This was my first interaction with Steven Pidgeon, then going by Sigurd, or Vidar, Pidgeon depending on the social media account he was logged into at the time. He posted this response to an Easter advertisement from our church that we had pushed out via Facebook advertising in 2017.
My own personal Facebook policy, for our church’s online presence, is that you should always feed the trolls. So I clicked through to his profile, where I found a man who had apparently recently converted to paganism, sharing memes from the TV show Vikings, and discussing participating in online ‘blots’ — a Norse ritual — with other Norse pagans from around the world. I also found a series of troubling posts about Hitler, and race. Steven, or Sigurd (named for the legendary hero of Norse mythology), turned out to be an interesting man obsessed with Tolkien, white purity, fascist politics, and religion. I noticed that he was based near me, in Brisbane.
“I’ve never met a legit pagan before, I find this fascinating, I see you’re in Brisbane, I’d love to grab a beer and hear your story.”
I posted in this in response.
Steven sent me a friend request. I’ve since learned that Steven loves social media and building connections with all sorts of people from around the world. In our virtual conversations I learned that his back story was even more complicated than I imagined. He’d spent the last 17 years living in a religious community in the Blue Mountains, the infamous Twelve Tribes, a community with a particular view of the end times seeking to recreate twelve tribes, faithful and pure communities, of Christians who will bring about the end times. Before this, Steven had been, as a teenager, a Pentecostal, and then a Mormon. Steven rose through the ranks in the Twelve Tribes. His IQ is off the charts. He learned Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and made trips to the United States to ‘prophet school;’ often acting as a teacher in the community. At some point in the years leading up to his departure Steven became suspicious of Israel as a political entity, and began reading anti-Semitic literature, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He found the politics of national socialism intriguing. He also smuggled a phone into the community — which exists cut off from the outside world except through their businesses (like the Yellow Deli café in the Blue Mountains), and their missionary activities. At some point, his interest in politics, and his reading, led him to start his own political party, the Australian Freedom Party. He started to connect with people on social media, and questioning the teachings of the community. The more he knew, the more they unravelled, eventually he decided to exit this group who were like a family to him for most of his adult life. His exit wasn’t straightforward, nor was it straight into paganism, or fascism.
Steven is a convinced theist; his approach to testing truth claims of different religions is ‘full immersion’ — not baptism, though his Pentecostal, Mormon, and Twelve Tribes history mean he’s chalked up double digits for baptisms — he invests himself deeply into the plausibility structures for beliefs; the communities of believers. Steven spent some time in a Buddhist community in the Blue Mountains, and then moved into a Mosque in Sydney. He spent a period of time as a Muslim “revert,” grappling with the text of the Koran, while living in community with Muslim friends, who eventually organised for him to move to Brisbane where he found employment in a kebab shop, and enrolled in a Business degree at Griffith University. His experiences in Christianity, the Twelve Tribes, and Islam, and his interests in politics, and particular, the political vision of national socialist movement Order15, led him to explore and embrace white nationalism, and Odinism as a ‘white’ religion, disconnected from any religion with Jewish heritage. He began to embrace this identity; wearing a Mjolnir hammer around his neck, immersing himself in Norse Mythology, and participating in message boards, and social media groups with other pagans who were embracing the old religion as part of a commitment to ethnic purity. In embracing this identity Steven, who doesn’t do things by halves, adopted a racist persona, and expressed racist sentiments consistent with Naziism and white supremacy, while disconnecting from the Islamic community who had moved him to Brisbane. This extraction process was not without complications — his employment and housing were both connected to Brisbane’s Muslim community. Steven packed all his belongings into a backpack and bought a tent; prepared to embrace life as a wanderer, like those in the epic tales he loved — whether Norse, or from Tolkien. He eventually found a share house, but found himself in a city a long way from family, and friends, only connecting to his new ‘community’ online.
Then Easter happened.
We’d, by chance, themed our Easter series around Tolkien’s view of the Gospels as an epic true fairy story; a theme explored in his On Fairy Stories, where the Gospel and its joyful resolution in the resurrection is the ultimate ‘eucatastrophe’ — the sudden, joyous, turn that gives fairy tales their mythic constitution and quality. Steven and I were able to share a mutual appreciation for Tolkien. He shared my invitation with his pagan friends on Facebook, asking for their advice. Given that we’d become Facebook friends I was able to see, and participate, in this conversation where pagans from around the world suggested he ‘bring an axe’ and ‘be prepared to go full Lindisfarne’ on this Christian priest (Lindisfarne is the site of a famous massacre where Viking pagans put Christian monks to the sword and plundered their relics). Steven was lonely, he loves speaking to people about politics and faith, so he accepted my invitation to share a beer at the pub.
Here he is waiting for our first meeting; not knowing the twist his adventure would take.
I was genuinely fascinated to hear his story; I’d seen John Safran’s segment on modern pagans in John Safran Vs God years before, and despite Steven’s apparent racism and the risk of being smote by an axe, it was obvious that he was an intelligent man with an interesting journey. I committed to sharing a beer with Steven in a safe, and public, space; and I listened to his story. I asked questions. I didn’t, in our first meeting, push back on anything in particular except the idea that the Christianity he rejected looked nothing like orthodox Christian belief. We parted agreeing to keep in touch. I found the experience fascinating, because Steven’s story is truly remarkable. About a month later my wife and I were returning by bus from a football game, and we happened to bump into Steven at the bus stop; he’s not one to believe in coincidence. We chatted briefly at the bus stop, and then a few weeks later he sent me a message. His New Guard movement — a local fascist group — was meeting in the city in a couple of weeks, some of the members of the fascist movement were churchgoers who were planning to go to church after their meeting, but he had decided to come along to our gathering instead. He thought he might try it out this coming weekend to get his head around transport logistics in Brisbane.
His first Sunday was a perfect week for a racist fascist with a history in a community trying to live out the vision of the church in Acts 2 to visit our community. We were in the middle of a Bible overview series, and his visit coincided with our look at Pentecost, and the way the pouring out of the Spirit was the beginning of God’s kingdom expanding to include people of every tribe and tongue and nation. As if to highlight the contrast, the Bible was read that Sunday by a member of our community who is of Indian heritage, and we incorporated the baptism of two Iranian converts into the sermon. Steven hasn’t missed many weeks of church since that day.
