Month: March 2016

Blessed Easter from Leviathan!

I know my Redeemer lives! We’ll be back next week. Kind of like Jesus rising, except it’ll be next Monday, not Easter Sunday … and we won’t be saving the world.

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Scars in Heaven

rust1What scars will remain with me, even after death?

A few years ago, I had the chance to hear Dr. Stanley Hauerwas give a lecture at Fontbonne University. Hauerwas is known for his biting wit, against-the-grain combativeness, and unfailing pacifism—three things that are utterly threatening to me. On this particular night, his topic was the theology of aging, though in the question and answer period that followed he talked about a variety of issues related to human embodiment. At one point, he laid out a thought question to support one of his central points.

He simply asked, ‘Will there be disabilities in heaven?’

Which, if I understood him properly, he wondered whether those people who have (what most observers would call) disabilities such as multiple sclerosis or Down’s Syndrome would retain their condition into eternity?

Most of those in attendance that night answered quickly, I surmise: Of course not. There are no tears in heaven. Clapton told me so. To say that God allows disabilities in heaven is to charge God as unsympathetic to the suffering of the less fortunate. The argument proceeds as follows: God created a world in perfect goodness, without disability or deformation. Sin came into the world which brought all manner of sickness, disease, and human imperfection with it. The story of redemption is the story of God restoring all things back to his original intentions. Thus, human beings are returned to their good and holy position of dignity, free from sadness and suffering. I admit there is meat on the bone here.

This general gut reaction should be instructive on several fronts. First, it seems to me that we should be hesitant about building or defining someone else’s identity. In other words, if I’m not afflicted with cerebral palsy, trying to stake a claim on how or what such a person should think about themselves feels remarkably patronizing. It’s like telling Jordan Spieth how to putt better via a tweet. Defining another’s identity—apart from extraordinarily unique situations like adoption—is precarious (even dangerous) work.  Too often, the action is a power play where the strong label the weak in order to keep them from rising.

But if we chase this theological rabbit down the hole, aren’t we admitting that we essentially believe a Downs Syndrome child is less than whole and complete as a human creature? If recent studies out of Europe are to be believed, many people already have this disposition.scar1

Second, the very gut instinct we naturally have tells us that we generally think of physical disabilities as sicknesses to be cured. I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. Surely ailments like multiple sclerosis were not a part of God’s original design for humanity in the Garden; yet we are people who live after the Fall. Nail scars were not necessarily apart of God’s original design for humanity, yet Jesus has them—after rising from the dead.

Even now, I have trouble answering the above question in a satisfactory way. I surely don’t want to insist that these brothers and sisters bear their burden silently and impotently. I equally want to avoid a position that doesn’t allow a disabled individual to claim their disability as a condition that helps define who they are in the most positive of senses. In fact, further inquiry might force us to answer questions in the same constellation:

Does an ugly person remain ugly in heaven?
Does an obese person remain obese in heaven?
Or,
Does a physical specimen on earth retain his/her ‘natural’ beauty in heaven?

I once heard a young woman speak about her extreme physical disability—she was forced to use crutches in order to walk— in the following way. She simply said (paraphrased), ‘Every morning I wake up and my physical need reminds me of my spiritual need.  I do not bemoan my condition but see it as a blessing from God.’ What do we do with that atomic bomb of a statement? When we even say the word, ‘disability,’ we may be missing the point altogether. One’s very idea of God is formed by certain contextual markers like experience and language (hopefully always evaluated through Scripture), so for the disabled, we have to be willing to acknowledge that their understanding of God is deeply formed by their condition. I’m not sure I’m willing to remove these uniquely gifted insights into God and/or the human condition just because their physical condition brings about some sympathy, empathy, and/or personal discomfort.

Perhaps over-and-above all of this theorizing is a simple, but grand point. The body is central to the ways we understand our own identity. This not just in the superficial sense, where a guy like me is recognized because of an unruly beard and a shockingly receding hairline. Rather, that I am a created being. As such, my Creator endowed me to look a certain way (grizzled), to walk a certain way (gangly), and to talk in a certain way (nasally). Sure I wish I had a voice like Johnny or Waylon, but then again, isn’t it funny how we associate these men’s identities with their voices? Their physical features?

The trick might be a simple prayer: Lord, let me see the world as you see the world. How does God see the afflicted? Does God even see the affliction? Or, does he call it blessing in disguise?

How does God see the afflicted? Does God even see the affliction?

