Terry Was My Brother

This is a quite personal response to my brother’s death. I am posting it here, among my other blogs, because I wish these words as a farewell to Terry, and I had no other public setting in which to deliver them.

I do not remember his birth–there were under two years between us. But I remember him being there, a new and constant presence among my mother’s things-to-do and bright roses on the wall of the back yard in 1949. He lay in his pram and I didn’t know his face but I knew he was somebody and he was there.

He was there when my aunt screamed in panic up the stairs, telling me and my older sister to get out of the bathroom and come down and shelter with the rest of the family under the kitchen table. A firework display in a nearby park resulted in loud explosions, and my mother and aunt were certain Hitler had come back and launched a deadly attack with rockets.

Everything in those days was after-the-war, and that went on all the way through until the sixties. Terry and his whole generation came of age in the sixties.

Before that decade most of our growing up was in the out-of-the-way Isle of Wight. We moved to the island in 1953, taking the ferry from Portsmouth across the shallow strip of water separating it from the English mainland. It was a strange place whose isolation was chosen by the authorities as ideal setting for a maximum security prison, H.M.P. Parkhurst. Our father worked as a Prison (Corrrections) Officer and had taken a job in Parkhurst as a hospital orderly, no doubt attracted by special wage incentives. For five years we shared the situation of those detained at the center of the island. Our only external reference points were the Catholic Church, St. Thomas in Newport, and our primary school, Carisbrooke Convent, with its looming feudal backdrop of a Norman castle.

Terry formed part of a trio, with myself and our younger sister, banded together in a hard, unlikely world. We played around the housing estate where the families of the prison officers lived, or on the clifftop farm where our mother had purchased an ex-army billet hut as unofficial family camp. Terry was a seamless part of that insular childhood experience: pretending to be pirates, climbing trees, following trails, building forts, creating a story saga around our toy plastic Indians, running away from gangs, confronting bullies.

He was intensely loyal. After we first moved and started at our convent primary school–which of course was not the local state school–a bunch of prison kids would steal our caps and rough us up as we walked home from the bus-stop. Deciding on a guerilla tactic we hid in the bushes and jumped on one of the meanest boys who was about our size, pummeling him with our little fists. Our success in dealing with this boy encouraged us to move on to the leader who was head and shoulders above us both. Again we jumped from the bushes, but he handed us a solid pasting and we had to turn and run. My brother took his lumps without flinching. And after that the gang did not bother us again.

Terry’s loyalty was a given, demonstrated time and again throughout his life. But there is passion which cuts deeper even than loyalty. We choose whom we are loyal to; passion chooses its objects for us. The objects of Terry’s passion, who knows? But they were certainly there.

The family moved to Portsmouth at the end of the island sojourn, but in a way we remained our own little island, enclosed in family bounds of church and home. It was only after we started to set out on individual life journeys that the wider world really confronted us, stretching loyalties while provoking passions. One time Terry came to visit me as a young man. It was likely the winter of 1968. I was at Buckden Towers, an historically B-list medieval building, just off the Great North Road, but displaying a noble skyline of castellated walls and three-storied keep. There was a fundraiser underway, with lots of alcohol, disco lights and music. Terry was working at a pig farm at the time, shortly after he had been told to leave the seminary in Ireland and never try a vocation to the priesthood anywhere else. He had a huge Afro haircut, long black greatcoat and a hacking cough. There were flecks of straw in his hair and on his coat, and his conversation was largely about how smart pigs were. It looked like he’d been living with them, just like the proverbial Prodigal Son. After he downed a few drinks he made his way to the roof of the Towers and stood looking out from the shaky battlements, glass in hand. I’d never seen him so dark, and felt it necessary to go back to check on him. What was he staring at as he gazed over the walls into the cold, inky night?  I never really knew, but it was desperate and terrible.