Our church shares lunch together after our service, and introducing your multi-ethnic community to a pagan, racist, facist, is an interesting challenge. As a community we have long cherished the idea that people belong before they believe, and can come into our community as they are. We believe that conversation and connection, and the experience of Christian hospitality and love make the Gospel plausible, and that the Gospel has the power to change lives. So Steven was welcomed; he shared lunch with us, and I directed him to one of our members who happens to be a professor in Old Testament (whose Hebrew is much better than mine — but then, so is Steven’s). This member of our church was a safe pair of hands, who again listened to Steven and answered some of his questions about orthodox Christian belief. That day, when Steven went home, he went home questioning whether the Christianity he was ‘done with’ was really Christianity at all; I sent him works by Augustine, Athanasius, and C.S Lewis. He spent the next two weeks watching the entire back catalogue of our church’s sermons that were available online. Over time, as he explored the Reformed theological outlook, Christianity became the lens through which he saw the world. His racist Facebook posts didn’t stop straight away, there was a period of transition. He threw himself into a community of Christians on campus at Griffith (where he was blowing his studies out of the park, recording the highest mark ever given in one subject, and achieving exceptional academic results across the board). Steven was a 37 year old who had never handled money for himself; who had been withdrawn from society for 18 years, missing most pop culture, and plenty of news. He was readjusting to life in the real world, outside the intense communal life of the Twelve Tribes. A couple of months later, in a conversation we were having, Steven and I both realised he had become a Christian; that not only did he believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that Jesus was his Lord and we were seeing the fruit of that in his life, his changed view of others, and his evolving political convictions. Steven had repented; we recognised that to do this and to be able to truly say “Jesus is Lord” was an act of the Holy Spirit. Steven, despite his journey taking him to all corners of the religious globe, had come home. Steven is now my friend. He has been a much-loved member of our church family ever since, and, if not for his desire to own his past and acknowledge his mistakes and the way his journey has developed, almost nobody in our community would know about the darkest chapter in his story. Steven Pidgeon, the online Nazi pagan, has become Steven Pidgeon, our servant hearted, genius, brother in Christ, a man who desires that people from every tribe and tongue and nation meet Jesus, and that he might use his gifts, and the degrees he earns through his study, to serve his neighbours around the globe, in some ways making amends for the horrid views he held for a short period of time.
He now devotes himself to his studies, and his social media posts are much more likely to be about very obscure questions around Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions (where our Old Testament lecturer’s PhD work on Akkadian language came in handy), reflections on what he is hearing at church, or his experiences as a Law Student at university. This reflects how he spends his time and energy in real life.
This week a group of Antifa (anti-fascist) activists unearthed the archives of IronMarch, a web portal for Nazis and fascists that Steven contributed to up until 2017. He was named and shamed as an Australian neo-Nazi. Those doing the shaming were not prepared to accept that transformation is possible, and reached out to different groups and institutions Steven has connected to since repudiating paganism, and the Nazi, or ‘Alt-Right’ movement. I’m sharing this story now because Steven has genuinely changed, and is genuinely a member of a church community committed to a cause that is fundamentally opposed to fascism. I share Antifa’s issues with fascism, and Naziism, in all its forms; but it might be that there are better methods for changing hearts and minds; it might be that the Gospel of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring about an amazing transformation in someone’s politics, and this doesn’t happen by exposing, “doxxing,” or attacking a person you’ve never met on the internet, but by meeting them face to face, connecting, understanding, and loving your ideological enemy, and inviting them to experience a community living out a thoroughly different politics. Maybe our world needs more people sitting down for a beer with those we oppose, rather than entering a vicious cycle of trolling and insults.
Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.
On Australian Stories
I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).
The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.
Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.
Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.
Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.
On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories
The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).
It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.
One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Daythis year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.
There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.
There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).
I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.
I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.
Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.
I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.
As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.
“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…
I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.
“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.
Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.
That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.
This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.
But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?
In which stories is this a day for celebration?
In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).
In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer).
In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.
In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.
What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?
There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…
There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).
For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.
I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.
It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.
But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.
I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:
“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”
I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.
Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.
How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)
“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.’” — Acts 17:26-28
“Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11
There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.
This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.
And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.
There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”
This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.
I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.
Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.
Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.
Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.
It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,
This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.
“‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”
I’m not an expert on anything much (just making coffee and how to write obscenely long blog posts really)… so I assume when I write stuff people will take or leave it based on its usefulness or truthiness or whatevs. This is something of a caveat or a disclaimer on this post; an acknowledgment that these aren’t definitive things for me inasmuch as they’re the building blocks of how I’m approaching life in the church in however you’d describe modern Aussie life… the nature of time moving forward and different cultural and intellectual epochs being left in the past is that we’re always ‘post-‘ something; at the moment it’s hard not to feel like we’re post-everything; when I talk to different people both in and outside the church there’s a sense that life is changing pretty fast and there’s a temptation to either try to change the church (and what it looks like or does) just as fast to keep up, or to not change how we do things at all. I suspect both these options are wrong and right (at the same time); that we need to change pretty rapidly, but that the change shouldn’t be ‘innovative’ purely for innovation’s sake where we copy the culture only with a bit of Jesus tacked on… it should almost be a rediscovery of who we’re meant to be.
There’s not a heap of ‘new’ stuff in this post; what I’ve been aiming to do with this little corner of the Internet for a while is articulate how I’m approaching life and church as much for my sake as for anyone else’s, as a way of tweaking and working out my paradigm. That means there’s a fair bit of repetition, but it also means the archives here chart the development of my thought, which I find personally useful… if this stuff is useful for others along the way, then that’s a bonus.
So here, to perhaps clarify about 50,000 words of previous posts on this blog, are 14 propositions and 3 stories on what I think church can and should be in a post-everything world. It’s long. I’m assuming you’ll skim read if you bother, but part of this is to have a comprehensive one stop shop that spells out my approach to being the church in the post-truth age. I don’t think these are new ideas, though they might be old ideas applied to new threats and opportunities. The stories aren’t meant to be heroic, they are, however, reflections on where I’ve felt like things have ‘clicked’ for our church in the last few years. There are lots of stories, good and bad, from three years of church stuff, these are the ones that fuel the ‘propositions’…
For the last three years (it’s our anniversary in a couple of weeks), I’ve been the campus pastor of Creek Road South Bank. One of my greatest privileges in that time has been baptising 16 Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ. Before I baptise anyone it’s part of my job to hear the story of how they came to follow Jesus (and to ask questions to make sure to the best of my understanding I’m pouring water on Christians). These 16 people share a few things in common: they’re all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia having fled Iran with a particular suspicion about Islam because of the Iranian regime, they’re all able to overcome the language barrier enough to answer my questions about the Trinity (which is a thing I probe because it’s a big difference between Christianity’s view of God and Islam’s), they understand the Trinity, they get the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus for their standing before God, and they’ve universally told me that the reason they began investigating Christianity, and stuck with it, is the love they received from Christians from when they arrived in Australian detention, to when they’ve been resettled in the community, to when they’ve met Christians in church. I can’t take any credit for anything except that I ask questions and do the water bit; but I’m so deeply encouraged, every time, not just by the ‘homecoming’ involved for these brothers and sisters, but by their simple testimony that it’s loving, gospel-shaped, community that makes the Gospel seem worthy of investigation.
