Tolkien

From non-place to New Eden: why churches should plant micro-forests

On Sunday our church’s Committee of Management met. These types of meetings are routinely boring. They typically spend a chunk of time on church finances (yawn), red-tape compliance (argh), and facility maintenance (blurgh). Our Committee of Management does those things (and I am thankful for the gifts other people bring to those tasks), but we also give a chunk of time to environmental issues and aesthetics.

We meet in a rented facility that belongs to another church community; we meet as one gathering on Sundays, but have two management structures. We’ve recently asked our landlords/partners in the Gospel if we might turn a small kids play area that is too small to meet various safety codes into a kids ‘nature play’ area complete with garden beds and other natural features that might encourage play, but not need the same sort of insurance risk assessments.

Two of the wonderful women on our Committee of Management are passionately integrating creation care into the fabric of our church life; one of these ladies, Wendy, has been leading our church into a new season of waste management, we now have recycling collection containers for just about everything that can be recycled, from disposable gloves, to plastic communion cups, to soft plastics, to our disposable coffee cups (and lids). She’s been reading the work of Jonathan Cornford from Manna Gum, especially his book Coming Home, and sharing insights from it, and her deep dive into recycling, with our church family. Another lady, Hana, has been a passionate advocate for environmental issues in the life of our church for some time, and our Committee’s discussion turned to Subpods (a type of buried compost bin developed here in Australia), and micro-forests — especially the kind that feature native plants, and that have the capacity to form ‘microclimates’. Here’s an ABC article on a growing move to establish micro-forests as a way to combat climate change in hyper-local ways.

The size of a tennis court, micro-forests were originally devised by Akira Miyawaki, a botanist who wanted to restore biodiversity in urban environments.

Since the first tiny forest was planted in Zaandam in the Netherlands in 2015, the Miyawaki method has been growing in popularity, particularly in Europe, as communities work to mitigate the “urban heat island” effect.

The method replicates mature ecosystems, but on a small scale, with each plant, grass and shrub chosen carefully to complement the others.

Now, we have a small amount of green space to work with in our little location, but this all got me thinking again about the church forests of Ethiopia and our place in the world as citizens and gardeners anticipating the New Eden, especially as we keep thinking about church spaces and how to use them as hotbeds for the sort of re-enchantment we need in a disenchanted world.

Recently I’ve been digging into the writing of Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth was one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, and some time back my friend Arthur pointed me to his work on re-wilding as a picture of resisting the Babylonian project of perpetual human progress via empire, or dominion, particularly the kind wrapped up in the myth of progress and the rise of the machine. Kingsnorth has quite spectacularly documented his conversion to Christianity in the last year, there’s a fascinating series of articles you can dip into from to this reflection on the modern machine age’s linear view of time and progress, and how destructive that is to us and the world, to this interview about the myth of progress, to this article on his new post Dark Mountain project ‘The Abbey of Misrule,’ titled Dreaming of the Rood (“Rood” is a word for crucifix), to, ultimately, his testimony The Cross and the Machine, published on First Things. In that he says:

“Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress—the triumph of the Nietzschean will—­dissolves the glue that once held us. Fires are set around the supporting pillars of the culture by those charged with guarding it, urged on by an ascendant faction determined to erase the past, abuse their ancestors, and dynamite their cultural ­inheritance, the better to build their earthly paradise on terra ­nullius. Massing against them are the new ­Defenders of the West, some calling for a return to the atomized liberalism that got us here in the first place, others defending a remnant Christendom that seems to have precious little to do with Christ and forgets Christopher Lasch’s warning that “God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder.” Two profane visions going head-to-head, when what we are surely crying out for is the only thing that can heal us: a return to the sacred center around which any real culture is built.

Up on the mountain like Moriarty, in the ­Maumturk ranges in the autumn rain, I had my own vision, terrible and joyful and impossible. I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost—the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first—above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them.”

Watching Kingsnorth convert, through this series of articles, because of his sense of the systemic nature of the Christian story, and its importance as a true and revolutionary myth — the antidote to the destruction he sees around him in the dominion systems of the world is a bit like watching Jordan Peterson convert because he sees the same thing happening at an individual level. We could turn Kingsnorth into the ‘lefty’ version of Peterson at this point, or see Peterson as the ‘righty’ version of Kingsnorth — or — perhaps we could see in their stories both the compelling power of the Christian story of the transformation of the individual and the cosmos through the victory of Jesus that we actually need both systemic and individual transformation to come from God, and that maybe both these stories are part of the Gospel (not just one — the systemic change championed by the theological left, or the individual change through penal substitution championed by the theological right).

Kingsnorth has been grappling with the secularisation of our view of the world and its accompanying disenchantment, and the revolutionary power of the Christian story, especially when framed not just as a story of personal salvation from a dying world, but of resistance to Babylon/Rome styled empire, centred on the cosmic victory of Jesus and the promised renewal of all things — God’s New Eden Project. He’s long been an advocate for re-wilding, trying to step back human destruction of the world by re-introducing nature and trying to live with it better… And now, in his story, and in this fuller picture of the Gospel as the story of life in a Garden-City, with God (as opposed to life in Babylon without him), we might see re-wilding — or letting forests back in to our dominated landscapes/ecologies — as a path both to re-enchantment and discipleship. Such re-enchantment might even be a necessary pre-condition for sharing the Gospel story in a disenchanted, secular, age. Kingsnorth’s conversion demonstrates how powerful it is to recognise the truth of the Christian story because one has first been disenchanted by the Babylonian myth of progress and dominion, and re-enchanted in the hunt for alternatives. If re-enchantment of the natural world is coupled with a right view of nature as a created good that reveals the divine nature and character of God, then this might help us live and tell a more compelling version of the Christian story.

It may also be that stories (or myths), like Kingsnorth’s fiction, can help us see the world this way. Maybe Tolkien and Lewis were onto something in their desires for us to grapple both with grand stories (myths or fairytales) and nature as spiritual disciplines that help us see God, his world, and our place in it, rightly.

As C.S Lewis said, “the fairy tale stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Stories might be a path to re-enchantment, and re-enchantment might be a path back to God in the machine age. Lewis’ first lecture at Cambridge was all about the way machines drove us into the post-Christian, secular, context we now find ourselves in.

Tolkien wrote a poem called Mythopoeia, about his friend C.S Lewis a man of whom he said “you look at trees, and label them just so…” Lewis’ view of the almost sacramental function of the natural world was not quite enough for Tolkien… he also wrote this letter to a newspaper about his love for trees and how that stands as a testimony against the machine-loving enemy (the same sort of Babylonian empire he represents in Middle Earth with Sauron and Mordor):

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

It would be possible to idolise nature… not just to rightly love it… to turn a sort of sacramental view of creation and our role in it into pagan worship of trees rather than a recognition of God’s role as God, creation’s role in testifying to his glory and divine nature, and our priestly image bearing role as representing this nature as we steward his world towards this purpose, but how we use and interact with the physical world is a testimony to how we understand God and the world. Our participation in the world, and our use of space, has to be different to Babylon’s; our spaces and use of the world has to be forming us as different people being transformed into the image of the living God we meet in Jesus, not the gods of Babylon.

Which brings me to how we shape, and steward, church spaces — and why planting micro-forests might be an anti-Babylonian act. There’s incredible historical rationale for the idea that church architecture shapes the people who inhabit these spaces — habitats do, indeed, shape habits. Aesthetics form ethics. Whether this was in the houses and tables of the early church — which reinforced the truth that Christians (regardless of social status) were part of a new family, or household (or “economy” — the word “economy” being derived from the greek words for ‘household’ (oikos) and ‘use or rule’ (nomos), or in the grand cathedrals deliberately built to reinforce both the stories of the faith (in stain glass and statues), and the shape of the Gospel (with a cruciform floor plan, and the highest point of the steeple, which reached to the heavens, being situated at the junction of that cross, where the communion table sits… this isn’t new. In fact, the Old Testament Temple with its Eden undertones, and the cosmic-geography reinforcing “Holy of holies” also served to form a people for life in the world.

We don’t do that now. I wrote a bit about the idea of church spaces as ‘non-places’ when I was writing down my ideas around the ‘New Eden Project’ (cause everyone needs a manifesto… right…). In philosophical terms, non-places are places like airports; places designed to feel the same, to be generic, to be “places of transience where humans feel anonymous” — they are specifically designed not to form us in the way that architecture does, and yet, by their very nature (and dominance of the modern landscape) they deform us, because they become blank canvases where Babylon’s capitalist machine can bombard us with visual advertising and erode our ability to pay attention. There’s a great Eucatastrophe episode called “Resisting Secular Space” that digs into this, and a follow up about “Sacrifice Zones” that is related.

Non-places are also ‘thin spaces’ rather than ‘thick ones’, they ground us in the ‘immanence’ of the here and now, rather than inviting us to connect with something transcendent. There’s a reason many people, like Kingsnorth, find an urge towards the transcendent in nature and beauty. The philosopher Charles Taylor would say life in the ‘secular age’ where we’re quite disenchanted and ‘ensconced in immanence’ features these occasional moments of ‘frisson’ or the haunting sense that something bigger than us might be out there. Our modern church spaces — especially black box auditoriums filled with technology — are not spaces that will throw us towards the transcendent with this haunting moments, but ground us in the day to day myth of the machine. Churches that create multipurpose facilities that are architecturally generic, or who meet in public facilities that are function rooms or the like, have the disadvantage that our spaces aren’t working to form us in the Christian story — but they’re also not neutral — they’re forming us in generic ‘non-spaceness’… Often we take black box spaces (like the theatre our church met in for a few years) and use lighting and other technology to create “atmosphere,” and yet, as Jamie Smith observes, we end up bringing the atmosphere of the cinema or shopping centre into the church and just forming little consumers, or citizens of Babylon, creations of the machine myth of progress, while preaching Jesus.

