Wednesday, 28 December 2016

C a u g h t

"There are no principles, just circumstances".
Tonio - Knight of Cups.

I was listening to an interview today with Carrie Fisher. Recorded some years ago, it spoke of her struggle with family, drink, drugs and personal mental health trials. There were certainly aspects that many, if not most of us can understand or relate to, particularly how the "sins" that are 'natural' to us in our early life darken our lives as we grow older. It was a stark juxtaposition to the 'virtual' representation of her most famed on-screen character which is currently pouring the currency into the box offices in the latest franchise offering.

Of course, she isn't the only star who finds herself so defined.
Peter Cushing, who died over twenty years ago, has also been rendered for the same movie, allowing a narrative continuity to Lucas' original 1977 chapter that may cause fans to tingle with a measure of delight - something, perhaps, that was shared at the 2014 Billboard Awards when the sudden loss of the music and dance skills of Michael Jackson were "resurrected" by a holographic performance that certainly stunned many who watched.

The image is power.

It certainly tells us all something. We don't want death to end us.
The image, even in the twisted "seed" of our present lives, needs, cries to be more.

"If you pretend something long enough", noted Carrie in her interview "it comes true".
Of course, pretending you're good (ok), as she suggests, or conjuring up someone as photons (or, perhaps in future, as comprehensive data patterns) only gets you to... a pretense. It doesn't truly eradicate or even genuinely ease the grief of what's really going on, and the danger comes if we think that the image, the illusion, is all.

As someone who relishes the opportunity to create and play with imagery, especially as a way to seek to see more in our world, I'm all too aware of the allure to so fall in love with the mirage that we can miss the actual purpose in what we're involved in here. Like Carrie, I can say I'm doing fine to the world, but it won't stop the degeneration in my frame as I age, or remedy the spiritual cancer in my soul because I'm a child of a profane, pagan (meaning alien to what is pure) race. There is great light in our lives here, but so often, we're asleep, dreaming garish illusions we think are real, so we miss what counts and, as a consequence (to borrow from Umberto Eco) put our faith in fakes.

We may think that pretense can do something good - take away our anxiety or worries for a moment... help us keep some disturbing truth at arms length so we don't have to really grapple with the genuine "messiness" of what's involved, and that can be true whatever our status. Christians, perhaps, will speak of a field like art as something which allows us to "enjoy God's beauty in the world" - so where does the Crucifixion, if depicted in church or art,  fit in that definition?*

There is much, much more to unpack. 

The Cross tells us how beauty comes into the pain, into the grief, into the darkness of us, and creates the true way back to a health that deals with our sin and our severance. That's where we need to start - the rescue isn't in our power.

Fans of Carrie Fisher still have another opportunity to see her inhabiting her favored role, as she completed her part for the next screen installment before her death. If we're hungry for what her character and so many others have truly longed for, however, we need to look beyond what such myths and tales aspire to. Malick's latest movie really seeks to tap-in to the deep places on this.

To quote: "Once the soul was perfect and had wings, it could soar into that heaven that only creatures with wings can know. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth where it took an earthly body. Now, while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there... when we see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know and begins to yearn to spout those wings once more. That makes the soul want to fly but it cannot - it is still too weak. So that person keeps staring up to the sky, longing, at a young bird, or he or she has lost all interest in the world around them".

Christ has come to allow us to become found once again.

So, the 'message' for 2017 is by all means allow the illusions to remind of what was, but don't get lost within them - look further, harder, and allow what truly counts to enfold you, overwhelm you, and turn you from misery to grace.

*(Michelangelo makes a great argument on that, by the way, in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, when he's charged with profanity).

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Shattered dreams... and a scandalous God.

"Science is imagination. In a straitjacket".   
Richard Feynman.

Ah, yes - Monsters and Spaceships.

When I was about six, I recall my Father taking me to the 'dinosaur lake' in Crystal Palace.
It was an exciting moment, because I'd recently seen the movie, the Valley of Gwangi, on TV (what has to be an extraordinary crossover - a western with a T. Rex!), and couldn't wait to see such beasts up close. It was indeed a magical moment, as the brightly coloured stone sculptures appeared to be eyeing me as they twisted around the trees and shrubs - somehow the stillness of the nearby water added to the awe of the moment. I, of course, wondered, at how such creatures had once roamed the land, and it was a thought that would fascinate me for a few years until I reached around the age of eight or nine. Saturday mornings then became transformed by the work of Gerry Anderson (Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds), quickly followed by the astonishing ability to watch real life adventure in space as the Apollo missions were explained on our TV sets by the likes of James Burke and Patrick Moore. By the time I'd reached twelve, we'd been to the moon a couple of times and escaped the disaster of Apollo 13, and then came Star Trek. My imagination soared as I discovered and began to delight in the works of the golden age of Science Fiction.

It was all feeding my rich imagination, but it wasn't touching my deeper questions.
Hopeful monsters might be fun, but in spite of all the visual wizardry of film and TV, they didn't give me much meaning inside. I'd lived my childhood through a time of big questions (including 'will we be here tomorrow? due to a little thing called the cold war!), and all the science alongside all the fantasy fun I was hearing and enjoying really wasn't getting me anywhere.

