Iona is a place of invitation
Iona invites you to be at one
both land and sea
both animal and human
Iona is a place of invitation
to love and be loved…
Iona is a place of invitation
Iona invites you to be at one
both land and sea
both animal and human
Iona is a place of invitation
to love and be loved…
Death is a headache.
Death hurts and it is costly.
When you die always remember to remain still, take a deep breath, close your eyes and then reopen them. The headache goes – death passes – time to reboot.
In 2037 virtual death is a headache but the rush of the game is worth it.
The games my parents used to play seem so crude. Two dimensional, flat screen pixels, that look infantile when they are shown at Comic Con or social history classes today. Where is the fun in that, I ask you?
Well, I can only say that 3DVR is as different from looking at rain through a window to going outside and dancing in it. It is real, ‘Three Dimensional Virtual Reality’ is as real as anything can be.
Virtual reality gaming has come a long way since the first clunky headsets were marketed twenty years ago. Who would have imagined then being able to walk down a street and play three dimensional virtual games through an ordinary pair of glasses? Just imagine, one moment you are reading a sign and the next a three dimensional virtual character appears beside you as you are standing there and they look as real as any person. The gaming industry calls them ‘automata’.
How they sorted the licenses out for that I will never know. Times and places are regulated of course, but as soon as governments realised how much money could be made out of virtual reality gaming in public areas their attitude changed from prohibition to regulation.
There are many 3DVR games out there, everything from sport to space, but the most popular is ‘Grand Theft Automata’. Whatever anyone says, crime pays, it certainly pays in the world of virtual reality gaming.
Near where I live there is an old shopping precinct, long since empty, that is now given over to 3DVR gaming. The company who own it rent out costumes and props so you can completely immerse yourself in the game. Last week I played there in co-op mode with some team mates, we pulled up in the precinct and shot the hell out of the place.
It was fantastic!
No wonder the film industry is waning. Who wants to watch movies when you can direct and act in your own?
But recently one of our team members stopped playing.
I asked Garth why and he said something very strange – he said with every update in the game software he was finding it harder to look into the faces of the automata he killed. This was more than the endless debates that have raged on for decades over whether video games make people more violent. Garth was finding it harder to look at the faces of his victims just before killing them. Particularly their eyes, he said.
I lost touch with Garth.
For a while I did not think anything more about what he said. Life – real and virtual – carried on. Going to work and levelling up on my game at home became part of my routine, that was until yesterday. It happened while our team was in co-op mode and we attacked the precinct again as we had done before, but this time it was different.
While emptying a safe I heard a scream. I turned and saw it was a woman crouching in the corner. She was clutching a gun but hesitated to shoot at us. My accomplices shouted, “Shoot her and let’s go!”
And so I did. Why not? It’s only a game character, right?
But in that split second before I pulled the trigger she looked directly at me. Her eyes mesmerized me. They seemed so real I thought I was looking at something more than a hologram – her eyes seemed as though they were alive and wanted to stay that way. Was this thanks simply to a software update? I am not religious but in that moment I swear I was looking at what I can only describe as something with a ‘soul’.
After pulling the trigger I wondered, was something being murdered – in her or in me?
I don’t play games anymore, not virtual ones anyway because I have seen too much. Instead I meet up with Garth and we take to the streets without the aid of 3DVR.
The world is no longer enhanced by a pair of 3D graphical interface glasses but strangely enough my vision seems less impaired. Garth and I may stand out and some may laugh.
But that’s okay.
I don’t miss the headaches…
‘Fizhtales’ are my own stories inspired by the cyberculture which continues to shape the world we live in. I like to think of Fizhtales as ‘cyberparables’ written as a reflection on some of the moral and spiritual questions that cyberculture presents to each of us today.
‘3DVR: A Fizhtale’ Copyright © 2017 cyberfizh
‘Westworld’ is one of my favourite science fiction films from the 1970’s. Drawing its influence from the ‘imagineering’ theme parks and animatronics of Walt Disney, this was Michael Crichton’s first cautionary tale of a theme park going into meltdown that would later evolve into the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise.
