If you were walking on the line

Namibian desert dunes

Of a vast and mighty strand

Where all the sea had fled away

And all you knew was sand

You might ask from where it was

These grains of rock took birth

And whence indeed th’uncanny wind

Which breathes of sea to earth

Then all at once as you walked

A tide came skipping onslightly_high_tide_splash_by_brichards85-d4kkt3g

A million million rivers flood

To lift the rocks with song

Then you saw those wastes of stone

For the shoreline that they were

The ancient ebb of an ocean deep

A Springtide long deferred


Even so the universe

And all worlds that may be

Feel within the deep defect ofsearch

Some long departed sea

Yet suddenly the rocks may spin

And sense their endless night

As both decoy and the deed

Of love hidden in plain sight


And all at once that love will rise

That long did hide its face–

For love will not be bargained for

But must know its own embrace–

And the sea, the sea, is running in

To arms held open widesearch

A million milion rivulets

Of love’s returning tide!


Sketched Thesis for a Dying Planet That’s Not Yet Been Born

It’s a slight argument, one that might seem not to amount to much, plus quite abstract. But I have a feeling that inside it, trying to get out, is something quite extraordinary.

One. The universe of things is contingent–it may or may not be. All the evidence points against anything eternal in it. Another, empirical, way of saying the same thing is that the energy of the universe is finite and so, ultimately, it will be reduced to entropy and dust. (To posit a multi-verse is to create a regression; that too must eventually end in exhaustion.) If this is the universe’s nature and destiny we have no explanation or reason for its existence in the first place.450px-HubbleDeepField.800px

Two. On the other hand, if we cannot explain the universe and nevertheless it is, its factual being provides an example of something we cannot explain and yet is. As far as we are concerned, therefore, it is equally possible that there is an eternal living creator whose existence we cannot explain. (Note that this is not an argument for a god as first cause of the world, but of the possibility of such a being.)

In other words, all things are equally im/possible (possible not to be) and possible–as far as we are concerned!

Three. At the same, this kind of philosophical discussion about the possibility of a divine creator has little or no bearing on the traditional anthropological function of a god. According to Rene’ Girard the origin of the god is nothing to do with abstract possibilities, it is rather the sacred vessel of the group’s violence, the ur-symbol of primitive human order. The philosophical questions about the existence of God are in many ways a result of the loss of trust in these primitive mechanisms under the influence of the gospels (Girard’s argument of cultural influence).

Girard allows us, therefore, to approach these traditional questions in a new way. Letting go of violence at the source of human meaning allows us to fill the universe with a new possible meaning.

Four. Jesus is the paradigm for human being who rendered the possibility of the creator into the possibility of love. He took the ancient signifier “god” and filled it with love.  He said, “Yes, there is a Creator God. He is my Father, a God of Love.”

Through his teaching, life, death and resurrection he translated the figure of God into love. He anchors the universe in love. The testimony of Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of this transcendent change in his followers. Whatever we think of the resurrection–physical event, emotional event, constructed event–there is no doubt that Jesus’ revolution of love became part of the very fabric of being for his followers and progressively part of the universal history it helped create.

Five. To embrace Jesus’ translation of the im/possibility of God, turning it irrevocably into love, is to take responsibility for a contingent universe and existence, placing our bets on love. We have no way of knowing how this will turn out, but it seems the most responsibly human thing to do. Through love we not only answer the conundrum of existence but we give love a throne which at a profound experiential level it already has: the one true thing which is eternal.

Easter as Compassion, Compassion as Truth

What is there to say of compassion?

A man desires it without measure in his own case, and exacts strict measure in the case of just about everyone else.

It is receptive generosity, and expressive meanness.   desktop-1408465058

Divine compassion, on the contrary, is not about who is worthy. Worthiness is a human and arbitrary thing, dependent on the state of our hormones or digestion. Or the amount of coverage a human disaster gets on T.V.

Who other than God is able to gaze on humanity and see all the way through to our fundamental weakness and helplessness undisguised by surface arrogance, power and violence? “Father forgive them…”

This is what I sought to express in Cross Purposes. I called it “abyssal compassion,” going all the way to and beyond the very depth of our human dysfunction. Or, as Heather, the leader of our Jesus Yoga, likes to say as we lie on the floor practicing shavasana : “Jesus never looks away. His love will always be lower than us, so there is nothing we can do to place us beneath his love.” Grunewald_Crucifixion

But what does this mean in respect of God’s self, God’s being?

We are used to describing God in power motifs, all-this, all-that, everywhere, infinite, omniscient. These attributes go along with Greek philosophical notions, constructing God in concepts of measure, knowledge, power, and then denying limit to them.

The gospel does not work like that.

