‘People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have.
The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib.
It was a strange sickness – I saw it over at Fort Riley. Those boys were drowning in their own blood. They couldn’t even speak for the blood in their throats, in their mouths. So many of them died so fast there was no place to put them, and they just stacked the bodies in the yard. I went over there to help out, and I saw it myself. They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right here in Iowa. Now, if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like.
I have a new wee essay out: ‘The Powers of Death: Recognition, Resistance, Resurrection’. Jurnal Jaffray 19, no. 1 (2021): 1–26. [pdf]
The Abstract reads:
This essay is an invitation to examine the powers of death, particularly the modes by which such powers are manifested in the world, modes that relate to but are irreducible to an individual’s life. It considers contributions to the subject from Karl Barth, Walter Wink, and William Stringfellow, among others, to argue that while death and its associated powers are pervasive, they are also penultimate realities. The powers of death meet their end in Jesus Christ. The gospel concerning Jesus Christ is the invitation to live as if such a claim were true, to recognise one for whom death is not foreign territory and in whom death is confronted and its powers brought to nought. It is the invitation to a life in which resistance to the powers of death is possible. It is the invitation to live a life characterised by resurrection.
[Image: Max Böhme, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 20 June, 2019 | Unsplash]
Isaiah 40:21–31;Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 9:16–23; Mark 1:29–39
The Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus we’ve imagined. We’ve learned to picture him as nice and wholesome; approachable, never aloof; a marvellous wonder-worker and a simple – and, most importantly, politically-neutral – teacher of simple truths. But, in fact, the Jesus of the Gospels is a difficult, demanding figure, a troubled and troubling presence.
In Mark’s Gospel, especially, Jesus is mystifyingly odd and volatile; tense as a chord waiting to be struck. As Mark tells it, Jesus is usually met with one or another of three responses: the crowds are enthralled; the priests and Pharisees are upset (mostly by his influence over the crowds); and the disciples are devoted. But all these responses are rooted in profound confusion and misapprehension. The disciples are conflicted (impressed, like the crowds, but even more disturbed than the religious leaders). And Mark apparently believes that this conflictedness is precisely what Jesus intended for them – and for us – all along.
Mark’s was likely the first of the four Gospels to have been written (between thirty and forty years after Jesus was executed). It opens without a lengthy preface or genealogy. Instead, readers are given a terse, politically-charged title – ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ – , then presented with a montage of events from the first days of his ministry: Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by the wildly eccentric prophet, John, and driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he outwits and outlasts Satan. After John is arrested, he launches his ministry, coming to Galilee – not Jerusalem, not Jericho, Galilee – to declare his message: history has at last come full term, and the reign of God (another politically-charged term) is crowning, ready to be born. From that point, Jesus calls a band of disciples, beginning with four fishermen: Simon and Andrew, James and John. (Hilariously, when he calls, they immediately abandon their work – and their fellow-workers!) And in his first act, in Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus teaches in the synagogue and saves a man from an unclean spirit. The crowds are amazed. And Jesus’ fame begins to spread.
Today’s reading picks up with Jesus having left the synagogue and the adoring crowds, and following his disciples to Simon’s house. There, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law immediately, without prayer or ceremony. The news of his exploits again spreads quickly. By sunset, the house is thronged: ‘the whole city was gathered around the door’. Deep into the night, Jesus works to heal the sick and deliver the oppressed. In the morning, he escapes into the desert to pray. His disciples hunt him down, urging him to return with them: ‘Everyone is searching for you’. He ignores them. They have to leave Capernaum, he says, because his message must be shared with the neighbouring villages, as well.
Mark is an exceptional storyteller, a master of suggestive detail. Earlier in this opening chapter, he tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in a single thrilling sentence: ‘He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him’. The reference to the wilderness and the forty days draws up from the deeps of our memories the stories of Moses and Elijah. The detail about the wild beasts suggests Jesus is the Last Adam, the one who comes to heal the sick creation, ‘to make the blessing flow as far as the curse is found’. The reference to the ministering angels summons the story of Jacob’s vision of the ladder, revealing that Christ is the hidden site of God’s sudden inbreaking in the dark.
