living God. The God who could not, and would not, be represented by dead statues. Statues with no breath in them. The living God needed living representatives.

Idols are dead. And dumb. As we follow them, or simply turn away from the life-giving God, that becomes our destiny. Dumb death. This future is all we can inflict on others on our own steam (or breath). This is why CPR is only a temporary fix. We are expirers by our nature, not inspirers.

The living God, on the other hand, speaks and gives life. Rather than death.

Where people make images of dead gods, the living God gives life to living images.

Humans.

That we die is an affront to what we were created for. God is a living, breathing, God — who gives and sustains life through breath, and ends life by taking that breath away (Numbers 16:22, 27:6, Job 12:10, 27:3, 33:4). As long as we live and breathe, by God’s design and as his gift, we still actively bear his image. Whether we like it or not…

If it were his intention
    and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
    and mankind would return to the dust. — Job 34:14-15

God takes life, because God gives life.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

God gives life to all people. In this sense, all living, breathing, speaking people, whether they remain turned away from God and towards things that kill or not, continue to represent something true about God. But temporary life isn’t really a complete testimony to the eternal life of the life giver, given eternal life is. Psalm 104 delights in the idea that the glory of God will endure forever as God rejoices in his works. Adam and his descendants don’t truly carry out the role of image bearer.

Jesus does.

The humanity Jesus reveals in his perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection, is a truer humanity than our natural, death-riddled, humanity. The humanity offered to us in Jesus, the new life, and new birth, offered to those who turn to him and receive God’s Spirit, is a fuller picture of God, and the answer to the crisis of existence that confronts us in the face of death. It solves the shortness of our life, by offering eternal life. A share in the true essence of God’s life. In the Old Testament story, turning away from God and towards idols leaves people metaphorically (or perhaps metaphysically) with stone hearts, and as dry bones. God’s promise to his people is that he will re-enter the scene to renew and recreate life (which echoes the hope of Psalm 104).

“‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” — Ezekiel 37:4-6

This is divine CPR. CPR that works because the infinite one, with lungs of infinite capacity, who breaths life, not death, is the one administrating the life-giving intervention.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as God breathes his Spirit back into us we start reconnecting with the divine, inspiring, purpose of human life, powered by God’s breath. We become his workmanship again. Consider Ephesians 2, the whole chapter, or even the whole letter, is gold, of course… but these bits:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved… For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. — Ephesians 2: 4-5, 10, 18, 22

We become work that will endure eternally. Inspired, rather than expiring. The effort put into knitting us together in the womb meets its divinely inspired purpose. Breath and life intertwine as we become God’s image bearers again. Presenting a living image, and pattern, we see perfected and demonstrated in Christ (see Colossians 1:15-21). The weird thing about the pattern of Jesus life, the way he demonstrates that he is God’s craftsmanship (and the way I think Paul follows his example, cf 2 Corinthians 3-4), is that it’s caught up in being prepared to stop breathing for the sake of others. It’s about being prepared to lay down life now, confident that the one who gives life will take it up again (John 10:14-18). It’s on the Cross where the pattern for life-giving humanity that reflects the life-giver is laid out for all to see. On the Cross the one who connects us with the life-giving God shows exactly what it looks like to truly trust and obey God. He demonstrates what it looks like to simultaneously and perfectly love God, and love your neighbours, and your enemies. At the Cross Jesus defeats death, and he does that by putting his breath, and life, in its place. In the hands of God. Showing us what it is to trust God in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of a short existence.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

Through Jesus, God’s life giving breath — his Spirit — comes to dwell in us, not us alone, but us his people — giving us life again. God’s life. Eternal life. The promise of the Old Testament prophets and the hope of the Psalms (even the hope of Solomon), meet their fulfilment.

Paul, who wrote that stuff from Ephesians, ties up all this stuff— idols, images, and God’s relationship to life and death, and breath in Jesus — as he speaks to the leading thinkers of Athens, in Acts 17. These thinkers are those who spend their time grasping and grappling with the existential question death presents to us. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Paul turns to the Creator of life to find a way to answer this question without being all-consumed by existential angst.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Breathe. 