The cross is God’s lesson in God’s identity as nonviolence and compassion.

To gaze directly at the face of Christ’s forgiveness as nonviolence–rather than legal substitution in a higher order of violence–is to look deep in the well of God’s being; and at the same time in a mirror of infinite human transformation.

Compassion becomes something much more than a simple neural response without transcendent meaning. On the contrary, it is the divine character bar none.

Compassion is the pouring out of self for and to the other. As revealed and practised by G-d it is a mode of being which overtakes being itself. Compassion is more than being. It transforms the ultimate, most irreducible form of being–death, into life.

The biblical God has never been a monolith, a super-perfect crystal being, entirely in and for itself, without the other in any part. The moment God, Yahweh, Allah reaches out to human beings in any kind of historical commitment that God has introduced otherness into the divine self. God becomes other to Godself by placing God’s life in relation to the other. The genius of Christianity is to say clearly and unequivocally that divine self-otherness is not just a contingency of historical involvement but belongs intrinsically to divine being. So it is that before being there is divine self-other.

But because of the detour of Christian theology through philosophical categories this personal character of God is missed. Or at least misunderstood, on the analogy of the vagaries of human compassion.

But if G-d is essentially compassion then there is no depth that is deep enough to hold G-d or any concept able to grasp God. G-d is formally unknowable as compassion; but G-d is lovable as compassion, and this indeed is the true way to know G-d, and all we need to know.

crucifixion_Francis_Bacon_1933By love we know G-d as compassion; and because of that we can say, at a second moment, compassion is truth. Or being crosses over into compassion.

Compassion becomes the ultimate character of the universe. How exactly this works we are not sure. But Easter declares it. And it is a truth to live by.


thFG797T2PA couple of years before I came to the U.S. I took a trip to Sicily. I used a beautiful book as guide, one that stands as a classic for travel in that mysterious island, half Africa, half Europe. It was Vincent Cronin’s The Golden Honeycomb and its title refers to the legend of a honeycomb cast from wax by Daedalus, the famed craftsman and father of Icarus. This holy grail of antiquity was reportedly last seen in the city of Syracuse on the Mediterranean isle.  The author’s guide was a spiritual quest for the honeycomb, if not a physical one. For me fetching up in Syracuse, New York, had quite some irony in light of that earlier journey. I wondered whether, like Cronin, I was searching for a golden honeycomb!

Did I find it?th[6]

The honeycomb has always been a fascination. Its hexagonal cell structure caught the attention of Greek mathematicians and was used by Roman architects. The way it is put together by a collective of small insects working together without blueprint is a parable of the amazing possibilities hidden in life itself.

The truly beautiful thing, however, is the end quality of the honeycomb’s overall design–it is a dense gathering of empty spaces. An ingenious architecture of emptiness, providing maximum space with minimum material. It seems totally fitting that into this amazing space something as fabulous as honey should be poured. An architecture of emptiness for a sweetness of the gods! th[6] (2)


Today, however, the vastness of outer space beckons us to darkness. What possible importance or meaning can we have in something so crushingly big? Meanwhile, at the other end, the saw of science cuts down to the smaller and smaller, and there seems to be absolutely nothing between the enormous orbits of neutrons and electrons! All this nothing is terrifying and threatens to suck our souls into endless, pointless…nothing.

But we should not step so quick! Somewhere along the line those electrons and neutrons resulted in the honeycomb, and at least at one point in the universe the point of empty space was given as sweetness.


We are faced with a challenge. The human imagination is itself a super honeycomb–a hundred billion cells inside the head folded over and around each other in impossible polygonal structures and sequences. What intricate pathways of thought are provided by our mind and our world! But is there a cast of thought which still remains to be wrought? Is there a sweetness to come, hardly yet dreamt?

We can imagine certainly that all this empty space is in order that it be filled with love. For love is the greatest sweetness we know, and it has its own special relationship to empty space.

Love is movement into empty space, taking the risk of movement to the other. Only empty space will make for love–to reach out to the other you have to cross empty space toward her. Indeed, love thrives on the nothing it crosses, in order to be truly itself. But, then, once it crosses the space, the space is changed. It is no longer nothing. It has become filled with something wonderful and new–the unique unconditional sweetness of love. Our hearts (which is just a word/metaphor for the deep sequences of the neural honeycomb in our heads and bodies) know and experience this.

