Dead Man Walking: Lazarus Unbound

cross & resurrection

I grew up with David Bowie.

What I mean is, I grew up listening to the music of David Bowie coming from the bedrooms of my older siblings.

Like other popular songwriters, the lyrics of David Bowie permeate the English language. Perhaps the most recent being to ‘Major Tim’ by the media in reference to the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. Many will know that this nickname refers to ‘Major Tom’ in the lyrics of David Bowie’s classic song, ‘Space Oddity’.

But perhaps David Bowie’s most haunting song was his last, ‘Lazarus’. The song is a moving reflection on death from a performance artist coming to terms with his own.

The name Lazarus is in itself a reference used by artists through the ages to refer to a man who died and was brought back to life by Jesus in the gospel of John 11: 1-44. The name ‘Lazarus’ is forever linked with one who has come back from the dead. It is a strange gospel story at first reading. What does it mean?

First, let me say I think there are often many levels to stories:

  • Have you ever come back to a favourite story and seen something new in it?
  • Not because the story has changed but because you have?

For years I have read this story at only one level. But more recently I have had an epiphany. I now read it at a further level.

We are Lazarus.

We are Lazarus when we hear the voice of the one who calls us from the tomb. This story is the story of our coming to life from death now, not just in a future event. We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.” So God helps one who suffers from affliction. John’s gospel often uses the physical realm as a metaphorical pointer to the spiritual realm.

I think this story reminds us we can experience death in many ways. We will die physically, but we can also die emotionally, psychologically, relationally, communally, or spiritually. I am often reminded of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, who sat in her ragged wedding dress – grave clothes if you like – amid the cobwebs and the darkness of her home. Miss Havisham was in a ‘tomb’.

The character of Miss Havisham warns us that we all have the potential to create tombs. As individuals we can create them in our homes. Collectively we can create them in other places. Death is more than a physical experience and we use the word to express more than the ending of physical life.

dragonfly

I volunteer for a local schools project called REInspired. A few days ago I was discussing with some primary school children the subject of ‘death’ as a part of the national Religious Education syllabus. We reflected on the story of ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’, by Doris Stickney, a story that describes a transformation consequently resulting in a new form of life. We thought for a while what the surface of the water represented in the story and the waves caused when the waterbug breaks through to become a dragonfly.

Grief is sometimes described as being like ‘waves’. And we all need time to grieve. But I am convinced that we are not created to stay in tombs forever – in this life or the next. For Christians that is the simple but powerful message of Easter.

One of the most significant Christian responses that can be shared in this world with other human beings is the response to death. Not in a superficial way but acknowledging all the emotions involved and yet providing a message of something more. This is powerfully conveyed by Sister Helen Prejean in her true story ‘Dead Man Walking’ written in 1993, which subsequently became a film of the same name in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The film not only explores death, but issues of anger, hatred, forgiveness, and redemption. In other words, what does it mean to be human in the face of death?

However, there is another question. Not only what does it mean to be human when encountering death but what does it mean to be human beyond it? From mummification to cryogenics, human beings have sought to defy death through history. Cybernetics now poses the interesting question of whether human consciousness can be transformed into digital data and hence become ‘immortal’?

The ‘mind, body, spirit’ debate continues to remain elusive. An example of this is ‘The God Impulse. Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?’ published in 2011 and written by professor of neurology, Kevin Nelson, which concludes that spiritual experiences lie somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep. However the book can neither affirm nor deny whether these spiritual experiences are ‘real’. Furthermore, some profound questions arise in other ways:

  • Is there a human soul or are we simply a collection of electric impulses of the brain that may eventually be ‘downloaded’ on to a silicon chip?
  • Is disembodied intelligence classifiable as human?
  • Is immortality the pinnacle of human existence?

The Biblical tradition does not point us toward immortality, which is a Greek philosophical concept in origin. Instead it speaks of life transformed before God, even after death. Resurrection and immortality are not identical.

sol

The gospel story of Lazarus may help us understand the concept of resurrection if we explore the imagery in the story a little further. When Jesus eventually arrives at the tomb in the gospel story he asks, “Where have you laid him?” The crowd reply, “Lord, come and see.” It is hard not to flashback to chapter one of John’s gospel when the would-be disciples were seeking Jesus, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” Life with God is signified with invitations into the new and unknown.

At the entrance of the tomb Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The Greek verb kraugazein’ occurs six times in John’s gospel. It is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. The shouts of the crowd bring death to Jesus. But Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus – and to us.

A voice calls at the edge of our tombs. We are to substitute our name for that of Lazarus and live – freed from our grave clothes. For what does Jesus say at the end of this story?

“Unbind him and let him go.”

There are many forms of death. I know what it is like to be in the ‘grave’, and maybe you do too. But a voice spoke to me, through differing voices, and in time… I was unbound. For we are created not for death, but for life and to share that life with others, in this world and beyond.

Life unbound – come and see…

300

300

Is it right to share your faith?

No, I don’t think it is.

