Brief Encounter(s)

I want to talk about brief encounters. Not ‘Brief Encounter’ the 1945 classic British film scripted by Noel Coward and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But the brief encounters we experience and that Jesus experienced in the gospels. Brief and potentially life changing. They may not be romantic, like the classic film, but they certainly can touch deep feelings. Brief, rollercoaster encounters, just like the roller coaster music by Rachmaninov, the theme music for ‘Brief Encounter’ at Noel Coward’s request.

We begin with an extraordinary encounter that Jesus had with a woman who was very distressed, weighed down with a burden that many of us may relate to. Her little child was sick. In the gospel (Mark 7:24-36) the little girl is described as being possessed of a demon, and no further explanation is given. Whether it was a spiritual distress that she was manifesting with some kind of physical and psychological side effects, we do not know. The point is not the affliction itself but the burden of the mother, and where she should turn? She had numerous obstacles to face apart from the affliction of her daughter. What are the obstacles we are told in the story?

1. GEOGRAPHY

Tyre and Sidon were Roman seaports, places full of ‘foreigners’. And this woman is of mixed ethnic origin from that area. You only have to look at the British press about Brexit to see that issues of border and race are still hot topics for human beings today.

2. HISTORY

To this day the Herodian mountain fortress of Masada represents the Jewish struggle for autonomy culminating in its siege by the Romans in 73CE. But even at the time of Jesus and predating him there were zealous movements for independence such as the Maccabean Revolt. Then the Jews fought against the Seleucids. Tyre and Sidon were on the wrong side of that revolt, fighting not with the Jews, but against them. People can have long memories, and the Jews had long memories about Tyre and Sidon.

3. RELIGION

Not only that, but this Syro-Phoenecian woman was a Gentile, not even a Jew.  At this time Jews referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. And there is also a fourth obstacle, she’s a…

4. WOMAN

Not only Judiasm can be found wanting when it comes to world religions modelling questionable attitudes. In this instance every Jewish male in the first century prayed a prayer on a daily basis that gave thanks to God that they were not created as a woman. Now perhaps we can just begin to imagine how difficult it was for this woman to come to Jesus? We can imagine some of the feelings, understand some of the obstacles, that are behind this brief encounter, when Jesus says, “It is not right to cast the children’s bread and give it to dogs.”

I cringe when I read this.

I know I am not the only one who gets uncomfortable because there is a great amount of debate amongst biblical scholars about what exactly Jesus meant. Some will say he was trying to test her. Others will say we aren’t translating this quite right, Jesus really called her a little dog, more like a puppy. But everywhere else in the culture of the time being referred to as a dog was a great insult. So what are we to make of this? What we may have here is a story that anyone who knows the Old Testament would understand. This is the story of God who changes his mind through the heartfelt petitions of one person.

There are several stories like this in the Old Testament: Abraham pleads to God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Moses pleads to God for the Israelites in Exodus 32. And following in that vein in the gospels we have this Syro-Phoenecian woman pleading to Jesus, the Son of God, for her daughter. Heartfelt petitions that eventually move Jesus and result in the girl’s healing. Maybe many feel God doesn’t really listen, let alone change his mind. But the Bible very much has that understanding. God’s relationship with people changes and progresses – just as Jesus’ attitude to this woman changes and progresses as a result of this brief encounter.

passion-3111303_1920We have no problem at Christmas in Jesus being born and obviously learning to walk and talk as any child would. We learn through our lives and maybe it’s at this point that Jesus learns no longer to call Gentiles dogs as he had clearly been brought up to by his kinsfolk? We must consider why Jesus would lead this mother through a humbling and difficult process before granting her request. While his response does seem harsh, the lesson of persistent faith displayed through a time of testing is a common theme in the Bible. We also know that Jesus’ mission does go to the Gentiles. For Jesus, could that mission have become clear in his mind from the moment of this brief encounter?

We will never know.

We are told instead of another healing in the seaport of Sidon where Jesus heals a deaf and mute man. The healing echoes Isaiah 35:5, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Mark probably includes this encounter to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. The first brief encounter Jesus had in Tyre with the Syro-Phoenecian woman, shows that he is not the Messiah that Israel may have expected. His mission is wider, and maybe Jesus sees this for himself in her response and the obstacles that she was prepared to overcome. Jesus appears to change his attitude, just as God in the Old Testament appears sometimes, to change His.

And healing begins.

With the deaf, mute man, it begins with the Aramaic word Jesus said and preserved for all time by his followers – ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be Opened’. Which represents not just the healing of the man but a command  – Be Opened. But opened from what? I wonder if you have ever experienced a time when an attitude either changed or did not change – and healing either happened or did not happen? Perhaps Mark includes these stories for this purpose, to challenge us? We may never have called a person a ‘dog’ but what have we done? What attitudes have we, either formed or inherited, or passed on? What do we need to be opened to?

human-rights-3805188_1920These questions are all the more pertinent in our present age of brief encounters through social media. The brief encounters we have with people, real and virtual, can be either destructive or creative. The choice is ours as to what they may bring, just as it was for Jesus. From the gospels we know what Jesus chose, and at great cost to himself. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, his choices not only defined himself but the history of the world. But what will we choose in our brief encounters?

That is the question only we can answer, and our answers will not only define us but the world that is yet to be.