Proposition 1: Media matters: You are the social media for whatever you worship
We’re made in the image of God and part of that is that we’re designed to worship and so represent God in his world as his living, breathing, imagining, creating, life-giving people; we replace God with dead idols that take our breath away and we end up adopting new ways of dying based on what it is we worship (most people are poly-theists when it comes to idols, worshipping from a sort of smorgasbord of ‘gods’ like family, money, career, sex, power, popularity so we all look a little different).
Proposition 2: Our ‘media habits’ matter: our worship involves our habits (our repeated actions), which feed and shape our loves and our thinking.
There’s an aspect of ‘post-truth’ stuff that we need to recognise is a misfiring of some fundamental parts of our humanity; we’re made to love and feel our way around the place — but we are, as Augustine might put it, disordered lovers; our media habits — what we fill our time, our attention, our imaginations with and do with our bodies shape us. We live in a world that’ll be increasingly shaped by content-on-demand TV which we binge watch on our couches while eating convenience food (where we’re totally disconnected from the process of the food getting to us), by pornography, by addiction to black glass screens that bombard us with content and fill our attention from the moment we wake; by buying ourselves (fleeting) happiness, and shaped by the equally idolatrous over-correction — those who see the problems with this way of life and so live sort of monastically ‘disconnected’ lives focusing on the pursuit of the perfect meaningful romantic/sexual relationship, ‘slow-food’ that you grow and hunt yourself that you prepare following the recipe of a celebrity chef, or buy from a fancy locavore restaurant, with lots of silence and mediation thrown in for self-mastery’s sake. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between Biggest Loser and MasterChef.
Proposition 3: We live, worship, and image bear both as individuals and corporately/culturally/in community
Bearing the image of the God who is a community (the Trinity) is not something we can do alone even if we try, and it was never a thing we were meant to try; we’re relational/social animals. That’s why God says ‘let us make mankind in our image’ and then makes us male and female… We’re defined as much by relationships with others as by whatever ‘image’ we try to craft alone; and even as we craft an image for ourselves and so worship in particular ways, that’s inevitably a thing we do in community with others that is shaped by the culture we define ourselves through or against. ‘Cultures’ are the product of a sort of coherent mass of ideas and artefacts that tell some sort of story about life and shape the way members of a culture ‘worship’.
Proposition 4: All ‘media artefacts’ have some sort of ‘story’ or value proposition and collections of these artefacts make ‘cultures’
In the past idols had ‘statues’ to represent them; now idolatry seems to happen more through a collection of ‘widgets’ or artefacts that stories or the sort of things we use in stories, that equip people to pursue their worship. I like Andy Crouch’s insight that cultures are a collection of ‘artefacts’ with some sort of coherent story.
Just like God’s ‘art’ — creation itself (and us) — is made with the purpose of representing true things about him… Art, whether written, performed, or fashioned isn’t neutral, it’s made with purpose and represents ‘true’ things about us. The technology (whether hardware or software) and ‘media’ we create are types of artefacts,’ they aren’t neutral. We can always take and repurpose things to use for good, Godly, purposes, just as we took God’s world and used it for our bad purposes; but we need to be aware of what’s under the hood.
So, for example, ‘slow food’ might actually be a better way to articulate true things about God’s world than fast food (just as specialty coffee is better than instant coffee), but we need to make that decision with imagination, discernment and clarity (and applying the same to other ‘artefacts’ in order to be creating an alternative ‘culture’. We need to find a way to ‘plunder Egypt’ for golden ‘artefacts’ that are good and true and beautiful that become part of our ‘culture,’ but we also need to beware the human tendency to use Egyptian gold for golden calves (we take the good stuff God made and use it for our own idolatry). We also need to figure out how to make stuff with gold — our own artefacts — in ways that line up with God’s purposes for creation. Christians could be making things that are good, and true, and beautiful both on a local (neighbourhood) type scale, and on a ‘global’ scale, for the good of everyone not just for our own Christian marketplace.
Most people in our culture don’t think of themselves as worshippers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not. They don’t think of themselves as being searchers for ‘truth’ or meaning (like the people of Athens) and part of our culture-making probably has to be question-provoking; it might have to carry a degree of oddness or mystery that makes people ponder why we’re so different (but in a way that is compelling because it is linked to helping people rediscover the created purpose of our humanity. We also can’t take for granted that people will have any of the conceptual building blocks of the Christian story where that might have once been the case.
Proposition 5. Our aim isn’t to smash idols with sledgehammers (except in our own lives perhaps) but to hollow them of meaning and value, and to show how the inclinations of our hearts that produce them are better satisfied in a better story, with a better God.
In Deuteronomy Israel are told that upon entering the promised land they should totally destroy the idols of the nations; lest their hearts be captured by them. That’s a guide to life in God’s kingdom in Israel; there’s a particular socio-political reality underpinning that approach to idols. In the New Testament Paul tells us to keep ourselves from idols; basically to smash them within the boundaries of the church. He takes a very different approach to the idols of his culture. In 1 Corinthians he tells the church to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols in the presence of non-Christian friends or family who are hosting dinners until the host makes such eating a specific kind of participation in idol worship; until they make a big deal about the sacrifice in a way that makes eating some sort of participation in worship that confuses the people you’re trying to invite to an alternative type of worship. In Athens, Paul walks the streets of the idolatry capital of the world without a sledgehammer; and when he gets the opportunity to speak he doesn’t tell the Athenians to knock down their idols, he understands the human impulses that have led them to worship the wrong thing; to imagine different gods as the solution to their desires, and he attempts to redirect those impulses to the true God in a way that shows their idols as foolish distractions; he does this by quoting the poets and philosophers of the time, he shares as as many assumptions, as much empathy, or as much humanity, as he can with those he is preaching to, without joining their worship. The effect of this is to, much as the Old Testament prophets did when writing about ‘breathless’ idols, hollow them of any legitimate value or meaning, by pointing to the truly valuable God, the one ‘in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being’… his preaching of the more valuable God has a profound impact on people in this ancient world. When he gets to Ephesus a couple of chapters later, the same preaching causes a bunch of people to switch to worshipping the Christian God, and so to burn incredibly valuable (idolatrous) magic books. The impact on the idol-making market — because of the way the Gospel hollowed out the value of the idols of the time — is so great that the local idol making cartel starts a riot to push Paul out of town.
“About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way.A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there.He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business.And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:23-27
This is what we should be aiming for; to acknowledge our desire for life, meaning, joy, comfort, and significant relationships and to rob the idols of the present of their value because they don’t provide actual answers. Not with a sledgehammer, but by offering something better. One of our age’s own poets, David Foster Wallace, in the speech This Is Water (which I quote all the time (because it’s the equivalent of Paul quoting the non-Christian philosophers at the Areopagus cause they were so close to getting God right) points out that our culture has its own ‘cartel’ of idol makers; the powerful and influential systems and leaders who get more wealth and power so long as we all mindlessly participate in the default worship of our culture; which he calls ‘the worship of self’ — and which he suggests manifests itself in the worship of sex, money, and power. This is our Athens:
“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
Our job is to afflict those who have become comfortable via these defaults, and to comfort those afflicted and oppressed by these defaults, but to do it not by taking a sledgehammer to the sort of idol-perpetuating cultures (like capitalism and power-politics) but by offering a better way; a way that shows that the promises of ‘gods’ other than the one we see nailed to a cross, have no ‘divine majesty’ but are hollow and life-taking.
