Shirley Is Glorified

 

another place

This photograph is from a random drive through the Kimberley when I was researching my thriller project. The story is so embedded in my imagination now that I can’t look at this without being inside a 4WD coming down that hill at night, the vehicle chasing ant-nest shadows as it bounces and crashes its way along a boggy track.

Storms are about and you can smell mud and see lightning on the horizon. At the foot of the hill is a homestead, which faces onto a greasy clay pan. Beyond that the Styx Gorge awaits: jagged, black as pitch, and the only place to hide.

On the way to the bottom of the ridge, to hoped-for safety, this bruised and hurting little family are at their wit’s end, longing to be out of there, to be together at home again. The young daughter, Oksy, captures what they all feel with her questions and her prayers.

The mother, Mia, holds onto the hope that a higher power of infinite love is somehow at work—even in the midst of their hell. Oksy’s father, Red, sees things differently: they are out to defy a hostile universe, period. S#*! happens, he likes to say. And you have to respect his point of view. He’s no fool—without him Oksy would be dead.

Each has been drawing some kind of strength from their worldview. Oksy, the mysterious strength of the child’s naïve faith: a beautiful trust that somehow good will win-out. Mia, the strength of what has been referred to as stage five faith, which is ‘okay with God’s mystery, unavailability and strangeness.’1 Red draws from his courage and skill as a warrior.

Watching their story unfold and trying to write it down always leads back into my own world. Just now for example, I found out that a beloved friend of our family (Shirley Blake) who has given oceans of grace and strength to us—passed away two days ago.

Shirley was no ordinary woman, she was a Mount Everest in the spiritual world: unknown to many but famous with God. Our family literally ‘rises up and calls her blessed.’ She was, in the double meaning of John’s Gospel, a woman ‘lifted up and glorified,’2 which means she brought joy to many and (like Jesus himself) was to be subjected to awful brutality.

In her case, one ‘crucifixion’ that I am aware of, happened a long time before she actually passed from this earth. Having given many years of her life to loving her neighbours (and their children) with amazing kid’s clubs, stories and laughter, she was well into the second half of her life and had become the beloved ‘Aunty Shirley’ to children all over Broken Hill.

One day a man entered her house and brutally assaulted her. She cried out and no help came. Instead, she was given a vision of Jesus weeping. She explained to us later that somehow she felt (as awful as it was) that Jesus was sharing in the torture together with her. This was hard for me to hear at the time.

The New Testament supports Shirley’s explanation. Jesus shed tears at the death of his good friend Lazarus, for example, but they were not tears of weakness, they were the tears of a man strong enough in his manhood to weep in public. Such weeping gives strength to his followers even two thousand years later. How could that be? How could a weeping and wounded savior give power and grace?

These lines from Edward Shillito’s Jesus of the Scars put us in the picture…

‘The heavens frighten us, they are too calm
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us, where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by your scars, we claim your grace.

If, when the doors are shut, you draw near
Only reveal those hands, that side of yours
We know today what wounds are, have no fear
Show us your scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong but you were weak
They rode—you stumbled to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but you alone.’

Jesus told his followers, ‘As the father has sent me, even so I send you.’3 St. Paul goes on to say that the deal includes sharing ‘in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church.’4 This is confronting because it suggests that not only was Jesus sharing in Shirley’s sufferings, she was sharing in his and it was for the benefit of her fellow Christians: we know who we are.

Charles Williams elaborates on this when he says that ‘Sometimes, in order for the fire of heaven to fall in one place, an altar must be built in another.’5 Shirley’s altar was certainly that for many: instead of being a place of bitter trauma, it became a treasure chest from which holy fire poured into the souls of others. Thank you Aunty Shirley and thank you God.

‘The way of the Cross’, writes Michael Quoist, ‘winds through our towns and cities, our hospitals and factories, and through our battlefields…It is in front of these new Stations of the Cross that we must stop and meditate and pray to the suffering Christ for strength to love him enough and for strength to act.’6

1 Stages of Faith, James Fowler, 1981, Harper and Row

2 John 8:28 RSV Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will
know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the
Father taught me.

3 John 20:21 RSV

4 Colossians 1:24 ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I
complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that
is, the church.’ RSV

5Letters to Malcolm Ch. 21, Lewis C. S

6 Paths in Spirituality, John Macquarrie, 1992, Morehouse Publishing, 130

Dreaming

Woke up this morning with three words singing around inside me: ‘Lamb of God’. The words came fresh from a dream I was having where a friend and I were reading the New Testament. We reached a place where someone spoke about the ‘Lamb of God’. My fellow reader passed right over the words without a thought, not even a question. But while they kept reading, the words flowed up off the page and inside me like a river of music, colour and power—overflowing into the entire universe.

Garden Secrets

Garden Secrets

Under scorching sunshine, daughter #3 and I walk out across the black soil of a floodplain to a garden. This one has bright green clumps of chilli plants, rosemary, egg plants and other tantalising offerings but it’s all a bit of a mess and some of it is dead.

Just being here reminds me of my father’s, and my grandfather’s, love of plunging their fingers into rich earth, raking out a smooth bed, planting seeds and then mothering it all until the green shoots rise up out of the darkness. Their passion passed on to me but never went very far. Fortunately, my wife has it too and our daughter has caught it quite seriously, probably always had it (like one of those seeds) lying there and waiting for the moment.