Life is found in and through the one who the creator, the living, breathing, God raised from the dead. Jesus.

My prayer for my kids, for Elise, for Xavi, for Soph (and for all those I love), is that they might know that they are fearfully and wonderfully crafted by God, as his workmanship, that they might stay connected to his purpose for them through Jesus, and grow to love God, and live by his breath. Not our on their own steam. Because this is what lasts. And as a dad, it’s the only thing that gives me hope knowing that one day the lives I hold in my hands, and in my heart, will end.

Breathe little girl. Keep breathing. 

It’s not just cricket: Trying to make sense of the tragedy of death

Like the rest of Australia – and perhaps like anybody who follows sports around the world — I’ve been struggling to put words to why the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has hit me for six. And then some.

Death is part of life as we know it. Everyone dies. This fundamental truth faces all of us — I will die, you will die, the people we love will die.

Why then does death feel the way it does? Unnatural. Broken. Empty.

Why do we feel the way we do about death? Sad. Powerless. Afraid.

And if we’re all just a finite number of heart beats away from death — why has this death in particular rocked us to the degree it has?

I suspect part of the answer is in the tragic elements of the story, the countless what ifs, and the absence of someone or something to blame. We’ve been conditioned by whodunnits and our ability to diagnose and dissect every event to want something or someone to point the finger at when things go wrong. We want a clear link between cause and effect. We just don’t have that here. People are searching anywhere and everywhere (apparently it’s Mitchell Johnson’s fault and it’s Michael Clarke’s fault and it’s all of our faults – and that’s just one article). We’re sure that we can’t blame Sean Abbott, the bowler.

Rightly sure — and perhaps the most touching thing in the washup of this awful mess has been the way people have rallied behind Abbott. His was a routine delivery. The Cricinfo ball by ball coverage of Hughes’ last innings shows just how routine the short ball was — and how untroubled Hughes had been up until ball number 161.

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, another short one, ducks, he’s in no hurry

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, low bouncer, still ducks

The thing that strikes me in tragic accidents like this is how many opportunities there were in the moments leading up to the event for things to go differently.

For the accident not just to be avoided — like the millions of other bouncers that have sailed past batsmen all over the world, and throughout the history of the game – but for it to not have the possibility of happening at all.

I’ve found myself trying to play the what if game, unravelling the various causes from this fatal effect. Not apportioning blame where none exists, but reliving those past moments that plot out some sort of alternative future?

And there are so many in the game of cricket. So many potential causes — causes that are almost always clearly linked to their effects. Our understanding of cricket has been totally atomised, in part, as a result of the technology we use as part of our lens for viewing the game, partly because every aspect of the game of cricket is understood scientifically, or geometrically. Cricket is not a game of inches, but millimetres.

So — as I have when confronted with any tragic accident like this — I’ve spent the last few days falling down desperate rabbit-holes of what-ifs, as though that will help unlock some hidden meaning in this event that will make it all make sense.

What if Hughes had chosen to play this ball the same way he’d played every other short ball in the innings? What if someone had paused to tie a shoe lace, and even that small interval prompted a different series of choices for the actors in this tragedy? What if the bowler had changed his mind and bowled a fuller delivery?

What if a heckler in the crowd had — or hadn’t — distracted a player at any point in proceedings, delaying play for just a moment, sharpening or distracting the concentration of the players to impact their actions by just one degree?

What if there’d been a misfield and they’d stolen a quick single at the end of the over before, so that Tom Cooper, Hughes’ batting partner, had been on strike?

“No run, blocks to off to end the over. SA 2/134 (Hughes 61, Cooper 5)”

What if, on the previous delivery, the batsmen had run a single, rather than taking two? What if the fielder had scurried to the ball quicker?

Two runs, on leg and swung away fine

What if. What if. What if.

It doesn’t help. The asking. It is not cathartic. The questions splinter out into other questions. Questions that can’t possibly be answered. Questions that make for interesting, but unhelpful, speculation. Questions that involve trying to rewrite events of the past to change the future.

But this approach is no more, or less, rational than the other ways of processing this sort of tragedy.