When you think about the story of Genesis 1-3 in these terms, Adam and Eve found themselves in a garden temple in the heart of an ordered cosmos. They were created as God’s ‘image bearing’ rulers of this ordered world, called to “be fruitful and multiply” as they represented God’s heavenly rule and relationship with creation in their own rule and relationships. They were placed in this garden and commanded to operate like priests in a temple (the ‘guard and keep’ words in God’s instructions to Adam are what priests did in the Temple later in the Old Testament). They were in a place — a fruitful garden — embedded in relationship with God — that was meant to form them as people, and be where they carried out the task of stewarding creation. Their exile from the Garden, like Israel’s exile from the Land, and from access to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was a move from space designed to form them as God’s people into non-space — not yet cultivated land outside of Eden, or, in Israel’s case, into the deforming space of Babylon; cut off from one of the sources of their spiritual formation (the cultic life of Israel with its Temple, sacrifices, feasts, and festivals). Our re-creation as “Temples of God’s Spirit,” through Jesus, and the picture of his return in Revelation 21-22 gives us a new pattern of ‘gardening’ as God’s priests in a world that’s a lot like Babylon (but one where we are home with God, rather than exiled from him).

Perhaps there’s something to that advice Jeremiah gives to Israel as they live in Babylon — the idea that they might cultivate little Edens in the middle of a city built on an utterly different dominion myth (one like the progress myth we find in the air we breath). The less famous bit before he says “seek the welfare of the city”:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”

Israel is to live its story because the God of Israel is the Lord of hosts — the most high — and Babylon’s story of humanity; its gods and images of gods — are not the path to, or pattern for, life. And so, planting little gardens — little Edens — and eating the produce might just be an act of rebellion against the dominant religious myths of their time…

Planting micro-forests — or at least thinking intentionally about our spaces and their structure and how we model and liturgise ourselves into being stewards of the environment rather than slaves to the machine — is an act of deep resistence.

So our Committee of Management meeting, though a routine piece of ‘church machinery’ was deeply spiritually refreshing for me, because it’s a joy to be led on this journey to resistance, and taking part in it, beside people who’ve caught this vision for life in God’s kingdom in a way that transforms even what we put in the bin and plant in the ground. Our Committee of Management is committed to a different sort of ‘household management’ — to being the household of God — which means we’re pursuing a different sort of economic management, and trying to create a different sort of ecology. Which is a beautiful thing.

If your church has some vacant green space — maybe space you’ve designated for new buildings, a playground, or an expansion of the carpark — why not plant a forest instead?

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine.

Paul Kingsnorth

What Bluey can teach us about creation, wisdom, and image bearing

Bluey has gone gangbusters globally; and such recognition is, of course, utterly well deserved. Last night I had growth group (what our church calls our small groups) at my friend’s house — a house that, thanks to her two boys, always has a collection of sticky geckos stuck to the roof; this is to say that if you’re a parent there’s a relatable Bluey moment for every parenting experience.

Our church is currently working its way through the Biblical concept of wisdom, in conversation with the wisdom literature — but also (with the help of good Bible scholars like Will Kynes) seeing that “the Wisdom Literature” is a made up imposition on these few texts because wisdom is woven into the fabric of the whole Bible, and indeed, the whole of creation. We’re in the ‘10,000 feet’ abstracted part of the series at the moment considering how wisdom is lived, not just ‘believed’ and that it is about right relationship and understanding of God, his world, and each other, shaped by God’s revelation of himself in his word, and the ‘second book’ of creation. You can follow the sermons as they get closer to ground level via our Vimeo.

Our created purpose — in Genesis 1 — is to bring order to the world; to “be fruitful and multiply” as we rule the created world as God’s regents. Psalm 8 suggests this rule is connected to God’s glory — a glory displayed in the heavens, and the heavenly realm, that we were meant to co-operate with in the world as we spread the conditions of Eden across the face of the planet, “cultivating and keeping” the garden; shaping the world to be like the garden-temple — the place of God’s presence, as we partnered in wise relationship with him.

right after human nature is corrupted in the pursuit of wisdom (via the fruit) apart from God — or in broken relationship with him as an expression of a desire for self-rule, that fractures our co-operation with each other and the world — we get this genealogy that notes that people and cities become ‘culture-makers’ — who make a mix of generative, life-giving things that can be used to glorify God (or in idol worship, or entertainment), or implements of destruction; musical instruments, agricultural tools, and weapons — we are homo faber — “man the maker”…

Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. — Genesis 4:20-22

This is a family of makers — but in the next sentence we hear how Lamech, the patriarch of this little family — is a maker of death.

In our first week in this series — considering what a wise relationship with the world looks like — I noted how often wisdom in the Old Testament is tied to craftsmanship — to the right use of raw created materials to co-create (or in Tolkien’s words maybe, ‘sub-create’) beautiful creations that glorify God. To fulfil our vocation as image bearers is to create things in accord with our purpose, in relationship with God — those same skills and imaginations can be used to build idol statues, and weapons — and the priestly garments — that take the gold and jewels present around Eden in Genesis 2 (and plundered from Egypt and use them to recapture humanity’s (now Israel’s) priestly representative role as people creating God’s Eden like presence in the world.

See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. — Exodus 31:2-5 (see also Exodus 35:30-35).

The tabernacle and priestly furnishings are a reflection of Eden; and an anticipation of the Temple that Solomon will build, and the new creation golden heavenly city of Revelation 21. So the craftsman who makes the bronze furnishings — especially fruit trees, fruits, and other ‘garden’ imagery for the Temple is described in similar terms in 1 Kings.

“Huram was filled with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge to do all kinds of bronze work. He came to King Solomon and did all the work assigned to him.” — 1 Kings 7:13

We were created in the image of the creator to be creators. Dorothy Sayers put it this way in her most excellent The Mind of the Maker:

“When we turn back to see what [the writer of Genesis] says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.”

Tolkien specifically saw this role playing out in the telling of stories — the creation of worlds — that would teach us true things about the world; but that were also in themselves, an expression of a truth about us — that we are image bearers of a story-telling, world creating, God. Here’s some Tolkien (from On Fairy Stories).

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Tolkien makes a distinction between the illusion of creation and genuine ‘sub-creation.’ He sees ‘sub-creation’ as a sort of elvish life-giving, or generative creation, working with the fabric of the natural world (and God’s design), and illusory ‘magic’ as de-generative. And so, in his books, the elves are sub-creators, but the magicians are a metaphor for those who would make and use technology outside our sub-creative purpose. Elvish stories tap into our deep desire to be makers who sub-create rather than destroy.

At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself.

In a letter, to his friend Milton Waldman, Tolkien speaks about what happens not only when our sub-creative tendencies draw us to the creation of machines, but when they are motivated by hearts bent on autonomous power and dominion — disconnected from the creator. He calls this “fallenness” — and says it is a tension at the heart of Middle Earth (and our own earth as well), he says a desire for the ‘things of this world’ (we might call it ‘idolatry’) corrupts our making, and so our making corrupts the world.

“It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.”

Which is all well and good, you might be thinking.

But what about Bluey. You promised this was about Bluey.

First up — Bluey is just beautiful Tolkien-esque sub-creation; the layers of careful, thoughtful, generative and life-giving ideas, imagery, and music woven together in the life of the Heeler family and their community is pure faerie. Bluey even has a little explicit dose of elvishness, or faerie, to it in the episode Fairies. It is, maybe to Tolkien’s dismay — a world exclusively made up of talking animals; but it is everything that good sub-creation should be. And so, it should be taken seriously because it is a manifestation of our human desire for rightly ordered relationship with the world and each other — it is a source of wisdom inasmuch as it rightly recognises truths about flourishing life in this world.

But I want to talk about the episode Flat Pack (and I will be this Sunday, in my talk).

I went back to watch Flat Pack (currently available on iView) because it is something like peak relatability to me as someone who might be better sub-creating in words, than with ‘wise hands’ — I have several flatpack horror stories that mirror Bandit’s efforts in constructing an outdoor chair. I wanted to talk about the folly of pursuing wise work in the world without reference to the maker’s instructions — and I still will — but I was blown away by the high art of this episode. I know it is an episode with a little controversy and history attached to it — and, no doubt it carries a certain amount of controversy within the realm of conservative Christianity.

Flat Pack is a creation story told next to a sub-creation story that then integrates the two stories in a beautiful and profoundly religious way; it also — consciously or not — offers an integration between the ‘science story’ — a story of the pursuit of knowledge from God’s second book — and the theological story told by the Bible.

Augustine spoke of the world being God’s second book in order to encourage people to pursue deep and wise knowledge and use of the ‘gold’ buried in nature — he saw the purpose of the world, and our knowledge of it — to be somewhat connected to the use of material gold in the Old Testament (whether the gold is in the hills or in nature). He said we should ‘plunder gold from Egypt and use it to preach Christ’ — and that the task of the Christian is to be well informed about God’s world; to be widely and wisely educated. He was, with others, part of the impetus for the development of science, in the west, as a quest to know more about God from his world; the idea that knowledge about the material reality would somehow contradict knowledge of God from the Bible was anathema to Augustine (his commentary on Genesis is quite brilliant; especially on Christians who use it to make truth claims about the world that science makes obviously not true, particularly, in his day, this was about the movement of heavenly bodies). In a book called The Literal Meaning of Genesis he wrote:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven”

For Augustine — creation rightly understood would involve an alignment between what the Bible says about creation — the questions it is answering — and what science would reveal about God from creation — and wise living would connect the dots; so that we wise image bearers might sub-create good things (including in speech and writing) that reveal and glorify God.