We wander up and down rows of earth with bedraggled plants. Half the plot is a swamp and the other half is dry as chips. My daughter looks out at one lonely plant on a far corner and wonders if it’s a particular herb—the name she uses escapes me.

A gardener finds it hard to resist a neglected patch like this, especially when there’s plenty of water nearby and people to feed: a river in fact and a community of twenty or so. But if that was all there was to our fascination with this garden, we would be falling under the spell of the banal and soul-less vision of our world, a world that has already lost the respect of garden spirits.

If you don’t believe me, try visiting your garden late at night or just before sunrise. You are likely to agree with GK Chesterton that “One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows: the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”1

1 GK Chesterton, Robert Browning from www.goodreads.com/quotes/

Telling Family Secrets

Beautiful Secrets

Julia Cameron says that ‘the act of making art exposes a society to itself: like telling a family secret.’1 And the darker the family/society secret the more vigorous its efforts at squashing genuine art. Diversionary ‘art’ is what they want. But what if the family/society secret is beautiful? We don’t know what to do with it. It will be laughed at.

Why? Because we live in a society full of blocked-creatives. And ‘most blocked creatives have an active addiction to anxiety’2, which ‘manifests as an addiction to fantasy’.

Though to be fair on fantasy writers, most of us (me included) love fantasy. So what’s the issue. The issue is probably what Steven King was talking about when he told writers to ‘stay off the glass teat’. Aka, the amusement screen.

And there’s a voracious appetite for that, which is why if you create good ‘diversionary art’ for the screen you might even get to be as famous as the Playstation. But what you need to weigh up here is the price- tag of your diversionary art.

Cameron says ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of life required to be exchanged for it.’3 In that case a Playstation (for some) would have to be valued at the price of a human soul. But there’s another way of thinking about this. If you are well down the road of diversionary art for example, the price might be the cost of abandoning the habits of your ‘blocked-creative’ addictions. Those things you’ve been doing as a substitute for genuine creative work.

If you embark on this journey try to be patient with your friends because ‘expecting your blocked friends to celebrate your recovery of creativity is like expecting your friends at the bar to celebrate your sobriety.’4 For you are now a threat. Which is why Cameron says in another place, ‘In an artistic career, thinking about the odds (of success) is a drink of emotional poison.’5

Lastly, beware emotional incest. Cameron explains that ‘Teachers, editors and mentors are often authority or parent figures for a young artist. There is a sacred trust inherent in the bond between teacher and student. This trust when violated has the impact of a parental violation. What we are talking about here is emotional incest.’6 Beware the ‘candid friend’ (GK Chesterton says), ‘He is not candid … when he says, “ I am sorry to say it, but we are all doomed” he is not sorry at all.’ He has a vested interest at heart.

One more last thing. People, their families and societies are never quite as wicked or as good as we tend to make them out to be. There’s always lots of grey, and grey can be the first colour of dawn if you let it. What if for example, when you plumb the depths of your tragic family/society story you find astonishing treasures down there underneath the dirt?

  1. 1  Cameron J. The Artist’s Way p. 67 Souvenir Press 1994
  2. 2  Ibid 143
  3. 3  Ibid – quoting Thoreau p.68
  4. 4  Ibid p.43
  5. 5  Ibid p.142
  6. 6  Ibid p. 130

 

The Ironbark, Worship & The PoMosexual

Ironbark

[part 5 of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]

You notice all sorts of things when you walk and pray. And today, as I set out across the street for my fifteen minute session (with the dog walking next to me), to join in with the everlasting prayer of the High Priest of Heaven and the deep sighs of the Holy Spirit, I’m enjoying the summer heat: that still, dry-heat of the west. And not a soul to be seen anywhere, ’cause all the sensible ones are inside under the air- con.

We walk across black bitumen—which I’m hoping is not too much for the dog’s feet. But it’s okay, her pads take it in stride and she arches her tail up and points her nose tenderly at the epicentre of some new fragrance, which she’s found on a sprig of green sticking out of the curb. With a yank on her leash, I get her off the road and we walk to a park where the once-green grass is now straw-coloured stubble—thanks to the work of a council groundsman with a slasher.

The 40 degree, fast-rising air around us has a sterilised, autoclaved purity about it: a sharp contrast to the other side where a highway hums perpetually as it’s vehicles rev their motors, spin their wheels, pump their emissions, and fulfil the useful destiny of their lives. Avoiding that, we head down-hill, past the iron-sheeted back fences of old cement-tiled houses with dark green ornamental trees, towards a railway crossing. On the corner we come to a vacant block that’s been recently fenced-off in readiness for a new building project. And there behind the fence is one of my favourite trees, a rough, black Ironbark with a spray of purple on its trunk, the mark designating it for the rubbish tip. Touching the leaves that hang over the fence, I can’t help saying a few words as if I’m a priest offering the last rites. And I think of George MacDonald’s words, ‘To those who expect a world to come, I say, be mindful of your posture towards the creation around you, which is also eagerly waiting for the world to come.’ Christmas is only a few days away and this beauty won’t even make it, but I strongly suspect that one day I will again meet something of its music or even of it’s presence and this fleeting moment is somehow significant in a way that I don’t understand.