Proposition 6: The ‘post-truth’ world should rightly refocus us on ethos (and even pathos) as part of Gospel proclamation; it’s what gives our message integrity, credibility, and appeal
One of our misfires in the ‘truth’ world has been to assume that truth is found in the realm of ideas and words; that it’s a thing you predominantly think and that our heads lead to change; that we’re sanctified via education alone. We’re not just logical brains, or computers (I’ve heard some interesting stuff from brain scientists about how unhelpful it is to treat the brain as a ‘fascinating computer’ and I think we’ve made this mistake in our approach to church; trying to get the programming right). We love and feel and experience truth. Ancient communications theorists were all over this — logos (words/logic) alone is a terrible and unpersuasive ‘proof’… when we add the stuff about us being visible media into the mix (and think about how God communicates via visible media from the creation of the world, to laws that produce rituals and story-telling celebration, onwards to the word being made flesh in Jesus), it’s hard to get to a position we’re our words aren’t being given their weight and meaning by our actions and character. Words are always necessary; not just because we do think logically, but because words are also part of the way we calibrate our hearts. Words are something fundamental to our humanity; something we share with God that animals don’t (unless we teach them to parrot us), but we need to think more about the sorts of words, and about how words that have integrity have integrity because they line up with actions. Tying the above propositions together; this ethos is a thing we share across the church community, not just an individual thing.
Proposition 7: The church is the plausibility structure for the Gospel
Because persuasion happens via ethos as much as the logos that shapes it, and because that’s corporate, and because worshippers represent the God they worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that communities built around gods make those gods plausible. This is true of the shopping centre, where the story of happiness via consumption is told/pursued by all the people shopping together (or together alone) and shopping in ways that follow ‘trends’ (which often feature cultural artefacts that everyone wants to buy and own and attach to their ‘image’). The church community is where the Gospel is displayed as it is lived and articulated.When we forgive each other for wrongs and hurts we inflict on one another by bearing the cost of wrongdoing on ourselves we show the truth and goodness of the forgiveness Jesus pours out on us in his death.When we respond to messy sin with grace, rather than disgrace or shame the person (in a way that is utterly counter-cultural in our new shame culture) we make the Gospel more believable for us, and them.
When we have permission to be broken and vulnerable but are treated as though we have inherent dignity and value in the life of the community we make the claim that we are loved by God and being transformed into the image of Jesus feel true.
When we love each other the way Jesus loved us and commanded us to love — for the sake of the other, not our own sake — that makes the love God displays for us in Gospel believable for us and for others.
This isn’t revolutionary thinking either; it’s there in the words of Jesus when he says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…” (John 13:35, which is basically the idea that underpins the whole of 1 John where the possibility of continued belief in Jesus, and loving like Jesus are linked inextricably). Discipleship is about formation; we’re all disciples of whatever god we worship, shaped by those who are more ‘mature’ worshippers because it comes via imitation not simply education; for Christians it comes via imitation of Jesus (to love as he loved, which is also what he commands us to do in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another…”).
Proposition 8: For the Gospel to be proclaimed/plausible/lived 24/7 (not just on Sundays) we need to think of the church (community of believers) and its worship (corporate activity of sacrifice/service of God) as being a 24/7 thing not a two hours on Sundays thing.
We humans are worshippers 24/7. We’re always giving ourselves to our gods and getting shaped by them in return. Worship delivers transformation (and often disappointment, or in the words of David Foster Wallace, worshipping idols ‘eats us alive’…). To make the Gospel plausible in post-everything Australia we need to be quite deliberately combating other types of worship in how we live 24/7; a get together on Sundays for an hour or two won’t cut it because it won’t display our ethos (the Gospel enacted in the love of Jesus) for long enough to be plausible for us, let alone for others. This will mean deliberately building different rhythms into the lives of Christians to the rhythms we adopt without realising as we live and breathe in idolatrous post-everything air.
Proposition 9: In this model of corporate proclamation (ethos and logos) by the church all the time, the priesthood of all believers really matters; which requires an upping of the levels of commitment of ‘unpaid’ church members and lowering the commitment of paid staff.
If corporate ethos really matters; and the church community speaks, lives and breathes the story of the Gospel to ourselves, and the world, then it’s hard to outsource the ‘ministry’ of church to a handful of paid professionals. That’s been an unfortunate part of seeing church as predominantly a Sunday thing; ‘serving’ at church becomes less important than ‘being served’ or ‘consuming’ a ‘worship event.’ And all of that is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There’s certainly a case to be made for paid church workers (quite explicitly in the Bible) and I definitely think I offer some value for money to anyone considering reading this point and not giving at church anymore… there’s also a case to be made for a significant portion of a church’s budget being used to free people up from secular work to pursue a gospel calling. We’re all, as Christians, called to Gospel ministry (which means service), and this will take different shapes based on our gifts, circumstances, and maturity. What this ‘call’ looks like will be different for everyone, and it’s important that we don’t enforce some sort of secular/sacred divide here; a Gospel ethos underpins the work of the cobbler as much as it underpins the work of the preacher.
Work matters; but seeing your work (including what you choose to do) and how you do it as part of your ministry (not just your colleagues as people to bombard with Gospel ‘logos’) is part of making work truly matter.
Part of ensuring that church/worship of God/being the body of Christ is the most fundamental part of setting the agenda of your life might involve you having that agenda less set by work (and the imperatives of our modern idols of career, money, comfort and power); this might mean resting, recreating, and relating more with the people in your life, of changing career, or going part time and figuring out how your gifts might be more directly used for the Gospel.
In the first couple of weeks of meeting in the Queensland Theatre; one of the brilliant theatre company staff who was tasked with helping us out happened to mention that their ‘charity partner of choice’ was a local social justice group called Micah Projects who run an apartment building around the corner from us which provides permanent supported housing for formerly homeless and low income people. It turns out Micah was founded as the social justice arm of the local Catholic church, but it has sort of taken on a life of its own since then. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity for us to join something already happening in our area and to practice the sort of cross-shaped ‘ethos’ the Gospel creates in us. So I volunteered. I’ve been volunteering for almost three years now, and have been part of a cool project (including the launch of a social enterprise cafe). But I’ve mostly spent time hanging out with Micah Projects’ passionate and capable team. A lady in our community got a bit excited about Micah, and she volunteered too. She volunteered for a project face-to-face with residents of this apartment building and set about faithfully and enthusiastically loving people. Others from church started attending a community meal. This lady is so warm and genuine in her love for others; a love that crosses barriers, that soon a resident of this apartment building, a lovely older lady (perhaps more enthusiastic about life than even our volunteer) started coming to church. She’s not originally from Australia, has no other family here, and now, in her emails and in conversations with people from outside our church calls us her ‘Aussie family’…
Proposition 10: As an alternative ‘community’ with an alternative king and alternative ethics (ethos), the church is profoundly ‘political’ (and both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ at the same time).