Thus the architecture of empty space is the condition for the experience of love. The honey supposes the honeycomb. Can we say it the other way round, that the honeycomb begs the prior existence of the honey, in the metaphorical meaning we have given it? That empty space presupposes love? No, despite the attraction of the metaphor, that is an argument that takes condition to be cause. And if indeed we could say that and be sure–that the empty space proves the prior existence of love–then there would no more be empty space. It would be filled with a definite metaphysical something, and we would never truly learn to love. On the other hand, to take the empty space as the final definition of reality, and love as a noble but self-exhausting gesture into that dark night, that is also to go too far, and another form of metaphysics. How can we conclude with certainty that in the end love will not win? That it will not fill everything with the unconditional giving of love? That the honeycomb will not be crammed with honey? Indeed, to reach this conclusion goes against the character of love itself–which “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Perhaps, therefore, what we could and should say is this: if one were to set up a universe for the sake of love, this is precisely the kind of universe you would have to set up. There is a love-fittingness to our universe!

For love continues to urge toward its further pouring out, just as the beekeeper will decant the honeycomb into a jar. And because it continues to urge to be poured out we get a sense of its eternity: its self-dispossessing, paying-it-forward going on forever. Love has to be eternal in this endlessly forward giving sense. And once we practice and feel the future eternity of love it creates its own modality of the past, pulling the past behind it. For love cannot arise out of the self-consuming entropy of present being. It demands its  own dynamic “before” to self-dispossess, and so create a love that would go on to self-dispossess, and so on.

That is why, I think, John’s Gospel has the audacity to say that “in the beginning was the Word. ” Because the Word was made flesh and experienced in Christ as the authentic movement of love, then for that to be possible the love must somehow always have been there.


One day studying in Syracuse I came across a saying of the Stoics: “God drips through the universe like honey through a honeycomb.” Christianity was born in a world where Stoicism had a huge influence on the educated classes. It was one of the ways in which the Gospel gained purchase in Roman society and culture. Today we lack this cultural matrix; rather we have the emptiness of space. But, as I said, a metaphysical doctrine, like that of the Stoics, can now be seen as an obstacle to love. So our culture today is tailored for actual love not metaphysics. To seek to fill your particular appointed hexagon with honey, is that not the best chance of one day discovering the whole honeycomb of love? Of one day looking up and seeing those inconceivable reaches of space an endless artwork of gold?

Jesus And The Single Terrorist

Terrorism is not an enemy. It is the state of imagining an enemy, while the agent of terror does everything in his or her power to provoke that imagination.

An enemy is an opponent who seeks to take something from me, something tangible and factual. It is possible to see his face and watch the direction of his eyes and body for the thing he desires and wishes to take into his possession. Even though terrorists may ultimately seek something tangible and factual, their practice is to hide their faces and bodies before and as they attack so that we imagine them first: amorphous, monstrous, unappeasable.


Terrorism is the pure metaphysics of violence. It is violence “itself.” The terrorist wishes to take away my peace, my whole world, not just part of it. Terrorism is the battle of the dispossessed against the whole world which dispossessed and excluded them in the first place. A terrorist is a mirrorist.

Terrorism is a way of being in a world where institutions have failed. Armies, uniforms, governments, universities, books, laws and lawyers, all that is irrelevant to the pure imagination of the terrorist.

If we direct our anger against named groups like Isis or Al Qaeda, with governmentsthYH2NU9P1 declaring war against them, we lose the underlying dynamic of terror. Attacking hard targets mistakes the phenomenon of Isis for a conventional enemy. The U.S. understands this. This is why the U.S. air strikes have made no difference and were never intended to make a difference. Why is the U.S. just now attacking oil trucks  while they could have consistently done this before if they thought they were realistically at war? Russia and France believe they can do a better job, and it is probably now just window dressing on the part of the U.S. in response. There are many who believe the U.S. actually created Isis for strategic purposes. Whatever the case the U.S. seems content with a low level permanent war, one that exists on the basis of the metaphysics of violence. There appears to be a synergy between the military industrial media complex and the metaphysics of violence. As Girard says, “Choose your enemies carefully, because you will become like them.” But after a while it is difficult to say who is choosing whom. thLD1NNCEH

The truth is that terrorism is a condition of chaos and it exists at many levels. It belongs to the loss of authority and the loss of meaning inherent in the collapse of sacrificial foundations. It is a way of being in the world, and the most knowing elements in international arms and politics understand this and exploit it. In comparison Putin is an old-fashioned cold war balance of power rationalist.

Girard in his way is a similar rationalist. In his final book, Battling to the End, he presented the rivalry between the great powers as the ratio of a duel, which becomes a final irrationality as they fight “to the end.” However, the terrorist is not a rival in this sense. He is militarily, materially, financially and politically no match for the great powers. And yet culturally he is. Why? Because by the use of modern media, brutal personal violence and the choice of soft targets at the heart of Western secularism he is able to achieve a reverberating symmetry with his cultural rival. Girard did not see the extreme asymmetry/symmetry or non-ratio/ratio of terrorism, and thus he did not appear to see the particular character of the crisis that resides, not simply at the end of rivalry, but in a paradoxical opposition of the single individual to the whole. It is precisely at this point that a solution begins to offer itself.