Terry

Somehow the Terry of his twenties dealt with his demons. And in so doing he helped me a great deal. More than he really knew. One of the reasons I went to spend time with him in England before he died was to tell him how much he meant to me in my own life. Somewhere in the same period as that dark visit to Buckden, Terry came to see me at another place where I was staying, a house in Oxfordshire attached to a Jesuit teaching institution, Heythrop College. We stayed up late in the community kitchen warmed by the big black Aga stove, and Terry told me about a book he’d read, Catcher in the Rye. We shared Holden Caulfield’s corrosive contempt for phony situations and people. Most of all, I saw my brother Terry standing up to be his own person in a difficult world, in a way that I had yet to manage. I saw that in many ways he was braver and more mature than me.

Others of Salinger’s novels made an ever greater impression on Terry. Those relating the story of the prodigiously talented Glass family, Raise High The Roof Beams, Carpenter and Franny and Zooey, were particularly beloved. At every opportunity he would praise these books as having a near-biblical worth. Why did Terry value so highly a story about a guy named Seymour who did not show up at his own wedding and a few years later committed suicide, yet whose memory and writings remained a spiritual treasure for his family?

In the light of this question, it is impossible not to mention my own wedding in 1986, and the fact that Terry did indeed show up, and did so to protest. He was grateful to be escorted out of the church before the beginning of the service by the best man and ushers, but he waited at the gate until the ceremony was over. It was a bit of a shock to see his ravaged face as I and Linda emerged in the courtyard to the strains of the Wedding March. This was another instance of loyalty–Terry took my mother’s part when she saw my getting married as legally inadmissible (given that I had taken a vow of celibacy in the R.C. church). I know Terry–certainly the Holden Caulfield Terry–did not want to do this, but blood overruled him. (At the same time, in hindsight, I cannot help but find more than a little subversive irony in Terry’s protest: in the end he was the only one of my family actually to show up at the wedding!)

Before all that happened, during the late 70’s, Terry came to work with me at Buckden Towers. He had returned to his studies and got a degree from UMIST, but when he was at a loose end after graduation I asked him to join me at the Towers. That half-millennial pile had emerged as a center of an energetic youth ministry fired by the spiritual renewal taking place in those years. The year he spent at Buckden was a happy time. He had undergone his own progressively deepened spiritual experience and this, together with his genial manner, Woodbine cigarettes and scorching left-wing analysis made him an object of both affection and fascination for the young people who would gather there. For me personally he represented a support I did not find in the religious order to which I belonged. When he left the Towers, that, and a number of other factors, began my own step by step separation from the life I was in. It was a journey which would result in a final break in 1984, and then that rather ill-tempered wedding two years later.

Terry took my mother’s part, but then he saw it as his job to effect a kind of reconciliation. After eight years he managed to get her to agree to meet me. It was an odd encounter but Terry saw it as a duty accomplished, squaring his loyalties both to her and to me. A few years later he also managed to arrange a meeting between my mother and my children–none of whom she had seen. My older two remember it and I am glad they had the chance of at least one physical memory of their grandmother. Terry was very satisfied that he had connected these pieces of the puzzle. Shortly before he died he bought Claddagh rings for each of my kids–“hands across the ocean”–and I know he was pleased that he had preserved that bit of the family heritage somewhat against the odds.

Terry never married. When the Irish say this about an older man they tend to do so with a mixture of sadness and approval. As if there is something quite noble about the solitary state–more often than not a matter of selfless service to said individual’s mother. There were apparently a couple of close brushes with the opposite sex. He told me about a woman from Iceland, and another from the Caribbean who had three children. When informed about the latter our mother remarked along the lines of “So, who would look after me?” And that, as they say, was that. But I never got the feeling these were huge losses for Terry. Whatever his passion was it carried him gracefully along the tracks of bachelorhood. (He once said to me–somewhere to the latter part of my own time in a religious order–“I think I would be better suited to your life, and you would be to mine.”)

So, about that attempt of his to be a priest? When he was eighteen Terry joined a Catholic missionary organization and seminary in Dublin, Ireland, but after a year he was told to leave. He wandered around Dublin for a couple of days, before finally heading back to England. It was following this he took work on the pig farm. To be told not to try anywhere else meant his superiors saw something they deemed a deal-breaker, not simply a poor fit. It’s impossible to know at this distance what that was; and why should I even bother? Well, it seemed Terry left money in his will to this same organization. The end of his life and his dispositions for his estate mirror something right at its outset, and they look like some kind of settling of accounts. My personal opinion is that we can never settle accounts: life is a free gift, and whatever we take from it can only be compensated by more absolutely free giving. And indeed, this could also have been what my brother was doing in a roundabout Zen way! However, why give freely to this organization, when there are so many urgent needs in the world?