The church can’t simply attempt to be an arm of the secular state; wielding worldly power as though we’re not profoundly different to our neighbours. We follow king Jesus and are ‘citizens of heaven’ who ‘live as foreigners and exiles’ in this world; but nor can we pretend the Gospel is apolitical; that following Jesus has no bearing on how we live in God’s world amongst people now. The word ‘politics’ originally meant: “of, for, or relating to citizens” and we have some very big ideas about what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom; to follow Jesus, to obey his commands, to: ‘‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
The Gospel gives us a new vision of ‘the ethical’ and ‘good’ human life; which in the context of relationships/community gives us a new ‘politics’ — the word Gospel is, in itself, a political statement that Jesus is king (that’s what a ‘gospel’ was in Rome). Being part of God’s kingdom, the church, brings a whole new way of doing politics that come from our understanding of what the good life for a citizen looks like; the sort of life we aim to live as we follow our king, but also the sort of life we hope might appeal to others and commend the Gospel to them (not the sort of life we want to coerce people into living without a regime change in their heart).
Our understanding of what it means to be human means we see humans as made in God’s image; so that there are certain inherently good and natural things that we commonly hold together (a sort of divinely inspired moral compass), so we’ll naturally want to conserve those things in a shared approach to life together as citizens; but we also see humans transforming themselves into the image of destructive idols via corporate/cultural replacement of God with created things, and we see that as profoundly damaging to our humanity (and to others) (Romans 1). We’ll see most cultures/institutions as being produced by image bearers who are also idolaters and so on a sort of spectrum towards deathliness depending on how much they’ve been given over (together) by God to the consequences of rejecting him (Romans 1) — people who know what they should do, but often don’t do it (Romans 7), so we’ll naturally want to call for a sort of progress away from that broken humanity towards the example of humanity we see in Jesus. We’ll call for this without expecting people who don’t follow Jesus to adopt that ‘progress’ for themselves, and we’ll call for itloudest by living it as people/citizens being transformed by God’s Spirit (Romans 8).
Proposition 11: Part of the nature of the Gospel’s ‘ethos‘, the nature of our politics, and how we see the value of people and the use of power, pushes us towards the marginalised in our community not towards occupying or cosying up to ‘powerful’ worldly leaders (and for those of us in positions of power and influence should shape us to use that in particular, sacrificial, ways on behalf of the vulnerable).
The way Jesus uses power is the anti-thesis to the way the Serpent, Satan, uses power and following Jesus brings with it a new way of approaching power that isn’t the grasping, self-interested approach introduced by the Serpent in Genesis 3. The way of the Serpent is the way of the ‘beastly’ Roman empire (see Revelation); it’s the way that culminates in humanity driving big metal spikes through the hands of God With Us (Jesus), and killing him on the best weapon of utter humiliation-via-powerlessness that humanity could devise. The cross worked by robbing someone of their dignity and their ability to inspire (both in terms of breathing or leading). That’s why Rome used it to punish treason and insurrection; it was meant to give Caesar more power by robbing power from pretenders. The serpent makes powerful people into crucifiers; Jesus makes people cruciform (cross shaped). This orients those who follow Jesus to a particular understanding of how sinful people (and cultures) will wield power for their own self-interest, and attunes us to the sort of cost that inflicts on the people who powerful people use to their own ends; it means that we use our own ‘human power’ as a gift from God to be poured out for the sake of others; whether we occupy an ‘office’ that brings a degree of authority, or we’re just human, there’s an orientation towards the poor, the enslaved, the widowed, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the abused, and the victim. Most people are ‘marginalised’ in some way by the use of power, because ultimately power used to our own selfish ends is power being used by ‘that great serpent’ whose reign is destroyed by the reign of Jesus (again, see Revelation).Part of the ethos that comes with serving the king who lays down his power for the sake of others to make a ‘home’ for the marginalised and re-affirm their dignity will involve us pursuing justice and mercy and love for the marginalised in our world; not in a way that tosses out the truth that we’re all ‘marginalised,’ excluded, and exiled, from God by our sin (a trap the ‘social gospel’/liberation movement fell into), or that sees this as the only marginalisation that matters (the trap the more fundamentalist ‘preach heaven to the dying world’ movement falls into) or that our homecoming to God involves being ‘exiles’ from the world of human/serpentish power (a trap a sort of ‘reconstructionist’ approach to government falls into sometimes), but in a way that sees how we live and love being part of how we proclaim and live the truth of the Lordship of Jesus over all things.
Proposition 12: We are ‘narrative animals’ and it’s stories that underpin our worship
As people we occupy space and move through time; the thing that separates ‘narrative’ from other forms is that events that happen in space, over time are understood/told that way. That’s how a story and a statue convey meaning differently. It’s also the difference between a computer and a person. When I turn on a computer it has no deep knowledge of the idea that it has been turned off for days, weeks, months or years, or that it is in a different place (even when software options recognise those things for us as users, they’re not ‘meaningful’ for the computer itself). We’re ‘narrative animals’; the post-truth thing where ’emotion,’ intuition, and our ‘personal narrative’ trumps facts is, in part, a corrective against a view of people that treated us more like computers who just had to be programmed right in order to perform right.
Plausibility in a post-truth world means treating people ‘narrative animals’ who organise our passing through time and space by telling stories that help us understand, love, feel, and intuit our way around the world; and telling a better/more-compelling story that brings a vision of what life should look like; it’s these stories and this vision that will shape our habits and loves, and so shape us.
These stories use words, but they’re also lived. Part of the task of the church community is to be a story-telling community in word and action; a community that lives and breathes the story of the coming of the kingdom of God and the death of sin and death in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Stories go hand in hand with ‘history’ — the collection of stories over time that give an account of who we are. There’s a movement called the “Big History Project” which aims to equip people to live more scientifically in a post-truth world by starting ‘history’ teaching with the big bang and giving people a sense of the tiny amount of space and time we occupy; we’ve got a better big history, that also begins with creation, but centres on the God who spoke the universe into being showing his incredible love for us and making us eternal. We should tell that story (like Paul does in Athens in Acts 17) as a way to move people from worshipping idols to worshipping the true God; because he’s actually a better God with a better story to be part of. This has to shape the way talk about the Bible (as a story not a weird collection of rules and facts, which is actually truer about how the Bible seems to understand itself — and how the apostles preach the Old Testament in Acts).
Proposition 13: Because we’re worshipping ‘narrative’ creatures who understand our world and are formed through ‘story’ and action (ethos) in community, not simply detached ‘facts’ (logos) Christian formation happens through the hands and the heart (our loves) as well; so we can’t just ‘educate brains’ to make disciples.