Given Mark’s skill, we should be careful not ignore the details in today’s passage, even the smallest ones. We’re told the people brought to Jesus everyone in the village who was ill or oppressed atsundown. This is a reference not to the end of the day, but to its beginning. Remember the liturgical refrain in the creation story: ‘the evening and the morning were the first day’. This reference also recalls the story of the Exodus: Israel goes out from Egypt at sundown, the beginning of the new day. We’re told that after Jesus healed many of them (but perhaps not all?), he left in the early morning, ‘while it was still very dark’, to pray in a ‘deserted place’. We’re told that his disciples had to hunt for him. All of these details anticipate the end of the Gospel, and the end of Jesus’s life. On the cross, he becomes the deserted place, dying alone under the thickest darkness, crying out after a Father he can no longer find. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’. Perhaps the most important detail in today’s passage, however, is his silencing of the evil spirits: ‘he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him’. Jesus, Mark wants us to know, is guarding a secret.
Again and again in the Gospel, Jesus forbids his disciples and the crowds, including those he has healed, from speaking about who he is and what he has done. But he is bizarrely inconsistent. For whatever reason, he sometimes does allow or even require the demons or those he has healed to speak. At the beginning of chapter 5, for example, he delivers the man who had been known as Legion – perhaps a former solider, a Roman legionnaire, now haunted by the horrors of war. Jesus allows the platoon of demons to speak, and even demands that they name themselves. Then, he commands the healed man to return home and to share his story with his friends. But at the end of the same chapter, on the opposite shore, Jesus returns to his usual pattern. He raises a synagogue ruler’s daughter from the dead, and then strictly forbids the few who have witnessed it from speaking about it to anyone. What is Jesus doing? Is there a method in his madness?
If we read uncarefully, it may seem Jesus did this because he wanted to keep ‘outsiders’ from knowing his identity and mission. But closer reading shows this cannot be his intention. Mark’s Gospel is split into two parts. The hinge is Peter’s confession (in chapter 8). In that exchange, after asking what the crowds are saying, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter, the only one of the disciples to risk a response, answers, ‘You are the Messiah!’ In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises Peter for this answer. But in Mark, Jesus offers no praise. He simply orders Peter and the others not to breath a word to anyone. From this point, however, Jesus begins to speak openly about his mission, Mark tell us. And as soon as he does, Peter rebukes him, and takes him aside to correct him. So, Mark confronts us with a hard truth: those who know Jesus best are the first to deny him, to interfere with his mission. Insiders, not outsiders, are the ones who need to be saved – precisely because they think they understand the secret that has been shared with them, because they think that the secret is theirs to use.
The controversies about the various endings of Mark’s Gospel tell the same story. Originally, the Gospel almost certainly ended at 16:8: ‘So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. But (unsurprisingly) the first readers were frightened by this ending, so scrupulous scribes added verses to bring the Gospel to a lighter, less disturbing end. Before we rush to judgment, however, we have to ask ourselves if we aren’t sometimes tempted to do the same. To tidy up what God has left messy. To touch up God’s unfinished work.
The Gospel won’t let us forget: God works in the dark. But we are afraid of the dark. And perhaps also afraid of God. So, we are desperate for light – even artificial light – if only it will clear away the shadows.
Rowan Williams argues that the Gospel of Mark was written ‘to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy’. And that, Williams believes, is why what Jesus says and does in the Gospel is so shocking and bewildering. Jesus works miracles, for sure. But he does so in ways that make clear miracles are decidedly beside the point. Jesus teaches. But he does so mostly so his hearers – especially his disciples – will not understand. Why? If we trust him, and if we trust Mark, we must assume there is no other way for us to learn the truths we need to learn.
Williams get this exactly right, I believe:
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this. I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about … So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel full of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: Don’t think you’ve got it yet!
Perhaps this is where some of us have gone wrong? We’ve imagined that knowing Jesus is an easy affair. We’ve imagined that the truth is simple, and that the truer something is, the simpler it is. We’ve imagined that God’s work is always obvious. And we’ve imagined that we know the secrets of our own hearts, and that we can therefore always be trusted with the truth. But we need God to save us from what we’ve imagined. We need to be saved not so much from darkness, but from our fear of it, and our use of false lights.
The other readings today teach the same truth: Isaiah, in a familiar passage, declares ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless’. But the prophet immediately insists ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’. God’s power is unlimited and his strength inexhaustible. And precisely for that reason, God does not do everything at once. And what he does do, he always only does in ways true to our creatureliness, never violating the integrity of our freedom, or our responsibility. We might be tempted to think that because God is all-powerful, we should not have to wait for his will to be done. But if Jesus’ life reveals anything it’s that God’s power is not at all the power we would’ve imagined for a God. It is not violent, but generative, working precisely in our waiting, in our powerlessness. As the Apostle Paul comes to learn late in his life, God’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses.