The tree gets me thinking about what I have in common with my green-conscious friends and then I think of what I don’t have in common: they revere and almost worship nature, I worship a human being (who also happens to be the Son of God and the one out of whose heart all these things came). And here I am walking, enjoying the sense of energy and the living presence of divinity in the sky, the hot breeze, and the earth under my feet, feeling kind of pagan. According to Dorothy Sayers Christianity is the ‘last surviving pagan religion’.

More days pass and the dog and I have more walks in the heat past the—now decapitated—tree. And finally here we are on the eve of Christmas, it’s late at night and I’m lying on the trampoline in the back-yard looking up at a sky filled with stars whilst talking on the phone with some dear friends who have been mauled by life: both the religious and the irreligious sides of it. As I talk it strikes me that a common thread in these conversations is the feeling of being slowly pulled apart by something that lurks in both the secular and the religious world. And whatever it is, it quickly kills off any sensitivity to the voice of God.

For some of us that ‘something’ seems to get embedded inside our deeply treasured worship-music, family-pride, directors’ meetings, home-groups and prayers; and for others it’s in the thrilling, mind-numbing experiences of concerts and after-work parties. Idolatry is what it feel like: lifestyle-idolatry. The kind that makes it hard for that still, small voice to be heard because of the white noise of a mantra that says, ‘Life’s about me and I’m going to make it work.’ Not that anyone—other than management gurus—actually says it so shamelessly.

This kind of idolatry betrays itself by an obsessive concern with the grapevine of its friends and colleagues and what they think about it. On the religious side; ticking the boxes of things like doctrine, zealous faith and family-life are important. On the secular side; ticking the boxes of things like healthy food, green technology and family-life, immaculate kitchens and so-called safe sex are important. Interestingly, the secular form of this lifestyle-idolatry holds the higher moral ground in our society and could even be said to be ‘on the side of the angels’—and for the purposes of this blog I will be leaving the religious form of lifestyle-idolatry alone and following the secular version.

So, how is genuine agape love ever going to survive in such a watched, face-booked and narcissistic vibe? According to St. Columba, ‘Love knows nothing of order’ because it is dependent not on systems but on the eternally-beating heart of God and the moment we try to give love a boost with a politically-correct law, we send a message to heaven that we’ve found a better way, that we can legislate love. But it would appear that God is happy with even the weakest efforts at keeping the golden rule, and such legislation—as much as we complain about the bureaucracy—has in fact proven to be of great help: duty of care and WH&S practices being just a couple of examples.

Even so, it was this respectable, secular, we-don’t-need-God lifestyle that imprisoned Anne Rice in a pit of despair, the escape from which she describes in her book Called Out Of Darkness. At one point she virtually said to herself, ‘You know what Anne. A transaction is taking place. On the one hand you have a long list of ‘good-girl gold stars’ from the atheistic, politically-correct world, bolstered-up by scoffings about the God-world and the problems of war, brutality and manipulation—and all these unanswered questions of a mature, adult and supposedly humble mind. But on the other hand there’s this list of so-called ‘subjective and therefore invalid’ experiences and memories from concerts and art galleries, music, graveyards and icons—all of which seem child-like and naive, but where you have felt God saying, “I love you Anne and I’d like to arrange for us to meet sometime.” And here you are, getting old, and about to permanently trade this for that dry old bag of sensible and responsible complaints.’

As Anne thought about it she became uneasy about the fact that the respect of her educated and skeptical colleagues was now emerging as a major reason for her unwillingness to act: to kneel and worship the true God. Then she says: ‘I knew the German church of my childhood was perhaps six blocks away from where I was sitting. And perhaps I’d remembered my mother’s words of decades ago: “He is on that altar. Get up and go.” … ‘I didn’t care about the framing of the doctrine, I cared about him. And he was calling me back through his Presence on the altar. He might have used the falling rain, he might have used Vivaldi … but no, he used the doctrine of the Real Presence.’

For Anne, it came down to a deeply honest and unadorned act of grateful worship when the knotted, excusing agony inside her came home and knelt before God. It’s good to ask ourselves when it was that we last indulged in the joy and relief of simply getting down on our knees and [forgetting what anyone else might think] doing what the human soul was made to do. Walter Brueggemann speaks of being so enamoured of this lifestyle-idolatry that we might come within a whisker of not being able to imagine our future in any way other than that prescribed, and of drifting aimlessly in a kind of bright but hollow world. Chesterton depicted such a society as a place where pessimism lives, the kind of “Pessimism” that’s “not … tired of evil but … tired of good. Despair,” he says, “does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.” *

And if you want to see historical precedents re: what happened to Anne, there’s dozens—the era of chivalry for instance. Hoping to find some great meeting place between religion and courtesy, their hallmark became ‘humility and adultery’ (6aa), and their experiment failed notoriously. Despair has always stalked such grand social experiments, and whether we like it or not, Bertrand Russell’s statement holds good for us as it did for his generation: ‘All the noon-day brightness of human genius is destined to end in the vast death of the solar system and we must therefore build our lives upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair.’

Yes, the west is having a crisis of meaning and some are even saying that ‘belief is back’. But whatever happens next between the proud-but-broken secular world and the world of faith—the unpretentious worship of God will always carry some edge of offence to our pride and its liking for having things ‘just so’; for having the fruit without the seed; the body without the soul; the universe without the God.

