Dispassion: Jesus & Superman (also John Climacus)

Dispassion (Gk apatheia) is one of the harder aspects of traditional Christian spirituality to sell today. I know that I have a hard time with it, and when I first heard John Michael Talbot sing, ‘Prayer is the state of dispassion’, I was greatly concerned.

At first glance, this term, whether applied to humans striving for perfection or to the already perfect Jesus/God, seems to be promoting not feeling anything, living life with a lack of emotion. And, certainly, there are times when spiritual writers sound like that’s just what they want — no laughter, no tears, no swellings of emotional feeling of any type at any point.

This past Sunday morning, my friend Cory was preaching about Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus calms the storm:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

Having just finished John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, whose second-last step is ‘Dispassion’, I couldn’t help but be struck that Jesus here is, in fact, an example of dispassion. The wind stirs, the waves rise, the rain batters from above. ‘But Jesus was sleeping.’

Jesus knows where true power lies. He can command the wind and waves to stop at any time. Therefore, he can sleep through a storm because he is not afraid of its power. One greater than the storm is here.

Jesus is chill. In it’s earliest meaning, this is what is meant to be ‘cool’ — that bad stuff doesn’t faze you, that you can handle it and be level. When great stuff comes, you don’t get too wound up, either, because you know that the great things in this temporal existence are fleeting, anyway.

A similar point was recently made about Superman, in this article by Joshua Rivera for Business Insider article a friend posted on Facebook, ‘Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies?‘ The quotation that sprang to mind as I mulled on Jesus in the boat this past Sunday is this one:

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.

That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw.

Now, Superman is fictional, and none of us is ever going to be as big as Jesus. Superman can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, use X-ray vision, lift really heavy stuff, and is impervious to bullets. Jesus is God in the flesh; in His time on earth, He walked on water, turned water into wine, rose people from the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, calms storms with a word, and then rose from the dead Himself.

None of us is likely ever to do the sorts of things Superman does in Action Comics, although by the grace of God I think some may do the sorts of things Jesus does in the Gospels. Either way, we are not as likely to be as chill as either Jesus or Morrison’s Superman.

John Climacus’ descriptions of dispassion and how we attain it are not exactly encouraging — unless you want to spend your whole life seeking to purified of all sin and become immersed in virtues. He writes:

If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: “I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me” (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God. (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 29, trans. Luibheid & Russell, p. 284)

I’ve blogged about the passions before, so I won’t detain us long on them. But it is freedom from the disordered desires of human life that dispassion refers to. The dispassionate person is not a soulless shell with no emotion. Rather, freed (by the grace of God) from being battered all day by his or her passions, the dispassionate can see clearly, can know truly what truth and good are, what falsehood and evil are. And can live accordingly.

All of this, as the best of the spiritual guides remind us (Climacus, Cassian, Theophan the Recluse among others), is by God’s grace alone. But, typically, God brings us to such a place only through the experiences and activities of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion.’ I’ve a feeling that dispassion — or, as Cassian circumlocutes is, purity of heart — is the same way.

Making Jesus weird

Coptic Icon of Christ

So, besides the fact that I simply like ancient and mediaeval Christianity (theologically, devotionally, artistically, liturgically, musically), one of the themes running through this blog is the use of our ancient and mediaeval inheritance to untame God and draw nearer to Him. Certainly my own time with the Church Fathers has helped untame my vision of God. The Fathers and monks and mystics of 2000 years of Church history have saved me from a small faith and weak theology.

In response to my post about mediaeval and Renaissance representations of Jesus as white, a friend said that most people aren’t necessarily concerned with those older representations but, rather, with the flannelgraph Jesus we all grew up with where He is so clearly just one of us white dudes in a robe. Not unlike my father.*

This comment made me think about contemporary representations of Jesus, especially in white congregations. While I think blond, Germanic Jesuses of the Early Middle Ages, or Chinese Jesuses in the 19th century, or mediaeval Jesuses who like vaguely like Buddha (also in China), or First Nations Jesuses today, maybe the time for such encultured Jesuses in white churches is over.

I’m not concerned with ‘imperialism’ or ‘racism’ here. I’m more concerned with tameness. With ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’

Do our ongoing white Jesuses  serve to tame the untamable? Have we made Jesus too normal? Have we lost the shock and scandal and bewilderment of the historical particularity of the Incarnation? Yes, God became one of us. And that meant a first-century Palestinian working-class Jewish guy.