Ultimately it is about where your passion lies, and it was perhaps the day of his death that displayed this most poignantly in Terry.

As it turned out I was alone with him. We’d had visits from the Cancer specialist and the Palliative Care doctor; one expected Terry to recover, the other that he still had weeks to live. Before that, about 11.00am, I prayed with him, giving thanks for Terry’s whole life and asking for various blessings on relatives and the world. The room was full of morning sun, Terry was very peaceful, his face and breathing in repose. The one point where he roused himself to an “Amen” was when we prayed for the R.C. church.

The priest came around 2.00. His name was Fr. Sean and he said one word, “Terry,” and my brother came out of his doze as if he’d been touched by an electric probe. He tried to lever himself up on his pillows and at the same time he tore off his oxygen mask. At this point his saturation levels were between 70 and 50 on pure O2 which means it was very dangerous to remove the mask. (Anything less than 90 is low.) We called the nurse and she got the mask back on again. The moment she left he pulled it off once more and this time his eyes rolled up and he went unconscious. I put the mask back on and his eyes returned to focus. I was now standing guard and the priest proceeded with communion and anointing. I extended the mask off his face for him to receive the wafer and sprung it straight back. When it came to the anointing Terry held out his arms rigidly in front of him like someone doing a strength exercise or some kind of parade ground salute. The muscles of his upper arms began to buckle and pop but he held the position with superhuman will-power until the priest had finished putting the oil on his hands. I don’t know why Fr. Sean didn’t tell him to relax and put his hands down on the covers.

The priest left. Shortly after they brought some lunch. Terry had a few mouthfuls and a sip or two of juice. I went out myself to get a drink. When I got back his breathing had changed. Terry died at 3.40. Without any kind of struggle. He just slipped away. His passion done.

Last year, shortly after Terry was first diagnosed with cancer, he sent me this message. “Thankfully I have not been really worried or concerned by the cancer. Do you remember the old hymn or poem that ended, ‘The child of God can fear no ill, his chosen dread no foe, we leave our fate to thee and wait thy bidding when we go; it’s not from chance our comfort springs, Thou are our trust, O king of kings.’ Guess I must actually believe that.”

Flashback. It’s 1979, and Buckden again. It’s the end of the summer and I am having an asthma attack. I was hardly getting episodes at all in those days, and yet somehow I feel this one is dangerous. I ask Terry to sleep in the room next to me, not confident I could get anyone in the community to respond promptly or sympathetically. Sure enough, in the small hours it is a crisis. I knock desperately on the wall and Terry does not need to be asked twice. He at once summons the doctor. The man arrives with his Gladstone, gets out a needle and shoots me with adrenalin. The transformation is immediate, miraculous. I have never quite experienced anything like it, before or since. Free flowing breath and a strong heart, who would not give the skies above for this? I pray that my brother Terry gets some crazy other-than-medical adrenalin in those small hours and remote rooms we call death.

Subversive Semiotics: Scorsese’s Not-So-Silent “Silence”

The latest film from auteur, Martin Scorsese, continues his fascination with Christian themes, evident from his very first movies and climaxing in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ. But this 2016 offering delves more deeply than his earlier preoccupations and easy box-office draws of guilt, sex and death. Centered on the empty space where faith lives, the whole movie shudders with the terror and joy of living in that space. As such it is by far Scorsese’s most religious movie, one which turns in near orbit to the heart of Christian meaning. In the words of the Newsweek review it “feels close to a state of grace.” download (1) - Copy

Silence tells the story of Jesuit priests fallen foul of 17th century Japanese state policy to root out Christianity from the nation, concentrating particularly on the coastal areas of Nagasaki where the faith of Jesus has gained a foothold. The film is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo. The movie narrative remains faithful to the cruel dilemma presented in the book and, on one level, to its title theme, communicated with echoing intensity in the written story, that of God’s apparent silence in the face of appalling suffering.