I think one of the more shocking things about the last few days is not so much how improbable everything seems, but how unfair it is — a young man, in his prime, about to regain his place in the Australian team after yo-yoing in and out of the team. A prodigy about to deliver on his potential. Struck down.

It’s not just unfair, it’s a reminder of how beyond the control of everyone involved this cause-effect nexus actually is. We are powerless. One of Australia’s best batsmen was felled by the sort of ball he had faced thousands of times. A handful of Australia’s most qualified surgeons were powerless to change the outcome for Hughes. Millions of Australians joined in prayer hoping to have some input into securing a different outcome.

That’s what we want when it comes to causality, isn’t it? The ability to nudge or cajole the objects we’re presented in our circumstances, tweaking whatever causal knobs we can, to secure our desired future. It’s no good playing the ‘what if’ game, because it deals only with knobs unturned, paths untaken, the past. It feeds this belief that we are in control.

And this, I think, is part of why this sort of death hits us so hard.

We are not in control.

I think that maybe we think we’re ok with death. People seem to be able to process death, to grieve, to move on. Not our own. Of course. But others. Maybe we can be philosophical about death. Maybe we can cope with its existence as a universal reality. Maybe we can see it as part of life. So long as it seems to be something we can face up to, or control, or fight against. Hughes was robbed of all of this. And this is a reminder that we might well be robbed of all this too.

And, personally, that’s where I think I’m struggling, and where others I speak to seem to be heading, even if we can’t all quite put our finger on what’s going on here, or precisely account for why this one death, out of so many other deaths that happened on November 27, has captured the global imagination.

How on earth are we meant to understand and respond to the fragility of human life? To the idea that at any given moment, death is millimetres away, and worse, that these millimetres may not be in our control, but in the hands of another? A driver not paying attention on the road next to us. A builder or engineer being negligent at some point in some process, at some point in the past.

I think. If I’m honest.  The real struggle for me when I play the what if game, and when I play it in circumstances where I’ve prayed, and where there have been outpourings from thousands upon thousands of others who all indicate they’re also praying, is wondering where God’s hand is in all of this?

Here is Australian cricketing legend Adam Gilchrist on Twitter:

Dear Lord, if ever the need for footprints in the sand, it’s now #PhilHughes #courage #strength

— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) November 25, 2014

Why didn’t God intervene to sever cause from effect?

Why?

Not just for Phil Hughes, why not for others?

Why death? Why chaos? Why pain?

If I’m really honest, events like this just throw the spotlight back on these existential questions that face all humans. All of us who are bound by cause and effect.

And for those of us, Christians, who believe in the sovereignty of God over cause and effect, this is a startling reminder that death, whatever manner it uses to find us is an inevitable outcome for people. And that life in all its forms — as we experience it, and as God promises it — comes from God. God is ultimately in control. Of cause and effect. Of life. Of death. Every being has their being only as a result of God…

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”— Revelation 4:11

This is the answer to Adam Gilchrist’s question — it’s the same answer the Footprint poem he cites gives – sort of. God is in every life, giving life. He carries every person every step of the way, from birth, to death.

Life is a precious gift. But it is, apart from the life Jesus offers through his resurrection, a temporary gift.

God gives. God takes away. We experience this taking away — the hand of God — death — through cause and effect.

We might wish for him to break cause away from effect in certain circumstances and times in our lives, but suspending the natural order, if the natural order has its being in God, as Revelation 4 suggests, then we’re calling on God to break himself at that point.

A big ask.

God did break in to the monotony of cause and effect. In Jesus. Where he broke in to the world, and was broken. Crucified. The death he planned before he made the world. This death that was the product of an amazingly intricate chain of causes and effects, such that words written in the Old Testament Book of Psalms played their way out in vivid colour a thousand years later at the crucifixion. This death broke death. If Jesus was raised from the dead. And I believe he was. Everything we understand about cause and effect changes at that point. Until this point the effect of crucifixion was death, the effect of life was death, the effect of death was finality. The resurrection breaks that. God didn’t just leave random footprints on some sand to tell us that he was with us — he entered the picture, walked the earth, left his fingerprints everywhere, had nails driven through his hands, spilled his blood, and died, to show us he was with us. And to invite us to walk with him. To life.