Whether deliberately or not Flat Pack stands in this great Augustinian tradition; it is a thing of beauty.

Bandit and Chilli are building a piece of flatpack furniture from the Bluey equivalent of Ikea; in the world of Bluey they are the dog-gods. Existing in the ‘heavenly’ realm, upstairs — while Bingo and Bluey are in the lower, earthy, regions. As Bandit and Chilli — Bluey and Bingo’s mum and dad — fashion their heavenly constructions — a heavenly throne — Bluey and Bingo play with the off-cuts. While mum and dad create — they also create as little images of dog-gods (or images of god-dogs?).

While mum and dad struggle with their chair, Bluey and Bingo play their way through the evolutionary story — starting as fish, on some bubblewrap, becoming frogs, then dinosaurs, then monkeys, and then cave-people-dogs as their environment is subtly changed by the provision of the upstairs dog-gods. While they’re in the cave, these cave-people dogs draw the creation story complete with the heavenly ‘mum and dad’ as gods overlooking the process.

Bandit and Chilli finish their work in the heavenly realm, and look down, proudly, at the little living image bearers they made — “we made them,” Chilli says; and they are good and pleasing. The little makers are chips off the old block — images of their parents; but also, in the ‘cosmic story’ — images of their making-gods. The supreme creation of these god-dogs (or dog-gods?).

Bluey and Bingo eventually become grown-up people-dogs who master their physical world, once the ‘upstairs gods’ have finished their creation, they find their tools and say “let’s be builders.” They have become like their gods. They use their tools and resources to cultivate an entire culture; one that looks a lot like a temple-city, with a library, before Bingo ‘finishes growing up’ — building a rocket ship to explore the cosmos.

Once her life as ‘mum’ is complete, with Bingo a little ‘image’ of her, who has learned her ways, Bluey feels at a bit of a loss. She sits down. It could all be over. But then — she reaches out to the gods (in a little homage to Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam), and ascends to the heavenly realm to sit down with her makers in their heavenly throne. And, as she does, and we see this golden vista — the world put right, filled with ‘sub-created’ culture — Bingo says “this is heaven.”

It’s beautiful. Heavenly. Elvish even. This is children’s television — but there are some deep ‘cosmic architecture’/understanding of reality flat packed into this seven minute episode if you know how to put them together. The thing is, according to the Bible’s own creation to heaven story (which is, pretty much, the story of the Bible in a nutshell) — we don’t just figure out wise, generative, life by ourselves — in fact, we do the Tolkien thing of idolatry; the ‘machine-based-domination’ of one another in a sort of ‘military-industrial-complex’; and we actually need God to step in to the story to redirect our making, and to show us what it is our sub-creating hearts need in order for us to be truly human and to flourish as sub-creators with our sub-creation connected to both the image and likeness of God, and the purpose he made us for. There’s a nice little picture of this where Paul visits Athens — and sees in their building; their sub-creation — even in the creation of idols, temples, and altars — some part of our human need to know God and to make things from his world.

Our making of art, and stories, and even things that reshape our world — temple-cities, libraries, buildings — can be an expression of our ‘reaching out for’ — our quest — for God, and the way his nature is still imprinted on ours; it can be — like the tower of Babel (a picture of the city of Babylon in the Bible) our quest to reach for the heavens and our assertion that the gods in heaven are like us; dominant military-industrial death-hungry monsters who justify our corruption, and sometimes it can be both those things at the same time.

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

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

The world changes — our human quest changes — because God came down the stairs; the creative word — the light and life of the world — Jesus, the maker — stepped into the earth as the true image of God, the true human — to show us the true way of ‘sub-creative’ life, and to restore us to it by reconnecting us with God, pulling us up into the heavens (seating us with God, even, in Ephesians 2, and Colossians 3), so that we make with our eyes and hearts fixed on God again, rather than on our idols and our destructive will to power.

Our making doesn’t have to be an expression of our quest for God any more, if the Christian story is true, because in Jesus God finds us, and so our making can be re-cast as sub-creation — taking up the task we were made for to be like God, and to reveal God’s nature — his love and glory — to the world. Our redeemed making is an expression not of God’s absence; but his presence.

Tolkien saw the Christian story — the Gospel — as the justification for making; for sub-creation; for fairy stories with joyous ‘eucatastrophic’ endings (that’s “good catastrophe”); he saw in Jesus the ‘good catastrophe’ written into the fabric of the world. The ‘true fairy story’ that doesn’t just redeem us and re-create us, but redeems our making so that we participate in God’s work in the world. He said:

Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

We humans were made, and we Christians were redeemed, in order to sub-create — to make things that reflect God’s presence and nature in our world, to bring the conditions of heaven to earth — it’s our idolatry and corruption that gets in the way; an idolatry and corruption that required God’s intervention in our story, and his re-creation of us as image bearers caught up with Jesus, but this re-creation involves us being given the task of being wise sub-creators who reveal his glory to the world; we could do much worse than making art as wonderful as Bluey, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or getting our flatpack furniture rightly ordered.

On technology, hope, church forests, and the gardener-king

This weekend I’m presenting a talk at the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC) for the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST). The conference theme is “A Hopeful Future: Christians, Creation, and the AI World.” Because of Covid-19, the conference is being held virtually, and it’s not too late to register.

My presentation takes the work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman (media ecologists), and Charles Taylor, to suggest that technology is not neutral because it becomes part of the ecology that forms us as humans, and comes with inbuilt mythologies about the good life, and true human ends, including a sort of technological eschatology where a hope that people genuinely believe is good is the hope that we might become part of the machine. Technologist David Porush coined a term for the ‘good coding’ that would allow technology to mirror and interface and capture the human consciousness — “eudoxia” — or ‘good words’ — I’m playing that against Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” — or ‘good catastrophe’ — the injection of hope from above when all seems hopeless that he sees as the quality of good human stories, because the satisfaction they bring is aligned with the true hope that comes from the Eucatastrophe at the heart of God’s interaction with creation; the incarnation, resurrection, and future return of Jesus. The “desire for dragons” he speaks of won’t necessarily be answered by Jurassic Park, and the use of technology to clone and resurrect dinosaurs (or by ‘augmented reality’ video games that bring the Jurassic world to life).

That’s not to give the game away too much, but as I was putting together this presentation (and you’ll find some of the building blocks in things I wrote about Telstra’s Magic of Technology advertisement, and Amazon Prime’s show Upload), I was struck again by the imagery of Ethiopia’s Church Forests. They’re such a stark picture of a non-technological response to a world where technology is used to dominate the physical landscape in order to deliver our vision for the good life. This essay from Fred Bahnson was part of drawing my attention to them (along with the video essay from National Geographic).

Screenshot from the fascinating documentary/essay project from Fred Bahnson and Jeremy Seifert, from Emergence Magazine

The documentary opens with the line:

“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, a church, to be a church, should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the garden of Eden.”

These forests have protected Ethiopian biodiversity from being eradicated by agricultural dominion, Bahnson’s essay, which touches on the research of Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, who studies the forests as his vocation notes:

“Until roughly a hundred years ago, Ethiopia’s northern highlands were one continuous forest, but over time that forest has been continually bisected, eaten up by agriculture and the pressures of a growing population. Now the entire region has become a dry hinterland taken over almost entirely by farm fields. From the air it looks similar to Haiti. Less than three percent of primary forest remains. And nearly all of that three percent, Alemayehu discovered, was only found in forests protected by the church.”

There’s something quite ‘new Edeny‘ about these forests; and while Ethiopian Orthodox Spirituality doesn’t always resonate with my theological framework; a significant part of how I approach theology is rooted in my disenchanted, western, view of the world. Part of technology’s formative effect is ‘disenchantment’ — the idea that technology isn’t just like magic, but is magic in its truest form, because other belief in magic just expresses desires we haven’t yet found technological solutions for.

Today I happened to find this piece from Simon Smart at the Centre for Public Christianity, whose imagination also seems to have been captured by the images of these church forests.

“Fred Bahnson, who wrote the essay that became the documentary on the Ethiopian church forests, thinks of them as arks, or “tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown”. Deploying the metaphor globally to image our contested and fragile future, he writes, “We will need many more arks like them … tens of thousands of arks: cultural, biological, spiritual.” … These kinds of initiatives take work. They require nurture. And a strong foundation. The church forests emanate from a belief in the sacred — sacred space worth protecting, and sacred life and the value of every person. The centre enables the whole. The solid protective walls are permeable, in that an open gate welcomes all who want to enter to find refuge and abundant life. They offer a bright sign of hope in northern Ethiopia, and perhaps a symbol of what is possible in our own search for sanctuary and refreshment.”

I draw on both the Church Forest and J.R.R Tolkien in my presentation, struck, again, by not just the ‘Eucastrophe’ bit of On Fairy Stories, but the way it unpacks Tolkien’s whole project — in a world increasingly shaped by dominion through technology, with imaginations fuelled by science fiction, he turned to the purity of the fairy story as a critique of that sort of vision of man; calling for us, instead, to be ‘co-creators’ — who participate in generative imitation of God both in our stories, and in the lives promoted by stories that echo the truths of the Gospel. In a letter unpacking his approach in Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien lays his motivations bare (brazen for a guy who accused his friend C.S Lewis of too much allegory).

I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”

I’d not noticed how much this is true; the good wizards in Middle Earth have a deep affinity with nature, while Saruman and Sauron both employ magic to enslave and destroy — both the natural environment, and the lives of those around them. The Lord of the Rings, then, functions as a critique of finding hope in magic or technology, rather than the eucatastrophe, and the animating belief that all sad things will one day come untrue.