I do not know if I will be balding at the Last Day, when I am raised to life in a same-but-new body. I think it’s consistent with Scripture to think that my new body will be recognizable … and if that’s so, perhaps I’ll keep other things that I’m convinced ‘are me’: a particular sense of humor, the scar on my left hand, the shape of my nose. I remain confident, however, that my eyes will be opened to see that which is really true about my neighbor: his dignity, my common kinship with him, our mutual humility before a sovereign and gracious God. If his physical impairment remains, then we will see God’s glory working through that as well.

nail1This is Passion Week. And to prove that he was physically resurrected, Jesus shows his scars to a doubting, but ever-so-pragmatic, Thomas. Scars. He kept the scars, even as he was going about the radical transformation from dead to alive. This has to mean something. Apparently the Father considered the Son’s physical reminders of a truly horrific earthly experience important enough to Jesus’ identity that they should remain … to this day.

Some scars I wish to shed. Others have become a part of my history, even my identity. I’m sure God can sort out what parts of Joel should remain on the Last Day and which parts to excise or transform. There, before the throne of God, we are all made able once again.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sitting in an Avatar’s Ashes

tears4About 6 years ago, I joined a clan of a popular computer game called Team Fortress 2. Since I played on their server and pitched in with a few dollars here or there to keep it running, I knew the rowdy group well enough and felt comfortable with their clan ethos. Personally, the application process felt like a full affirmation of my nerd-dom; a group of computer geeks sniffing out their own on the digital Serengeti. I passed the application and interview process (yes, they had both) and said to my wife, “I think I just got formally invited to the clan. I’m not exactly sure what that means.” What can I say? It was a venture into a world of misfits.

The clan has long since disbanded, but I distinctly remember one event that totally caught me by surprise. Part of clan membership was active participation in the clan’s website and discussion threads. These interchanges served as the community glue, where members and visitors could banter back and forth about anything—even stuff that didn’t relate to the game. On one particular day, a member of the clan posted a short somber statement that I shall paraphrase as follows:

Hi guys. Some of you know my sister had cancer. She died yesterday, and my world has come crashing down. I don’t know what to do. I’m totally lost.

 I read those words and sat at my computer dumbfounded…on a variety of levels. This player felt it necessary to lay before a near-random group of strangers a profound sense of suffering. For the moment, I’m going to suggest the gamer was male for ease of reference. Consider what his small but profound act implies when you read between the lines:tears1

  • He believed that the clan, even though it was formed to enjoy a digital game, has enough of the qualities of genuine community that it could help him cope with massive suffering.
  • Or, conversely, he was so desperate for a hopeful or encouraging word that he’d go to any length to find a community, even one that is constructed by the common experience of playing a video game.
  • He apparently did not consider embodied relationships to be a prerequisite for hearing comfort or receiving advice. To him, the clan could potentially meet some or all of his needs without the presence of real people beside him in his ‘real’ life. Or, perhaps, his embodied life was depressingly short on trustworthy people.
  • He believes, ultimately, that the relationships he built in this online environment were fundamentally authentic. No person would open up his/her private life to a group of people if the opposite were true.

No one can avoid suffering, of course, but can the digital world be used as a third place (i.e., not home or work) for sanctuary? For healing?

In some ways, the gamer in question is on the safest of footing by posting on the clan thread. Since everyone understands what it’s like to experience loss, it’s not as if he’s trying to communicate with people who have no idea what he’s talking about. My own emotions turned upside down just reading his short post—because I felt a human response to a deeply human reality. On the other hand, each person who joins an online group comes for different reasons–one for companionship, another for an amusing shared experience, another for new styles of play, etc. This gamer’s tragic situation is unusually serious for such an association, and he risks that some members of the community may not respond to his plea for consolation because the situation falls outside of the boundaries of appropriate clan behavior. Perhaps a Christian gamer could respond to him with empathy and appropriate witness … but would that be violating the same unwritten rules of acceptable behavior?

This particular gamer was not a Christian. So the presence of hope in his life was disguised at best, altogether missing at worst. He had no church to cling to, no sacrament to partake in, no community to bring him fried chicken and two verses of I Know that My Redeemer Lives. The desperation was real enough to risk the aforementioned responses, but I wonder if he would have received the gospel riskily offered by another gamer … even me.