Not if that faith involves bitterness, judgmentalism, fear, or any other dysfunctional behaviour. Why share that? But, if faith involves openness, humility, forgiveness, justice, love – isn’t it wrong not to share that? So the real questions are:

  • “What is my faith?”
  • “Is it a faith worth sharing?”

At a neighbouring church the congregation were once asked to provide their own answer to these questions in 300 words. 300 words is not very long. It is the time you might spend waiting for a bus, or ordering a coffee, or reading a blog! It is a window of opportunity to share with another.

  • Can you encapsulate your faith in 300 words?
  • Not quoting one of the historic Christian creeds, but your ‘creed’?
  • If you can’t say what you believe in 300 words, can you say anything?

This last question may seem facile but statistics indicate that our attention spans are shortening in the digital age, it has even been said that an average attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

So, if you are still reading this then please consider the following:

300 words is a small number amid the sea of words that surround us every day. But some may recall that 300 Spartans made a huge difference to the battle of Thermopylae, a story retold in literature and popular films ever since. Or think of it like this, 300 words can be like the mustard seeds Jesus once talked about (Mark 4:26-34), in what are often described as the ‘parables of growth’ for the Kingdom of God. Small seeds, and yet, who knows what growth may come?

  • Will 300 words change the world?
  • Do seeds?

“Yes” is the answer – in the sense that each can bring life.  So, take heart – for you only have to pay attention now to my 300 words that I will share. Admittedly they come from a Christian perspective because that is who I am, but instead of over-analysing what I say, as you read my words, perhaps think about what yours might be – whatever your faith or none. Why? Because it seems we do not have time to attend to much more. 300 words might not be much to look at, but then neither are mustard seeds, are they?

ecce homo

My 300 Words

I am a Christian because I believe there is more to life than what we can own.

There is more to people than a chance group of cells.

We have a soul that seeks fulfilment.

We look for fulfilment in all sorts of ways. But ultimately it comes when we realise that it does not depend upon us becoming bigger, by acquiring more stuff, power, or fame. It depends upon us becoming smaller and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger picture, like a piece in a jigsaw, or a thread in a tapestry.

If God exists, as I believe, I think that is how God sees us. And when I listen to the words of Jesus in the Bible, or think about what he did, that confirms what I feel.

Becoming a bigger person can happen when we learn to give things up.

To let go.

It is in giving that strangely enough, we receive and grow. Sacrifice sometimes makes us stronger, not weaker. Strong enough to face all our fears, even the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms.

There is physical death. But I believe in emotional, relational, social, communal, psychological, even spiritual death. And I believe Jesus can save us from all these ‘deaths’.

Why do I believe this?

Because he already has, in some ways, for me.

And that is enough for me to believe he will do more.

Being a Christian is not about reading books, or being impossibly good, or listening to boring sermons.  It’s about being alive.  And recognising that this life in all its forms comes from God whose generosity is bigger than death in all its forms.

We are not here to be endless consuming machines.

We are here to be alive and to share life with others generously…

The Mass Effect of Games

chesskingcross

I blame it all on Star Wars!

Before the arrival of video recorders (whatever they were?), before dvd, blu-ray, or digital downloads; through the rose-tinted spectacles of a childhood summer, I can remember watching Star Wars (now episode IV: A New Hope), four times in our local cinema.

Science-fiction has been a prominent feature of my life since before the days I reached two numerical digits in Earth years – as you can tell! Through the genre of science fiction possible futures are presented before us. No clearer has this been to me than in the ‘Mass Effect’ video game franchise initially launched on the X-Box 360 games console in 2007. On the new or ‘next’ generation of video games consoles the latest instalment of ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ is eagerly awaited.

Mass Effect as a gaming experience was presented as a trilogy, which was music to the ears of one nurtured on the original trilogy of Star Wars (just to confuse you that is episodes IV-VI). Apart from the innovative third-person gameplay the significant and lasting memory of the Mass Effect trilogy was the possibility of playing a ‘good’, ‘bad’, or morally ambiguous character within the role playing features of the game. This presented endless possibilities of replayability but also the freedom to explore the subtle and complex experience of the consequences of moral choices. This trend continues in ‘Witcher 3″ and ‘Fallout 4’ to name just two in this video-game genre. It appears video gaming is becoming more morally complex and more sociable with the growth of online co-operative and multiplayer gaming.

Games form part of the human need to escape, explore, dream, and control. They can be traced back thousands of years to the beginnings of chess, and earlier. Human psychology does not need to help us to comprehend the significance of games in human development, we know, and we know that development and need for play does not end with childhood.