The story that animates us — whether the pursuit of the ‘good words’ that will unite us with our technology, or the good intervention that will save us from the jaws of our machines and the destruction of beastly dominion — sin, and death, and Satan — will shape the way we live now. If the Gospel is true, and the world is a sacred place made to reveal the divine nature and character of God in concert with the Gospel message, coordinated under the rule of the resurrected and resurrecting King Jesus who will return to “make all things new” — in a new Eden — then planting forests that protect biodiversity, and position the church community within the natural world in a way that is more like the elves and less like the orcs, might be ways that we live in anticipation and hope.

I also came across, in the last few weeks, this article, ‘When the Gardener Returns: An ecological perspective on Adam’s Dominion,’ by Old Testament scholar Doug Green (who’s also part of our church family, and whose work I drew on quite a bit in articulating a ‘political theology’ that plays off two threads at work in the world, those taking up the call to bear God’s image as it is revealed in Jesus, and those falling into beastliness, this isn’t to say that I’ve understood him, or represented him in such a way that he is responsible for my representation of this thinking…).

Taking up the resurrection appearance of Jesus in the garden in John’s Gospel, and Mary’s meeting ‘The Gardener’ — the new Adam, the man “destined to bring all of creation into order, harmony, and abundance,” Doug says:

“While the day of the final curse-lifting renewal still lies out in our future (Rom 8:19-22), in Christ’s resurrection the age to come has broken into this present age, and the Gardener has already taken up his royal vocation of subduing the earth on God’s behalf. Accordingly, the reborn Gardener of Genesis 2 calls his subjects — the renewed humanity of Genesis 1 — to live as true humans, by living from the first definition, found in Genesis 1-2, of what it means to be human, but especially by living toward the gospel’s vision of what humanity will be in the age to come. With our “ethical eyes” looking back to our origin and forward to our destiny, we are called to live as ambassadors of the New Creation, who give the watching world a foretaste of what life in that kingdom will be like. Surely this should be good news for creation as Christians seek to live the royal, second-Adam life, as God’s gardeners. Yes, Christians may work the earth for human benefit, but we must do so in a protective and caring way that previews and anticipates the great day of renewal when Jesus, the Gardner-King, will finally deliver the natural realm from its bondage to decay and at last transform the whole world into a new and better Eden.”

Ethiopian church forests are a little picture of the possibility of this sort of approach to church; they’re the products of generations of faithful cultivation, and we should probably start now.

Upload: the digital good place?

Upload dropped on Amazon Prime this week. It’s like The Good Place, only there’s no twist. Really, it’s not that like The Good Place at all, except that it deals with life after death in a universe where God is mostly absent. Belief in a spiritual afterlife is a quaint hope held by some “Ludds” (from Luddites) pitted against the very real virtual hope peddled in Upload‘s universe — our universe, just in 2033.

There’s some interesting dynamics right up front with this program being on Amazon Prime; Amazon’s end game might look very much like the in show company, called Horizon. Amazon’s smile logo can be found on packaging within the show, but their push into cloud computing, digital media, and Jeff Bezos’ ‘end game’ (not to mention his exorbitant personal wealth — no seriously, click that, spend a few minutes scrolling it, and then come back) make them prime candidates for attempting to produce something like this for reals. It won’t be Elon Musk who does it; probably; he believes we’re already in this future; already characters in a computer program indistinguishable from reality. You can trust Amazon to find ways to keep making money from your consumption after you die.

In Upload, Horizon is the company responsible for the richest afterlife experience (an afterlife experience for the rich, where you have to keep paying for room service and minibar items by swiping left for your virtual pleasures. Horizon’s prime afterlife location is called Lakeview. Residents pay big bucks to have their consciousness digitised and uploaded; stored on servers, so that their lives can continue not in the clouds with harps (like some poor Ludds believe), but in ‘the cloud.’

As far as reviews go, we watched the whole first season over two nights. It’s a fascinating (but not Good Place esque) dig into some philosophical questions about what it means to be human; leaning into Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to suggest that so long as a person’s mind is still active, no matter what happens to their body, the person still is; and later probing whether a soul exists as a thing apart from a mind. We’re in a sort of new gnostic territory most of the time, except that scientists are also working on synthetic bodies that can host a download of the individual’s upload. There’s a hint of the unnaturalness of life without a body, but even the Luddite hope of heaven is the hope of a disembodied soul in the sky when you die (where salvation, and immortality, is not secured so much by wealth, but simply by death).

The show’s main upload, Nathan Brown, is hanging out for the availability of a download because he knows, deep down in his soul, that to exist as a person, a human, is to have a body. He’s also died in a freak self-drive car accident (or was it), and lost some vital memories in the upload that also make him less than him. Uploaded beings are served by ‘angels’ — employees of the ultimate surveillance capitalism firm, who are voice activated. Unlike Siri and Alexa, these are real humans sitting at computers waiting for voice commands from now-digital beings. And so we meet Nora, Nathan’s angel.

The show also has some fun pictures of technology in the not so distant future; including consent cameras for kicking off sexual encounters largely curated via Nitely, a future version of Tinder. The show handles sex and bodies in a fascinating way; the boundaries between the digital afterlife and the real world are almost totally porous, any avatar can cross over and connect in virtual reality, which means your loved one is never truly gone — even if they stop aging (so long as you don’t pay for age up updates). Sex is excarnated, rather than incarnating — though for those on the meaty side of reality, feelings are reproduced by a frankly kinda creepy VR suit. When Charles Taylor observed that the ‘disenchanted’ world we now live in is an ‘excarnated’ world — he was describing a world that pushes us out of being enfleshed in bodies, and into ‘being’ in our heads. Where sex may once have been ‘enchanting’ — sacramental almost — as a good gift from God, in the disenchanted, excarnate, world it is simply transactional.

At one point in A Secular Age, Taylor notes that the more intimately connected we are with a person the less worried we are about cross contamination — we’ll share a spoon with those we kiss — he suggests sex is the ultimate expression of such intimacy, that “love making itself is a mixing of fluids with abandon” — it’s a bit gross; but as we become excarnate, culturally, our approach to intimacy gets a bit blurry, when our bodies don’t matter anymore, we’ll mix fluids with anybody. And yet, the VR ‘sex suit’ proves too much for Nathan’s girlfriend, stuck in embodied life, because she sees them being cleaned in the hire shop — and hears all about the fluids they have to wash out — the suits are also used for people hugging dead grandparents; so there’s a cocktail of snot, vomit, sweat, and other things. Gross. Bodies are gross. And yet, sex-as-intimacy, for two embodied people, can also be sacramental; Nathan’s girlfriend, Ingrid, is prepared to overcome the ick factor because she “misses their intimacy.” Touch matters. Bodies are essential to that, and while our approach to sex (think pornography, hookup apps, consent video cameras, VR suits etc) can ‘excarnate’ — we can push ourselves away from our bodies and into our brains, sex, like other embodied pleasures, has the capacity to re-incarnate us. To remind us of the goodness of our bodies, and even of something enchanted or transcendent; something meaningful. Taylor calls this ‘haunting’ we sometimes experience in the real world — the reminder of something beyond us a ‘frisson’ (sometimes called “skin orgasms“) — that’s the little thrill you get sometimes that makes your neck hairs stand up and your skin get goosebumps. That power of touch — even in the afterlife — gets explored too.

The fundamental question in season 1 of Upload is can a human be a human without a body; what are we? While the eschatological hope served up by Amazon Horizon is frictionless consumption in a digital eternity controlled by a corporation that exists to serve your every whim with a voice command (“Alexa…” I mean “Angel…”), the question Upload asks is just how satisfying such a future can be; and whether a download into an eternal body might not be a more desirable, human, outcome.

Those in the digital world have lost all the limitations of embodiment; there is no longer any mourning, nor crying, nor pain… it’s a world made new. Digitally.

Except, you can pay to be sick — because after a stack of time in the digital afterlife, your yearning for a bodily existence leaves you wanting the feeling of pain or sickness, just to feel alive. So, you can pay to have a headcold…

_______

Zach: “Having a cold is no fun”

Nathan: “Why are you paying extra for this, isn’t it like a dollar a minute”

Zach: “When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll see that having no fun can be kinda fun. My nose is actually stuffed up. Just like real life.”

_______

The conversation pauses here because a new afterlife experience pops up; it’s pay to play, remember.

Trust Amazon Horizon to figure out a way to monetise a sneeze.

One of the more depressing sub-plots (and there are a couple, if you push too hard), is the story of Luke. Luke is a war veteran whose body was broken in conflict; he lost his legs, and rather than suffer life in the body, with no legs, he chooses to ‘upload’ early, and spends his digital life chasing experiences from the other parts of his body he gave up (mostly sex and food). Life without a body isn’t all its cracked up to be in Lakeview. But he’s also just a bloke desperately looking for connection. The show wants love to be enough for him, and for him to find compensation for the other bits, but it also leaves open the idea that life without a body just won’t be enough.

There’s a great dialogue between Nathan, and Dave, the Luddite father of his angel (it’s complicated) about the nature of the person, the soul, the afterlife, and hope.

_______

Dave: “You see Nathan, when you died, your soul went to real heaven, so whatever simulation I’m talking to now has no soul. It’s an abomination.”

Nathan: “Ok, or, there is no soul. And there never was, and in a sense both of our consciousnesses are simulations. Mine on a silicon computer and yours on a computer made of meat. Your brain.”