But Scorsese as director does not just tell a story, he presents us with a sumptuous gallery of scenes and images. The sea and its beating waves are a constant motif, signaling the unbridgeable isolation of the Jesuit missionaries, way beyond return to their native Portugal. The implacable sea is also an instrument of torture for the island Christians, hung on crosses before the incoming tide, battered and swamped until their spirits give out. But then there is this. download - Copy

The image of Christ is also continuously represented– hung on the cross, the Lamb of God standing defenceless, or a face gazing serene and unflinching out into the world. It is this portraiture–always itself a figure of torture–which acts as an unyielding counterpoint to the brutal campaign of violence carried out by the authorities.

The dilemma standing before the priests is, first, whether or not to advocate apostasy among the Japanese Christians rather than see them continue to suffer this campaign, and then, ultimately, whether or not to apostatize themselves–the last condition for its cessation. Our attention is riveted by this enforced decision, but underlying it and informing it all the way through is a profound, often mind-bending discussion on what is actually at stake.

Toward the end of the movie the central Jesuit character, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), has a conversation with his former teacher and mentor, a Jesuit who has already apostatized, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira tells him that the Japanese Christians are not real Christians, because the word used for “the Son of God” is the same Japanese expression as for the midday sun! They do not believe in “Deus” (scholastic Latin for “God”), so why put them through torture for the sake of a phony belief!

This is an argument by one priest to another. Meanwhile the Japanese authorities have something quite different bothering them. They are concerned to keep encroaching Western nations out of Japan–Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands. And they see Christianity as a bridgehead for this encroachment. Their concern was doubtless valid, but as they argue with Rodrigues they claim that Christianity cannot possibly take root in Japan because it was alien to its soil. Saying so they somehow manage to ignore the multiple thousands of existing Christian converts, plus their own ferocious effort to eradicate what is apparently unable to put down roots. Essentially, however, their argument is not empirical. They are claiming on authority to decide what takes root and what cannot. They are the shogunate officer and warrior class, the appointed curators of what is Japanese.

In the course of this authoritative argument, however, they quote a Japanese saying and suddenly we are at another level altogether. “Mountains and rivers can be moved. But man’s nature cannot be moved.” I do not think this line is in Endo’s book, in which case the screenwriting of Silence adds a crucial twist, suggesting that the thing at stake is not who is in charge, but what, in the end, it means to be human.

RInc7GKThis is a hugely different question and it is at this level that the repeated images of Christ–unfailingly nonretaliatory and nonviolent–transcend the eponymous silence of God. Indeed, the test of apostasy is to trample on an image of Christ and this gives Scorsese endless occasions throughout the movie to render a powerful semiotics of the nonretaliation of the Christ. Jesus again and again has a foot planted on his face and not once is there a glimmer of revenge.

Is not this perhaps the deafening “silence” that is complained about? The fact that the God of Jesus cannot and will not intervene violently, even to end abusive violation of his own revealed image? In any case, the authorities are obsessively concerned to eliminate these symbols of Jesus when kept by Christians, sensing that somehow they are key to the meaning and communication of the faith. I do not know what the actual attitude of the Nagasaki Christians or the authorities was toward the images–whether or not they regarded them superstitiously as some kind of object-with-power. But there can be no doubt that Scorsese choreographs the figures and faces for their iconic value, representing exactly the other nature which the saying about mountains and rivers deemed impossible.

In which case Ferreira–at least in the world of the movie–was entirely wrong. The Japanese Christians were real Christians, because they treasured the nonviolent semiotics of the cross. In Silence Scorsese has articulated, as artist and director, a clamant cinema of Jesus’ nonretaliation and its ultimate victory. The final frame of the movie and its sudden close-up makes this unquestionable. If you have not seen the movie treat yourself for the sake of all the wonderful screenplay, but above all the “apocalyptic” (revelatory) finale.

Silence speaks louder than words, louder than apostasy itself.

Alien: Covenant. A Satan Worth Seeing!

(Warning: thematic spoilers.)

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017) is a meditation on actual human meaning painted across the aching canvas of outer space and set off by the placenta-toned hues of chest-bursting Xenomorphs, the undisputed cinema icons of human mimesis, misery and violence.