 

Saint George and the Dragon Age: Hic Sunt Dracones

CS Lewis

C.S. Lewis, famous for ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’, stated in one of his non-fictional works,  ‘Mere Christianity’,

‘The moment you wake up, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in listening to that other voice, that point of view, letting that other stronger, quieter life come flowing in.’

In other words, our path toward being fully human involves a recognition each day that we are not the centre of the universe. The trouble is we live in a culture that tells us that we are and that we should always get what we want. We are all consumers now relating to everything in terms of consumption – not just shopping, but education, health care, and religion. But being a consumer is not the height of what it means to be human.

animal-1861504_1280I am reminded of this on Saint George’s Day – 23rd April – the day dedicated to the patron saint of England.  We probably know the story about the knightly George and the dragon. But what do we know about the real George?

All we know is that George, or Georgios, was born around 270 BCE, probably in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey), not England. At the age of 17 he entered the service of the Emperor Diocletian as a Roman soldier.

Diocletian was for most of his reign tolerant of religious minorities, but around the turn of the century public opinion blamed the refusal of Christians to participate in pagan sacrifices for a series of unfavourable events and omens, and the Emperor ordered all Christians to conform to the Roman sacrificial system or else lose their positions. Those opposed to Christianity pressed for punishment, and an Oracle from Apollo at Didyma was widely interpreted as calling for the suppression of Christians. So on 24th February 303 BCE Diocletian’s ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. A spate of persecutions followed, and many Christians died including George the Roman soldier and Christian martyr.

The Roman historian Eusebius, writing twenty years later, spoke of a soldier who was executed on 23rd April 303 BCE for this act. George was identified with Eusebius’s soldier, which is why Saint George is remembered on 23rd April to this day.

There are numerous theories of why Saint George is depicted with a dragon in Christian iconography. One theory suggests that the Roman soldier, George, refused to kneel before an image of a dragon or a serpent – possibly on a Roman Standard – and that this is where the story of ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ originates.

But even stories possess truth and allow us to explore the truth within ourselves. C.S. Lewis knew this, exploring the truth of his Christian faith through ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as much as he did through any of his theological writings or radio broadcasts. Lewis’s friend J.R.R.Tolkien held to a similar principle in his writings that revolved around his famous trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Role playing games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and digital versions such as ‘Dragon Age’ have built upon these stories and developed them for our own age. All of them in some ways look back to earlier stories such as ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. And in that story George had to face a question. Was he the centre of his own universe or was their something more worth defending? A dragon that needed defeating? The real George faced the dragon by refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

George would probably have remained a saint principally revered in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia had it not been for the Crusades. The crusaders journeys introduced them to the icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and they were impressed by the depictions of the courageous soldier-saint slaying a dragon and rescuing a damsel in distress.

They simply did not understand how the symbolism of iconography works, and that George’s dragon stood for evil, or perhaps Diocletian, and the beautiful princess for Christianity, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or for the Church itself. Not knowing how to interpret what they saw, they produced their own interpretations.

Sadly, this expressed itself in the crusades with acts of violence under the guise of ‘knightly valour’ and today Saint George is hijacked by extreme English nationalistic tendencies in some quarters. If only they knew who the real George, or Giorgios, was.

But if we can strip away the layers of legend we are still left with a little pinch of truth. George, the Christian who stood up to something terrifying and was able to do so not because he thought he was at the centre of the universe but because he knew he was not. Realising we are not the centre of the universe is a good thing as the history of map making can illustrate to us.

map-595790_1920.png500 years ago people believed the Earth was flat. We know this from the history of making maps. Anyone who has been a scout knows not only that Saint George is their patron saint but something about map reading and map making.

If you go to an archive and look at any maps from 500 years ago you will see that maps of Europe were fine, but the further away from Europe they got, the less accurate they became. In uncharted places a Latin phrase can often be found:

‘Hic Sunt Dracones’ or ‘Here be dragons.’

So in the history of map making, dragons represented the fear of the unknown. As we know it took explorers to go into the unknown and to face these fears. That is why we have accurate maps today. To me, Saint George’s Day is about facing fear – facing the dragon. For the real Saint George it mean’t facing the fear of being persecuted for what he believed in as a Christian.

What might facing the dragon look like in our own age?

george-and-the-dragon-2406524_1920

‘Hic Sunt Dracones.’

We will all encounter these words, and not just on historical maps. Remembering the real Saint George may help us face those words wherever we may encounter them. I remember a hymn I used to sing at school, ‘When a Knight won his Spurs’, which in one of the verses says the following:

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed

‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;

and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,

from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.”

Living these words where ‘there be dragons’ lies the path to true chivalry.

3DVR: A Fizhtale

3DVR Cover

Death is a headache.

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.

3DVR Load Screen

Former games seem so crude. Two dimensional, flat screen pixels, that look infantile when they are shown at Comic Con. Where is the fun in that, I ask you?

But now?

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.

grand theft automata

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 over whether video games make people more violent. I lost touch with Garth.

instinct

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 her eyes met mine and 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 possessing a ‘soul’. After pulling the trigger I wondered, was something being murdered?

perception

I don’t play games anymore, not virtual ones. The world is no longer enhanced by a pair of 3D graphical interface glasses but strangely enough my vision seems less impaired.

And I don’t miss the headaches…

‘3DVR: A Fizhtale’ Copyright © 2017 cyberfizh