_______

Dave’s hope is a tangible future where he might hold his wife in his arms again; an embodied resurrection even, but Nathan, like many good moderns, can’t conceive of heaven as anything more than disembodied consciousness; eternal life for the soul, but not for the body. Like in the finale of the Good Place, the message from episode 1, to the end of episode 10, is that heaven is other people; the chance to spend eternity (or as much time as possible) with the people you love. God isn’t in the picture — even in Dave’s heaven — heaven is other people. For Horizon/Amazon — that’s an opportunity to make some money…

There’s an open source alternative to Horizon weaving its way through the storyline of Upload; the good guys who want heaven to be ad free. That might be the truly ‘good place’ — and Nathan hopes to be able to bring some of that open source goodness to Horizon; to hack away some of the overreach of his corporate overlords. Whether or not a ‘good’ digital afterlife is possible, Upload reminds us that we really want bodies for most of the stuff we love; which fits with the Christian understanding of the person. We are not souls in a meatsack — that’s gnosticism or Platonism — we are people who have bodies. The Christian hope is a resurrected body; a body made imperishable because God’s Spirit works not just with our soul, but on our body, to make us heavenly and immortal (1 Corinthians 15).

And while the show is billed as ‘science fiction,’ there are actually people out there seriously contemplating what such a digital afterlife could or should look like. Let me remind you again, Elon Musk thinks this is it; that the digital afterlife, where we exist not as people with flesh and blood, but as 0s and 1s in someone else’s program (with Covid-19 a really weird glitch in the software; a virus even). This was also, taken in a more dystopian direction, the plot for The Matrix.

There’s a question about what a good digital afterlife might look like, if the tech was available. We humans love the idea of being in control of our own end game; being able to work towards an eschatology (a view of the ‘end times’) where we, collectively (or corporately) are gods who can select our afterlife of choice and then consume our way to bliss. That fits the secular narrative pretty neatly. Amazon is a master of that narrative; a master of frictionless consumption and seemingly limitless consumer choice; which makes its involvement with the production of this program quite bizarre to unpack. Is being sucked into Amazon’s mainframe a good death? A good afterlife?

In Greek, the letters ‘eu’ at the start of a word work as a prefix for ‘good’ — so ‘euthanasia’ is a “good death.” In 1993, tech-philosopher David Porush published a journal article titled ‘Voyage to Eudoxia.’ It was an article exploring a potential escape to cyberspace; a good cyberspace. He suggested an obsession with cyberspace emerged earlier than he was writing (almost 30 years ago), after space exploration became a little passe. The next big tech things would be computers. Games were just starting to become ‘immersive’ (though nothing like they are now). He wrote then:

“Eventually, in the far-flung future perhaps, we may all emigrate, at least part time, to this new and gleaming electronic suburb, there to revel in an excess of sensory stimulation that today’s cinema or MTV can only hint at.”

He called this future place ‘Eudoxia,’ after Eudoxos of Knidos, and an invisible city in the work of an author he liked, Italo Calvino who wrote Cybernetic fiction. Porush used the term ‘cybernetic’ to describe a future “Cybernetic Age” where technology might enable us to capture (and maybe understand) the mind and how it works. Porush described a genre of science fiction exploring this potential as “cybernetic (or even better, “anti-cybernetic”)” — Upload joins a long line of stories, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, exploring the potential that technology might free us from our bodies. Calvino, and Porush use the word ‘Eudoxia’ to describe the ability to write and create virtual worlds, or cities, built on ‘good discourse.’

“We now have a word for a magic technology that will create a complete sensorium or virtual reality on a cybernetic platform; cyberspace, an accessible, self-referential, genre-destroying hyperspace, a soaring sensorium that will imitate, model, and link to its mirror image, the human brain.”

Porush believed such a future technology, or place, Eudoxia, would render the story — TV or fairy tale — impoverished.

Lakeview, the ‘heaven’ in Upload, is a picture of a Eudoxia. And it turns out, people still want their bodies. That the mind itself is not enough; and that the sort of ‘transcendence’ Porush dreamed of, where we push out of our bodies and into our brains, is actually disenchanting rather than magical.

In a follow up piece, Hacking the Brainstem, published in 1994, Porush argued that (even then) our “centuries-long romance with technology” where we used technology to, for example, achieve intimacy with others, “has already cyberspatialised us,” preparing the way for us to experience ‘sensuous information bodilessly’ — he breathlessly hoped that cyberspace would help us transcend our bodies. He said in the sort of science fiction that anticipated cyberspace — this cybernetic fiction — “Cyberspace already transcends the physical “meat” body by creating a simulated “meta” body in the brain and communicating with it directly via electrical implants.” He said:

“Eudoxia is presently enacted in video games and cybernetic fiction, which will find their ultimate material marriage in the computer’s cyberspace.”

Whether or not this future can, or will, happen is immaterial. It’s clearly a future that we like to imagine happening; an escape from the meat of our bodies into the meta. Life forever; freed from pain and suffering, beyond death.

That a company like Amazon is going to be best placed to deliver such a future is a scary thought Upload presents us with; but its story, like other anti-cybernetic stories, should cause us to pause and ask if this is the best good place we can imagine.

Porush describes the promise of cyberspace peddled in such stories in this reasonably long passage, it’s worth it though…

______

The imminence of the cyborg is not a matter of speculation, it is a matter of reporting the news, a matter of postmodern sociology and introspection. We are already experiencing the reflux from a time twenty seconds into the future when our own media technologies will physically transcribe themselves onto our bodies, re-creating the human in their own images, forcing our evolution into the posthuman through a combination of mechanistic and genetic manipulations… yberspace will renovate human relations; it will unite art and technology; it will represent an altogether new and radical domain for improved social, psychic, and perceptual transactions. Bypassing the infirmities of the body, cyberspace will free the cripple and liberate the paralytic. Enabling multimedia and sensory access to the entire wealth of world data, cyberspace will deliver a universal education. Through its anonymity, cyberspace will invite the construction of a more ethical code and create norms for human interaction that strip distinctions of gender, class, race, and power. Cyberspace will provide a playspace for the imagination to roam free, liberating the mind from its inevitably neurotic relationship to the body. Cyberspace therefore has untold psychotherapeutic possibilities. Yet cyberspace will incapacitate destructive urges and consequences by removing our bodies. Cyberspace will create the means for a pure and perfect democracy and universal suffrage in which everyone can vote immediately on any issue. Cyberspace will present the possibilities for “virtual communities.” Cyberspace will reconstruct the nature of the relationship between labor and time and labor and space and will reconstruct authoritarian technics as they are manifested in the workplace —although one wonders who is going to empty the garbage and build the roads after we have all emigrated to this new virtual suburb. While cyberspace will undoubtedly present new opportunities for criminality, rape and physical assault will become impossible. Cyberspace will present a new opportunity for our manifest destiny, a new frontier. Cyberspace will make war obsolete by turning it into a Desert Storm videogame. Cyberspace will create a totalized hypertextual platform that will cure what ails American higher education. We will become immortal there. It will enable us to combine work and play in a new way. Even the music will be better there. Cyberspace will be the new, clean, virtual Eden to which we will all emigrate when this physical world becomes an unlivable ecodisaster. In cyberspace we will finally perfect the academic’s dream of sex: we will be able to indulge lust without the involving of our bodies (perhaps I should have said “the dream of sex that’s academic”). The New World, World Without End, amen.”

______

Cyberspace in Porush’ vision, is the cyberspace on offer in Upload. A world built by Horizon Amazon.

In Hacking the Brainstem, Porush makes a pretty interesting point about ‘utopian visions’ served up in our stories; eschatologies, even. He suggests we create utopias, culturally, by ‘modelling our view of human nature rationally and then inventing a technology to control or direct that model’ — by ‘technology’ he says he means “systems that seek and project perfect control” — so when a human is placed in the system the system encourages the “best part and controls the worst part of human nature” while the human maintains the system by their participation. This is particularly interesting when one considers Upload’s utopian vision; a digital world where the technology pictures the ideal human life as one of unfettered consumption in the pursuit of goodness and pleasure, surrounded by those people you love (such that you might consume them too).

The world we live in is one where corporations want that to be our utopian vision; because it’s what keeps them profitable.

The corporate world wants to keep us disenchanted and placing our hope in a technological future — a eudoxia — because if we put our hope in some transcendent otherworld, heaven — clouds outside the cloud — then they lose us now. We no longer want to play in their system.

There’s a reason there’s no God in Upload — that the priest for hire at the funeral parlour offers up factoids about Nathan that he’s gleaned from wikipedia, and no comfort beyond his digital avatar being there on the big screen behind him. God upsets the apple cart of these apple vendors.

Like in The Good Place, the ‘eudoxia’ of Upload — Lakeviewis in need of a good eucatastrophe. A “good catastrophe” — the term coined by Tolkien for the fantastic moment in a fairy story where the failure of our attempts to build our own utopian visions; craft our own ending to the story, our own ‘afterlife’ is met by an interruption; a good catastrophe. Tolkien’s ‘best catastrophe’ — the one that means I’d be banking on fantasy novels outlasting cybernetic fiction — is the enchanting story; the story that reminds us that reality is not all there is; that the physical world points to a supernatural world; that sex in bodies is, like other experiences in our bodies, meant to throw us towards something ‘enchanted’ rather than excarnated, and to remind us that our bodies are fundamental to our personhood. Tolkien’s best version of the good catastrophe is, of course, the version where the story of Jesus is true; where the heavenly future he offers is not disembodied life in the cloud(s), but an embodied life in a re-created and renovated world; this world; not a digital world; not a world fuelled by consumption and the pursuit of pleasure through choice where you have to keep paying a corporation; but a transformed world centred on the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for God and for one another. This is our hope. The real new eden — not the digital one.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:4-5

Who needs a Lakeview when you can have a river view anyway…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. 

Revelation 22:1-3

The Good(er) Place

Warning: Contains Spoilerish discussion of the finale of the Good Place, and the whole series.

After we finished watching The Good Place, closing the green door on the final chapter of the story of four misfits from earth saving each other, and the entire universe in the process, I turned to my wife and asked ‘if heaven was just me for eternity, how long would it take for you to choose non-existence?’