The single individual removed from the whole is a deeply Christian phenomenon. It goes back to the early nonviolent martyrs and, of course, to Jesus himself. Kierkegaard made it a central theme, in contrast to the Hegelian system. In our contemporary world Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are powerful examples, and even the present pope, Francis, may be interpreted as such in relation to the Vatican curia and hierarchy. Thus within the depth of terrorism we might say there is the seed of its own overcoming. Not with the force of bombing or a vast army on the ground in the Middle East (the 21st century crusade that Islamic metaphysicians are longing for). None of that will counter the rivalry of the individual against the hegemonic whole. But the example of the nonviolent individual who is prepared to stand in dynamic contrast to the world, without entering into rivalry with its metaphysical violence, this is an irreducible point of meaning–one that can only continue to grow in power.

It is not the suicide bomber who is the real antagonist of the hegemonic state (he is already thoroughly co-opted). It is Jesus who has taught us how to be individuals, even the extremists who abuse the gift. His nonviolent assymetry/symmetry is an act of love which calls the whole to love. Jesus sets himself over against the world, not in violence but love. He is the original mirrorist, but with an impossible mirroring of love. Only love can mirror something that is not there in the first place.

Of Gods And Violence

(Spoiler alert: plot themes and details discussed.)

DF-00830R.JPGIf you’re looking for religious uplift don’t go to see Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Gods and Kings. If on the other hand you want an anthropological reading it really is a five-star movie.

About halfway through, the Pharaoh, Ramesses II, speaks these words to Moses: “What is your god, a killer of children? What kind of fanatics would worship a god like that?” Ramesses is no slouch at killing himself, but in his words there is the genuine sense of outrage that any civilized Westerner must share at the killing of the firstborn.

Once again a film-maker returns to a biblical scene to worry the pleated skirts of the central Western story. What really was going on? What was important? What images can be distilled so that we may perhaps find ourselves with a different perspective leaving the cinema?

Scott and the screen-writers have a certain vision right from the outset. It is about violence and its mimetic essence–although a concept like that is of never mentioned.

MV5BMTc2MjQwMzI2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQzNjUxMjE@._V1._CR41,12,2916,1943_SY100_CR25,0,100,100_AL_[1]Near the beginning Seti I, the old Pharaoh, gives the two “brothers,” Ramesses and Moses, fabulous gold-inlaid swords inscribed with their names. For a moment they believe they have been given the wrong swords, each with the wrong name. But Seti insists: you have the sword with the other’s name in order that “you might take care of each other.” Despite the fatherly solicitude we sense that the truth is rather the inverse. At once the theme of mimetic doubles intrudes, a theme that is absolutely biblical. The “brother” is so close to me, and so much my rival, he takes away “my identity,” my standing, my inheritance, and the outcome is a simmering mirroring violence.

But the rivalry between brothers is just a foil for something far bigger, something that seems to be the real rivalry–that between Pharaoh and the God of the Exodus. In a brilliant stroke of theatre the figure of God is cast as a ten-year-old, a spiteful, narcissistic boy. The only thing that stops him officially being a sociopath is that he is a child–one badly in need of parenting!

God directs Moses back to Egypt to set his people free, and Moses sets out in conventional fashion, beginning a guerilla war attacking Egypt’s food supplies. He says it is a “war of attrition” and will take many years. God tells Moses that he’s wasting time and instead he should just step back and watch what He can do! By introducing the motif of a guerilla war–not in the bible–Scott suggests that this is in fact the nature of the plagues: a guerilla campaign. God mimics Moses’ war, simply doing it much better. In other words, the God of the Exodus imitates human violence.

In a way this a fairly banal point until you get to the slaughter of the firstborn. The naturalistic sequence of crocodiles attacking en masse, spilling blood in the water, followed by frogs, flies, boils, death of cattle, hail, locusts, darkness, all seems par for the course: if control of the natural environment is God’s purview then this “step aside and see what I can do” seems fairly reasonable. It is when God overhears Pharaoh talking to himself and planning to drown all the Hebrew children, and then resolves to act first that it gets truly nasty. As Stalin famously said, “When a million die it’s a statistic; a single death is a tragedy,” and throughout the movie we have been cued to feel empathy for Pharaoh’s infant son due to his evident love for the child. When the Angel of Death passes over and the baby stops breathing from one moment to the next, it is then that we feel how truly horrifying mimetic violence is. And it is God doing it!