And yet there is an aura of respectability that surrounds any admission in the love of playing chess, for example, that is totally absent in the same admission of playing video-games. This is unfortunate as it is commonly catalogued that the video gaming industry continues to out-perform the Holywood film industry and that gamers vary so much than the commonly considered teenage young male playing alone in his darkened bedroom. Perhaps it is time to look again at how we understand play as a generation comes of age that have only ever known the world of the internet.

tinsoldiers

As the attendance in traditional Christian church worship continues to decline and become more exclusive to the general population’s experience in British post-industrial society so the numbers in video gaming continue to grow and become more inclusive. Although there is no direct correlation and this would be too simplistic, there should be a recognition that the desire to explore and play runs very deeply within the human soul. Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14-15)

In some ways play has never sat easily with the Protestant Christian work ethic and yet it is God-given. The sabbath is a key concept in the story of biblical creation, and Easter it can be said, of ‘re-creation’. Dr.David Naugle  provides an excellent summary and critique on this subject in his work, ‘A Serious Theology of Play’ and concludes by saying:

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognised aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsche’s of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

We need to look again at play in all its forms. The good news is Christian churches are. One experience I can testify to is the value of ‘Messy Church’ which is growing within Christian churches in the United Kingdom. It holds a very simple yet refreshing message, ‘God creates from mess’ – would that more of our post-industrial, even ‘regimented’ forms of Christianity could hear this message. Play gives permission to explore, experience, learn and comprehend with another area of the brain and yet the very phenomenon of ‘Messy Church’ underlines that many of us do not associate the concept of ‘church’ with the fundamental human need for ‘play’.

We are creatures that cannot help ourselves but play and that can take many forms that can be encouraged. Playing cards can be done in a healthy or an unhealthy way, so can physical sports like football, and even video gaming. None are intrinsically bad but three questions do emerge:

  • As communications technology continues to make all of us increasingly more available for work how can we utilise that same technology to give us permission to play in healthy ways?
  • What should Christian churches be doing or saying to help people engage in play and re-creation, something which can be argued to be God-given?
  • Play is a good medium for providing human contact and interaction. What are healthy forms of play in the digital age with a generation who have only ever known the internet?

Fortunately some are engaging with these questions and those with eyes to see and ears to hear are beginning to reassess and appreciate the mass effect of games.

What does it mean to be human.com? Bladerunner Replicated

cyberhead_Fotor

‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ was a huge summer blockbuster in 1982.  I remember seeing it at a packed cinema and yet the world portrayed in it seems to now be of the last century. More disturbing is another film released that year which I remember watching at a virtually empty cinema, that was deemed a box office failure at the time, but whose haunting themes and message only seem to resonate more closely with this new millennium. It is now described as prophetic and a cult classic.

‘Bladerunner’ presents a dystopian nightmare of a not too distant future whose complex themes question our human identity. Paul Sammon in ‘Future Noir: The Making of Bladerunner’ (1996), sums this up well when he says:

“Lurking under the film’s pop visuals and trendy special effects is a subtle, dizzying tangle of deeply felt moral, philosophical, and sociological concerns. Take the film’s title a “Blade Runner” could also be interpreted as someone who scampers along the thin edge of life. Or witness the multiple examples of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard kills two replicants, two replicants save his life. Deckard finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicant’s God, and Batty, Tyrell’s prodigal son, symbolically pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion. Even the film’s horizontal/vertical design scheme makes a statement; Blade Runner’s privileged few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the disenfranchised masses below. All the musings are swept aside, however, by the three, key, simple yet profound questions which constitute the core of the film: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

These questions resonate even more clearly in our age of the global community.  We can invent the persona of whoever we want to be, dispose of that identity, and invent another one in a matter of minutes online. We are constantly bombarded with information and an endless horizon of possibilities and yet there are suggestions that we are ‘communicating’ less in relation to social interactions, the irony being that we may feel less connected to other human beings within this digital communications oasis. And a Kierkergaardian existential despair may develop leaving us residing at ‘What does it mean to be human.com?’

Human beings are social animals. However badly we may do it sometimes, we are designed to relate, it is within our DNA. The received Christian view is that we are not complete as human beings within ourselves. The wholeness we seek cannot be filled by technology, drugs, sex, or the ever increasing acquisition of material goods, “Stuffocation”, as James Wallman aptly puts it in his book of the same name. Instead we may have to begin by letting go of that which we seek to grasp. Or to quote the spiritual realisation that the replicant character, Roy Batty, comes to at the end of ‘Bladerunner’, “All these moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

The Bible makes it clear that immortality is not the goal of human existence, instead ‘eternal life’ is, which we can experience in this life. At the heart of eternal life is a relationship and most relationships require what is commonly termed ‘give and take’, perhaps even sacrifice. (John 17:3) The digital age presents us with endless promises of acquisition and yet the human soul seems to become enlarged when we face that which we are prepared to lose. (Matthew 16:25). This spiritual practice is not only common to Christianity but to Buddhism and there are numerous instances where a dialogue has developed on this subject. I think it is no coincidence that there has been a continuing rise of interest within medical, secular, as well as religious circles, in the practice of mindfulness in recent years. Although there may be different conclusions on why this has happened, its popular ascendancy within only a matter of a decade cannot be ignored.

Whatever our religious beliefs or philosophical viewpoints, it seems to be true that the human spirit often grows through a healthy form of materialistic detachment, challenge, even adversity, and not consumerist acquisition. The former gives birth to self-realisation and fulfilment while the latter may feed upon our status anxiety and fear. And what we can discern is that the predictions of ‘Bladerunner’ will always be replicated if we persist in ignoring a very ancient yet modern truth, whatever value system we may profess:

The future is only dark if we have no faith in the dawn…