And right now, as an embarrassed secular society contemplates the humiliating prospect of God, that offence is being felt everywhere—especially in the debate on sexual preference. In her influential book Gender Trouble (6aa.1) Judith Butler argues that gender is not a fixed attribute but a fluid free-floating variable that shifts according to personal preference. Gender is a “fiction,” a “fabrication,” a “fantasy,”6aa.2 that can be made and re-made at will. ‘Butler’s theory,’ Pearcey says, ‘became popular on college campuses, especially among transgender students … These are students who reject the binary male/female system as a mere social construction, and an oppressive one at that.

Pearcey goes on to say that “A New York Times article reports that some colleges now offer separate bathrooms, housing and sports teams for students who do not identify them selves as either male or female. At Wesleyan the campus no longer requires students to check “male” or “female” on their health forms. Instead they are asked to describe their gender history.”‘ 6a

Pearcey adds, ‘This fluid view of gender is typically presented as liberating—a way to create your own identity instead of accepting one that has been culturally assigned. As a magazine for homosexuals explains, people today “don’t want to fit into any boxes—not gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual ones.” Instead “they want to be free to change their minds.” The article was addressed to people who had come out of the closet as homosexuals, but later found themselves attracted to heterosexual relationships again. So ‘What am I?’ they wondered. Not to worry the author reassured them. The idea that one is born with a certain gender that cannot be changed is so modernist. Society is moving to postmodern view in which you can choose any gender you want, at any time.” Call it a PoMosexual view.’7 What is not being talked about so freely is the fact that once you have allowed the golden (and untouchable) cow of preference to walk freely in your society, courtrooms and governments will be on the road to losing the struggle against hebephilia and pedophilia. And thanks to the advocates of ‘preference at any price’, the future of millions of children is now in jeopardy.

One of the astonishing things about this ‘tidy, responsible & delightful’ ecosystem of the secular life is that even with its ‘crisis of meaning’ (with the wheels falling off everything), those caught in it feel that it’s better for them to remain loyal to it and drown than get out and just walk away. Somehow they feel scandalised by the silence of God and feel that if their Christian faith can’t include this playground of wonder and despair—then it’s not worth having anyway, and they would rather go down with the ship.But what they forget is that ‘badness is nothing more than spoiled goodness’** and that every bit of pleasure they have ever had was borrowed from goodness, so why keep spoiling it? Why not just enjoy it unspoiled?

The picture in my mind is of millions of souls sailing around on a sweet and intoxicating lake of despair until—during a series of long, dark nights—a mysterious storm wrecks their boats and they find themselves washed up against what we might call the ‘dark and impassable mountain of fear and wisdom’. Convinced that going up into the mountain would be a fate worse than death, they stay there at the foot of the mountain—starving to death and romanticising their plight with songs. The mountain being a metaphor of the proverb, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

Knowing what a sensitive soul Jesus was, and how deeply he loved his musical, sensual-hearted friends, the metaphor above helps me to get why he said such stern things to them about the necessity to ‘deny all right to themselves’; and ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Jesus knew that their very souls were at stake and there must be no dallying with serpents, ’cause it’s all or nothing.

Many years ago, when one of my mates was going through a long and terrible battle with pride and bitter anger, I said to him, ‘That motorbike is an idol. Get rid of it or you will lose everything!’ He left our community soon after on his motorbike and I wondered if perhaps I had been a bit too forthright, but a few years later he walked up to my front gate supporting himself with a walking stick and (with a wry smile) said, ‘God sent a brick-truck mate. The bike is now a coffee table.’

6aa Lewis C. S. The Allegory of Love p.114 ‘social conditions gave the new feeling its bent towards humility and adultery’

6aa.1 Butler J. Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999) , quoted in Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo p. 136

6aa.2 cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. pp: 46 – 48 2010 – B&H Publishers

6a Fred Bernstein, “On campus re-thinking Biology 101,” (New York Times) 7 March 2004

6 (San Francisco: Cleis press, 1997) – cited by Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo p. 49 cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.47, 2010 – B&H Publishers

7 Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, eds., PoMosexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality

* G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

** CS Lewis

 

 

The Pub-Tab Fella

 

[part four of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]

I’ve been on the road for an hour. The windscreen is smeared with dead insects, which act like a magnifier for the early morning sun, and to make matters worse I’m getting sleepy. Turning on the air-con to give myself a cold-snap, I wake up a bit, but that doesn’t last long and I contemplate pulling over for a proper nap. But ‘no!’ there’s the slow-down signs of a town, which signal the approach of what I’m hoping will be a ‘place of coffee’. Out here they’re regarded as ‘coffee-getting places’ for the tourists and travellers ’cause they don’t normally lower themselves to the serious business of employing goths dressed-up as baristas behind gleaming monstrosities of steam and milk.

As I cruise along the abandoned grey strip, the town looks dead, despite the fact that it’s already 8:15am. Everything is shut—everything except the bakery that is, where the friendly Asian guy works. And there he is, looking like he just got out of school and just got out of bed but, as always, cheerful as ever. And there’s his mate hanging around outside waiting for a chance for them to have a smoke. The whole thing reminding me of what it was like to be eighteen and sorting out the tedious early-morning or late-night stuff of the sheep or the cattle or the shop or whatever it was —for dad—who’s got eyes in the back of his head (even from a distance) and will be sorting the more serious side of things at a saner hour—like his dad used to do to him—which is quite a cool and young-son-thing to do even though you complained about it at the time and sometimes even suggested that dad was a bit slack.