She didn’t answer.

But that’s one of the profound questions asked in the Good Place’s exploration of the afterlife. What is worth living forever for? Is mastery of every craft imaginable enough to keep you occupied? Once you’ve read all the books, or played the perfect game of Madden — once you’ve achieved your ‘end’ — reached your telos — what can sustain you for an eternity? Is love, even love for a soul mate, enough?

The Good Place has punched above its weight when it comes to tackling philosophical questions — the Trolley Problem episode (which gets a callback in the finale) will no doubt make it into university lecture theatres for a Jeremy Bearimy or two. When we tackled the question of hell as a church about 18 months ago we showed a clip from the Good Place where arch-demon turned arch-itect, Michael, explained the scoring system that secured your place in the afterlife. We thought we were clever when we argued modern life is more complicated than the system allows, and our participation in systems built on sinfulness means we can never hope to escape the consequences of our sin on our own steam — and the Good Place writers obliged by making that season 3’s narrative arc.

Without spoiling season 4, having discovered that the system is fundamentally flawed, so that nobody can earn their way into the Good Place anymore, the team of humans; Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, with the supernatural assistance of Michael, and super-computer Janet, have to come up with a better system.

They basically design purgatory, a process of testing and refining that will ultimately let any and every human earn their own salvation; so that people can find their way into the Good Place again. The problem here is that the system is geared against the human, so fixing the system allows humans to extract themselves from its corruption, over time. The darker part of human nature — that we might ourselves be the problem — is not part of the philosophical anthropology — an optimistic humanism — served up by the show.

This is the best and most just system humans can devise, it’s also the most hopeful. Even the demons get on board — they too have been victims of ‘the system’ — and at this point the writers might have been able to pack up having delivered a literal ‘happily ever after’ to every human.

But they don’t. There’s a moment a few episodes from the end where most shows, with happy endings, would finish. Eleanor and Chidi sitting on the couch, looking out over a glorious vista, reflecting on how paradise is having time — an eternity even — with the person you love. But the writers want to press in to just how satisfying (or not) that sort of eternity might be…

And this is where season 4 gets interesting. We get a pretty serious and imaginative attempt to depict the after life; a take on heaven that never tries to take itself too seriously, and ultimately serves as a vehicle for the show’s final philosophical message — life here on earth can be a bit heavenly if we muddle our way through towards self-improvement and more compassionate relationships. It’s life now that has meaning, especially because life and love might (will) one day end. You can have infinite Jeremy Bearimys to work this out, or four seasons of the Good Place.

The Good Place (the place, not the show, or rather, the place as depicted in the show) offers an individual the chance to continue their personal development — the process they’ve used to secure salvation — or simply to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a place of rest, work, and play. There’s continuity with life on earth in a way that is profound and comforting. The old order of things has passed away. Death is dead.

Something about the picture of heaven the show offers up reminds me of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien without enchantment. It’s not that the hypercoloured reality the Good Place serves up is not imaginative, it’s that in a cosmos where everybody saves themselves and heaven revolves around one’s particular individual desires — even if only the good ones — there’s a hollowness. And it’s this hollowness the show presses into powerfully, without really resolving in a way I found satisfying.

Chidi and Eleanor meet one of Chidi’s philosophical idols, who reveals that an eternity in the Good Place with all good things on tap, a gushing, never-ending stream of goodness has left people incapable of much thought or imagination at all. Heaven has become monotonous. Even the Good Place is broken, and our band of heroes has to fix it.

Their diagnosis is that the joy offered by the Good Place will only truly be joy if it can end. Death is what gives life its purpose and pleasure its meaning. If when you’ve lived a full life you can walk through the door and push out into nothingness. The Good Place ultimately serves up the best end as euthanasia — ‘the good death’ — only not to end one’s suffering, but to finish one’s pursuit of pleasure and desire; to find satisfaction and so stop searching.

If it’s fleeting and to be enjoyed in the face of death. There’s something very much like Ecclesiastes in the mix here; Ecclesiastes without any sense that ‘life under the sun’ might point to some greater reality. A telos beyond the self. And here’s where The Good Place offers a less compelling version of heaven than Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible.

Lewis wrote stacks on joy, on its fleeting, ephemoral, nature here in this world — though he saw our pleasures now anticipating the pleasures of the new creation, throwing us towards a more substantial reality than the one we enjoy now. He says moments of pleasure we experience now are pointers to something other-worldy, magical, heavenly even… in The Weight of Glory he describes these moments as echoes of a future time and place: “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” But for Lewis even the fulfilment of these things — the hyper-coloured reality — is not actually what these pleasures point to.

What they point to is God.

God and his glory.

God is missing from the Good Place. And it’s that God is missing, and that the desires of the characters can be fulfilled in the goodness of pleasure as an end, or telos, that makes walking through that final door — euthanasia — seem ‘good’.

Death is not good.

God is.

And God is missing from The Good Place.

And I’d say that’s why nobody wants to stick around for eternity (and why I’d be ok with Robyn not wanting to put up with just me forever).

The Good Place is a fairy story without God. And I mean this in a pure sense; it’s a very enjoyable tale, it is mythic and beautiful, and fundamentally human in all the good ways it should be (and what a killer twist at the end of season 1). But it seeks to do what Tolkien says fairy stories should do — offer consolation — by offering a picture of a “good death” when perhaps true consolation can only be found in a truly good life.

Part of the problem is that the Good Place, with its unabashed humanism, has every character acting as the hero in their own story. Everyone who gets to the good place has pulled themselves in by the bootstraps. They’ve worked to save themselves. They’ve achieved. All they have now is the fruit of their hard work; or more work; which is satisfying for a time, but not forever. Even true love for another person can’t, in the honest appraisal of perhaps the smartest TV writers ever, sustain life for eternity.

This left me feeling sad. Not because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason (oh Jason)… but because I don’t want to say goodbye to those I love at all. What euthanasia attempts to hide now doesn’t look any more compelling to me in hypercolour; death actually is a terrible thing. Existence trumps non-existence. Light offers consolation; darkness doesn’t.

Both Tolkien and Lewis depict heaven — in new, restored, creation terms — as a case of “further up, and further in” — growing deeper in a sense of glory in another, rather than in ourselves. Delighting and knowing more of God and his goodness, not simply the goodness of created stuff.

In Narnia, at the end of The Last Battle, one of the characters (the Unicorn) when discovering the ‘new creation’ — the new Narnia — sees that it is a fuller version of reality anticipated by the goodness, pleasures, and beauty, of the previous one. It’s his Weight of Glory in story form, in this new creation “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” and the unicorn, upon arriving, shouts:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”

Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle is a beautiful picture of the afterlife that was, in some ways, echoed in some of the more satisfying depictions of heaven offered in The Good Place. It has Niggle, an artist, enjoying the coming to life of the beautiful works of art he created — true art, that reflected the creativity of the creator of beauty — and pressing ‘further up, and further in’ to that beauty, taking all the time in the world to come to terms with the goodness of a new, restored, reality.

“He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.”

This little short story from Tolkien, and Lewis’ ending of Narnia, throw us towards the source of actual satisfaction — or at least show us that consolation is found not by completion, but by pushing deeper into love and goodness. They suggest such a ‘push’ works better, eternally, when you are pushing towards something, or someone, infinite.

The Good(er) Place — one that offers actual consolation — is the place where God is.

This might seem like pious waffle and a way to overthink a TV comedy — but the hollowness of the vision of the afterlife offered by The Good Place is not just because euthanasia seems like a terrible consolation; an eternity of pleasure in beautiful ‘things on tap’ rather than joy in the one who made beauty is also not consoling. Where The Good Place doesn’t achieve the emotional highs of the ending of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or other fairy stories is in offering the best imaginable ‘euthanasia’ — a good death — while offering none of what Tolkien calls a ‘eucatastrophe’ — a ‘good catastrophe’ — an interruption of the natural ordering of things that thrusts us towards our telos, particularly the goodness and fullness of God.

The Good Place is ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy (or fairy tale) because death is not defeated but embraced. Comedies and fairy tales have, by not simply ‘satisfying’ endings where our desires are met, but happy endings where they are exceeded. They have a eucatastrophe that brings a sudden joy, a taste of consoling truth, to the audience.

The Good Place doesn’t console, or bring joy, in Tolkien’s terms, because its good place is not true. Tolkien says:

“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”

For Tolkien the goodness of the Bible’s story — the story it tells about the afterlife — is that we are not the hero, and that the change brought by the hero is not simply time enjoying the fruits of our own victory, but that we are raised from the dead. ‘True’ consolation looks forward to the renewal of all things, secured by God’s ‘eucatastrophic’ interruption of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d want heaven without the God who renews all things? Without Jesus?

Because The Good Place has each person in heaven there as a result of their own efforts, there is no ‘telos’ beyond the self, and one’s improvement, but also nobody to glory in or love; no experience of grace; no desire to ‘push further up, and further in’ into the knowledge of the author of beauty; the true consoler. Where the throne in heaven in the Bible’s story is occupied, and the centre of the action, in The Good Place, everyone gets a throne, everyone rules their own little kingdom, and nobody wants to stay. The Good(er) place offers something more satisfying than the green door on the good place, it offers us a throne, and one on it, and invites us to push ‘further up and further in’ to knowing and glorying in the infinitely good and loving one on the throne whose glory will take an eternity to wrap ourselves up in.

Here’s how the Bible describes the Good(er) Place… with God at the centre.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5

In the real good place, nobody will want to leave.

Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

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

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.