If we’re looking for footprints in events like the tragic circumstances of this week, without first seeing the indelible footprint God left on the earth at the Cross of Jesus, we’re going to struggle to see God in these, or any, events.

This quote from one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, grapples with the fleeting nature of human life — the reality of our mortality— suggesting Jesus death, chosen before the creation of the world, breaks the cause and effect connection between life and death. Because Jesus beats death our lives don’t necessarily end in death.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” — 1 Peter 1:18-21, 23-25

This is what I turn to when I’m asking questions about death. Questions about where God is in the events at the end of every human life. Questions about why God doesn’t just do something. He’s there. He has.

I don’t want this to be preachy. I don’t want it to be cheapening the harrowing events of this week. I’m not really seeking to persuade anyone of anything. I’m thinking out loud. Life, more than ever, seems so fragile. So fleeting. Like vapour. And this is where I’ve found comfort. This is how I’ve dug my way out of the rabbit warren of ‘what if’ questions in my head. This is what I’ve clung to in the face of the reminder that I’m not in control of my life, or the lives of those I love, but God is, and he is good.

Death is unnatural. Death sucks. Death is the ultimate reminder that we aren’t God. That we are creatures. That we are dependant on another for our existence. Death is the ultimate reminder that we were made for life, and that we can be recreated, by the living creator.

 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:6

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

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Who is the one who died so all died?

Right. I’m preaching on Sunday – the second part in a two part series called “Where is Jesus now?”… The first talk will be online some time this week. In the mean time – my answer to this question this week is that he is in the church – his body. That we bear his image. And that people should be able to find him by looking at us (and that being Christ like is particularly tied up in being cross like). I’m getting there from 2 Corinthians 5.

So here’s a question I have. And I’d like your input. So put your thinking caps on.

Here’s the passage.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creationhas come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I’m particularly interested in the first two verses.

These appear, at face value (and as promoted by universalists) to say that Jesus’ death covers every one.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

It seems people universally accept that the one who died “for all” is Jesus, and is the same as the “he” who died for all in verse 15. I think 14 is talking about Adam, and 15 is talking about Jesus. The only good reason I can think of not to think this is that I can’t find anyone who agrees with me yet…

I’m struggling to figure out how 14 helps Paul’s argument if he isn’t really developing it, but repeating it, in verse 15. I think verse 15 is a contrast where a second person has died for all. And I think Paul is using the same comparison between Jesus and Adam that he uses in Romans (chapters 5-8), and 1 Corinthians 15. I think Paul would say that all die because Adam died. So, in fact, Adam also died for all…

Here’s a bit from Romans 5…

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”

17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”

And a bit from 1 Corinthians 15…

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

I don’t understand why this is even a question? The comparison seems pretty obvious, but I can’t find anyone who makes it (I’ve googled a bit, and used my whizz bang Bible software).

Holy posthumous hagiography Batman: Reflections on the “Christian” response to the death of Christopher Hitchens

Seriously internet. Get a grip.

Christopher Hitchens died today. He was a brilliant and acerbic polemicist who played pretty free and easy with exactly what historically orthodox, Bible based Christianity looks like in his most popular work God Is Not Good, but he was by all accounts a charming, debonair, raconteur type who meant what he said, and said what he thought, in a manner that belied his significant gifts. By all accounts, including his own, his battle with cancer was difficult, but he conducted himself with the poise, gravitas, and wit that endeared him to readers around the world.

But he was committed to remaining an atheist to the end. Committed to maintaining his rage against God (incidentally the title of the book his brother Peter wrote when explaining why he returned to faith). Now, Hitchens had plenty of Christian influence in his life – his brother, his travelling debate compadre Douglas Wilson, and Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project, and founder of Biologos, who took a personal interest in his treatment for the nasty cancer which ended his life too soon. Hitchens also clearly understood the gospel he was rejecting – his pointed criticisms of Christian liberalism make it clear that he knew what the Christian faith entailed. And that he rejected it deliberately, defiantly, and with some style and wit.