So here we are, ordering a coffee. Uh-oh! I’m twenty cents short. The boy explains that the shop up the road has eftpos. So now we’re at the ‘other shop’ getting the eftpos deal where you have to spend ten bucks first. And this guy—who’s quite a bit older—has more of the pub-tab look about him: ‘heart of the town’ fella with an old mate already tipping out his trials and tribulations to him while I wait. Then his mate leaves, we do the eftpos-deal, and (as I’m about to leave) I ask him a question.

‘Can I ask you a question?’

‘Sure?’

‘I’m a preacher, so it’s a preacher’s kind of question.’

‘No problem mate.’

‘If it’s true that our deepest longings will never be fulfilled in this world, is it fair to conclude that we were made for another world?

There’s a long pause and then he says, ‘I gotta tell you something mate … I’ve never told anyone this … I’ve been an alcoholic. But I’m getting back — to — ‘

He hangs his head, looks at the floor and stays looking at the floor.

‘It’s Ok mate…’

‘I can’t believe you asked me that question,’ he says, with his head still down. ‘My dad passed away just recently … and I’ve made a mess.’

‘Do you call out to the Man Upstairs?’

‘I do mate,’ he says, continuing to look at the floor. ‘But I’m a bad fella. I’ve done bad stuff. I’m not religious you have to understand. But yeah I pray.’

‘The Lord’s Prayer is a good one.’
‘Yeah I do that one mate, but I’m a bad man.’

‘Well I think you belong to the Man Upstairs.’

‘No mate—not me,’ he says still holding his head down.

‘Yeah—you came out of his heart.’

Finally he lifts his head, tears filling his eyes. And he looks at me, and looks at me.

A customer walks into his shop, we talk some more and then, on my way to the door he calls out, tells me his name and shakes my hand. I’m overwhelmed as I walk back for my coffee, which is so ready that the young guy has come looking for me.

I pay for the coffee, walk out onto the footpath, find a table, open my laptop and turn to chapter nineteen of my novel-in-progress where the main character is reflecting on a tragedy …

‘But then it’s like you overhear this snicker in the dark and you think, “Gotcha you bastard! All this bangin’ on about the random, meaningless accidents of life (like these horrors)—as if we’ve all been doing nothing more than stumbling around in a blacked-out room—is no accident! Whatever you are, you have a vested interest in keeping this impersonal. But it is personal and it’s evil! God and devil stuff!” ‘

‘Then it takes a different tack and it’s like this other voice, saying, “You know all that hope and love darling, well it’s shit and that’s all it ever will be.” How like the whispered lies of a molester. Telling you that because his kind of shit exists in the universe, because there are gas chambers, then every bit of hope is a lie – “so why not hop into my little Black Box with me?” Despair, it seems, has a persona and an agenda and I’m wanting to laugh, to mock the devil I suppose, for succeeding in making me into a total, belligerent fan of a personal faith. How could I ever have dismissed all this as simply the crazy music of nature? No, this is an unmasking and thanks to it, I’m taking life personally and I’m being drawn into a personal, crucifixion/resurrection kind of faith—and I love it.’

Dawkins Book-Signing Clanger

[part three of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]

‘A few years ago he (Richard Dawkins) was in Washington DC promoting his most recent book. A young man was in the audience who worked for a Washington think tank—and who has read Total Truth. He put a question to Dawkins.

“If humans are machines, and it is inappropriate to praise or blame for their actions, then should we be giving you credit for the book you are promoting?”

Dawkins quickly backtracked.

“I can’t bring myself to do that,” he responded. “I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people. I give people credit.”

We might say that in real life, Dawkins keeps walking off his own map. He acts in ways that his worldview does not account for.

The young man pressed the point further. “But don’t you see that this is an inconsistency in your view?”

Dawkins replied, “I sort of do, yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with— otherwise life would be intolerable.”1a

It was an astonishing admission that in practice no one can live by the naturalistic worldview he himself promotes—that its consequences would be intolerable.'(1b)

‘Tom Woolfe makes a similar observation: “At a recent conference on the implications of genetic theory for the legal system—five distinguished genetic theorists are up on stage—I stood up in the audience and asked, “If there’s no free will why should we believe anything you’ve said so far? You only say it because you’re programmed to say it.” You’ve never heard such stuttering and blathering in response to anything in your life.'(1c) ‘

It may be alright for Dawkins to play word-games like that but there are serious consequences for such thinking in the real world. The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty has seriously suggested the rich nations may end up engaging in “economic triage” against poor nations. After all, throughout history, various nations have come up with ways to exclude certain groups from the human family by labelling them subhuman … The idea that human rights are universal, Rorty notes, was a completely novel concept ushered in by Christianity. It rests on the biblical teaching that “all human beings are created in the image of God.”

Because of Darwin, Rorty states, we no longer accept creation. Therefore we no longer need to maintain that everyone who is biologically human has equal dignity. We are free to revert to the pre- Christian attitude that only certain groups qualify for human rights.