The following scene reinforces the point. Pharaoh carrying his dead baby faces Moses now become strong and saying “None of the Hebrew children died.” The roles are reversed. Moses and his God are now the conquerors and Pharaoh tells him and the Hebrews to leave Egypt, to go, get out of here…. But then God–or mimetic violence–“hardens Pharaoh’s heart” once more. And he decides to chase down the Hebrews with his chariots, providing the supremely cinematic climax. This time, however, it does not seem heroic, not at all Charlton Heston’s pious parting of the seas. It feels sick-making, as if we’ve seen all too much violence, and the tidal waters of the Red Sea returning on Pharaoh’s army cannot wash that feeling away. exodus_4-1[1]

Something has happened between Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 telling of the story, The Ten Commandments, and now. The confident moralism, the mythic divine violence, the majestic maleness, this has been replaced by spite, fanaticism, revenge. Actually the imperial state, in the figure of Pharaoh, is prepared to kill children, and God in his guerilla-terrorist tactics simply seeks to outdo the state at its own game. There is not a whisker to choose between them.  To have this so clearly presented on screen is a crisis both for the state and religion.

Tony Bartlett

Systemic Racism Is Real But It’s Not The Root Problem.

The recent national uprising up of anger and anguish stemming from Ferguson and Staten Island–the killings by police of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the failure of grand juries to indict the officers responsible– might suggest the beginning of a national debate on police and race and even the possibilities of a new civil rights era. But we wouldn’t want to hold our breaths.vaQyQBzSIsTQDou-580x326-noPad[1]

As has been more than once pointed out (e.g. here and here) the way things stand in the U.S. the police have almost complete impunity when it comes to interpreting when they are at risk, and then responding with deadly force. The issue of life and death is decided in a matter of seconds and it is almost inevitable it will be that way.

The U.S. runs on violence. Best guesses of how many guns there are in private ownership is one for every man, woman and child. Roughly 350 million. The US has been continually at war from year one of the 21st century, on top of the ongoing trauma from the 20th century’s two world wars, plus Korea and Vietnam, and prior to that the prolonged war against the Native American peoples across the continent. There are well over 200 U.S. military bases in foreign countries across the world, to say nothing of those on home soil. There are fabulously wealthy people in this country who do not feel they have any responsibility to the poor and marginal, unless perhaps it comes as largesse not justice. (See estimate of the Economist, that 160, 000 families, 0.1 % of the nation, own 22% of the wealth, an average of $73 million each, almost equal to the bottom 90% entire, the disparity between rich and poor a little shy of the all-time gulf immediately before the 1929 crash.) The central narrative of our time is controlled by a media which cannot step back an instant from the constant back-answering of argument and hostility between polarized commentators. The despairing assertion that the truth somehow lies in the middle is itself an illusion: the resolution of the antagonisms displayed between so-called right and left is so off the charts of the existential reality of either side, on whatever issue, as to be another kind of world altogether. It is the antagonism itself which motivates our news cycle of information and meaning, and it is this condition which is now the specific character of the 21st century. If “the war to end all wars” kicked off the 20th, permanent war grips the 21st.

Beginning with Augustine of Hippo we have been trained to see violence in a moralized and legalized way, as discrete, separate actions each evaluated according to a rational calculus of “justified” and “unjustified”. The courts and political rulers are supremely equipped to make this calculus.

Since Rene’ Girard that has changed. Violence can never be discrete because it is mimetic. It is a plasma of imitation which runs between people at the speed of electricity and will continue to grow exponentially until it is discharged in at least one victim. The courts and political rulers are just as much in its field of force as all other individuals. In the past sacrificial rituals, including war itself, served to keep the plasma in check, discharging it in organized fashion. But today the anti-sacrificial narrative of innocence is so universally recognized and used–against the secret sacred function of violence, but not against violence itself–any discharge is almost immediately rendered ineffective. And the plasma floods back into society and the body politic.

The police are one of the front lines in this anarchic situation. By the very nature of their job and the weapons they carry their fingers are swift on the trigger to squeeze out a sacrificial solution. They don’t even think about it, don’t even know it, but mimetic theory says it is so. However, even though they may kill with impunity the solution fails at once. Even though the bullets fly they re-enter the collective reality at once and cannot terminate the victim. The situation is always worse.

The media is another front line. Except its members are now aware that the plasma itself is the news. Everywhere it shows up, from a video phone recording of a police killing, to one political commentator slapping down another, that’s network news! Not so much information as Ultimate Fighting!

And what about racism? So much of the historical plasma in the US converges on people of color and it does not want to let go. There was a Civil War over the issue, but really it did not resolve it, because the plasma cannot be contained. It continues to seek out places where it has previously been institutionally comfortable. As has been noted by some, these killings of black men, especially Eric Garner, are contemporary lynchings.