This is just Augustine and James K.A Smith and the implications of the stuff above. We become what we worship; and worship is about much more than simply knowing. I know I should eat healthier and that will re-shape me; but until I love the idea of a healthy me more than sugar and junk food and habitually say no, the knowing does nothing, and I know sugar is bad for me the less I eat it… If it doesn’t work in dieting (or any realm of human behaviour built on producing a changed image) why do we think formation happens purely by education? The implications for this are massive in terms of investment of time and energy in the rhythms of church life (the sermon can’t possibly be enough), but also changes the things we say when we preach and where we pitch stuff. The caveat is that of course the head is important; it’d be a weird sort of irony to write this much and not acknowledge that.
Proposition 14: Propositions are dead.
Propositions are a reasonable way to do logic, and they were perhaps okish in a pre-post-truth context (particularly in a modernist context). They’re a reasonable way to argue. I’m not so sure that many people have been argued into the kingdom of God (though I’m sure some arguments have been part of getting people to consider Jesus)… I’m fairly sure arguments/debates/logic won’t do much if the post-truth thing is the spirit of the age we live in. It’s still important to have some sense of the logic of belief in Jesus, but that won’t be the thing that gets someone to check out, or believe, the Gospel at a gut, or heart, level.
Propositions are actually a terrible way to do anything that looks like ‘change’ in the scheme of things whether that’s in the life of individual Christians, or in how we do church. And as much as a very long post on a blog might seem like a lot of energy to invest in a thing that doesn’t work, I’m much more interested in investing my energy into demonstration of this stuff in the context of the church community I’m part of, and through telling stories. There’s, of course, an irony in all this, but these propositions have largely been derived from how I understand the story of the Bible works, and from my observations of stories of God at work in the lives of real people in our church, lives that reflect this grand story…
In the beginning, God made a good world — an ordered and beautiful world where every created thing had a built-in purpose. It’s purpose was to reflect his goodness, his character, and his love. It was a gift for his children; his image-bearers. He made us to represent him, to rule with him, to spread and create things that would reflect his goodness throughout the world. He made us with another job in mind — as men and women — he made us to take part in the cosmic battle to defeat evil. Evil personified in the Serpent. Satan. He gave humanity what was required to defeat him; simply the opportunity to choose good, not evil, when the serpent came knocking. That would’ve been his end. Perhaps the serpent might have struck out and killed humans, but God has always been the life-giver who is capable of resurrection, and the gift of immortality via the ‘tree of life’ is part of his expression of love for his children. Who knows? The serpent struck with his words, not his teeth, he invited us humans to replace God with a false picture of God… first by suggesting that God wasn’t a generous life-giver who gave people everything they need, and more, and then by inviting them to decide what ‘image’ of God, what likeness, they would present in the world God made. Stuff God. Do your own thing. Worship some other picture of wholeness and goodness and pursue that. Only, none of these give life, or breath, or being; instead, they take life and breath. And that’s what humans choose, by default, to be our own gods, to worship false gods, to pursue satisfaction in using the things God made to our own ends. And it’s not just not-satisfying (it always leaves us wanting more), it’s also deadly. These things don’t give life.
The story of humanity from that point is the disappointing story of hearts too easily lured away from God towards death, but God constantly pulling people from the smelting fire, re-forging them, breathing new life and purpose into them, offering life again… only for those same ‘new image bearers’ to head towards the exile door, away from him, away from life.
The Old Testament is a story of failed kings, failed states, and exile; of God’s images being captured and corrupted by foreign ideas — as idol statues often were in other military conflicts of the time — and so losing their created purpose. Of hearts turned towards wrong pictures of God, of imaginations misfiring. This is not just Israel’s story; it’s the story of humanity. It’s what we do. We’re haunted by having known the infinite, life giving God, and having lost that knowledge, collectively and culturally, by replacing him with things he made. It’s also the story of God’s faithful commitment to his original plans; the defeat of the serpent and the creation of a people who join him in spreading good, and true, and beautiful things — in spreading life itself — around the cosmos. Using our desires and imaginations; our creativity; to make things that are life-giving, not death-bringing.
The story happens all over again with Jesus. When the author of life writes the word of life into the story of the world as a character. Jesus, both God and man, a new Adam, one who will end the serpent. The serpent-killing lamb ‘slain from the creation of the world’… the one who says no to the Serpent because he knows the goodness of God. The one who defeats evil not with the might of a sword, but with the obedience of the cross… that moment in history, at the centre of the story, where he both reveals God’s character and takes on the sin, and guilt, and shame, of those who write their own godless stories. Where a good king steps in to end our exile from God and to restore images captured by foreign enemies. Where the infinite becomes finite — to the point of spending three days dead — to give infinite life to us. This life is re-breathed into his people as the Holy Spirit; a divine spark setting fire to our hearts and minds, re-shaping us into what we were made to be; not just images of the infinite, invisible God, but of Jesus. Our king. Jesus invites you to rediscover the satisfaction of becoming who humans were always made to be. He invites you to be a character in the story that brings life, rather than write your own stories that bring death; to make things (family, friends, art, work) that are good and true and beautiful reflections of God’s goodness and character — the goodness and character we ultimately see revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — with others who are being re-shaped, re-forged, by that same Spirit. This creative community is a life-giving community, a community that lives out this new story and points people to the hero, while relying on God to give us life and breath and everything, and seeking to love our neighbours the way he loved us.
This is the true story we get to tell, and the story we get to live, as God’s people living in a world pulled in all sorts of directions by different types of worship. ‘Facts’ without this story are empty, that’s why the ‘post-truth’ thing isn’t ultimately a terrible thing for Christians, but perhaps it should be a ‘game-changer’ in that it should pull us back to a way of loving people and sharing the Gospel that we should never have walked away from (and in many cases, haven’t walked away from).
I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.
Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.
As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?
I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.
I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:
“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon
Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?
I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.
All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…
Our Disenchanted world
I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.
The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.
But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:
Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.
One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.
“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist
These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.
These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.
Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.
Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?
It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.
Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.
“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction
The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.
“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children
But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?
In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…
Comics and the “real” world
Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.
It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton
The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).
Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.
While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.
The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.
Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.
That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York
“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger
“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com
The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader
But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.
“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader
What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.
What places do to people, what people do to places
There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.
In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.
“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings
Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.
“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.
“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative
But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.
One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.
CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.
In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image
Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23
Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent
The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow
Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.
But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.
“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…
Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…
So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories
So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.
It takes a special sort of artist to be the subject of conspiracy theories that make their work more compelling. Not less. The Internet is full of bad conspiracy theories about art. Theories that draw from the same gene pool as the backwards masking movement from the early days of rock music. Theories that see ghosts operating in the machine. Theories from the Third Eagle of the Apocalypse. Theories are a dime a dozen. There are five that I choose to believe.