What criterion should we use in selecting which groups qualify? The most logical would be an economic criterion, Rorty argues. Any concept of obligation “has to be one which takes money into account.” It has to ask, “Do we have the economic resources to help these people? When this is raised, then the idea that everyone would have the same rights “is obviously unfeasible”… Thus Rorty concludes, there is no meaningful way to state that the “poor five billion citizens of the member states of the United nations” have the same rights as the rich nations.8 In response to this, Smith warns, “History shows that once we create categories of different worth, those humans denigrated by the political power-structure as having less value are exploited, oppressed and killed.”(9)

  1. 1a  The young man’s name was Joe Manzari. See Logan Gage, “Who wrote Richard Dawkin’s new book?” Evolution News and Views, 28 October 2006, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2006/10/who_wrote_richard_dawkinss_new,html. MY account is slightly different because it is taken from an audio tape.
  2. 1b  Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 153 B&H Publishing 2010
  3. 1c  Cited in Carol Iannone, “A Critic in Full: A Conversation With Tom Woolfe,” Academic Questions, 11 August 2008.

8 Richard Rorty, “Moral Universalism and Economic Triage,” paper presented at the second UNESCO Philosophy Forum, Paris, 1996. Reprinted in Diogenes, vil.44, issue 173 (1996) – quoted by Pearcy N. Saving Leonardo p.60

9 National Public Radio in San francisco … Smith, ‘Welcome To Our Brave New World’

After School Cartoons & ‘Human Strip-Mining’

 

‘Byjerkerno mysterium tremendum et fascinans’

[part two of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]

Lying on my lounge room floor, I watch a random cartoon show that’s an endless cycle of stories revolving around anxiety, fear, shock, disgust and flippancy (1aa)—all dressed up with a cast of distorted zombies, disfigured werewolves, and witches who look a bit like the friendly little emo- kids (they are actually friendly, nice, sort of kids I’ve discovered) down at the mall. I’m not the one who’s chosen to watch this, by the way—one of my offspring has—and I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to politely explain to them that this is rampant nihilism. That the thinking behind this is what inspired 21st century thinker Richard Rorty to challenge the idea that human rights are universal.

Rorty points out that this was a completely novel concept ushered in by Christianity, and that it rests on the biblical teaching that “all human beings are created in the image of God.” Because of Darwin, Rorty argues, we no longer accept creation. Therefore we no longer need to maintain that everyone who is biologically human has equal dignity. We are free to revert to the pre-Christian attitude that only certain groups qualify for human rights.(1b)

His thinking is supported by many others (like Adrian Woolfson) who says, “We are on the cusp of a new Enlightenment … we can finally entertain the possibility of modifying our own nature and creating artificial life.”(3) But the use of the word ‘Enlightenment’ sets alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows anything about some of the darker gifts of the previous bold and brazen ‘Enlightenment (4)’: 60million people killed by the Soviet Communists; 35 million by the Chinese communists; 21 million by the Nazis not to mention one quarter of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. (5)

And it doesn’t stop there, out of nihilism comes ‘personhood theory’, which according to Pearcey, states that ‘just being part of the human race is not morally relevant. Individuals must earn the status of personhood by meeting an additional set of criteria: the ability to make decisions, self-awareness and so on … many ethicists have argued that non-persons may be used for utilitarian purposes such as research and harvesting organs. Wesley Smith(7) describes this as a proposal for “human strip-mining”.’ (7a)

So—here we are in our lounge room ‘swimming in’ it—lightened-up of course with double- meanings, a harmless-sounding nerd vocabulary and occasionally references to ‘normal-life’ motifs like family, housing markets and mothers. Finally I make my ‘comment’ and we get talking about nihilism, which—I explain to my daughter—is the idea that life is meaningless, and not just meaningless: stupid in fact, a horrible joke.

She turns the telly off and starts talking about something happier and I’m feeling like a kill-joy for bringing a word like ‘nihilism’ into an after-school cartoon—although I don’t know that she cared all that much for the show anyway.

——————————————————————————————————–

1aa ‘But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour- plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it … ‘ [letter 12 Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis]

1b Richard Rorty, “Moral Universalism and Economic Triage,” paper presented at the second UNESCO Philosophy Forum, Paris, 1996. Reprinted in Diogenes, vil.44, issue 173 (1996) – quoted by Pearcy N. Saving Leonardo p.60

3 Adrian Woolfson, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Genetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2006), preface

4 ( the Enlightenment )a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

5 Statistics cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.238, 2010 – B&H Publishers

7 Author of Culture of Death
7a cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.58, 2010 – B&H Publishers

 

The Road to Economic Triage & Mercenary Sexuality: Part One

Sunset

There’s something surreal about walking into a space called a ‘shop’. The street you walk along, the big slab of glass, the posters, the counter and the merchandise all make it easy for you to meet a total stranger, give them some money and walk away with a piece of merchandise without even having to know the name of the guy you gave the money to. For all you know he might be a liar and a cheat, he might be the most amazing person you’ll ever meet, he might be agonising over some awful mess in his family or he could be about to drop dead.

Today, it’s the bike shop, and I’m a bit irritated that we’re down to actually having to spend money on a spidery piece of machinery that you can lift with one hand and which might blow away in the wind. And while the facts and numbers are getting sorted, we get talking about other facts: my son has just finished his HSC; he’s actually #6 child.