But the radical issue is not racism, rather the plasma of violence itself. If Christians and Christian pastors wish to make a difference around the memories of Brown and Garner and others like them, they will want to shift their message into transformation rather than transaction. From a Jesus who pays a price so we can get to heaven and the-devil-take-the-hindermost, to a Jesus who seeks to change our human condition itself and who sets us free from the “devil,” the age-old system of the “adversary”, once and for all.


(Warning: some plot theme spoilers.)

The release of Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, prompts  immediate                comparisons with last year’s orbital movie hit, Gravity, and for several reasons.

A ringed spacecraft revolves around a reflective sphere.

There is the suffused religious tone of both films, pitching audiences headfirst into             the cathedral geometries of outer space. Gravity also plays a key role in each storyline.

In the case of the eponymous feature almost the whole thing consists of the accelerating effects of gravitational force, as the spinning earth pulls matter around it or toward it in a constant terrifying plunge. In Interstellar gravity acts as some kind of unifying field allowing improbable “ghostly” communications across the galaxy.

Gravity Poster.jpg

In addition a family team wrote the story and screenplay for each of the films: father and son, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón, in the case of Gravity, and two brothers, Christopher and Jonathan, in the case of Interstellar. It seems that blood relationship allows the trust and shared imagination for these cosmic explorations.

There is certainly a trend. Space allows for visual hints of a great Other hidden somewhere in those trackless spaces and possibly in relationship to us. Is there not a person or persons watching us unseen from the depths of this dark cosmos? In Gravity two of the spacecraft entered in the course of the action have religious icons, a Buddha in the Chinese space-station, and an Orthodox Virgin and Jesus in the Russian module. In Interstellar the space-mission is named “Lazarus”, using the gospel story as metaphor for the possibility of finding a new planet to sustain life when the present one is dying.

But right there is the rub, a vast difference between the two movies. In Gravity everything pulls you back to earth. When the female astronaut, Stone, acted by Sandra Bullock somehow survives her fiery re-entry and emerges from her module into a shallow lake and then onto land she grasps a handful of mud and mouths “Thank you.” The earth here is our home, filled with life and hope. Nothing in that vast blackness up there could compare to it.

In contrast, in Interstellar, the earth is cooked, fried, a roiling dustbowl of failed crops and certain starvation. Our only hope is to begin again somewhere else, in some alternative planet reached via quantum anomalies which somehow appear in our solar system. You could say the first movie is Hebrew biblical: God created the earth as good and did not     intend it to be a waste (Genesis and Isaiah). The second is Gnostic and Greek: our destiny is always away from here, up in the sky, guided by beings who belong on a supernal plane far beyond.

These are alternatives with a two thousand year pedigree. And along with them goes a parallel division, although not quite so marked. The transformation of the earth requires a theology of the cross, it requires self-giving. In Gravity the male astronaut, Kowalski, has to let go of his life in order that Stone might survive and return to earth. In Interstellar Cooper, the lead astronaut acted by Matthew McConaughey, has to take an enormous risk but in true hero fashion he ultimately survives and finds glory.

This underlines the difference. We can only remain on earth with our seven billion brothers and sisters if we’re prepared to surrender some things. Otherwise it could be the way of Nolan and the Gnostics, with a few hundred thousand of us floating gloriously somewhere else in space.

Reading Eden

My-Bible-Story-Book1-189x300 EditTo read Genesis 3-4 you have to rid yourself of simplistic assumptions.

This is not a straightforward tale from a children’s picture book.

The author is actually trying to answer Ecclesiastes’ question:

“Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? (7:13)

She is trying to explain God’s actions, at the same time as human actions which interact with God’s actions.

So it gets complicated.

Other authors in the Old Testament showed little concern for this narrative; unlike for Christians, beginning with Paul, who made the figure of Adam pivotal. For the Hebrew writers it was Exodus which played the key role, not Genesis. They did not fossilize and absolutize the meaning of the Genesis text the way we did.

For example, should we not ask the question why did God put the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden in the first place (3:3)? He could hardly have made it more noticeable and intriguing! And if we say this was a test, why was a test needed at all? Adam and Eve were happy, they enjoyed God’s company, and presumably he enjoyed theirs. Unless perhaps he wanted something more from them?

Perhaps he wanted to offer them freedom, to see if they would love and obey him even when they were free?

And right there comes the first complication. How could God offer Adam and Eve freedom without making the possibility of disobedience absolutely real to them? A live option? In which case it was God himself who introduced knowledge of good and evil to humankind.