The Psalm for the day, Psalm 147, celebrates God’s infinite power and perfect wisdom, but concludes with a song to God’s slow work: ‘He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry’. Once again, then, we are reminded that God’s power is revealed not so much in the miraculous and extraordinary, but in the natural, the unremarkable. Grace, as a rule, comes not in dramatic interventions from above, but secretly, from deep within the dark recesses of our hearts. God creates in us an ‘inner creative fire’ that slowly lights up our lives from the inside, spreading out from us to our neighbours – without us intending it, or even being aware that it is happening. This is why, in today’s Epistle, Paul insists that ministry requires becoming ‘weak with the weak’ (rather than trying to make them strong). He is ‘free with respect to all’, freed with God’s own freedom. And for that very reason he can care for anyone in any way they need. His reward, he says, is not to have to make use of his ‘rights’.
This is good news, even if it does not seem like it at first. Jesus, Mark insists, is difficult. But his difficulty is good for us, essential to us becoming ourselves in time. God does not force this difficulty on us in order to humiliate us. Never that. Instead, God intends to free us from the fear of humiliation, which controls so much of what we do and fail to do. In Orwell’s famous short-story, a white police officer kills a Burmese elephant, even though he knows he should not do it. He kills it precisely because he cannot imagine who he is if he is not playing the part of the ‘strong white man’ before the crowds of so-called ‘natives’. He has a moment of almost-clarity, realizing that if he decided not to kill the elephant, ‘the crowd would laugh at me’. He admits to himself that his whole life in Burma, like the life of any colonizer, has been ‘one long struggle not to be laughed at’. And he realizes, or almost realizes, that he has been wearing a mask and that his face has grown to fit it. Jesus, Mark assures us, wants to strip our masks away so our faces can find their true shape.
Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples paralyzed in fear. The women flee the empty tomb terrified and speechless. But we do not need to be afraid. Bonhoeffer taught his students that the aim of ministry is to make it possible for others to pray. And today’s reading shows us Jesus at prayer. Notice, he does not pray for the strength to work the miracles. He prays after that work is done. And he prays in secret, in a desolate place. And notice: we do not know what he prays about. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, we rarely do know what Jesus says to his Father. We are told many times that he prayed (always in solitude). But only at the end are we told anything about what he says in prayer. In the Garden, he prays for a change to come, a change he fears is impossible: ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’.On the cross, he prays a prayer of dereliction, raising his anguish to God: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Astonishingly, it is the Roman centurion who sees the way Jesus dies, hears his screams and death-rattle, who realizes at last what no one in the Gospel has fully realized: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Paradoxically, then, it is in the throes of prayer – in sorrow, fear, agony, and uncertainty – that Jesus finally becomes recognizable to others. Questioning God, Jesus is shown so unquestionably to be God.
This is the kind of prayer to which we’re called in Christ. In Mark, Jesus never teaches his disciples the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. But in his last teaching before his arrest, Jesus warns them that the end is coming, and he directs them to ‘pray it does not come in winter’. In this strange suggestion, Jesus teaches his disciples how to know what to pray. Some things cannot be changed: God is coming; the truth will out. But there are things that can be changed, things we should want to see changed and should try to change. But only in prayer, only in praying not to Jesus but with him, can we learn the difference.
So, if we learn to turn toward God in our fear rather than away from him, settling into the darkness with Christ rather than trying to light it up artificially, we find ourselves sharing his mission. In that silence, in that secret, we begin to know that which passes knowledge, to understand truths too deep for words. Asking God to change what can be changed, we begin to see ever so dimly the difference between God and everything else, between the one who is unchangeable and everything that is changing and needs to be changed. And in that way, we learn – slowly but surely, in a series of shocks – that Jesus is not who we’ve imagined him to be. He’s better. Infinitely, immeasurably better. Good in ways we never could’ve dreamed. We learn not to be afraid of the dark.