‘By the way,’ I say to him. ‘Can I tell you about a good parent question I discovered? It goes like this, “What’s it been like having me as your father?”

The man behind he counter looks at me in astonishment as I explain to him that I’ve been working my away around to asking that question of each of my older children—and yes, you do need to put your rhinoceros hide on first.

‘So when is a good age to ask them?’ he says.

‘Maybe seventeen?’ I say.

Our conversation quickly moves onto what might be called the ‘other real things of life’: hope, faith and meaning. And we are no longer just a customer and a merchant, we are two human beings talking about the stuff that makes us human. And all this in a shop filled with machines, which I grudgingly have to admit are stunning creations—and to go with every machine, hundreds of magnificent little spare parts.

As I walk away with my bike-part, I can’t help thinking about another ‘fact’: that my friend in the shop, and the people now walking past me in the street, are being made to think that all that hope and meaning stuff is just a noble lie and—worse than that—a prison, which limits our freedom and puts our destiny in the hands of religious creeps. ‘Come on people,’ goes the sales-pitch. ‘If you will only let go of all that stick-in-the mud stuff you will be free to embrace the absolute freedom of Total Quality Life (TQL) where questions about what is allowed or what is right and wrong are out the door and the only guide is your personal lifestyle preference. You need to wake-up to the fact that the universe is nothing more than a shopping mall—you create whatever meaning you want damn it!’ Kind of like the bike shop—without pesky things like that conversation about family, hope and meaning.

Nancy Pearcey in her book Saving Leonardo explains it this way … ‘The assumption that drives all these futurist scenarios, says embryologist Brian Goodwin, is the Darwinian claim that there is no such thing as a species—that what we call ‘species’ are merely temporary groupings in the ever-shifting population of evolving organisms, eddies in the genetic stream. Because of this Darwinian assumption, Goodwin explains, “we’ve lost even the concept of human nature”. As a result, life becomes a set of parts, commodities that can be shifted around” to suit some geneticist’s vision of progress.1 A cosmic ‘bike shop’ if you like.

Another way of putting it is to use a literary metaphor: Biologist Thomas Eisner says a species is not a “hard-bound volume of the library of nature” but instead a “loose-leaf book, whose individual pages—the genes—might be available for selective transfer and modification of other species.” This is a highly revealing metaphor, because it suggests that if there is no author of the book of life, there is no basis for regarding organisms as integrated wholes.’2

That conversation in the bike-shop about parenting, fatherhood and learning to listen and love our children, is starting to look kind of irrelevant in this so called ‘truer world’ where we humans are ‘merely temporary groupings in the ever-shifting population of evolving organisms’. The idea of purpose and meaning starts to look irrelevant. Their obvious rejoinder is, ‘Purpose? I dunno about that. I’m thinking of tweaking my sex life with some DNA from a rhino, and yeah, we’ve been looking at Lemur prices, ’cause we thought we might hit our kids with some lemur gear—over the holidays—just to get a bit of peace and quiet you know.’

Remember? We are in charge now and TQL is what this is all about. “We are on the cusp of a new Enlightenment,” enthuses Adrian Woolfson of Cambridge University. “We can finally entertain the possibility of modifying our own nature and creating artificial life.”3

One cool spin-off is that if you wipe the slate of meaning, then you can forget about all the complications of the kind of guilt that comes with the ‘problem’ of having meaning in your life. ‘In an opera written in 2002 by minimalist composer Steve Reich, the libretto juxtaposes quotations by two scientists. First Richard Dawkins asserts that humans are nothing but “machines created by our genes.” Then biologist Robert Pollack draws the logical conclusion: “I have no sense of guilt in pulling the plug on any machine.”4

It kind of makes for a much simpler life if your grandmother is no different to an ageing motor vehicle. Interestingly, it was Aldhous Huxley who—many decades ago—said, ‘I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning and without any difficulty was able to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation: sexual and political.’ At least Huxley had the honesty to talk about motives and assumptions.

In the next blog (of this set of three) we will look at how this kind of thinking is creating economic and sexually mercenary cultures, and the fact that people are now talking of ‘economic triage’ and of a superior lifestyle called ‘PoMosexuality’.

 

1. Brian Goodwin, Interview by David King- GenEthics News, Issue 11, March / April 1996, 6-8. Goodwin is author of How The Leopard Changed its Spots (Princeton University Press, 1994, 2001) – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.59 2010 B&H Publishers

2. Cited in E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (New York, Norton, 1992, 1999,), 302 – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.59

3. Adrian Woolfson, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Genetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2006), preface

4. “Three Tales” a 2002 Opera by Steve Reich – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. 2010 p. 57

A Sacred Lady in a Service Station

Part-way through a long tour of our southern communities, I’ve come to a stop at our Swan Hill campus where a group of students have enrolled in a twelve month course called a Certificate IV in Christian Studies. Tomorrow I’ll be talking with them about what it looks like to communicate faith, hope and love to our society (in fact I could translate that as ‘reminding people that their work is sacred, that they are sacred and in fact that [ultimately] they are not made for this world, that we are all supposed to be helping each other on our way to ‘becoming creatures so magnificent that we might be tempted to fall down and worship, or so awful that we might run away in terror’ as CS Lewis says. But right now I’ve found a cup of tea and settled—with my laptop—into a lounge chair under a ceiling that’s rather too radiant with powerful white lights.