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The titular spaceship, “The Covenant,” is the painting’s golden frame, a beautiful artefact, gliding effortlessly across the stars like the bone-weapon flung triumphantly into the sky all those years ago in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The craft carries 2000 chosen people plus embryos, pilgrim colonists, to a new home on a distant planet. But with whom do they make the covenant?

The film begins with a 2001: A Space Odyssey style conversation between computer intelligence and its human master. It is set in the exquisite calm of high culture, a white room with modernist picture window looking out on wilderness landscape, and masterpieces scattered around like a billionaire’s eat-your-heart-out collection, Carlo Bugatti throne, Steinway Grand Piano, Piero Della Francesca’s Nativity, an image of Michelangelo’s David, and, for audio, Wagner’s Entry of the Gods. The scene connects to the movie’s prequel, Prometheus (2012): it fills in that movie’s backstory of Peter Weyland, the said billionaire, funding a quest in space to find the origins of human existence, including his own selfish pursuit of immortality. Here he is talking to the android who is his creation and will help him in the quest. But it is not Weyland who is the most important figure in the scene; rather it is the creation who proceeds to name himself triumphantly after Michelangelo’s biblical David and then play the Nazi-favorite Wagner piece. He resents his role as servant. In the flicker of an eye we can see that he does not want to pour Weyland’s tea!

The Covenant sails on its light-speed journey with its covenant god watching over it. The constant connection with and contrast to the Judaeo-Christian narrative tells us that, along with the CGI thrills, there is a theological imagination at work. There is the Nativity artwork at the beginning, the eponym of the spacecraft, multiple (if somewhat incoherent) references to faith and belief, as well as several subtle nods to the gospel story.

But the god at work is not a biblical god of justice or peace. As imaged so powerfully by the Xenomorphs it is one of ferocious rivalry. In fact it is David who little by little emerges as Lucifer, a pure rival to his creator.

He explicitly quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” and talks eloquently of his superiority.

He claims precedence over humans because he knows his creator, and they do not, plus he can live indefinitely, and they cannot. But, at the same time, David has an intense case of creator envy. He longs to produce something as wonderful as poetry or music. He has fashioned primitive wind instruments for himself, but we cannot be sure whether what he plays is not plagiarised from human composers. However, what he really can do is create killing machines. Without giving too much away, we see that he does not hesitate to destroy, and on a metaphysical level, in his quest for superiority.

However, as you watch this drama unfold you begin to think that it is the very fact that humans do not know their creator with certainty that opens the space in them for compassion and, indeed, creativity. A machine can only mimic. A human has that empty space inside (parallel to the vastness of outer space) which allows them to give themselves, to surrender self to “empty space,” and in the moment allow something loving and new to be generated. If “a synthetic” (as David calls himself) should ever attain to that empty space it too could create and truly be equal to its creator.

David cannot or will not dissociate himself from rivalry with his maker. In which case, far from being purely a machine he is in fact a perfect image of the human! A robot-as-rival is a perfect movie image of the human filled up with the other as enemy. He or she is in lock-step with the other, always seeking to emulate and yet outdo. A rival is a robot, fixed mechanically to the being of the other, trying futilely to attain freedom in that last explosive theophany of conquest. This is the satan, the rival who cannot let go, who becomes a robot of desire, and will go down in flames rather than do so.

David is probably the best screen Satan ever. His is the “alien covenant,”  one of rivalry and violence, the one that will engulf the world in destruction unless we learn the empty space of forgiveness and love. If you’re in any way involved in teaching Christians about the meaning of their scripture, bring them to see and understand this movie!

(P.S. In the prequel, Prometheus, the main protagonist, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, wore a cross around her neck, as a sign of overarching faith, something resented by David. In Alien: Covenant the main female protagonist, Daniels Branson,  wears an iron nail on a leather band around her neck. It has an ordinary meaning–she wants to build a log cabin on the new planet–but the contrast with Prometheus is unmistakable. Is the iron nail of Alien: Covenant the rivalry and violence that crucified Jesus? In the imaginal universe of movies it does not matter if a particular trope is fully intended by the director or not: the answer here has to be “Yes!” In the theological logic of these two movies a 21st century version of the work of the cross is becoming more and more difficult to miss.)