Many of you may have heard of the indie computer game, That Dragon, Cancer. It was developed by Ryan and Amy Green, who lost their four-year old son, Joel, to a rare form of terminal cancer that was diagnosed when he was just 12 months old. The game was a therapeutic, deeply personal way of reflecting on that grief and allowing others to share in the experience. In fact, when they started the project little Joel was still alive; he died during its development. It’s a simple point-and-click game that walks you through the parents’ point-of-view, from diagnosis to death and included some original artifacts from the couples’ life together. In one heartbreaking moment, the game plays a phone message left by the wife to her husband explaining an unsuccessful diagnosis of the problem early in Joel’s life. The couple happens to be Christian, so to play the game as a Christian you sense the undercurrent of hope and faith, something that is desperately needed because the game brings tears to your eyes (on multiple occasions) as you play.

First of all, wow. How can intense grief become so public? Yet, isn’t this the same bold move as our gamer mentioned earlier?

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Because of these creative forms of grieving, I am cautious not to throw a blanket statement over all the digital world, saying, ‘This does not qualify as a healthy form of sorrow.’ That seems remarkably disingenuous and callous. Like any other family in their situation, the Greens wanted to find relief and comfort from the avalanche of sadness that comes from losing a young one. The manifestation of that effort has given other families comfort in solidarity; the game gave skin to the emotions that come with death and for many, this game was a godsend. Yet I have to ask myself how I would feel about That Dragon, Cancer if there was no church community to support the Greens behind the scenes.

The human experience necessarily includes suffering. For the Christian, we are called (at least to some degree) to a life of suffering. The rabbi-disciple relationship is one in which the disciple does everything that the rabbi does; where our Lord goes, we shall follow. And, if this is the case, we better be ready to bear our crosses. When Christ calls us to follow him, he bids us to come and die.

tears2Yet suffering has meaning for the believer. Under the pain of death our salvation was achieved. Through toil and pain we bear the curse of the Fall. Our present sufferings are real and present yet stand in stark contrast to the immeasurable joy of being united with Christ at the end of our life’s race.

One of my colleagues recently lost a family member in Colorado. We sat in his office about a month later, reflecting on a variety of theological issues related to grief and embodiment, when he nonchalantly dropped this profound rhetorical question, ‘What possessed my wife and I to drive 14 hours straight to be with my family when I could have just called?’ He went on to simply say that he had to be there. His approach to consolation rings with deep wisdom—being in the physical presence of those who suffer is itself a message of affirmation. The whole gamut of human communication is immediate; it’s in the face, the eyes, sadness of the posture. A tender touch or hug draws the sufferer into a relief that can only be experienced when the comforter’s mouth finally resorts to silence.

The tender touch or hug draws the sufferer into a relief that can only be experienced when the comforter’s mouth finally resorts to silence.

Sitting in the ashes together may be the only way the sufferer can finally relinquish the poisonous thoughts that whisper, ‘No one understands what I’m going through. No one gets it.’ When a community sits in suffering together, the bitterness of being alone has no foothold. We have a Deliverer, who was tempted and challenged in every way–even in the loss of his closest friends–yet was without sin. He can sit in the ashes with us, … yes, even in digital ashes. Praise be to God!

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Uncanny Valley … and Zombies.

movie1Horror films have a way of making their mark on a kid. Personally, I can’t stand them. I’m not sure that I totally understand the need to watch some dude in a mask chase a bunch of teenagers with a [fill in weapon not meant to be a weapon of choice], have the scene replay in your mind for the duration of the night, then have it act as a petri dish for your inevitable nightmares to follow. Oh, and for all of that, you’re out $15. To demonstrate what a wuss I am in this regard, I remember renting The Blair Witch Project from Blockbuster (yes, Blockbuster) to see what the fuss was about. I brought it home, watched it by myself in the dark and to this day wish I could un-watch certain scenes. The BWP didn’t even show gratuitous violence or gore. Almost none, in fact.

Yep, I’m a wuss.

I do admit, however, that I catch an occasional zombie film. A couple criteria must be in place, however, before I’ll even entertain watching them.

  • Rule #1: If Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are in the film, the zombie flick just got better by a factor of 10. Of course, this applies to movies, in general, not just the zombie genre. See Shaun of the Dead for some excellent work in this regard.zombies1
  • Rule #2: If the zombies are more like zombie-robots and not zombie-zombies, then it’s easier to watch. Try The World’s End, which, by the way, follows rule #1 as a bonus.
  • Rule #3: Double tap. Here lies the strength and cleverness of Zombieland. It’s gruesome, yes…but there are rules.