The lounge across from me is draped in a homey-looking patchwork quilt with heavy black stitching holding the pieces together on smooth, grey, fabric-upholstery. A tall blonde in black overalls sits on it reading The Brothers Karamazov,1 and next to her—on another lounge of the same kind but with a less chunky patchwork quilt—a shaggy-haired young man sits reading the book Future Shock 2. The young man wants to know if I’ve read it. I explain that I haven’t but I’ve heard good reports about it. Our conversation moves to another book The Gamble 3 (on the Iraq war) and soon we’re talking about strategy and what it actually means.

While we speak, one of the community leaders, a wiry-looking man with a young boy following him, walks into the room. The son is quite distressed and we realise that the two of them are on an urgent mission to find the boy’s Classic Car, which has gone missing. While we rattle around in the room searching for the car, the father—sharp-witted as ever—announces in a playful tone that this ‘strategy’ talk of mine (as depicted in The Gamble) is never going to make any sense to him, and before I can defend myself he challenges me there-and-then to give him a definition of the strategy of our organisation.

I shoot back that our strategy is ‘Well-trained, well-supported, well-supervised, committed missional communities.’

‘Here’s a piece of strategy gone wrong!’ he says, holding out a snapped D-bolt link from a recent accident with a piece of heavy farming machinery—of which he is the minder and master in this community. ‘Great object lesson for you to use,’ he adds.

‘Perfect,’ I tell him and laugh. ‘Definitely not well-supported.’

‘But amazing commitment,’ he points out.

‘Yep.’

‘And,’ he continues. ‘It’s the committed ones who get broken first.’

‘Cause we think they’re so amazing they don’t need support,’ I add.

The poetry of what just happened makes me think of the gospels. Somehow when you read them you can’t escape the feeling that Jesus—the main character—behaves as if every bit of time, space and matter is impregnated elegantly with meaning and poetry. He expects that everything is alive with this kind of thing: not in a clunky, religious way but in a natural, easy-going kind of way, so that he can—in the same breath—look at a seed and tell us that life is about dying every day and lift up a child and tell us about the greatest thing in the world. In his understanding, everything counts. And when we listen to him we feel that perhaps it’s true after all that we were made for another world. In fact, three days ago I asked an unhappy-looking woman in a service station what she thought about it.

‘If it’s true that our deepest longings will never be fulfilled in this world,’ I said. ‘Is it fair to conclude that we were made for another world?’

‘We must be,’ she said, looking even more unhappy. Then, in a tone that sounded like she was about to cry, she added, ‘There must be hope. Don’t you think?’

Somehow, this ordinary lady working at a job she hated, broke my heart as I walked away and thought about the competing voices in her world telling her that all that stuff about being beloved of God is a crock and the sooner she gets it out of her system the better. An excerpt from Farewell To Arms (quoted by Nancy Pearcey) puts it this way: ‘ “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice,” says a character who clearly represents Hemingway himself. “Only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates … Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates.”4

Such twists and turns in the world of art, in its search to cope with the embarrassment of God, are always being ‘tried out’. Centuries before Naturalist artists (such as Hemingway) tried to undo the influence of the gospels—the world was astonished when the sacredness of ordinary people was brazenly displayed in art galleries. ‘Realism broke with this prevailing tradition,’ Pearcey says, ‘by emphasising the dignity of the ordinary, even humble, people. Where did this new style come from? From the doctrine of the incarnation.’

‘ “It was the story of Christ” that broke down the classical rules of style, writes literary critic Erich Auerbach, through its “mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.” The world-changing events of the gospel took place among everyday, ordinary people. Jesus welcomed sinners and prostitutes. He invited humble fishermen to be his disciples and ate with tax collectors (despised collaborators with the Roman occupation forces). These characters would never be considered suitable for representation in classical art. But amazingly their lives became the locus of the great climax in God’s plan of salvation. As a result, for the first time in history, it became “possible in literature as well as the visual arts to represent the most everyday phenomena of reality in a serious and significant context.” Moreover, because Christ died the ignominious death of a criminal, Auerbach adds, it became possible to portray, in a sympathetic way “even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.” ‘

‘Thus Jean Francois Millet, a devout Catholic, became the first to give peasants a Michelangelesque grandeur,” according to art historian Frederick Hartt. “Before his time peasants had been portrayed as stupid or even ridiculous.” They could be used in comedy or even genre painting, but not in serious art. Initially people were shocked by Millet’s paintings because they accorded dignity to humble figures. He broke new ground because of his Christian perspective. As one historian puts it, Millet gave daily life a biblical gravity, painting the human being as “ the lifelike icon of the invisible God.” ‘5

Somehow, I’m feeling more than ever that the extravagant demand of the lady in the service station —that any other hope than the one which speaks of us being made for another, better world—is not worthy of being described as ‘hope’. And thanks to Jesus and artists like Francois Millet, she might one day fully embrace the thought—without being intimidated—that she is a sacred being, one to be cherished in fact: really cherished in the only proper way that honours all those longings for friendship, family, love and grace.

  1. Dostoyevsky F.
  2. Toffler A.
  3. Ricks T.

    4 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 156, 157 B&H Publishing 2010 5 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 113 – 114 B&H Publishing 2010