Primal Soup for Emerging “New Cell” Christianity

I had a conversation with a priest friend. He described a more or less perfect “church campus” in a small North Eastern boutique town. There is the venerable town-center worship center, behind it an education facility, a couple of blocks away a rural poverty support program, and on the corner a second-hand store helping fund the social-service outreach. But despite its evident virtue the church campus is not attracting newcomers. The church is stagnant, in fact slowly dying.mr_00089689

What are they doing wrong?

Church and worship have to do with the in-breaking of transcendence, and it seems that the average citizen of the small town finds her transcendence elsewhere; or nowhere.

In fact old transcendence itself seems to be dying, and perhaps directly under the cultural impact of the gospel. Gone is the great-deity-on-high and with it the threat of eternal consequences, and instead there is a questioning of power itself and the violence that underpins it. The question could take us on several related rabbit trails (e.g. some churches specialize in preserving or restoring that sense of violent power within the four walls of their building), but let me stick to an image that struck me and I shared with my friend.

Life in an evolutionary sense emerged from a soup of proteins that somehow combined into the primitive single cell. The “somehow” is not the question. What is relevant is the background chaos of materials which provided the necessary environment from which life came. unnamed It is the “culture medium” which is critical in producing life.

The account of the first Pentecost tells us the Spirit created the first primitive church out of a babble of tongues. It hearkens us back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. According to Walter Brueggemann the scattering that the Lord brought about, produced by the confusion of tongues, was for the sake of a larger creative purpose of ingathering and unity. And of course we see that in the outpouring of Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit of boundary-breaking nonviolence overcoming difference and separation in forgiving love.

What if today we are witnessing another kind of scattering? One not signaled by diversity of languages (we have facebook to translate for us), but by the breakdown and chaos of even more closely identifying structures of specialness and difference. We have a fragmentation and dissonance within “natural” unities such as race, nation, gender, along with a media which heightens the discord with every voice, opinion and “alternative fact” as valid as the next. Fake news is the news: there is a breakdown of “truth” itself. And with that, of course, there is the critically heightened sense of violence, precisely because unified structures of meaning and truth–single narratives–are there to protect against rivalry and conflict, against violence itself.

This then is the culture medium where the gospel word should be searchoperating, in which it announces its alternative truth of unbounded love in the space of agitation and disarray. Respect for difference is not enough: there has to be the positive experience of transforming love “by which everyone will know you are my disciples.” This kind of love reaches out as well to those who feel impelled to recreate old unities for the sake of fending off the sense of violence. The fragmentation of “natural” unities is, therefore, in order to bring about a new kind of humanity. It is the creative space, like the confusion of languages, in which a genuinely new life of positive love can emerge. Without this present-day chaotic medium we would never be moved to produce this self-replicating “cell” of new human being.

Paradoxically, the gospel’s most natural sphere is not the settled order, but the place where the apparent virtues of such an order break down–in the lives of individuals who experience it as hurt and violence: the marginalized, the violated, the oppressed. The fact that the church campus I described is concerned for the poor cannot preclude that at some point it belongs itself to macro structures which create the poor (e.g. privilege, war, class etc.) The poor have always been blessed by the gospel, but today we have all entered a new kind of poverty where violence itself impoverishes our existence. And so that other beatitude, which is ineptly translated “blessed are the meek,” becomes first in significance. “Blessed are the nonviolent” is the joyful meaning of the gospel for those who consciously opt for it, out of a culture of violence, out of the generative roots of culture exposed to the light as violence.

So the gospel becomes the ability to live in this space with transcendent love, forgiveness and peace. Blessed are the nonviolent for they shall inherit the earth! 6273465171_a7b0885a35_b

The Spectacle of Compassion

And when all the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home beating their breasts. (Lk. 23:48)

Two movies about war are currently in the theatres. One directed by Ang Lee, the other by Mel Gibson.