But it is also more than that. In an article by Emily Asher-Perrin the author has written:
The moral implications of creating humanoid robots complete with Artificial Intelligence have since been explored in such cult classics as ‘Bladerunner’ and with the continuing progress of technology accompanied by a lack of progress in human nature it seems as though the questions raised in ‘Westworld’ are more pertinent than ever. Indeed it is no coincidence that HBO have recently released a new television series from this franchise.
‘Westworld’ challenges us to think about the value of human life and whether sentient beings should be treated as objects of pleasure?
We have to acknowledge that some human beings have treated other human beings as nothing more than ‘objects’ for pleasure or profit. This is true historically and even now, for example, slave trafficking continues to the present day. Dr Molefi Kete Asante stated in a Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture in 2007:
Historic arguments of whether African slaves possessed souls amid European academics of the eighteenth century resonates to a degree with the speculation of science fiction writers today concerning artificial intelligence becoming self aware and thus possessing rights and dare it even be said, a ‘soul’?
The question remains – Should sentient beings be treated as objects of pleasure?
Although we may be a long way from creating an adult theme park in which we might imagine that humanoid robots have rights, the world of video gaming is coming ever closer to meeting the darkest fantasies of our human nature.
I am not a prude about video games but they have come a long way since the days I used to queue at fairgrounds to play ‘Space Invaders’ as a young boy. Although it is in its infancy, ‘virtual reality’ gaming is now a marketable commodity in the living room and is sure to develop just as mobile phones have developed exponentially in the past two decades.
Although the inspiration for ‘Westworld’ may have come from Disneyland it seems that virtual reality will bring the moral issues of this cult classic closer to home sooner than we may imagine. ‘Westworld’ is virtually here and it beckons the question of how this may affect our moral compass as human beings as virtual gaming develops and becomes more accessible. Paul Tassi puts it like this in a recent article:
In a Storymen podcast on ‘The Theology of Westworld’, a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Minister discuss the dehumanising effect of a theme park with no moral rules and the implications of this on the human spirit. Technology is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool. But technology often raises moral questions as to what it can empower us to do.
When mobile phones first became accessible nobody envisioned the moral debates we would have about social media over mobile phones today. To that degree most people would agree that mobile phones have not only changed in themselves in the past twenty years but have radically changed the way we communicate and function as human beings. Studies have shown for example, how these technologies stimulate dopamine within the human brain and the addictive behaviour that can incite.
As we are witnessing the birth of virtual reality gaming on a viable commercial basis in the domestic market, some questions emerge in my mind on the future of this technology:
‘Magic Moments’ sung by Perry Como in 1957 is a song we might associate with Christmas as it was once used to sell ‘Quality Street’ chocolates in Christmas advertisements on British television.
Christmas is a magic moment that we may long to capture. Trees, lights, cards, presents, food, decorations – all geared towards capturing the magic moment of Christmas.
The trouble is maybe we carry a lot of other stuff as well – overloaded – and not with presents. Tired? Troubled? Preoccupied with worries, so that the magic moment of Christmas feels, perhaps – just out of reach…
Part of the problem might well be our upbringing. From an early age we are presented with the idea that Christmas is a time for children. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the wonder and excitement that children bring to Christmas is brilliant, but it is not the whole picture of Christmas, and it reinforces the idea that Christmas is something you grow out of.
I can understand why and that children’s nativity plays cannot contain the complex threads of the original Christmas story. What do I mean? Well, you only have to read the Bible for yourself to get the salient points:
Christmas is hardly a children’s story!
For all the right reasons we protect children from the harshness of these details but for all the wrong reasons we forget what Christmas has to say to our adult world as we sentimentalise it. Sadly, that is only too clear when the bad things in life happen: bereavement, illness, redundancy, homelessness, fighting…
I think this is made worse during the Christmas season by the common misunderstanding that we may feel we have to be jolly for a whole month of the year. Do you know how hard it is to be jolly all the time?
I can’t do it!
Have you ever had that experience of groaning when somebody says something like, “Cheer up, it’s Christmas!” Which is perhaps one of the worse things in the world to say to someone when they are down, for whatever reason.