Sometimes I wonder if Mary breastfed Jesus. if she cried out when he bit her or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder if this is all too vulgar to ask in a church full of men without milk stains on their shirts or coconut oil on their breasts preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus, birthing Jesus, the expulsion of blood and smell of sweat, the salt of a mother’s tears onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth, feeling lonely and tired hungry annoyed overwhelmed loving
and i think, if the vulgarity of birth is not honestly preached by men who carry power but not burden, who carry privilege but not labor, who carry authority but not submission, then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God lies in the cracked nipples of a 14 year old and not in the sermons of ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.
Surveillance and Religion Network 4th Research Workshop, 9 April 2021
Call for Papers
Watching and being seen often features in biblical texts. God and angels are depicted as figures able to observe humans. People in the Bible engage in looking at others, sometimes spying on enemies, or keeping an eye out in particular for those who are in need.
Everyday life in the 21st century takes place under the gaze of states and corporations who invest in surveillance technologies. The digital footprints we leave behind when shopping, searching, or using services are a valuable resource.
The aim of this research workshop is to explore how the Bible and 21st century surveillance might be brought into critical conversation.
Core questions of this online workshop, the fourth in this series, are:
What do biblical texts about divine or angelic seeing disclose?
In what ways are these texts deployed (historically and currently) to legitimate or de-legitimate surveillance practices?
What are the forms of watching-over or looking out for others that feature in the Bible?
How does our experience of 21st century surveillance shape our reading of biblical texts?
Participation in the workshop
The workshop takes place online on Friday 9 April 2021. There is no workshop registration fee.
There are two ways to participate in the workshop:
We invite biblical studies scholars to make a short (10 min) presentation based on a pre-submitted 3,000-word paper. Papers should focus on the core questions for the workshop but we welcome contributions that open up new areas.
We invite faith community practitioners to submit a brief prompt for discussion (not more than 300 words). This should set the scene for other participants to explore one or more of the core questions.
If you are a biblical studies scholar interesting in presenting a formal paper to the workshop please send a short proposal (not more than 300 words) to the workshop organiser, Dr Eric Stoddart (email) not later than 10 December 2020. If accepted, full papers will be required by 20 March 2021.
If you are a faith community practitioner interested in submitting a brief prompt for discussion please send this to Eric Stoddart also not later than 10 December 2020. We aim to inform you by 20 January 2021 if we are able to include this in the programme.
It’s not difficult to appreciate why the parable of the father and his two broken sons, recorded in Luke 15, is such a universally-beloved text. It speaks to so many of our deepest questions, fears, and hopes. Such realities that characterise the human condition are also inescapably bound up, in this story at least, with the possibilities of renewed, healed, and reconstituted relationships; and with the possibility that one’s judgement about one’s self is not the last word spoken over one’s life.
Repentance is part of that story. It seems that as far as the Christian story is concerned, repentance is not principally about one’s own problems, faults, guilts, regrets, or fears. Rather, it is first and foremost about ‘allowing oneself to be caught up in the way of Christ’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). That way passes through the long shadows of the grave. That’s why C. S. Lewis defined repentance as ‘undergoing a kind of death’. And that is why, Lewis says, ‘repentance is no fun at all’. But, as Lewis also insists, there’s more to it than that. For this kind of death is ‘not something God demands of you before God will take you back’. Rather, ‘it is simply a description of what going back to God is like’. In Jesus’s parable, both sons are ‘lost’ and ambushed by their fears, and both are invited to take the risky journey towards homecoming.
The parable also suggests that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is both subsequent to and made possible by forgiveness. Only the forgiven can confess their sins. Confession is neither a transaction nor a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Moreover, it is ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection’ (Robert Farrar Capon). So understood, confession is something like waking up to what is already most true about us – that we are loved beyond measure – and about God – that God will not be God without us! This is one reason why infant baptism, not something all Baptists always appreciate or welcome, can be such a powerful witness to the Gospel. It makes public the claim that no amount of sincerity, grovelling, or religious acrobatics can achieve forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need, before we take our first breath. It comes like a grieving father breaking all protocols – exposing his bare legs and running out to embrace a traumatised child at the edge of life’s horizon where life has become no life. It is pure gift. It is unthinkable. It is.
The church’s vocation is to find ways to keep bearing witness to this preposterous and impossible possibility. It is indeed the most attractive feature of Christianity – its gamble on grace, the Good News that one’s end and embrace is finally undetermined by one’s own resources, abilities, beliefs, or actions, and is determined only by the Word who is for us. That Word is one who himself goes into country both near and far – into the nadir of our nightmares, into the silent desert of our graves, into wherever we fear experiencing joy, into hell – to seek for the lost; and who, as another parable in the same chapter of Luke’s Gospel records, refuses to return home until all such, including those who refuse to join the party, are found, and their relationships transfigured.