Our first parents acted on this knowledge, but it was there before them. You see what I mean? Adam and Eve had no cultural models. They were as fresh and innocent as dew on a buttercup. They were children who’d never had a candy, or seen T.V., or heard their parents quarreling. Their only model was God.

Or the serpent…

Whoa! A second complication! “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Standard Version) The serpent or snake is compared to other animals–there is no hint of a supernatural being. If it was a supernatural being there would of course be no question of its intellectual ability or wits. So God made this creature along with the other animals and placed it in the garden. Where is the explanation of this particular creature’s presence, given its devious attitude? There is none.

We have to wait until the last book of the Christian bible, the Book of Revelation, to learn that the serpent is the same as “the devil”. There is a question of course about what the author of Revelation himself means in his context, but at the level of the story in Genesis, and its original meaning in the Hebrew setting, it is not useful at all to rush in and conclude we’re talking about an other-worldly master of evil somehow using the mouth of a snake to speak.

In other words, there is in the Genesis story a very strong implicit suggestion that it is God himself who introduced the snake into the mix, just as he set up the tree in the middle of the garden.

Furthermore, if we compare this story with the following one, of Cain and Abel, we see that there is a unique parallelism between these two stories (familiar conversation of God and humans, crime and punishment, curses etc.). And in both accounts God somehow digs the ditch which humans fall into (God “prefers” Abel’s sacrifice without any cogent explanation of why this should be the case).

To deny all this is to ignore the different levels of the text and interpret it in an extremely narrow legalistic sense. Those who did this in the Christian tradition, formulating the heavy-handed doctrine of “one original sin”, did so out of a culture of Roman law. These fathers of the church ignored, I think, or were insensitive to, the more feminine Wisdom framework of thought in the Old Testament. If we connect the Genesis story with this framework we get a much richer, more provocative account of the human problem and condition.

Wisdom writing is concerned with how human life might turn out well, with how it might be lived successfully. We know that the author of Genesis 3 had a wisdom perspective (3:6), so what if the overall story is not about figuring out one catastrophic original crime and its supernatural penalties, but a much more wide-ranging and daring discussion on the sources and meaning of our actual human alienation and suffering?

The root problem seems to be desire itself and the deadly competition and rivalry it leads to. The story tells that the first parents were not “made” with desire but desire emerged in the process of their becoming human. And God took a direct hand in this. The very set-up of the Garden of Eden has to be God’s education of the infant-like Adam and Eve. He was teaching them their humanity, the possibility of desire. The fact that they failed their exams does not negate the fact they were in school. And, despite failing, what they took away with them and would always remain with them was indeed desire. God awakened desire in them and God’s purpose was that they might desire God! They took the more glittering path of desiring “stuff”, the fruit of the tree. So then God took violent measures against them–he expelled them from the Garden. But that action by God is predicated on the kind of humans they had become–full of rivalry and violence! And as a result they got the kind of God they asked for–one who expels and likes blood sacrifice!

But the writer knew this could not be the end of the story. The picture of God she presents is ironic, unsatisfactory, unfathomable. There has to be more to come, a deeper design at work.

And so, yes, there is this verse. At 3:15 God addresses the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike you head, and you will strike his heel.” Who is the woman? It can only be Wisdom; and her offspring will strike at the head of the snake, meaning they will reject the logic of violent desire which the snake had so eloquently expressed. And the snake will retaliate in the only manner it knows how.

What the author of this story is looking for is a way to deal with desire and violence and really she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that could be in practice. BUT she does know the crucial questions to ask and she does so in a subtle, profound way. And it is this deep wisdom which also gives confidence to predict the coming of a human one who would reverse the logic of violent desire. The author knew that God created us with desire so that one day would also come its transformation.

Edge of Gospel

Last time I had fun reviewing two movies. This time it’s a and a fairy tale, Edge of Tomorrow and Maleficent. So, first a major spoiler alert, core plot details will be discussed! If you’ve not seen these movies and want to experience them first-hand read no further.

The genre always has freely imagined worlds, apt to show us something fresh about our human situation. But now fairy tales can get complete makeovers, and radically change their meaning. Abandoning their hallowed formats they too can become surprising mirrors of our condition. According to the argument of Virtually Christian–one I find confirmed over and over again–such imaginative movies may act as a kind of echo chamber and prism of subversive Christian possibilities. Especially the type of movie which pushes the envelope of intense violence and revenge is likely to flip into a one-eighty Christian mind-change (metanoia). Such a movie acts as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, smashing human particles into each other so hard they suddenly reveal entirely new human properties. Or–looked at another way–because our artistic matrix or seedbed is so infected with Jesus’ undoing of human violence, actual artistic creation will again and again show glimmers of this revelation. Movies become a spontaneous gospel distillation and public revelation, but outside formal doctrine or church.