All the anxieties of real life that have no room in our jolly commercial Christmasses but are exactly the reason why God came to us when we think about it:
For the writers of the Gospels, Christmas is more than a capturing of childhood wonder, or a season to be artificially jolly – Christmas is about a future yet to be born.
That is what provides the wonder and the joy. And for those in the nativity who can see that, they discover a magic moment – even though it looks to the rest of the world like just another poor baby whose parents can’t even provide him with a bed for the night.
This year I went on a mindfulness course for clergy in Dorset. Mindfulness is a form of ancient meditation increasingly gaining credibility in medical circles. Basically it teaches the art of being in the present moment and seeing everything and everyone potentially as a gift.
In other words, a ‘magic moment’.
Although this might be easy to scoff at, the more I hear on the news of…
…let alone all the other things happening in our world – the more I firmly believe that we need to cultivate the art of discovering ‘magic moments’. We certainly need to do something. Because what we are doing is literally making us ill and killing us, and our world.
For me as a Christian it all begins at Christmas in a manger with a homeless baby and shepherds and magi and angels saying, ‘There…”
“There is a magic moment – see it for all it’s worth – it could just change your life, and help change the world.”
However much we dress up the nativity with tinsel and fairy lights, we cannot hide the real light that shines from the manger. Magic moments are not just to be discovered in church at Christmas, but in your life in the world – each day.
Magic moments – like gifts, inviting us to receive them…
“Love was as hardwired into the structure of the universe as gravity and matter.” (Dan Simmons)
Dan Simmons is an American science-fiction writer whose works often include themes of history, fantasy, religion and horror. Simmons is mainly known for his novels such as the Hugo award winning ‘Hyperion’ (1989), ‘Ilium’ (2003), and its sequel ‘Olympos’ (2005).
In these particular works Simmons cleverly interweaves the storylines from more classic writings such as Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in ‘Hyperion, and Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ in ‘Ilium’ and ‘Olympos’. If you are not familiar with any of the works of Dan Simmons then an in-depth introduction of ‘Olympos’ is provided below by www.thescifichristian.com.
An abiding question in ‘Olympos’ is ‘What does it mean to be human?’
This is a question older than Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. Within Homer’s culture of Ancient Greece that question was not only explored intellectually via epic stories but physically through the Olympic games. Beginning in Olympia 2700 years ago the original games honoured the Greek gods, they were as much a religious and political statement, as well as a sporting celebration of human prowess.
Today the Olympic games may not honour the Greek gods but they can still be emotive when combined with political issues and as such may confront us unexpectedly with the perennial question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’
We have a clear example of this in in the current Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before the games began riots erupted in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in protest of the wealth of resources invested in the Olympic games in contrast to the absolute poverty typified in the city’s favelas. Furthermore, the recurring scandal surrounding the drug testing of athletes prior to the games compounds the whole question of the purpose of the games themselves. For critics it literally begs the question, ‘What on Earth are we doing?’ Or more fundamentally ‘What does it mean to be human?’
To some degree ‘Olympos’ is a morality tale reflecting on the human desire to be ‘god-like’. This is a common thread within the genre of science-fiction explored for example in films ranging from ‘Metropolis’ (1927) to ‘Elysium’ (2013), the latter of which was performed literally in the contrasting locations of Mexico City and Vancouver. All of these stories try to address in varying degrees some of the issues we now see played out in the stadiums and streets of Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic games.
However, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics this year have been noted for displaying far more of a social conscience. The darker aspects of Brazil’s history, including slavery, were acknowledged. Concerns over deforestation and environmental issues were clearly displayed within the performances. For the first time this year there is even an Olympic team consisting entirely of refugees. In that sense the games are not trying to be a mere distracting spectacle to ‘appease the gods’ but a focusing point on what we should be striving for as human beings.
In his letters in the New Testament Saint Paul also used the imagery of sporting games as a platform to ask the question what we should be striving for, (eg: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 & 2 Timothy 7:4-8). Being a person of faith requires commitment and perseverance just like that required of any athlete. We will falter unless we remain focused on what we are seeking to attain.