‘We may be unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but’, as Capon notes, ‘the God who does it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind’.
Mark Brett and I wrote a little thing: ‘Creation, God, and the Coronavirus’. Theology 123, no. 5 (2020), 346–52.
The Abstract reads:
This short reflection argues that, in the face of natural crises that occur in the world, responsible Christian speech requires a much fuller and more thickly textured understanding of creation than is often presented. Reading the Bible leads us to avoid speculating on the origins or purposes of such crises. Rather, it bears witness to the divine promise of hope in the healing justice of God, and calls human persons and human communities to participate in that justice through responsible action.
The thesis of this essay is that racism in Australia has explicitly Christian roots. In particular, these roots find their beginnings in the European story of Christendom. To defend that claim, the essay does three things. First, it traces the history of racism in Australia, mapping how immigration policies and practices regarding assimilation following the Second World War expose longstanding commitments to the idea of an Australia that is both “white” and “Christian.” Second, it explores how the roots of such racism intersect with and are sponsored by the “biological heresy” of Christendom and its practice of both politicizing and making “barbarians” of “the other.” Finally, it offers three brief theological reflections on the possibilities of an alternative Christian witness amidst the conditions mapped in the first two sections. Here the concerns are with conceptions of power, with what it means to speak of the Christian community as “the body of Christ,” and with the theological task itself.
I’ve been reading a book by Timothy Radcliffe entitled Alive in God: A Christian Imagination. And it has raised some troubling questions for me about Christian response to the pandemic. But in one chapter he cites the third century Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, writing in the midst of a terrible plague in North Africa in 260CE which killed a third of the population there. In an Easter letter Dionysius writes as follows:
Most of our fellow Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. The best of our brothers and sisters lost their lives in this manner, a number of priests, deacons and laymen and women winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
Dionysius, Radcliffe notes, contrasted such behaviour with that of the wider public, many of whom, at the first sign of the disease, pushed its victims aside (even members of their own families) and left them to die alone or in colonies of disease, leaving corpses without proper burial, in order to protect themselves from infection.
It’s hard to read stuff like this in the current climate. Despite the very real differences between our situation and that described by Dionysius, there are just too many resonances. If parallels are sought, then it is not, in our case, Christians who are known and lauded for their willing self-exposure to risk, but NHS staff and many other (easily forgotten) ‘frontline workers’ who are doing so daily, because the demands of their work and their sense of duty respectively compel them to.
Why should the parallel be drawn at all, you may ask? And why should Christians even reckon with the possibility (unless, of course, they are already frontline workers) of making themselves available to be put at risk? What good would that do? What use could it possibly serve? That’s a comforting set of questions to ask, perhaps, for those of us doing as we are told by our political leaders and remaining for the most part behind closed doors. But what is troubling me is the growing suspicion that there are some perfectly good answers to them; answers that ought at least to be reckoned with rather than conveniently swept aside in a rush to social conformism.
Dionysius refers to his fellow-Christians’ bravery as ‘the result of great piety and strong faith’, and it is hugely significant, of course, that he writes his account of their behaviour precisely in an Easter letter to his diocese – Easter, the same season in which we find ourselves today. What, then, was the substance of this ‘strong faith’ and the driver for their ‘piety’? Not, I think, the wrong-headed (and finally selfish) lack of respect for life that thinks it can and will ‘earn heaven’ by stepping up and volunteering for an early exit strategy. But rather two convictions in particular: First, the conviction that, in the resurrection of Jesus from death, God has shown and promised us that death is, however unwelcome and unpleasant, nonetheless not something to be afraid of, for it has no final hold on us. And, second, the conviction that in Jesus God defines ‘godliness’ (‘piety’) for us not in terms of cold showers and clean thoughts, but in the willingness to face even suffering and death in order to extend God’s love to others by meeting their needs.
You can probably see where this is heading, and I don’t like it any more than you do. And you can rest assured that I’m not headed towards any firm conclusion – just sharing an uncomfortable question or two for those of us profess an Easter faith. Because I suspect that there are things that those who, while being frightened of suffering and dying (who isn’t?), refuse finally to be afraid of death, and who are called to place the lives and well-being of others (especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged) before any attempts to secure our own, might in fact be able to do, and to do without being socially irresponsible.