At the heart of both movies is an intense and powerful spectacle around which the rest of the story revolves and which rivets attention. Of course all movies are spectacle, and war is so often the subject of movies because it provides such concentrated material for spectacle: what can be more gripping to an observer than the sight of many people dying? Examples multiply in the memory:  All Quiet on Western Front, Lawrence of Arabia Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Cross of Iron, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Fury. The list goes on and on

But there is something much more deliberate and reflective in both these recent offerings.

The first, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pivots on a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Football Game in Dallas, Texas.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures' BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK.

The other, Hacksaw Ridge, climaxes in a set-piece WW2 battle on Okinawa Island, happening at the top of the eponymous ridge which looms up on screen like a terrifying stage seen from the orchestra pit, a huge escarpment which the soldiers must finally climb to make their appearance and be blown to bits.

hero_hacksaw-ridge-2016 A sense of spectacle as spectacle undergirds both movies, a conscious meta-awareness of what exactly it is we are waiting for and watching when we watch.

A philosophical group called “Situationists” argued that society itself has devolved into spectacle. And they said this before the internet age. One of their leading figures, Guy Debord, explained “The spectacle is not a collection of images rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” He saw the enormous upsurge of electronic images as a manipulation of life by consumer culture, not real relationships. There is truth in this (especially from a mimetic perspective), but what he perhaps missed was the fact that society has always been based around the spectacle of sacrifice. The original or ur-spectacle is the killing of the collective victim. What is different today is that almost everything is spectacle. But at the same time–as these two movies illustrate–spectacle is coming consciously to recognize the violence and victim at its heart. It does so by means of the lightning strike of a radical human alternative– compassion.

The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, focuses on a squad of soldiers who were involved in a vicious firefight caught on camera in Iraq. The news footage made them heroes, and they return stateside on a promotional tour, fawned on and feted, driven round in a stretch Hummer by a movie agent who never stops talking up a deal on the phone. Everything leads to their centrepiece appearance at the halftime show, directly following a song from the early Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child), “Soldier.”  There is a seamless continuity between the war and the entertainment industry, while the men who were actually in the battle seem almost psychotically detached from what is going on around them. There is a constant sense of danger in this detachment, until at one crucial moment the key soldier who provides the main narrative thread breaks and begins to weep. A tear on the face of this once-innocent soldier breaks the manic continuity and rips it apart. billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-joe-alswynI have called moments like this in other movies “the photon of compassion,” the point where the dizzying vortex of violent images suddenly opens to the new transcendence of compassion arising historically from the Risen Crucified.

Spectacle itself is in crisis. It is no longer able to bring sacrificial resolution; so it is always amping up the images, the violence, the desire. But then, out of the intolerable danger, compassion appears.

Next, Gibson.

No one does violence like Gibson does. There is a transparency, a visibility of violence that is in many ways unique to Gibson. It is not pleasant. It is not moral. It is structural.

Watching a movie by Gibson is as if the human tissue itself is stretched out as screen and image. It is as if the Girardian foundation of culture in the body of the victim has become violently visible in the function of the movie camera itself: the body of the victim is rendered in and as the apparatus of spectacle. Directors like Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and Tarantino (Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained) are known to create an aesthetic out of violence.  The vivid glaze on the surface of the screen is made out of blood and cruelty. Even with these directors there is something revelatory. But it is too slick, too knowing and collusive. With Gibson there is a deep structural unease, a deliberate lack of comfort. As the body count rises and the flesh wounds multiply we find it more and more difficult to collude. The glaze is too layered, too thick! We HAVE to notice it. This has been interpreted as bravado, as a sheer liking for violence. This is even possibly true. But his three last movies, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and now Hacksaw Ridge, all have an explicitly biblical-revelatory frame, which makes it impossible to avoid spiritual responsibility for what we are watching. The Passion of the Christ is seen among liberal Christians as reflecting an appalling atonement theology: violence before God saves us from our sins. This, I think, is a mental alibi showing zero sense of the art and meaning of cinema. The biblical framework in these Gibson movies is an explicit affirmation of a revelatory process that is working itself out in the cinematic representation of violence.