But what is the prize?
Yet again the Olympic games have surfaced many questions. For me they are typified in the statue of Christ standing over the city of Rio de Janeiro watching our triumphs and tragedies unfold as much in the city streets as in the stadium. He stands in silence but his arms are outstretched.
I agree with Dan Simmons. I believe that love is hardwired into the structure of the universe as much as gravity and matter. A love that lies at the heart of everything and everyone and ultimately comes from the heart of God. A love that knows no bounds and that once discovered we cannot help but share in our actions and not just in words. Or as Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
What does it mean to be human?
Whether we choose to explore this question through sport or science-fiction I believe the answer remains timeless and the same:
Go for gold in attaining that Love.
I was raised on Rich Tea biscuits.
That is not exactly true but certainly some of my favourite childhood memories are of eating Rich Tea biscuits at my grandmother’s house and the secret she shared with me that they tasted even better when dunked in tea. It is a memory I treasure and one that still prompts me to search for the Rich Tea biscuits when shopping.
Treasure comes in many forms – or what I call ‘Rich T’.
Recently we have been reminded by the news of personal memories captured and shared on social media from 2014. Memories of a common experience across the world that raised money for research into the degenerative disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Treasured memories raising ‘treasure’ in what was called the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’.
You may have taken part in this challenge yourself. Whether you did or not the point has been made that what seemed like a trivial gesture via social media actually made a difference. Research done through money raised by the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ has made a breakthrough in the treatment of ALS.
For those of us who are wary of social media, and often for good reason, this is something worth remembering. The point is concisely made by Imtiaz Ali when he writes on the positive and negative effects of social media:
“Another positive impact of social networking sites is to unite people on a huge platform for the achievement of some specific objective. This is very important to bring positive change in society.”
Social media is a mirror which reflects what we choose to treasure – our ‘Rich T’. Whether inward or outward looking, social media provides a statement of what we choose to value.
That theme of choice is a point powerfully made in the film ‘Rush’ from 2013. The film retells the true story of James Hunt winning the Formula One Grand Prix in Japan in 1976. Hunt’s main rival through the film, Nicki Lauda, has to make a significant decision which in essence is based upon what he truly values – winning the Grand Prix or being with the woman he loves.
I am reminded of the words of Jesus when he says:
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Whether you are a Christian or not I think there is much to think about in this sentence. It is a theme repeated in the parables of Jesus, including the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price and the Parable of the Rich Fool. Both ask a simple question:
The Romans had a saying, “Money is like sea water, the more you drink the thirstier you become.” Beyond that which provides for basic needs the majority of people in the developed world have a considerable amount of choice. However trivial the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ may be considered, there is treasure within it. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ is a true saying but ask yourself this – is it ice? It may not lie within ice buckets but what will lead to true riches in the choices that we make?
Treasure comes in many forms and social media will only reflect the truth already lying within us. Therefore we only need to ask one simple, timeless question:
Maybe it is time to look from a different point of view.
There is a Cherokee story of a grandfather teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” said the grandfather to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandfather then added, “The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about this and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather replied,
“The one you feed.”
Perhaps the most concise film introduction to a fictional political thriller that I have seen is ‘The Kingdom’ directed by Peter Berg and released in 2007. The film explores the complex relationship of the United States and Saudi Arabia through the 20th century and post 9/11. Although the film had mixed reviews I think the introductory titles are worth watching. But even before the discovery of oil Western culture has always had a fascination with the Middle East.
Earlier in the 20th century the controversial figure ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ captured the popular imagination in the West via his exploits in the Arabian desert, dramatised through newspapers, books, and films. Michael Asher, a former SAS soldier, once retraced Lawrence’s epic journeys in his book ‘Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia’. At one point Asher writes in appreciation but also critically of Lawrence:
“Although Lawrence genuinely tried to see things from an Arab point of view, and did so more successfully than most, his technique of ’empathy’ remained a method of control. He believed the traditional Arabs morally superior to Europeans because they were ‘primitive’ and therefore ‘innocent,’ but not intellectually so. The reality of his privileged position was stated frankly when he wrote: ‘Really this country, for the foreigner, is too glorious for words: one is really the baron in the feudal system.'”
