Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The trouble is...

"This world, I think, has maybe something wrong with it, something underneath. Either that or there's something wrong with me". Delores - Westworld: Dissonance Theory.

One of my Christmas Gifts this year was an exposition of Luke chapter 15, particularly, Jesus' famous parable told to the pious and the lost concerning the mercy of a loving Father towards two very different children. It's been fascinating reading the tome alongside watching the first season of HBO's startling examination of ourselves in the show, Westworld, particularly because I quickly realized that the theological item in question had pretty much entirely 'missed a beat' in its analysis of both ourselves and the wonder of the story from Jesus.

The book commences by seeking to say that Jesus' words were clearly addressed as much to the 'elder brother' (those who didn't see themselves as "sinners") as to the ones who recognized their need for grace, which is true, but the telling point for me in what Jesus says is how the story ends - the Father is entreating the pious son to cease his judgementalism and partake of the goodness of the moment, but there is no response to his request. In like fashion, of course, the scribes and 'teachers' of the law in the gospels principally deny Christ's call and continue to hound and trouble Jesus as He brings the decree of liberty to the lost, pressing their rejection until they gain, apparently, their goal of silencing Him in a cursed extinction at the hands of the Romans. The "wrongness" of the world and the evil beneath it are thus made plain here, and love and mercy are hated and spurned, even when it hangs explicitly before them upon a tree, requesting forgiveness for their violence.

My reason for giving this outline is because the book I've been reading commences by viewing the church today as, principally, a company of those who identify in measure not with the lost son, but with the one who views himself as certainly 'right' in his worth and deeds, hence we cannot reach out to the lost because of being lost in our own piety.

A couple of considerations here.

Luke tells us that there were two particular groups who Jesus addressed with this story. He also gives us this narrative as story 'three of three' in a group that all have a common theme - that which is lost, so the aim and intent in what's told is, no doubt, to convey a single message - to  borrow Delores' analysis in Westworld, there's certainly something wrong with us, that has made us wayward, so we are all indeed lost. The "righteous" son in story three is the story of someone who couldn't see his poverty because he was far too busy measuring up his virtue against that of his wayward brother, so no change was possible here. The wayward son had learned because of his sin that nothing he could do could ever make him worthy to be loved by His Father, but what mattered is that he discovers His Father's 'prodigal' (extravagant to the point of spending all) love in spite of his folly.

Church-goers who think that they are endowed with personal virtue that will keep them in Gods good graces without assistance are indeed inches from the flames, but is that the real problem the church is facing right now?

Jesus also told another parable we need to consider, which is found in Matthew chapter 13, verses 24 to 30, and explained in verses 36 to 43. In a nutshell, where the good news is proclaimed, there will always be 'good seed and bad' - those who truly trust in God's Son for their aid from start to finish and those who are merely treacherous mimics of such, whose intent, as Jesus would have put it, is to make others "twice as fit for hell" as they are themselves. Jesus plainly says this state of affairs will continue "until the end", so we can clearly expect to see both in our churches, but I don't think that is the reason Christians currently have such a difficult time seeking to bring the message of God's love to our world.

Westworld is the creation of one Dr Robert Ford, brilliantly portrayed in the show by Anthony Hopkins. In the first episode, Ford spells out for us the world-view behind his work - we are the result of millions of mistakes, nothing more or less, hence it is these causes that have concluded in us, so the behavior of the 'guests' in his world - to generally be as base as they desire - is predictable and therefore anticipated. What makes the scenario startling is the actions of both the guests and androids that isn't expected, pointing to more going on.

The world-view which so often informs our secular culture is that expressed by this inventor. It's very common now in the West to find the view that we're all just the results of our genes via a process of natural selection, so any notion of God or meaning is looked upon as ridiculous, even when the real state of affairs tells a much bigger story. Most people have accepted an entirely secular view purely because they were 'taught it at school' or by the latest BBC natural history show. The reality is that this one-dimensional perception of the world is fine for fictional shows, but it doesn't deserve to be the touchstone of our understanding of who and what we are.

So, to come back to the church, yes, there clearly can be issues when a "righteousness by pulling your self up by your own boot-straps" becomes the trend (Paul's letter to the Galatians shows us how this can happen and how to rectify this), but the reasons why the message of God's love are widely rejected today are somewhat more involved in respects to how they need to be understood, unpacked and countered. Self-righteousness is, no doubt, ultimately behind all philosophical and religious notions that think we can do it all ourselves, but the first road-block that needs to be removed in modern thinking is people's denial of the very God in whom they live and have life - then we can begin to address the matter of how they are reconciled to that through God's astonishing love.

I'll be interested to see what the rest of my Christmas present has to say about this story - it might even generate another blog post! I'll also be fascinated to see where Westworld seeks to take the question of our identity in its second season.

That 'ol devil called...

Desire, especially sexual desire, often, as Rachel Gilson notes in this great article, takes us on a white-knuckle nightmare between sin and temptation that can leave us in a limbo or paralysis that really doesn't seem like any kind of victory, so is that where we have to stay?

This superb and deeply personal examination says there's more to say, and know, on the subject, and the conclusion she reaches concerning dependence and weakness is one we all need to come to truly comprehend.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Never mind the Skywalker's...