What I love about these is they are all (if true) demonstrations of intricate creativity being deliberately laid out over a significant amount of time with a huge degree of deliberation. If true they are the work of master craftspeople. People at the top of their creative games, and at the top of the creative game. The beauty of these theories (well not really the Office one – it’s just fun) is that you don’t have to notice them to appreciate the individual texts (movies and albums) involved, but when you do notice them, or experience them through the lens the theories provide, there is a greater richness in the experience and a greater appreciation of the mastery on display.
I choose to believe that Tarantino is a master story teller. A master of very deliberate decision making in the creative process. I think the best stories are layered. They reward multiple readings (or viewings). They get richer over time, not simpler.
My working theory in this post is that God is the ultimate deliberate creator. The ultimate story teller. And when we drill down into what makes excellent human story telling excellent we gain a new appreciation of the excellence of the story God has been telling since before the beginning of time that includes, but is not limited to, the story told by the Bible (I say this because I think a case can be made that the Bible is a demonstration of the story God has been telling through history since he created the world.
Tarantino’s approach to telling stories through deliberate and intricate plots helps me appreciate the story of the Bible.
Like Tarantino’s movie corpus which includes all his films, occuring within one universe, the Bible is a collection of books put together across a span of time. Christians believe the creative intent behind the linking of these books and the stories and story they tell is the result of the deliberate creativity of a divine author – God – who doesn’t just deliberately author these texts with a particular creative intent, but all of human history.
The Bible is a set of books that work as discrete units with specific purposes that tell complete stories, books that form part of different genre based corpora (like the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets in the Old Testament. Just as Kill Bill is one story told over two episodes to give Tarantino more space, there are narrative based books of the Bible that come in two parts – like 1-2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The books in the Old Testament often include a variety of sources and references to other texts in their time – Proverbs, for example, includes references to several foreign kings whose collections have been included in Israel’s official collection of theological wisdom. Genesis contains Jewish versions of stories (like the flood) that are retold by other cultures with other emphases (see, for example, the Gilgamesh Epic). The Bible uses these stories with a particular agenda according to God’s purposes. The Bible doesn’t contain all the stories God is telling in his world, because: a) there isn’t enough room, as John says at the end of his Gospel…
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” – John 21:25
b) every human life is a story, and part of this story. Like in Tarantino’s movie universe – All these stories – the stories told in the Bible, and the stories told in history through our lives, are connected through God’s meta-narrative. The story of his son. Jesus.
Like Tarantino’s movies, this story involves an act of hyper-violence. The story of the Bible (at least so far as it claims it is one story) is the story of the lamb slain before the creation of the world – and how that slaying plays out for each one of us. Are we slayers or was he slain for us? How’s this stuff from Revelation 13 for Tarantinoesque… Just let the symbolism of this stuff wash over you – the really important bit is in the bolded verse, but that only really makes sense in its context.
People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not beenwritten in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. – Revelation 13:4-8
We all play a part in God’s story – either we’re on team dragon or team lamb. And God’s story centres on this one particular violent event. Deliberately. As Peter puts it in Acts 2 when he speaks to the Jewish crowd the narrative of Luke-Acts holds responsible for killing Jesus…
This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. – Acts 2:23.
This chapter comes soon after (but in volume 2) Luke records Jesus telling us how to read the Bible as one intricate story with one agenda.
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47
This mind opening that Jesus performs for his disciples is something like that light that turns on when you hear the theory that Tarantino’s movies are all connected. It’s what happens when you’re given the key to understanding a bunch of stories you’d never quite connected.
Look. The Bible’s writers could have made all this stuff up. Maybe. I’m familiar with the argument about puddles that some people believe does away with the need for an intelligent designer in a fine-tuned universe. And I’m really advocating a view of a finely told story… And this construct Jesus suggests for reading the Bible actually does work, it gives us (or at least me), a particularly satisfying approach to an ancient text, tracing myriad threads through the Old Testament to the foot of the Cross and the feet of King Jesus. This could be the work of some very clever humans. It could be an artificial frame to put around a bunch of random text – as a hole in the ground is a random frame that perfectly encompasses a puddle… But bear with me for a moment.
I love thinking about the intricacies and deliberation required to achieve certain desired results.
I love the idea that true creativity is about finding an intricate, elegant (aesthetically pleasing), or deliberately and aptly selected (sledgehammers can be creatively applied) approach to achieving such results. This is why I love Rube Goldberg machines and OK Go film clips and uphold them as archetypal forms of creativity or ingenuity. It’s why I enjoy Tarantino movies and the theory they all take place in the same interwoven universe. They are examples of intricate, elegant, and deliberate story telling. But they are not the ultimate version of this sort of storytelling…
What is more intricate, elegant, and deliberate than having human history unfold in such a way that a specific person, born in a specific place, to a specific category of mother, killed by specific people, in a specific way, with specific events plausibly surrounding this specific death? That sounds a little like a potential plot line for a Tarantino movie. The ‘deliberate’ planning involved to get Jesus to the Cross blows my mind…
Consider the deliberate marshalling of human history and events both local and geo-political in order to have Jesus killed through an unexpected agreement between a particular surviving people group from the Ancient Near East (whose very survival was unlikely) – Israel – who believed that being hung on a tree was a sign of God’s curse and their bitter enemy – the occupiers – Rome – the most powerful human empire and propaganda machine the world had ever seen, who used crucifixion as a violent symbol in a PR war to keep sedition at bay.
Consider the sheer unlikelihood of the rise of Christianity amongst both Jews, with their views on crucifixion – theologically driven, and ancient, and Romans. Jews looked at crucifixion through the lens of Deuteronomy 21, which says:
“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23
While Romans had the rhetorical power of the cross hammered into them by its use in events like the crucifixion of Spartacus’ army in 73BC. Where 6,000 Roman slaves were executed and displayed for all to see on the Appian Way – a 200km highway between Rome and Capua.
Consider that crucifixion was so violent and barbaric that Roman citizens were not permitted to be crucified. That sort of cultural aversion had to be developed in order for the cross to have its inverted rhetorical power in the Christian story. In order for its sheer unlikelihood as a means of heralding and coronating a king to be significantly subversive.
That’s the level of intricacy in this story’s supply chain.
That’s the sort of creativity involved in God’s story-telling.
Even if the puddle theory could be applied to this level of fine-tuning – there’s a sublime amount of creativity applied to weave all these elements together across genres, languages (from Hebrew to Greek (via Aramaic), through different political regimes (the nomadic patriarchy, the Jewish monarchy, exile under Assyria, exile under Persia, the return from exile, exile under Greece, exile under Rome), and to link them with an incredibly consistent application of tropes, and amazingly intricate intertextuality (both inside and outside the Biblical canon).