Trying to comprehend the turbulent relationship that the West has had with the Middle East may help us to understand how this influences the relationship of Christianity with Islam. Thoughts may quickly race to the period in history known as the Crusades. This will often be a starting point for many people, but it does not have to be the end. For example, amid the strife of the Fifth Crusade a little-known true story of hope can be found.
If you were asked to think of Saint Francis of Assisi you would probably picture a medieval saint, dressed as a monk in a brown habit, and surrounded by animals. Unfortunately this caricature does not reveal the depth of character of this revolutionary Christian who had a profound interfaith encounter with a Muslim during the time of the Fifth Crusade:
“In 1219 an encounter took place between a Christian from Italy, Francis of Assisi, and the Islamic Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik-al-Kamil. This meeting took place at Damietta in northern Egypt during the progress of the Fifth Crusade. Over a period of perhaps three weeks, religious dialogue took place between Francis and Al-Kamil, after which time the Sultan had Francis escorted safely back to the Christian camp. It is possible to discern from the writings of Francis after his return from Egypt that the meeting had a deep religious impact upon him in the latter years of his life. It can be said that both Francis and al-Kamil experienced through their encounter what the Christian theologian Bernard Lonergan has spoken of as a conversion into a new horizon. The historical encounter between Francis and the Sultan witnesses to the fact that through religious conversion, it is possible for members of different religious faiths to arrive at a common vision of universal peace and reconciliation.”
Which is the wolf we are feeding?
The story of St. Francis and the Sultan is a salutary reminder not to demonise whole peoples due to the terrible acts of individuals or groups driven to violence. Even before the recent and tragic events in France and Germany in the past week or so, social media has empowered us to provide immediate responses in the public domain to such acts, including those denouncing religion as a ‘primary motivation for violence’ from which we need to be freed.
Although this is an understandable reaction the truth is that motivations often tend to be far more complex and involve a number of factors. This is something I have briefly tried to illustrate in the examples provided in the relationship between the West and the Middle East. And although the British scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, has publicly denounced religion, there is evidence that suggests that only 7% of all wars in history have truly been caused by religion.
Totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin in the 20th century have been far more lethal in the eradication of human life for the sake of political ideology. It is generally agreed that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people. It seems we will always find a reason to kill one another, with or without God.
I accept it is easy for me in the comfort of my home and cocooned within the security of a western-liberal democracy to make these statements. I also appreciate that political and religious extremism of whatever kind not only exists but demands our attention in the 21st century. But extremism is simply that – most people in the world want to live an ordinary life. That is important to remember and to communicate to one another too.
I believe we are all ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). Whether that is your belief or not we still have a mutual responsibility to engage with that which appears to be in juxtaposition to all that we are. Whatever our creed, ethnicity, or culture, we have the ability to communicate and potentially co-operate with one another like never before.
But will we?
Which is the wolf we are feeding?
Whatever we say –
our children will live with the answer…
Choice lies in our hands…
It all began on Facebook.
In Minnesota, USA, a young African-American woman was describing through live video feed how her boyfriend had been shot and killed by a white American police officer who had stopped them initially for a faulty break light on their car.
It escalated into the murder of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper during ensuing peaceful protests.
In less than a week it was captured in what some describe as an ‘iconic’ photograph by Jonathan Bachman going viral on social media, depicting the contrast between the lightly clothed Ieshia Evans and heavily armoured police in Baton Rouge.
At the heart of these related events a timeless question emerges:
Who is my neighbour?
Social media is nothing more than a mirror on human nature. For all our advancements in communications technology it seems we still have a deep and sometimes dangerous fear of those different from ourselves. We have an unparalleled freedom to communicate which also provides a platform to amplify our fears of all that is ‘other’.
Who is my neighbour?
This question was once posed to Jesus who responded with what is called the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’. Jesus did not invent parables but he did use them to great effect. A parable is literally something “cast alongside” something else. Jesus’ parables were usually “cast alongside” a situation in order to illustrate a truth.