"Luke, we're gonna have company!"
Han Solo - A New Hope.

There's an absolutely silly but deliciously fun moment at the start of the new Star Wars movie, the Last Jedi. It's doesn't involve magic, light sabers, knights or anything beyond straightforward, died in the wall, gall.

The entire rebel alliance is standing on a knife-edge of survival... the latest rendition of the Empire is about to expunge them from existence, and all that stands in their way is a rough, volatile cowboy of a pilot. I won't say what he does, but it's both ridiculous and highly amusing.

It was Poe Dameron's "destiny" to not only jump into Han Solo's shoes in this episode, but to do so with lashings of gusto (hence, Leia's approval), and it underscored the fact that what makes worthwhile 'moments' in any movie is not having beings who can wield all kinds of powers (because you're quickly left thinking why don't they just do "X" and resolve whatever) but those who are truly most like us, who are boldly doing something great one minute, and making a total hash of it the next. That's Poe, whose 'presence' echos through another entire strand of the movie even when he's not on screen, via the deeds of his wacky side-kick, BB8. Poe is also the one who delivers, what for me is the defining line of the entire movie. Paraphrasing  C S Lewis in a row with acting commander Admiral Holdo, Poe states, "if you only believe in the sun in the light, it's no use in the darkness". Lewis, of course, said something similar in respect to Christianity - you believe in it not because you see the Sun, but because by its light you see everything else.

This walking one man triumph and tragedy of a character was the redeeming aspect of this 'christmas' movie. I wasn't made anxious or excited about what Luke or Rey or Kylo or any of the others were going to do (Let's face it, they've already 'got the t-shirt' for much of it); I was amused and "oh-boy"-ing about what Poe was up to, because he was me and you - no hero; just someone embroiled in all this, racing along on a hope that he'd make it back into the sunlight.

Destiny really isn't about us trying to control whatever 'forces' we think are in play, it's far more about facing the mirth and horror as we are, and looking for a helping hand to break in that isn't us. That's why what we celebrate over the next week or so really counts. If we focus on the Gospel accounts of that extraordinary night, when our world, our mess, was visited by the salvation of heaven, then we can come to relax amidst the mess, because the light has truly pierced our darkness. "This is a true and faithful saying", notes Paul, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1;15).

So, keep on flying, for there is a Sun of Righteousness, and allow some time this Christmas to marvel in the precious delight of the radiance of that gift.

A joyous Christmas!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Reaching beyond the memories

"Memories... you're talking about memories".
Dekkard - Blade Runner.

"When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature 
of all flesh that is on the earth".
Genesis 9:6.

Isn't it strange - particularly as we get older - how the past can have such a hold on us. We recall moments, places and especially loved ones with deep affection and often a longing for 'such times' once more. Strange, perhaps, because we know those moments are gone, and yet, something about them still holds us, even defines something of who and what we are.

Recently, I began to realize that they matter because they're actually part of the miracle that is life.

Some of you might recall my recent posting which touched on, what was for me the unequalled cinematic masterpiece this year - Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner movie raised questions about what makes us human, seeking to explore our relationship to how memories often shape us, comfort us, but the new film goes much deeper - a scene in the film's opening section leading to a very different resolution for this story's detective, revolving around the fact that what truly makes "us" distinct and human is no less than a miracle. 

Underpinning all our moments here, we are, on occasion, truly aware that there is more going on. We know, deep inside ourselves, that what we experience and encounter resonates with the truth that we have meaning and value, and when we recall moments which enriched us, we often "hear" and know something of that truth afresh - that's why certain memories are so palpable and so defining.

Christmas is a time when we can choose to participate in what we could think of as a 'collective' memory of a piece of human history that truly defines the term 'miracle'.  Most of us know what the festival is supposed to be about, but we can perhaps forget how it ties in to a much bigger picture of God's relationship to us.

The verse I've quoted above is part of what happens after the flood. Noah has re-committed life to the Lord who has rescued them, and God responds by stating that from now on, there's going to be an ongoing reminder - the rainbow - of this key moment when heaven and earth are re-united by confidence in the mercy and goodness of God.

Notice how God uses this moment as a marker, not only to us, but to Himself, that a moment has been reached where God and humanity will commence life in a new relationship - the bow of heaven reminds us, and God, of this.

Advent is that moment writ large forever.

One of the most gorgeous moments in the new Blade Runner movie is set in the midst of the arrival of snow. It's a moment filled with pain and difficulty, but it's also the dawning of a day of assurance, joy and affection, because everything has changed.

Memories tell us that amongst the trauma, there is something precious to be known. Miracles tell us what is profoundly true about this life, and that is what makes it worthwhile.

God, in Christ, is the promise-keeper, changing this realm by the miracle of His being with us.

Let's recall that goodness in this special season.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Seasonal seasoning (to engage some useful thoughts).

The festive season, when hopefully many children will know the joy I treasured in  those long off days, of entering the realm of Narnia, will soon be upon us, but for those of us a little further on in years, here's a superb piece on how those kind of rich truths can still be a source of wonder and joy this Christmas.  Enjoy!