Whatever the explanation for the creative force behind this intricacy – be it a cabal of human editors working over that span to advance some sort of nefarious agenda (or simply for creativity’s sake), or divine (and I’m not sure the human alternative is all that plausible, even if I’m a sucker for creative literary conspiracy theories) – it is sublimely creative and exciting. It is deliberate, intricate, and elegant.
This is what sets the Bible’s story apart from the rest, in the same way that Tarantino’s movies sit apart from contemporary works or those within similar genres. But here are three areas where appreciating the deliberation and creativity in Tarantino’s movies helps me to get a sense of the greater creativity at play in the pages of the Bible – a much older text.
One of the interesting implications of the Tarantino theory (certain parts of which have been confirmed) is what it means for all the movies from our real universe that Tarantino references in his “realer than real” universe and also in the “movies that exist within the realer than real” universe. His movie universe is a movie universe where most of our texts also exist (in order for them to be referenced in whatever homage he chooses to pay them). Curiously. The Bible exists in the Tarantino universe. Pulp Fiction hitman, Jules Winnfield, quotes Ezekiel as he shoots his victims. Only. He doesn’t. This is what Jules says:
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
Ezekiel 25:17 actually says:
“I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.”
That’s a distraction from this concept of intertextuality. Intertextuality – speaking to, and with, other texts from within a text, is a sure-fire way to create intricacy and integration.
Some of these cross references are more hefty than others – but the way the Bible links the words of the prophets in the Old Testament with the actions and words of Jesus is pretty stunning story-telling (more stunning if the connections are what actually happened, not just things creative writers invented – and I believe they are). This sort of intertextuality is Tarantino on steroids – that definitive guide to Tarantino, impressive though it is, contains 179 examples. Examples from one guy. From 18 of his movies. This infographic depicts about 352 times the number of references Tarantino managed, from 66 books, written by about 40 authors. The Bible’s intertextuality, in my opinion, is significantly more impressive because of the integration of the creativity of so many people, over so long, to tell a coherent story that also does both pop culture references and references within the universe of the Biblical texts.
As far as I’m concerned there are two options with the Bible. It is definitely an amazingly integrated story full of deliberation, intricacy and elegance – transcending a bunch of archaic genres that we aren’t particularly well equipped to grapple with. This story is either fiction, invented by a string of genius Tarantino like humans, operating across cultures, or it is truth, divinely authored through a string of genius Tarantino like humans. I like the concluding remarks from the essay I, Pencil mentioned above, at this point. I think what is true in this paragraph about the making of a pencil is truer about the writing of the Bible.
“I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.”
The use of tropes (type-scenes, reoccuring metaphors, images, objects, patterns, or ideas) in both narrative and meta-narrative
Tarantino has certain trademarks – some more offensive than others – that reoccur throughout his movies. These serve to link the movies together as ‘Tarantino’ movies. They are part of his distinctives. They are part of his personality.
The Bible is chock full of trademarks, or motifs, that reoccur across different books. There are also threads that carry the narrative across these books, through the cross references depicted above, to link the books of the Bible as one unfolding story. That’s part of the added appeal.
Here are just a few.
1. Women who can’t conceive falling pregnant and giving birth to a miraculous child after being visited by a messenger from God, the child then plays a significant part in God’s rescue plan. Starting with Abraham and Sarah (Isaac), then Jacob and Rachel (Joseph), then Sampson’s parents (his mother isn’t named), Elkanah and Hannah (who have Samuel), Zechariah and Elizabeth (John the Baptist), then, of course, Mary – the most unlikely mother – gives birth to Jesus.
3. Gold. There’s Gold in Eden, at the start of the Bible, and from there on, gold (and the jewels also mentioned in Genesis 2) becomes like a thermometer that tests the temperature of humanity’s relationship with the creator and his world. The gold is plundered from Egypt during the Exodus, used to make a golden calf when Moses gets the 10 Commandments, used to construct the Temple and the clothes of the priests, and then the temple treasures are handed over to the bad guys on Israel’s road to exile.
4. Character names as determinative puns. Right from Adam, whose name means “of the ground” to Jesus, whose name means “God with us” – the Bible uses character names to move plot, and indicate where things have changed – for example, when Abram’s name is changed to Abraham.
5. Numbers. The Bible uses reoccuring numbers – like 12 (tribes and disciples) and 40 (days of rain for Noah, years in the wilderness for Israel, days in the desert for Jesus) – to link stories and events.
There are also tropes within books. Genesis, which starts in the Garden, spends the rest of the book playing with the idea of ‘seed’ – including the weird story of Onan. Judges is full of people killing using improvised weaponry. 1-2 Samuel reads like a mafia novel – Kings (or Godfathers) rely on their hitmen (Abner for Saul, Joab for David) to carry off increasingly nasty hits. Quite a few books in the histories section involve stories about people building markers to recognise significant places or events that are said to “remain till this day”…
My favourite thread that helps carry the narrative is the good old “image of God” thread – which isn’t just about the ideal human and our relationship to God, but is a constant criticism of the idolatry of the nations that Israel keeps taking up. People are meant to be living images of the living God, but they’re so keen to make dead images (still, wooden, stone, or metal) of dead gods. This thread helps explain the prohibitions against making images of God, and the problems Israel have with being the people God wants them to be. The Bible is pretty clear that the things we make our gods shape us. When Israel is shaped by the living God things are good (this doesn’t happen often), when they are shaped by idols, they die. This carries through to Jesus, who the Bible tells us is the image of God. Who transforms dead people who have turned away from God into live people, reconnected with God. It’s a big story of recreation – the end of the Bible, Revelation, is a perfect world, with a Garden, where God is present with people restored to his image.
The individual integrity and brilliance of the parts but greater integrity and brilliance of the canon
I like some Tarantino movies better than others. I can appreciate things about his movies that I don’t like. But this Tarantino universe theory – and the ingenuity underpinning it – excites me. It opens up new ways to appreciate each movie. The connection to something bigger makes the individual movie richer. Each movie stands on its own. Each movie is a coherent and discrete unit. But they’re linked – not just by the name on the can. Tarantino. But by the use of tropes, by the intertextual approach, the signature style, all that stuff. The more aware of this stuff I am, the more I appreciate about Tarantino’s work.
It’s the same with the Bible. Each book of the Bible offers something different (maybe with the exception of Chronicles as they relate to 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings). Each stands alone as art. Each is a work of creativity. Each has a relatively clear meaning and purpose – but this clarity becomes richer with time, the more one understands the creativity at play in the text. The books that take a narrative form stand alone as stories with beginnings and endings. With characters. With a purpose. With the artistic development of ideas and images. But what makes the Bible really sing is when each book takes its place next to the others as this unfolding story. God’s story. The story that brings all the tropes, all the threads, all the events, together in one person. Jesus. God’s king. The king anticipated by the Old Testament. The author writing himself into the story in order to be known. The master story teller who becomes part of the story, and dies for the sake of the characters he loves. That’s when the story becomes deliberate. Intricate. Elegant. And a model of creativity at its most sublime.