 

On colourblindness, race, and imagining a reconciling church in Australia

On Saturday I was invited to speak at an event called Gracious Conversations, an initiative of Aboriginal Christian leaders Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis, and Common Grace. This is an adaptation of what I said there. I started by inviting people to use their imaginations to write down or capture in some way their vision for a reconciled Australia, and the part we Christians might play in that as individuals and, more importantly, collectively as the church. That’s a worthwhile exercise I think, to try to conjour up some vision of a different Australia to the one we have now — because no matter how good we think it is now we should all have the human faculty — the imagination — that allows us to picture something better.

I’m colour blind.

Not in some sort of trendy ‘post-race’ way — but literally… You throw some of these dots up on the screen and ask me to see the number 7… And I’m lost. I can’t even imagine it…

I am also, so far as I can tell, totally ill-equipped to wax lyrical on questions of race and the future of the Australian church; I’m very much a pilgrim on this journey and I’m thankful for wise leaders and co-walkers like Aunty Jean, but to the extent that I am in a position to share anything worthwhile to this conversation, if it is to be a ‘gracious conversation’ I shared some thoughts on my journey out of ‘colourblindness’ on questions of race… suggesting that it isn’t enough, as an individual, to claim ‘not to see colour’ in interpersonal relationships if we want to imagine a better future together…

Have you ever imagined trying to explain the colour red to someone like me? Someone who no matter how hard I strain my eyes is totally unable to see the world the way you do? Here’s how wikipedia describes ‘red’ in its entry:

“Reds range from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet and vermillion to bluish-red crimson, and vary in shade from the pale red pink to the dark red burgundy. The red sky at sunset results from Rayleigh scattering, while the red color of the Grand Canyon and other geological features is caused by hematite or red ochre, both forms of iron oxide. Iron oxide also gives the red color to the planet Mars. The red colour of blood comes from protein hemoglobin, while ripe strawberries, red apples and reddish autumn leaves are colored by anthocyanins”

Which is all nice and kinda evocative and poetic — but utterly useless if you can’t see the distinctive features of any of those reference points.

The thing is, when it comes to the colours of reality — the world as it really is — we’re all colour blind.

Meet the mantis shrimp.

“Some species have at least 16 photoreceptor types, which are divided into four classes (their spectral sensitivity is further tuned by colour filters in the retinas), 12 for colour analysis in the different wavelengths (including six which are sensitive to ultraviolet light) and four for analysing polarised light. By comparison, most humans have only four visual pigments, of which three are dedicated to see colour, and human lenses block ultraviolet light. The visual information leaving the retina seems to be processed into numerous parallel data streams leading into the brain, greatly reducing the analytical requirements at higher levels.”

These bad boys and girls see much more of the world than we do — and if we gave them human voices and the ability to describe the world they would expand our horizons a little, even if we couldn’t actually see the reality for ourselves, so long as we trusted the description of their experiences was an accurate rendition of a world beyond our grasp.

I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the we we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.

And I have to confess it wasn’t just when it comes to the issue of race in Australia that I feel like I struggled to see something important… It’s this passage from Ephesians as well. I feel like meditating on it over the last few weeks has been eye opening. It’s a prayer from the Apostle Paul as he writes to a church he loves…

Paul writes out a prayer that he prays for them — a rich prayer — there’s some great stuff here when it comes to race, where God is the god of every family… Every nation… Every race… And Paul says he kneels and prays that “out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in their inner beings…”

It’s the sort of prayer that should shape the life of the church…

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. — Ephesians 3:14-21

His prayer is that Jesus may dwell in their hearts — not a small prayer — so that they — and we as we take up this prayer — may first be rooted and established in love — that this church might have power with all of us who are the Lord’s people; power to grasp… To properly imagine… The love of Jesus.

He dwells in our hearts so that we might know how great God’s love is for us…

That’s a bit mind blowing. Right?

And this isn’t just a ‘head knowledge’ thing… Paul wants them — and us — to know the love of God and be filled with the fullness of God. These are big words for Paul; ‘fullness’ comes up a bit in his writing.

The other thing this prayer suggests — that God is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine — is that our imaginations about what is good and possible in this world are always going to be limited; God always imagines more, and in this there’s a challenge for us to be expanding our imaginations to something closer to God’s imagination.

What is it that limits our ability to imagine?

Why is there more possible? How might we expand our imaginations towards something closer to what God hopes to give us in his fullness and according to his power?

Is it possible that our dreams of a reconciled Australia and the part the church might play in it are too small?

Here’s a few principles from some white blokes that I think diagnose how, ironically, it can’t be white blokes alone who pull us out of this mess.

We can’t know what we don’t perceive

This seems so obvious that it almost doesn’t need saying — and Donald Rumsfeld famously got tripped up trying to explain this once — but a basic aspect of our creaturliness — or our limits — that we exist in a body in time and in space — is that we don’t know everything, but a corollary of this is that we don’t actually know what we don’t know, and we’re especially limited when it comes not just to things that we haven’t seen or experienced or studied yet, but in things that we can’t possibly see or experience…

And what’s extra troubling for us as social creatures is that so many groups or ‘identities’ are formed around things we cannot possibly experience for ourselves…

I can’t, without being told — or without changing the picture — access all the information in the Ishihara tests above. Many of you can.

But perhaps the only thing worse than realising your limitations is deliberately choosing to stay limited. Choosing to live as though your perception of reality is reality. Which is what most westerners have adopted as a default way of seeing and being in the world…

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote this massive book called ‘The Secular Age’ — it’s an account of how the modern western world functions — charting some of the default assumptions that guide society as we experience it… It’s not an all-encompassing theory and there are insights in it that you can take or leave, but perhaps his best thinking is around the way we see ourselves in individual terms

Taylor talks about the “buffered self” — he says the typical modern individual is, by default, ‘closed off’ from the world; we live in a bubble — we’re now suspicious of the idea that there’s a spiritual reality interacting with our experiences, but we also like to believe we aren’t shaped by causes beyond our own will or control, we’re suspicious of descriptions of the world that involve ‘systems’ at work. This translates into a bunch of practices all of which ultimately serve to limit our perspective on the world and reinforce this buffering.

The opposite to the ‘buffered’ self — closed off from the world — is the ‘porous self’ the self who realises our creaturely limitations and so is open to the idea of a spiritual reality, and open to listening to other ‘selves’ and realising that the world is bigger than we might imagine… The imagination is important for Taylor — he developed this idea of a ‘social imaginary’ — the reality around us that shapes our view of both our selves, and the world…

For Taylor the modern, let’s say typically white western  ‘social imaginary’ is what he calls ‘the immanent frame’. He makes the point that the modern, secular, world of buffered selves has evacuated God from the universe — where once people believed in something more like a cosmos where the supernatural and the natural worked in concert, we now, in part because of science and our sense that the world is predictable and machine like, don’t believe in ‘transcendent’ things but what he calls ‘immanent’ things… Basically only our experience and perception of the material world matter; and only these experiences and perceptions shape the way we imagine life as individuals and together…

This is a problem because it cripples our ability to imagine, and makes us less inclinced to listen to other voices. It keeps us in a status quo, bumping and grinding through life like cogs in a machine. This is one place where non-white western voices are important; perhaps particularly indigenous voices in our context, in my conversations with first nations people in recent years — not just Christian ones — there is certainly a different sense of the spiritual reality of life in this world, expressed in some ways through a connection with country and with stories.

Another white guy I like is the American novelist-slash-academic David Foster Wallace. He’s dead now. But he once gave this cracking speech to a bunch of university students urging them to see beyond the default… To escape this immanent frame. He wasn’t a Christian but he had this insight that everybody worships. He talked about our default desires to worship sex, money, and power — immanent or material things — and said when we worship immanent stuff — or worship ourselves — it is destructive to us and others; if we never get beyond these default we never escape a system that has been set up to keep people in the default. He started pushing against this immanent frame, urging people to see more

“The world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace

Like Taylor who says the loss of transcendence still haunts us, Wallace said this ‘default’ — and our decisions to ‘worship’ material things leaves us feeling a sense of loss, but not necessarily knowing how to scratch that itch. He describes this constant nagging… gnawing… Sense that something more is true, that we’ve “had and lost some infinite thing” and perhaps that we’re increasingly blinded to that reality.

The problem is that our default western way of seeing the world as individuals limits our imagination. It stops us truly imagining the power and scale of the systems arrayed against change; but also stops us imagining shared solutions to those systemic ‘status-quo’ problems.

C.S Lewis (a third white bloke) wrote about this tendency we have too — about what the default does for us — what the pursuit of pleasure, sex and power does for us in terms of narrowing our ability to enjoy the infinite… He says this stunts our imagination… So that we become like a kid who thinks the best thing on offer is mud pies in a slum when there’s a beach down the road…

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” — C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Somehow we have to open our eyes — and our imaginations — to see both the problem and the better way forward.

We can’t see beyond our default without expanding our horizons

For people who take Taylor’s Secular Age seriously — the idea of the buffered self and the disenchanted world — the challenge for all of us who want to upend the default system — the patriarchy; the status quo; the way sin permeates this world not just in individuals but in structures… is to see the world differently… To re-connect with other people beyond our ‘buffered’ boundaries of comfort; we’re quite happy hanging out with people who help us maintain this buffering… And we also need to re-enchant the world; rediscover the super-natural, or what Taylor refers to as the transcendent... The idea that God is present and acting in time and space…

The challenge for those of us who follow Jesus is to see living and bringing a taste of the kingdom of Jesus into this world as the path to doing this, and to figure out where we, in our creatureliness and our sin, and our privileged ‘default’ participation in these systems is limiting this change. To do this we have to get outside ourselves somehow — if ourselves are buffered — and we have to keep asking how much our own view of the world is disenchanted or ‘machine like’… We have to expand our horizons — to expand our social imaginary. This is, for example, part of why C.S Lewis in his intro to his translation of Athanasius’ On The Incarnation urged us not just to read modern books but ancient voices as well; but we don’t have to go back in time to find different perspectives.