The phrase, ‘Good Samaritan’, is still used and generally understood to mean someone who goes out of their way to help someone. That being said, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be misunderstood. It may be reduced to a story of showing kindness or we may think of the volunteer organisation, ‘The Samaritans’. But in Jesus’ day Samaritans were hated and feared.
Who were the original Samaritans?
Samaritans were related to Jews but due to historic events were racially different to some degree and accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. They once built a temple on Mount Gerizim to rival that of Jerusalem. But about 200 years before Jesus was born, a Jewish reformer destroyed it. Then around 6 BCE Samaritan activists scattered human bones in the temple in Jerusalem, desecrating it. There was open hostility. Most Jews practised a kind of apartheid to avoid Samaria ‑ a convention Jesus broke (John 4:1-42). So let’s revisit this story to discern what Jesus really said about who is our neighbour.
What does it mean to live a good life?
In essence that is the question that is asked of Jesus which we are told in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) prompted him to reply with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Loving God and neighbour is the verbatim reply of the questioner based upon Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 but it is clear it is an unthinking response. This is underlined by his next question, “And who is my neighbour?” At which point Jesus tells the parable.
In the parable a man travels on the Jerusalem to Jericho road. Jerusalem is 3,000 feet above sea level. Jericho is 1,000 feet below sea level. This is a steep road. Its geography provides ideal hideouts for robbers. Part of the route is nicknamed ‘Ascent of Blood’ and was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Unsurprisingly the traveller falls among robbers. But they didn’t just rob him. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead.
What is going to happen next?
I once knew a person who coined a phrase, ‘PLU’, meaning ‘People Like Us’. In essence the first two people to find the victim are ‘People Like Us’: respectable, God-fearing people, who obey the law and practise common-sense. In the context of the story the religious law forbade Jesus’ contemporaries to touch a body that to them probably appeared to be dead. Worse, it may even have been a trap on this notorious road, similar today to people stopping to assist an individual in distress and then being mugged by the rest of a gang in hiding. Therefore both PLU’s in the story pass the victim by.
What would you do?
Will anyone do what is needed?
The idea of a Samaritan being a good neighbour to a Jew would stun those listening to Jesus. This is the punch line. The one who stops and helps is a Samaritan – neighbours are not by default those who are PLU’s but those who dare risk compassion. The question, “Who is my neighbour?” is answered by Jesus that it just might be:
“The last person you would want living next door to you.”
The one to love is the one we are not loving. From Samaria to Baton Rouge: if Jesus were to tell us this story today, who would be the Samaritan for us?
Who is my neighbour?
The world still longs for an answer in more than just words. Like the victim in the parable lying on the road, needing more than a prayer. There is only one answer and always has been – from our neighbourhoods to our ‘Global Village’:
Be the neighbour you long to meet.
Or as Jesus said at the end of his story, “Go and do likewise.”
Steve Jobs was once asked where the name for Apple Incorporated came from. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs written in 2011, Jobs is quoted to have said:
“I was on one of my fruitarian diets…I had just come back from the apple farm. It sounded fun, spirited, and not intimidating. Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer.’ Plus, it would get us ahead of Atari in the phonebook.”
Earlier in the book the author deflates one of the myths associated with the Apple name:
“At one point I emailed to ask if it was true, as my daughter had told me, that the Apple logo was an homage to Alan Turing, the British computer pioneer who broke the German wartime codes and then committed suicide by biting into a cyanide-laced apple. He [Steve Jobs] replied that he wished he had thought of that, but hadn’t.”
What’s in a name?
A great deal as the above stories illustrate. From the baptisms I have conducted I know that parents sometimes go to great lengths to choose a name for their child and according to the Bible the first job given to the first human being, Adam, was to name the animals. (Genesis 2:20) Even Jesus was not averse to giving his followers nicknames such as ‘Peter the Rock’. (Matthew 16:18)
Names therefore have the ability to be creative, inclusive, affirming. But names used negatively have the ability to do the complete opposite and become destructive, exclusive, undermining. Names have power to build up and break down. From pet names, to nick names, to rude names – we learn the power of names from the playground upwards.