That's because all of it amounts to skimming stones across the surface of life and missing the deep(er) waters.

We think that religion is about something outlandish - connecting us to the remote 'god' who may (if we're good enough) take us away to some idyllic nirvana when we die. The real shock is that time and space are about something far more tangible than our small thoughts and weak powers of comprehension.

I was lucky enough to see 'A New Hope' (the first Star Wars movie) at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road, before it ended its days as a cinema, in 1977. In those days, we had the new joys of surround-sound, and I can recall that moment when I first saw that imperial ship tare across the screen, breathing deadly fire, to the rapturous yet menacing score of John Williams, forever confirming my love for movies that deserved to be on the big screen.

What we have lost sight of today is that the truth about what's going on is far greater and deeper than something that striking.

How can I be so sure?
Because of Christmas.

Not the tinsel and the twee. Think for a moment about how often the most popular songs at christmas are the ones which touch on something melancholic and honest about us and our often painful lives - that's telling about where we know the 'message' of the season should be taking us, but we're often reluctant to really look the at the bare tidings of advent.

Let's be bold.

There is a mother, nursing a baby. She's not even married yet, and the delivery has just happened in squalor as this family are currently homeless.
There's our world, and yet, it's in these sadly very all to well known conditions that God has come, right down into being one of us, as a baby, needing a mum - to live and die to re-invest all of life with the value and significance that God wants it to have - life defined by a love that gives all.

We all have our dreams, but monsters and space ships still leave the soul needing much more. We need to see, to know the love that will hold us in all our pain, all our death, and bring us and the world into what's good... forever.

That's what Christmas is all about, about the true and great reality breaking in to our disconnection and self-absorption with the news that a saviour is here, and life and history can never be the same again because of that. It's truly wonderful.

Here, then, is an opportunity. This season, just stop a while and listen to the words of the better carols or the Christmas Eve sermon about  Jesus Christ, and think about the one who has come to make you whole.

This is a faithful saying, notes Paul, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

That means there's something to really come and know that will give us a much greater hope than all the dreams that still leave us empty and alone.

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beyond Eventide

"Resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies". Eberhard J√ľngel

It's pretty bleak stuff. 
Genesis tells us that our world and the universe itself began "without form and void" (Genesis 1:2) - something which modern cosmology pretty well affirms in its own particular way, but that really wasn't, as we can see, the end of the story. The question is, why did it begin that way, and why did anything else then happen?

There is, of course, heaps of maths and theorem about order and process, but it all proceeds from the notion that development was, in effect, the reasonable outcome (because that's what we have), but theology gives us a very different and striking insight into what's going on. It tells us that this life is currently devoid of what really matters, and the reason for that is because the very fabric and fiber of what's going on has been tainted by a cosmic tragedy, (Romans 5:12) so here's why, I suspect, we have Genesis stating that things have been brought about in a particular way.

The first image of creation scripture provides is one of darkness, emptiness and void. It's not that there's nothing there, it's just that until it is acted upon by one outside of it, it's not going anywhere - stasis as a barren realm is the status quo.

So much for the 'natural' state of affairs.

Then we have the miracle. 
As in the moment when a seed dies to produce something more glorious, God takes the crude mass of the heavens and earth and breaks upon them with His living word, and light  explodes to furnish the darkness. What could never be 'naturally' is made to be so by the very nature of one who can take what is empty and fill it with a significance it could never of itself have known.

The world today tells us why it was done this way.

In spite of all the frenetic pace of our scurrying race, we in truth are as lifeless as the primal mass that of itself could produce nothing. We babble loudly in our to-ing and fro-ing, but we're entirely overshadowed in our brief moment here by the void of death, and nothing we can say or do can break the hold of what is deemed 'natural' upon us. We are a thing aching for the radiance that flickers in starlight and the astonishing grandeur occasionally encountered in our soul or art, but we are imprisoned by the poverty of our beguiled exile.

This reality impinges on our every moment, no matter how much fury we employ to negate its hold, so everything in itself can only return to ash and dust. That is the awful truth.

And yet, our dreams and loves say we should be more than this.

And Genesis itself does not leave us in such captivity.

As the Father brings form and life to His first work through Word and Spirit, He weaves seasonal renewal within the pattern of creation that speaks continually of the promise that will come through our age of exile to restore, amidst death, the return to life where death is ended (Genesis 1:11-13). So it was that the one Born not of the will of men came, grew and was executed that our incarceration should cease. "Born", He was, "to raise the sons of earth". Died, on a Cross, that from His death and rising would come a second birth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

Without The Godhead, there is certainly only darkness and void, and death -  both mortal and eternal -  which ends us all. With that life which conquers all, all things, even physical death itself, becomes but a prelude to the moment when the great light of the eternal day erupts upon us.

The winter speaks to us  - to our frailty and mortality - confirming that all things end, but it was amidst this very darkness that Christ came. The light, notes John, has shone into this darkness (John 1: 5), and just as that first word in creation brought such light, so now the word brings life that overcomes our being shackled only to death (John 1: 14, 10).

Something to ponder on the nights of the season, as we consider that first advent.

Season Greetings!