We have to see that each of us is colour blind by default — we don’t see everything — but also to realise that colour blindness is part of the problem… Not the solution.

Part of this — like my colour blindness — is just creatureliness. We actually don’t know everything because of our particular limits as creatures — we see this in the Mantis Shrimp — who sees more of the world than we do… But we also know that we are finite and God is infinite, but part of the humility of accepting our finitude is acknowledging that other people will see and experience things that we don’t, and that their perspectives are part of accessing bigger truth about the world we live in.

We can’t ‘imagine’ what our mind can’t conceive

To imagine something is essentially to conjure up an image in our mind. The problem with our limited seeing isn’t so much that we don’t experience all there is for ourselves — we can’t experience everything, everywhere, everywhen… The problem with our limited seeing is that it places limits on our shared future because it limits our imagination. If we can’t know what we don’t know, we also can’t picture — or envision — or imagine using these concepts that are beyond our grasp.

If I can never truly see or experience red how can I appropriately paint with it — how can I imagine a world with a different use of red? A richer use of red? A red consistent with or subverting our experience of red…

You can, of course, replace red with any experience foreign to your own.

How can I imagine a world where the experience for our first nations people is vastly different to what it is now — but also consistent with the desires of our first nations people — if those experiences and desires are utterly beyond my comprehension?

How can we repaint or reimagine the world without the full array of colours — or experiences — at our disposal.

Some time ago I discovered Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories — it was life-changing for me — not just because the epilogue is a most fantastic description of Jesus and his story that makes my heart sing, but because of its explanation of the relationship between the imagination and creating new worlds.

He talks about this power beginning with our ability to see the world… To describe the world… To use our minds to see ‘Green Grass’ not just as ‘grass’ but as ‘green’ and to take that ‘green’ and do things with it…

“The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.” — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We can take green from grass, and other colours… And use them to make magic… To re-imagine or create worlds in our heads… But also to reimagine the world we see before us… We can imagine our white house painted blue, or green… And make it happen… But we can also do this on a much grander scale…For Tolkien this is part of being made in the image of the imagining God; the God who creates by speaking. By imagining something and then describing it in such a way that it happens. Tolkien is wary of our capacity to create — to use this power well — he uses the creation of fantasy to explore not just opportunities, but the dangers of the human imagination — we can use our power for evil — not escaping the default craving for gaining the things of this world at the expense of others; so we use our imagination to make weapons, or new systems, to paint others as ‘less than us’,  to create advantage for ourselves… But what’s going on as we do this — as we use our imagination to create things — is what it means for Tolkien for us to be God’s image bearers — it is for us to be ‘sub creators’ — following the example of God and ‘building worlds’…

But we can’t create — we can’t sub-create — we can’t build worlds — in stories or re-making the real one — without first being able to see and describe this world such that we can re-imagine it differently… My ability to use these powerful adjectives is limited by my vocabulary, or my conception of reality. If we want to bring changes to the world as it is, and have some idea what the real problems are and what real changes might be good… We need more words and more than just the desire to extend our limited status quo to the lives of others… Which is to say, when it comes to questions of race we can’t be colour blind in such a way that we expect the solution to be that everybody just becomes like me. Or like you.

Imagining something totally new requires expanding our vocabulary

If we’re going to imagine a new world we need words and concepts from outside our experience; words that come from new experiences but also from the otherwise inaccessible-to-us experiences of others.

I’m a bit of a coffee nerd… But not to the extent that I’ve forked out the few hundred bucks it costs for one of these… This is a scent kit. It’s designed to help you expand your scent vocabulary so that you can more accurately describe the tastes and smells of coffee — using descriptions like ‘elderflower’ that are going to be meaningless to most coffee drinkers… The idea is that we’re basically ‘scent-blind’ — and unless you have experienced and become familiar with a scent, you won’t be able to describe it… all the labels that get used for the tastes and smells of coffee when you go to your fancy roaster are meaningless unless you have some reference point — unless you have this shared vocabulary…

And maybe our exercise of re-imagining Australia is a bit like this….

Maybe what you wrote down or pictured before is limited by your experience and your sense of the world — or by the people you have spoken to so far… Colour blindness in the ‘I don’t see race…everyone is the same to me’ sense isn’t a solution, it’s a commitment to the status quo never changing — and to never hearing why it should.

It’s an excuse not to listen. An excuse to stay buffered. To deliberately limit your imagination; to not expand your experiential vocabulary and to insist that others should instead talk and see and imagine like you do.

Maybe the equivalent to the scent kit for the coffee taster is the art of gracious conversations for those of us who want to imagine a better future for our world and so work towards creating it together…

The realisation that I mostly just listened to the voices of middle aged, educated, white blokes – as useful as they might be for some stuff – was part of what prompted me not just to read wider but to seek out local voices like Aunty Jean. To start the journey of conversations with her re-imagining what life in our churches and communities might be like. But there’s another voice we should be listening to to blow our horizons out towards the infinite… The transcendent… To help us see reality as it really is…

True imagination begins with seeking the imagination of God

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

One verse I had noticed in Ephesians before and spent lots of time reflecting on is this one – but here’s something cool – those bolded words – are words that require imagination on God’s part; we are his handiwork because he imagined us in a particular way – we are created in Christ and there’s a particular image the Spirit is working on in his work to transform us, and God has even imagined the work we will do – he has pictured and prepared it in advance…

Our job is to get on board with imagining life according to God’s imagination, not our own…

There is a story in the Bible about our unfettered collective imagination that pays no heed to God’s imagination — an imagination without limits — which shows the danger of us imagining in ways that want to supplant God, in ways where we think we should be God… Where people listen to one another in an echo chamber. The story of the Tower of Babel; a pre-cursor to Babylon, the Bible’s grand image of an earthly city captivated by idols that ultimately captures Israel (whose hearts have long been captivated by ‘material’ idols before that moment); the way out of the corrupt ‘social imaginary’ we create for ourselves by failing to pay attention to God is for him to intervene and to interrupt the ‘material world’ we want to build for ourselves.

The defining pattern we have for keeping our imaginings in step with his is Christ Jesus… who we are re-created ‘in’. When Paul talks about God doing more than we imagine… it’s according to his power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20-21) as these new creations who, by the Spirit and through God answering Paul’s prayer are able to ‘grasp’ or imagine the size and scale of God’s love for us as we’re filled to the measure of the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Fullness is an interesting word in Ephesians – in chapter 1 (Ephesians 1:9-10) it gets translated as ‘fulfilment’, but it’s the same root and somehow ‘the fullness of time’ God’s ultimate plan is this unity or to steal a word from Colossians, reconciliation, of all things in heaven and earth – and it is reconciliation in Christ. The fullness word comes back in Ephesians 1:22-23 with this picture of ‘all things’ being placed under the rule of Jesus, under his feet, with him as the head of his body, the church, the ‘fullness of him who fills everything’… somehow we – the church – the body of Jesus – are where the ‘fullness‘ of God is to be found in this world… we’re a taste of God’s imagined ‘full’ future… Ambassadors of reconciliation as we’re ambassadors of Christ, but ambassadors who are meant to work in the world trying to line up our limited imaginations and ability to see and taste and touch with the infinite imagination… and how can we hope to do that without listening to him and watching him at work in Jesus, but also listening to one another – those he is at work in by his Spirit.

There’s another prayer in Ephesians. Not just the one I hadn’t really paid much attention to…

 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. — Ephesians 1:18-19

The power we have in us to reimagine and change the world – what we’re meant to be able to accomplish when the ‘eyes of our heart’ – our imaginations and desires – are enlightened is hope and this incomparably great power

That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,  far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” — Ephesians 1:19-21

It’s the power of resurrection… as we seek reconciliation in Christ we’re really carrying the miraculous power of moving people from the kingdom of sin and death and darkness and disenchantment – the status quo – into a kingdom of colour and light and life… We are resurrection people; God’s handiwork, imagining and working towards a resurrected world.

We don’t want to be colour blind…

We want to be cross eyed…

Gracious conversations centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus are the key to re-imagining Australia for the better

What might it look like if we re-imagine Australia not just listening to each other — and so enjoying the fruits of reconciliation that Jesus won for us through the cross; forged by the Spirit… But listening to God and seeing that the source of his power is the death and resurrection of Jesus — the cross — which gives us a new way to imagine solutions to the problems of this world.

It gives us a new way of seeing the world… It’s like seeing more colours… The sight that comes from the Spirit. Gracious conversations mean:

  • Acknowledging our limitations… And realising that when we have more colours in the can we can paint something even more vivid and beautiful and real…
  • Getting a bigger picture of the world as it really is…
  • Listening to others and having their perception of reality shape ours.
  • Bringing all our colours and perspectives and experience and insight to a conversation where we are seeking to be gracious to one another – acknowledging our own limits and focusing on listening rather than speaking – so that we might bring God’s grace — the ‘vivid colour’ of God’s imagined future to the world.

That’s what I think Aunty Jean means when she keeps telling me the cross of Jesus is the hope for our country – not just for first nations people, but for all of us.

That’s the vision – the imagination — I think God wants to inspire in us by his Spirit as we dwell on the mystery of Jesus and our glorious inheritance – that we taste the infinite; and have that gnawing sense we all carry satisfied in Jesus; that we have a new status quo — a new ‘social imaginary’ – a new way of seeing the world and a new understanding of our limits in Jesus.

Imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

Epic stories and the ‘stranger’ hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marvel Universe needs a saviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marvel Universe: Gods from the machine

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

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

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

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

Thor [Regarding creating Vision]: Stark is right.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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