In the Bible names were also understood to have power and to know someone’s name was in some way to have power over them. This may sound strange but if we think of how acutely aware we all are in our own age of ‘identity theft’ then perhaps this idea may not seem quite so unusual after all. Names existed not only in the physical but in the spiritual realm. And it is with that idea in mind that we come to a story often called ‘The Gerasene Demoniac’. (Mark 5:1-20 & Luke 8:26-39)
Significantly this story doesn’t ever tell us what the man’s real name was. I’m sure the Gerasenes had some names for him. Like ‘that crazy guy who lives in the cemetary.’, or ‘demon possessed.’ Such possession is part of common experience still in some parts of the world, but in the West it is more difficult for people to accept. However, I find that more people believe in the supernatural, whether they are religious or not, than may admit – it’s just that it is generally one of those things we don’t talk about. Behind that probably lies the fear that we may be made fun of, illustrated by such comedies as ‘Rev’.
So let’s picture the story of the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’.
Like some horror movie the story begins with the disciples crossing a stormy sea and nearly drowning. They reach Gentile territory, that is non-Jewish, (ie) people not like them but instead to be avoided, even feared. A passage possibly referred to is from Isaiah 65:2-5. Here are characterised the outcast of God as living in tombs and eating pig’s flesh, so it is interesting to wonder whether the gospels want us to draw conclusions as to what sort of person the demoniac is. ‘Beyond the Pale’, might be a more modern phrase?
This is a foreign and dangerous place, where the demoniac lives howling among the tombs. Jesus commands the demons to come out, and sends them into a herd of pigs that stampede over a cliff. For the man they were possibly a visible sign of his exorcism. All stuff that even if it does not sound scary by today’s horror standards – does at least sound strange.
Quite rightly, people struggle with this story. Some have said there might be political undertones relating to the occupation of Israel by the Romans. We should take note of the demons being named “Legion” (a legion being a Roman term for 6,000 soldiers), suggesting a symbolic defeat by Jesus in the stampeding pigs who run off the edge of a cliff? If you wish to explore the political overtones of this story an excellent starting place is ‘Binding the Strong Man’ by Ched Myers’.
But of course we may have other names for the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ today. Names like ‘Paranoid Schizophrenic’. And that in some ways may be even more difficult to address than the supernatural. Mental illness is one of the last social taboos in this country – which is ironic because at least one in four of us in the United Kingdom will suffer a mental health issue in our lifetime.
Some of the stigma that surrounds mental health issues is probably connected to the fact that behaviour is often altered and no visible physical signs can usually be seen, such as in the case of a broken leg or someone who is blind. This may disturb us deeply because we may associate this with a loss of ‘self’. Personally I have found the slow disintegration of Hal’s mind, the computer in the classic film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, far more moving than perhaps it was originally intended to be.
The relationship between mental health issues and the new challenges presented to us due to technological change is worth noting at this point. ‘iDisorder’ is the title of a book and a theory by research psychologist, Dr. Larry Rosen. Rosen explores the common desire for many people to constantly remain ‘connected’ through their smartphones and other communication devices. In the final chapter of ‘iDisorder’, Rosen says:
“…many of us are on the verge of an iDisorder as our daily interactions with media technologies may be imbuing us with signs and symptoms of one of many psychological disorders… Luckily for us, our brains are constantly changing. Neuroscientists call this ‘neuroplasticity,’ which is basically a constant process of strengthening and weakening neural (nerve cell) connections in the brain as a function of our experiences…. Given that our brains are inundated with stimuli all day long and that the digital content currently available in our world is the equivalent to everyone in the world tweeting or blogging constantly for a century, neuroplasticity is a brain-saver.”
Are we in a healthy place?
The ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ is not some arcane story from the past, indeed it may have much to say to us today. Let us remember that instead of calling this poor man names, Jesus asks, “What is your name?” Let’s think about that for a moment. Everyone was spending a lot of time calling the man in this story names. Yet they didn’t bother trying to name his problem. Jesus was able to see past the labels, name the real problem, then help the man.