That is to say, perhaps the time for this 19th-c image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whence comes flannelgraph Jesus, I believe, has gone:

Accurate? Probably. Creepy? Definitely.

But I don’t think the BBC’s 2001 image of Jesus should ever have its day. Not because it’s untraditional but because it’s creepy. A friend of mine says that there is a stage at which computer images move from acceptable to creepy as they become more real. Like the trailers for the new Tarzan film (which I eschew on principle). I’ve seen these facial reconstructions done by osteoarchaeologists and forensic scientists before, for Pompeiians and Bog People and they are always creepy.

When I say I want Jesus to be ‘weird’, I mean I want him to be less familiar, not more creepy.

Perhaps then we can begin to be shocked anew at the sayings of the Crucified God. Perhaps we can realise that He spends a lot of time challenging our lifestyles, and that’s really uncomfortable. Perhaps.

Perhaps we can untame our theology and be seized again by the power of the Triune God who is completely beyond our understanding.

*Who has been referred to as ‘God’ by children on multiple occasions. The beard and the robes …

On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.

Weaving Jesus into your spare time

Christ
Christ, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Rome. 9th-c

Here are some other thoughts about what can be worked into the day to help us focus on Jesus at work at home at play with the kids mowing the lawn eating a juicy hamburger:

Mix quality Christian books into your fun reading. At this moment, I’m not advocating City of God for every reader (although, if that’s your thing…). More like Narnia. Or Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Maybe Stephen R Lawhead for fantasy fans.

There are readable Christian books out there for readers of non-fiction, of course. Like Mere Christianity. Or Knowing God by JI Packer. Or get wild and read The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Maybe read a book of saints’ lives, like Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M White? Besides Milton (ohmygosh read Paradise Lost now!), read Scott Cairns or the lyrics of Charles Wesley or Gerard Manley Hopkins or whomever.

Maybe you’re not a reader. I don’t know how such people exist, but they seem to manage. In that case, find other ways to mix Jesus into your daily activities.

Every once in a while, good Christian films seem to come out. Watch them instead of something less edifying, perhaps? Go back and re-watch ones where you’re not sure about the orthodoxy of the input in your spare time, like Jesus Christ Superstar. Why not watch that? Or Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about Saint Francis of Assisi. If you like documentaries, there’s Lord, Save Us from Your Followers and Hellbound – whether you agree with the filmmakers’ perspectives, simply thinking about these issues should help us weave Christ into our lives and focus on him more.

If you’re an art-lover, you don’t even have to try to bring Jesus in. Just be more conscious in your focus, since most western art from the Early Middle Ages to some point after the Renaissance is Christian. Jesus is there. In fact, since He is Himself beautiful in a cosmic way, he is waiting to be thanked and delighted in every time you enjoy a work of art, whether it’s of waterlilies or saints or Queen Elizabeth I.

We live in an age of recorded music. Put Jesus on the stereo – Tallis, Striggio, Palestrina, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner all wrote liturgical music and musical settings for Scripture; Handel’s oratorios are simply Baroque settings of the Bible in English. As well, the world abounds in CDs of hymns.

I grew up on a steady diet of Contemporary Christian Music. I admit that not all of it is the world’s greatest music, but I would recommend John Michael Talbot and Rich Mullins to about anyone, and still enjoying listening to new and classic Newsboys (it’s catchy) as well as good ol’ Audio Adrenaline and dc Talk. Those of you who scorn such music, please don’t judge me! Filling our ears with the truths of Christ and Scripture can help turn our hearts and minds to Him, helping us focus on Him. It’s just a matter of which track to play in iTunes or which CD to pop into the stereo.

I’m not saying to stop reading or watching or viewing or listening to the art produced by the rest of the world in our spare time. There are good theological, aesthetic, and missiological reasons to keep engaging with pagan sculptors and atheist novelists. I am not going to suddenly stop reading Isaac Asimov as part of my attempt to get more Jesus. Nor will I give up Star Trek and the Beatles. But to mix the Christian things into our downtime and our atmosphere, this is a Good Thing. It will bring Jesus more fully into our senses and into our lives.

Remember, Brother Lawrence was a lay Carmelite whose job took him to the scullery as well as across France on a vessel carrying wine. He was able to stay focussed on Christ the whole time. Frank Laubach was a missionary and literacy promoter who also trained himself to think on Christ. You can do it in whatever situation you are in and not neglect the children, the job, the boss, the spouse, the dishes, the food, the living room, the taxes.