There have already been calls for volunteers to assist with various public tasks, and so provide vital support for key workers. As the unpicking of lock-down gradually begins there are likely to be many more such opportunities as lots of people, we are already being told, are fearful of venturing out until they can know that they are ‘secure from the risk of infection and death’. Christians, it seems to me, cannot in good faith demand that security for themselves, and might be in an ideal position to respond to such calls, no matter what is involved. Of course, lots of others are likely to respond too. My point is simply that Christians have no excuse not to.
But let me be more radical still! One of the more distressing aspects of the pandemic so far has been the way the sick have been isolated from ordinary human contact, and the dying often compelled to die in circumstances where, for fear of infection, not just the presence of loved ones but even the ordinary touch of human hands has been denied them. Of course they are cared for with skill and compassion. But the sterile environment of barrier nursing cannot help robbing them of the sort of contact which matters so much to our basic sense of humanity. In Jesus’ day, too, sickness tended to result in the isolation of its victims from ordinary social contexts and ways of behaving. That’s why, when Jesus touched lepers in healing them he not only breached all manner of social and religious regulations, but gave them back their humanity in the process – refusing to leave them treated as though they were ‘untouchables’ and less than fully human.
Touch, being held, matters to us as human beings from birth all the way to death. And no one, if possible, should die with the indignity of being refused the touch of another human hand the opportunity to be held in their moment of dying. That COVID-19 victims are not currently permitted that comfort is of course, a sensible strategy to avoid the needless infection of doctors, nurses, and other NHS staff.
But what if there were people who, without placing undue strain on our health services, were willing to make themselves available simply to sit with the dying, doing nothing for them other than extending that last unprotected human presence and contact – a gauntlet-less hand and an unmasked face? People able to do this because, although they, too, longed to carry on living, they had no good reason to fear death, and so no good excuse for not offering. People summoned to do so, in fact, by a God who has himself ‘healed our diseases’ not by remote fiat or from behind a sanitary prophylactic barrier, but by touching us, ‘bearing our infirmities’, making his own life vulnerable to suffering and death in order to love us and hold us through dying and death, without letting us go. Loving us all the way into that new creation where neither suffering nor death will have any place. What if there were a people like that?
I was delighted to be able to contribute a short piece to a special (COVID-19) edition of Stimulus. My essay, titled ‘Christ’s Body, the Church’s Supper, and the Real Presence in Social Distance’, can be read here.
One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects. The world was created by God, the Creed tells us, as a reality made up of things ‘visible and invisible’ – things that can be touched and seen and heard and tasted and smelled, as well as others that can’t. So ‘matter’, we must suppose, matters to Christians because it matters to God!
Not for us, therefore, the elevation of some purely ‘spiritual’ reality as an ideal, as though the thing we should long and hope for most is the escape of our ‘souls’ from their current messy and inconvenient entanglement with the world into which our bodies enmesh us. That’s a very common idea in all sorts of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it has nothing to do with Christianity. For Christians, we need to remember, God is to be apprehended and grasped most fully not by leaving our bodies behind (or even, for the time being, straining to do so by screwing our eyes tightly shut and blocking their world out), but precisely when God himself ‘takes flesh’, so making the stuff of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing his own in a radically new way. And doing so in a way that accommodates God’s own reality to the limitations of our human condition and our human knowing, not merely as a temporary measure, but permanently! (Jesus does not leave his body behind when he returns to the Father, but takes our whole flesh and blood humanity home with him into the Father’s presence.) And, of course, the ‘life eternal’ that God tells us is both our purpose and our promised end is not some wraithlike spectral existence bereft of substance, but something more solid, more real, more substantial even than the world we know and experience now. It will not be the disembodied survival of ‘souls’, but the resurrection life, enjoyed in a material creation restored by God’s love.
The eucharist or Lord’s Supper, so central to our usual diet of worship, is one point in our life together as the ‘Body’ of Christ where all this is paramount and taken fully seriously. Here, instead of mere words – of which our worship already contains plenty! – God calls us to take physical things (bread and wine) and to do physical things with them (breaking, sharing, eating and drinking). And as we do this together in the flesh and blood reality of our gathering as a congregation, God etches the meaning and the reality of the gospel into our hearts, minds and, yes, our bodies in a way that goes far beyond anything which words alone could ever communicate.