Here’s his definition of Christianity:

“I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

He was in enough debates with enough Christians that he had a fair idea of what it was he was arguing against (even if he chose to misrepresent it for the sake of some polemical point scoring).

So why. Pray tell. Are we Christians so committed to articulating a hope that Hitchens magically renounced his skepticism at the very last? Certainly it is our hope. But should we not take the man at his word. His last words, incidentally, took the form of a requiem for the atheist dream, throwing down the gauntlet to challenge Nietzsche, one of the grandfathers of the modern atheist movement, and particularly his somewhat facile maxim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hitchens was wrong to dismiss that saying – because the cancer killed him in the end. And the only thing that doesn’t kill a human, at least in the Biblical account of humanity, is faith in Christ, by which we have a much more hopeful outlook than either Hitchens or Nietzshe…

“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

The Christian attempt to respond to the death of an interlocutor by extending grace to them, and naming them as potentially one of the saints, is nobly intended, but was odd when Steve Jobs died. And is downright insane when it comes to Hitchens. I’m not saying God couldn’t have come knocking on Hitchens’ door, but there is simply no indication that he changed his mind at the last (and he precluded such with a particularly pointed statement just months ago). Despite what Doug Wilson’s much lauded eulogy on Christianity Today might suggest. So while I hope Hitchens found the peace that faith in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus brings – I’m not going to chuck him a halo and a white robe just in case. But I’m not sure why the Christian blogosphere embraces the hagiographic eulogy in these times. The most gracious way to let an atheist go out is to let them go out acknowledging that they were defiant to the end (Matt Stone says something similar but with more brevity), that they, unlike many others – considered the questions of eternity, and their own mortality, and in the words of Hitchens, looked death in the face bravely (but stupidly), these were his last published words.

“So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”

How to not die

I would like to live a long healthy life. Here is a list of activities I should avoid – that you should too – if you also want to live long lives.

  1. Drive the biggest 4WD you can find.
  2. Don’t ride a quad bike.
  3. Don’t cycle or run on public roads.
  4. Don’t get a pilot’s license as a hobby.
  5. Avoid groups of intoxicated men.

There are more. What are your tips for avoiding an untimely death?

On death do us part

Two death post in one night. This isn’t some morbid fixation (though I am watching Bones as I write)…

I have appreciated elements of the Pyromaniacs writing. They call a spade a spade. And I appreciate that. I’ve never really engaged in commenting on their posts – even though there have been some I disagreed with.

Until this post – where one of the “Team Pyro” guys wrote a long post about the death penalty on his personal blog. I hope the comments around this site never reach the sycophantic levels of rabid agreement that go on over there…

Now, I’m not against the death penalty. I’ve argued for it on previous occasions. But I think we should be encouraging a government that is careful, considerate and merciful. I agree that the law needs to pursue justice – and that that looks like retribution, rather than rehabilitation. But this post doesn’t hit that balance.

It also falls into the trap, in my opinion, of equating America with God’s kingdom.

Ben, from bathgates.net, led the way into the fray and I followed to see what had happened in his wake. It’s not really pretty. But feel free to join the fun.

After this experience, and having read through thoughtful analysis of the “ministry” of the Pyromaniacs on Ben’s blog, I’m much less interested in what the Pyros have to say about anything.

Death becomes you

I probably don’t write enough about death. Mostly because it’s one of those topics you don’t talk about in polite company.

But I can’t let these advances in post mortem technology go by without comment.

Finding the right, dignified, treatment for your loved ones is an important choice…

Firstly, you could turn your loved one’s ashes into a rather smart casual diamond… from LifeGem. Here’s a testimonial…

Dear Mr. VandenBiesen,
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. The Archie Life Gem is so beautiful. I received it on Wednesday last week, had it mounted into a ring the same day, and have been wearing it ever since. The color is so amazing.(so is the size-Thank you) I am thrilled. What a wonderful service your company performs. Thank you for making my heart smile again.
Angie McKinnon”

If that’s not your thing, you could always choose to keep your loved one’s ashes in a purpose built urn – reproduced in the image of the recently departed. From PersonalUrns.