The uniqueness of Jesus was in his understanding and practice of healing as revealing and releasing God’s creative and loving Spirit to act upon the moral, mental and physical illnesses of the people and the community around him. Even today, we spend a lot of time labelling people. We name people all the time, whether we admit it or not. But it is good to remember the first thing that Jesus asks is, “What is your name?”
So just what is in a name?
When dealing with demons it’s everything. Those who have dealt with demons of every kind, including addictions will tell you that admitting and naming the problem is half the solution. Naming the demon is the first step in controlling it and being freed from it. Too often we cannot name our own demons – we need help. Naming demons means recognising we are not in control, that we are not as strong and self sufficient as we wish to portray we are – or feel we are expected to be.
What’s in a name?
I don’t fully know – but I need to think about it the next time I’m tempted to label someone. The name of the illness does not become their name. ‘Legion’ may not have remained as the man’s name. And just think what a significant thing it is to change your name. How often do we do that? Usually when something life-changing has happened. Healing then becomes more than the restoration of mental or physical health. It is nothing less than a new dignity and identity. A reconciliation within the self and often with God, that acts as a sign of hope.
What’s in a name? New life – potentially.
What’s your answer?
I wonder if you have a favourite Doctor Who?
Mine is John Pertwee, with his yellow vintage car, ‘Bessie’. It is amazing to think that this famous Time Lord has been on our television sets for over 50 years.
We only have to double that number to 100 to bring us to the date being remembered today – 1st July 1916. In the United Kingdom and beyond, this date is being remembered in services and silence as the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
The British Army suffered huge losses – 19,240 on the first day alone. The tragedy of the Somme marked something of a ‘sea change’ in the British nation’s attitude to ‘The Great War’ or World War One. Arguably the war that continues to define our modern age. One reason being the enormous, industrial scale, of killing that took place.
I have already quoted some numbers and they can be hard to comprehend. But the soldiers who died in World War One on the British and Commonwealth side alone was brought home to me in the poppies seen around the Tower of London in 2014. A vast field of red ceramic flowers, 888,246 poppies, each representing a life. I saw it with my youngest son and together with the crowds of visitors we found it humbling, moving, breath-taking.
Trying to take in the scale of this may feel like like trying to comprehend time itself. For some years I was a chaplain for a local branch of the Royal British Legion. What helped me comprehend some of the significance of Remembrance Sundays and other events were personal stories amid the vast statistics of destruction.
One of them was Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ – a name fondly given to him by the soldiers. Armed only with a packet of cigarettes and his faith, he dwelt among them. I am not promoting smoking but the cigarettes helped relieve their battle stress, was a rare comfort along with his listening ear, and Woodbine Willie helped the soldiers cope with unimaginable horrors each day.
I believe it was for them something of a ‘communion’. A special word for Christians. But a word that simply means, ‘common unity’ or ‘deep fellowship’. Woodbine Willie shared that fellowship in the trenches, and made God known through what he shared. Eventually Woodbine Willie was awarded the Military Cross with this citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”
One story – amid a vast field of memories. One that reminds me we can make a difference in what may feel like a sea of chaos and sacrifice. There are so many stories that could be shared, but there is not enough time. Silence is probably best, even if it is only for 2 minutes. But 2 minutes can feel like a lot, just as 100 years can feel like very little. Time is relative.
We are not Time Lords. We cannot change history. But we can learn from it. That is the message I once shared at a Remembrance Sunday service where there were many young people and families present. Remembering these events is not about glorifying them but trying to avoid the terrible mistake of repeating them. That is why we should never forget the sacrifices made.
We have no time machine to make things right, but we can share what Woodbine Willie shared in the trenches – faith.
We cannot change the past 100 years, but we can learn from it and faithfully shape the future. ‘Tomorrow’ is a precious gift that the words of the Kohima Epitaph remind us, has been entrusted to us by those who gave their ‘today’.
Thanks to them the future is ours. Time is in our hands. In that sense we can be ‘Time Lords’. So let me just say this: “Travel well.”