Edge of Tomorrow is a cleverly crafted tale of a U.S. military officer, Major Cage, working in media relations, who suddenly finds himself drafted for a terrifying D-Day style assault on a French beachhead, against an Alien army of vicious spiderlike killing machines. He is almost immediately annihilated but then, in the key storyline, he wakes up directly to find himself back in the previous day and about to experience the nightmare all over again. He literally “dies daily” and it is this relentless succession of deaths and revivals which drives the plot both in events and meaning. He teams up with a famous veteran soldier, Sergeant Rita, to whom the same thing had happened previously. She explains to him that he has been infected with the blood of an “Alpha” Alien whom he killed just before being killed. As a result he shares the Alien capacity to reset time–whereby they are able to learn from what just happened and then go back and start over: in this way they can never be beaten. Tellingly the Aliens are called “Mimics,” and although the name is never explained it is tempting to interpret their ability to learn their enemies’ behavior, and then start over in time, as an endless loop of mimetic behavior. The Mimics continually reset in imitation of the enemy! Even so mimetic time is an endless repetition of the same-old-same-old.

Together Cage and Rita battle through a Sisyphean series of deaths and rebirths until they finally reach the “Omega” Alien, the neural core of the alien horde, the center where all the reset information is always telegraphed. Both Cage and Rita sacrifice themselves to destroy the Mimic bio-construct. However, in the process Cage is again infected with blood, and wakes up once more, but this time in the aftermath of the Mimics’ destruction.

As with all time-reset stories there are a few plot imponderables, but in a way they don’t matter. There is inevitably a sense of “resurrection!” The overriding sense of a radical interruption in mimetic time is what delivers the dramatic pay-off, and it works because there is an underlying Christ-motif validating such a break, one not achieved by military victory but by surrender of competitive violence itself. The Christ theme is signaled (in inverted form) in the “Alpha and Omega” language, and at one key moment of the narrative a  picture of Jesus as Sacred Heart remains in frame long enough to suggest itself thematically as a symbol of “dying for the other.” Moreover, if we compare the screenplay with the original Japanese illustrated novel (All You Need Is Kill ) there is a clear shift from sacrifice of the human other, to a self-surrender on the part of human first-persons, in order to break the cycle and bring about the qualitatively new. By virtue of this shift time itself is changed, no longer the repetition of the same-old-same-old, but given instead a sense of radical openness to a new, “resurrection” future. The very name of the movie calls attention to this shift in time. “Edge of Tomorrow” hints both at the never-ending mimetic conflict, but also at the in-breaking of a future that is genuinely new.

You might say that these gospel motifs are entirely superficial, grafted in simply to make the movie culturally familiar, and without structural significance. But this reflects a very prosaic, Augustianian view of secularity. In contrast, the overall Girardian argument is the culturally deconstructive power of the gospel, disclosing our violence and deeply pervading the saeculum. My intuition simply takes the argument one step further, claiming that the positive phenomenon of Christ’s nonviolence undergirds the disclosure, and is now continually emerging into view in and for itself.

Maleficent is just such a case of emergent symbolism (or re-symbolizing), not this time in terms of mind-bending science fiction, but by means of taking a familiar fairy-tale and overturning its most time-honored, satisfying tropes. Again the only credible cultural source for this astonishing turn is the gospel, in particular, the rehabilitation of the scapegoat. The eponymous Maleficent is the evil Fairy-Godmother of Sleeping Beauty  fame. She herself is the victim of betrayal and abandonment, and this provides the motive for her hatred and her casting of the evil spell on the king’s daughter. However, she feels obliged to keep an eye on the little baby until it comes of age, and little by little she is moved to compassion out of her own, fundamental “humanity.” She relents on her curse but she is not able to undo its exacting release clause. The delightful twist is to make the “true love’s kiss” come from Maleficent herself, rather than some callow boy-hero.

The fairy tale changes to become a story of conversion in the face of innocence (non-violence), an ultimate refusal to continue the cycle of victim-making. The larger-scale result is to bring the king’s realm of “greed and envy” into harmony with the fairy kingdom where apparently no violence is done. Riding on these traditional but reverse-engineered themes is a gospel-inspired narrative of compassion, forgiveness, and eschatological change. Once again “same-old” time is being shifted toward something beautiful and new.

The question then is, if our symbolic universe is being morphed frame by frame in this astonishing contemporary way, into a gospel-sans-writing, what is the response of the organizations that found themselves on the writing? Are they ahead of the curve, or behind it? How much time-bending surrender of violence is part of our Sunday screenplay?