The Kingdom of the Heavens is all around us — we don’t need to do too much that is special to start focussing on its King.

Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

The limits of secure historical knowledge

So a friend on FB recently had a really annoying guy insisting in the comments on his status that St Augustine of Hippo was a closeted homosexual. The main argument of the annoying guy was simply that there is no way you can argue against saying that someone was/is a closeted homosexual, since that’s the whole point of being a closeted homosexual. Mostly, he was doing it to annoy my friend; it seemed to work.

In the case of determining whether a historical person was a closeted homosexual or not, in the absence of any evidence of said person having secret relations with men, all that can be done is a psychological analysis. And psychological analyses even of the living can be wrong — given that we have very limited knowledge about the psyches of any dead people, even ones like St Augustine or Cicero who left us so many writings, this historical psychologising can only go so far.

I would be so bold as to say that you should probably even refrain from diagnosing Roman Emperors on whom the common consensus is that they were ‘obviously’ ‘crazy’ (e.g. Caligula, Nero, Commodus).

Our knowledge of the past is always and necessarily imperfect. Our knowledge, in fact, of the present and of our own, individual selves is as well.  When we want to get back to ‘what really happened’ or ‘what so-and-so was really like’, we have to rely on the various historical sources available to us — letters, memoirs, land grants, censuses, baptismal records, art, architecture, novels, photographs, films, epic poems, epigrams, funerary inscriptions, tombs, grave goods, your mom.

The further back in history we go — generally speaking — the fewer of these kinds of evidence are available to us. And amongst the remaining varieties of evidence, there are times when even these are sparse. Sparse(ish) for Roman history is the early fifth century AD. But that’s not as sparse as most Mesopotamian history.

And even when we have first-hand accounts, many questions remain.

Take C. Julius Caesar, for example. We have all sorts of stuff written by him about his campaigns and life, and things written by his contemporaries, and things written about him by those who came after, as well as portraits and archaeological remains. But we are still uncertain as to the locations of several major battles that took place in Gaul (modern France). And, even if Adrian Goldsworthy can put together a masterful, enormous biography of the man, a lot of that is still to be admitted as not entirely secure — new evidence could change one thing or tweak another or totally abolish the veracity of a third.

These considerations should be important for each and every Christian.

The Christian fait is founded upon the historical interactions between God and the human race, most especially in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When ‘historical Jesus’ books appear, or when we get into arguments with people about persons or aspects of the faith, we have to realise how far the reasoned knowledge we possess can go. For example, conceptually and from a rationalist perspective, the goal of the Jesus Seminars — to determine which things Jesus did or did not say — is perceptibly laudable. It is also impossible, even with a better methodology than theirs.

Or take the Resurrection. A complaint raised against NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that, at heart, much of it is old argument dressed up in contemporary methodologies. But the work of the person who said that, Robert M Price ‘the Bible Geek’, has been accused of the same thing. We have so little new evidence (i.e. none) about the Resurrection of Jesus, and the ability of historical data to pinpoint any single, precise, individual event is so weak that the arguments for something that can only run around each other in circles, no matter how clever you are.

The best NT Wright can do for Christians is demonstrate that belief in the Resurrection is not contrary to reason (that is, if you believe that a reasonable universe includes a God who acts in human history). The best the Bible Geek can do is demonstrate to those who do not believe in a bodily Resurrection that the likelihood of such an event is very small and there is no burden of historical evidence that forces them to accept it.

That is to say, history will never give us the certainty about our faith that we want it to.

What a lot of good history can do is make sense of the sources. And here is its strength. Rationalistic approaches to the past cannot say whether or not certain, particular events happened, especially the supernatural or miraculous. But they can survey a wide array of evidence from a period and give us the cultural background to help us make the stories make sense and contextualise them. They can tell us what sorts of things our ancestors thought possible or reasonable. They can tell us what sorts of events are more or less likely to have happened. They can tell us the significance of a particular event in a particular culture.

But they will never be able to prove to anyone, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead or that St Augustine was or was not a homosexual.

Thus the limits not only of historical research but of human reason.

From the Gelasian Sacramentary

It is, indeed, right that, with hearts raised up on high, we worship the divine mystery* by which the human condition, with the old and earthly law ceasing, is brought forth as a new and heavenly substance, miraculously restored, so that which is carried out by the great gift of God may be celebrated with the great joy of the Church. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Communion Prayers at Prime for Christmas morning. My terrible translation.

*Sc. the Incarnation.