The ‘sensory overload’ of eucharist as distinct from some other forms of worshipping is, in other words, a divinely mandated bodily practice; and our bodily presence, bodily proximity to one another, and bodily involvement with solid, flesh and blood elements (taking, breaking, giving, receiving, eating and drinking) are all essential rather than incidental to its meaning. To strip away these things, to take our bodies out of the equation, or even to reduce the multi-sensory experience to one of seeing and hearing alone, is, I believe, to end up with something that is no longer eucharistic worship at all. Worse still, it risks complicity in the wider cultural and religious myth that tells us that disembodied realities are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day.
If anything like the current health crisis had occurred thirty years or more ago (that is, across most of human history), Christians would not have been able to share eucharist together, nor, indeed, any other form of worship. Our generation, with its technological prowess, enables those of us equipped with computers, tablets and smartphones to be ‘virtually’ present to one another. I don’t doubt that this is something to be grateful for and to give thanks for. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But virtual reality is not ‘virtually (‘more or less’) reality’, but in reality a far cry from reality itself. Its modes of rendering us ‘present’ to one another fall woefully short of the embodied engagements and relationships for which we were created, and which are the stuff not just of life but of ‘life in all its fulness’.
So, let’s by all means celebrate the power of Zoom and other bits of clever software that enable us to enjoy this pale reflection of things when the reality of things themselves is not available. But let’s never mistake their thin surrogates for a viable alternative to our embodied dealings with one another. And let’s not pretend that those things to which our bodily presence and participation together is essential rather than merely desirable can carry on perfectly meaningfully for the time being via such fleshless, virtual provision.
That’s why, in this time of exile, although we shall continue worshipping together in ways that Zoom does make meaningfully possible if not exactly as we would choose, I shall nonetheless not be doing what some clergy are doing — that is, livestreaming themselves saying the eucharistic liturgy. For the reasons outlined above, I do not believe this is a meaningful thing to do; indeed, I think it risks (unintentionally, of course, but genuinely) missing the point of eucharist altogether, and encouraging the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most. They are not and cannot be! Not for Christians at least.
So, bear with me, and join me as your Rector in looking forward to our eventual return from eucharistic exile, when among many other things we shall rejoice in our ability to celebrate the eucharist together once again, and in doing so become more fully who God intends and desires us to be as the Body of Christ.
[Image: Raoef Mamedov, Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm. Galerie Lilja Zakirova, Heusden, Netherlands.]
Plunged into a time of such disruption, it can be difficult to feel that we are still in Lent. And while some disruptions demand more of our immediate attention than do others, Lent remains an annual interruption to our ‘normal’ modes of living, the reminder that while we are made for life, life neither precludes nor dulls the actualities of death.
We experience some of this twin reality, for example, in the way that unforeseen joy and absolute despair pair up in our lives. It is also a coupling we read about in the Easter narratives, and which we experience in the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist. Each in their own way recalls that the tragedy of the grave is not territory of which God is unfamiliar, and anticipates that whatever comes next will be euchatastrophic. Such is the character of hope.
Such events bear witness also to an important and easily-forgotten truth; namely, that in this world there exists nothing stable, nothing wholly reliable, nothing immune from absolute vulnerability. This year, we are learning these same lessons in other ways. COVID-19 brings closer to home than we are comfortable with what is true for us always – that to be alive is to live continuously suspended over the abyss of nonbeing, upheld solely by the voice of one who even in his proximity to us remains a Stranger to us.
Some of us are already imagining a return to those death-denying routines upon which we depend to return life to normality. It’s hard to stay in Lent. It’s impossible to stay in Easter.
The French polymath Blaise Pascal (1623–62) famously suggested that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’. Pascal’s words exhort us to a twin resistance – a resistance to becoming nostalgic for the past and a resistance to taking refuge in some imagined and enchanting future. It is, in other words, a call to stay with Christ wherever Christ is, however unbearable that proves to be. This too is the call of Lent, and of Easter. May this call be met with a response of our faith, however fragile.
Image: Douglas Purnell, ‘C-V 1’, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 122 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Used with permission.
Certain things last week got me thinking about what celebrating Holy Communion via Zoom might mean. The result was a few thoughts on the subject which have now been published by the ABC on theirReligion & Ethics site.
What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?
Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?
Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.
In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.
Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.
In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:
Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,
My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.
That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –
Why is this the time to get creative?
Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.
As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.
Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.
Love, Nick x
Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.
Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.
That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.
Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.