Girard actually made this point about Gibson’s movie, comparing its graphic realism to the work of Renaissance artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Caravaggio. (He doesn’t mention the 20th century Irish artist, Francis Bacon, but Bacon’s visceral crucifixions would surely provide a bridge between Renaissance art and Gibson’s bloody cinema:  Bacon said, “it was just an act of man’s behaviour to another.” )

Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge lacks the teardrop of compassion. (The end of The Passion had a giant one falling from the sky: was it God, the universe or cinema itself which wept?) What Hacksaw does have is the prolonged, death-defying action of the central character, a medic who refuses to carry a gun but carries a bible and bears 75 wounded men to safety during the course of the battle. The movie is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, Seventh Day Adventist who joined the army but refused to carry a weapon. At the end of the movie Doss, himself seriously wounded, is lowered on a stretcher from the ridge. The camera pans below the body as it is stretched out in the sky above. It is a moment of gospel transcendence, the photon of compassion.

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

These two movies are scintilla of that sign, glimmering in the semiotic sky of the movies.

Resurrection in a Time of Victims

Resurrection is the beginning of another earth. And another heaven.

Resurrection–despite its general amazement factor as a miracle–has remained the poor relation of gospel theology: e.g. “incarnation” and “atonement.” crucifixion_Francis_Bacon_1933

For “the Second Person of the Trinity” resurrection kind of goes with the territory, and when it comes to dealing with human sin Jesus’ death is what really counts.

To understand the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, we must first make clear that resurrection cannot be separated from the cross. It is the resurrection of the Crucified victim.

See Paul’s famous statement in Philippians.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, being conformed to him in his death, so that I may somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

You see here how entangled are the two themes. The statement is chiastic, with the resurrection at both ends, and the suffering and death as the cross-over in the middle. You cannot separate the two–they are like two twined strands of DNA. search

The Crucified is raised! And we have always to maintain this structural reality: it is the total overturning, through nonviolence, of a death sentence imposed by the powers of this world. Only on this basis can we understand Girard’s famous revelation of the victim. In terms of the gospel, it is only because the Crucified is raised as peace that we know the victim of collective human violence is innocent.

But today because the victim stares us in the face everywhere we continue to forget the structural event that made it happen. We separate the Crucified from Resurrection.

As hinted above, a lot of the blame for this must fall on past theology. In the past the teaching of resurrection was swallowed up by the function of the death. The death, not the resurrection, had exchange value. Jesus’s death was our substitution, not the resurrection. This death was in fact a meaning the world understood–it could deal with it and use it: an exchange with God through violence meant that violence still had a role. So then the resurrection becomes an afterthought, a remainder we are not sure what to do with, despite the fact that one part of the mystery of Christ’s act of redemption makes no structural sense without the other.

The resurrection is the culture of the New Testament in every sense.

The New Testament dwells within the Resurrection. It is unthinkable outside it. Every page, every word vibrates with its pivotal meaning. kellsfol032vchristenthroned

The resurrection of Jesus is a new language of human being. It is a definitively new point of reference in contradiction of the world. It is another fabric of being not dependent on scapegoating and victims.

That is why the early Christians were able to offer forgiveness and nonviolence without a second thought–because they had entered a totally new experience of being human.

It is essential to grasp this. We cannot stop being human beings by mere moral command. We cannot stop collectively scapegoating if our very humanity depends on it, which it does! The only way to stop is if there is a new collective basis of humanity revealed; if the revelation is sufficiently dramatic and shared to make a new community possible. This is resurrection. It is the in-breaking into history of indestructible forgiveness and nonviolence.

Now, with a political triumph of exclusion and othering, resurrection as the basis for new humanity has never been more crucial. The negative half of gospel anthropology–the disclosure of the victim–has taken the world by storm, and everyone now instinctively sides with the victim and claims to be the victim. It is time for the positive half–the resurrection humanity of love and forgiveness–to become equally well known. The whole world can learn this new thing (and in many ways is learning it). But it is surely down to those who claim to be church–Christian community–to show themselves as compelling examples.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that everyone who believes in him shall not be wiped out but have unbounded life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save the world through him.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       resurrection

LOVE’S TIDE

 

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.

GOD’S HONEYCOMB

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.

atom-electrons[1]

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.

th[8]

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?