Can you identify why the zombie phenomenon continues to capture the public’s imagination? I’m sure that some of it has to do with what makes for any good suspense movie. You start by applying tension between the protagonist(s) and the creature—it doesn’t matter if the creature is an animal (Jaws), a chimera of sorts (Maze Runner), a robot (Terminator), or a zombie. The monster is just the medium by which a movie-goer receives the necessary amount of emotional terror. Then, the director does his/her best to remove or solve the tension in a satisfying way.

But zombies, specifically?

Let me propose a theory. There’s this thing called the ‘uncanny valley.’ The uncanny valley was a term coined by robotics engineer, Masahiro Mori, in 1970 to describe the levels of comfort people have with robotic devices that increasingly look like humans. I’ll try to lay it out simply.

As a robotic device begins to look more ‘human-like,’ levels of empathy and comfort increase. A person could look at a robotic pet, for example, and have a positive emotion attached to that experience. However, as a robot looks almost identical to a human model, the attitudes of the people who interact with it (even just looking at) will change dramatically—rather than being pleased or curious about the robot, they’ll feel strong feelings of revulsion or disgust. Graphically, it looks like this:uncanny

Things that look a lot like humans but are just a bit…off…will provoke the strongest negative reactions. Some evolutionary scientists have suggested that these emotions are a throwback from pre-human ancestors as a way to protect the health of the community. If one member of the community gets seriously ill (and thus looks ‘less human’ or even corpse-like), the community corporately exhibits feelings of disgust and expels the outsider, thus protecting the people from further infection.

Zombies are on this list. They are at the bottom of the valley. On the horizontal axis of the graph, notice how close zombies are to being fully human, yet because they look not-quite-right and demonstrate actions or behaviors which don’t fall within the socially accepted range, they are looked at with pure disgust. The stuff of nightmares. This uncanny valley should give you clues why the horror archetypes of clowns, wax museum statues, and mannequins have collectively creeped us out for years.

Being just off, then, is not a descent into neutral.  Being just off can generate pure revulsion.

I’m reminded of Jesus on a couple of fronts here. First, the leper stories in Scripture can be seen with new eyes. A leper is a person who doesn’t look like a person, after all…skin deformities and discolorations must have been a source of great shame, far beyond the actual sickness. Regular healthy onlookers would hide their faces as lepers walk by, a natural response when the average person is confronted by the uncanny look of a ‘not-quite’ healthy human. Yet, Jesus touched them. Jesus spoke to them. Jesus maintained empathy in the face of understandable disgust.movie3

Second, in Matthew 15, Jesus quotes a section of Isaiah to some Pharisees and teachers of the law. He scolds them by saying, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” And later, referring to the same men, Jesus says to the disciples, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:7-9, 14). Sounds suspiciously like zombie behavior, and not just the part about the blind wandering around aimlessly toward pits (or baseball bats).

Jesus is doing two separate actions that are remarkable. In the former story, he draws the ‘non-human’ closer to himself. That is, Jesus has the remarkable capacity to bring life to those who are dying, dead, and/or otherwise, zombie-like. He lifts the eyes of the repentance and contrite monster so that he may once again enter into the community as a full-fledged son. Drawing the person out of the valley, if you will.

Jesus has the remarkable capacity to bring life to those who are dying, dead, and/or otherwise, zombie-like.

At the same time, Jesus boldly expels those who think they are in the ‘in-community.’ They say the right things—even look like the real deal—but underneath hide the arrogance of unbelief. Jesus pushes them, if you will, away into the uncanny valley. For the proud and unrepentant, you get the pit.

The world of technology is particularly adept at pointing out (exposing? exploiting?) humanity’s deepest needs. Sometimes I feel like I’m just wandering in the halls of technologies, moaning, “BRRAAAINS…” while some overlord manipulates my perception of reality.

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On what side of Jesus’ words do we fall? Will we side with the bleeding woman, the leper, Jairus’ dead daughter, Zaccheus, the multitudes of sick not-quite-humans who yearn to touch the hem of the savior’s robe? The whole of the Christian’s life is to be oriented by repentance and humility. This disposition necessarily crushes pride underfoot precisely because repentance generates a clear view of our dire situation. Our need.

The uncanny valley may yet have another application for the Church…perhaps this is your morsel for intellectual consumption this week.

Why does the secular world often look at the church with disgust? Are we reviled because we look like Christ and that threatens people … or, are we reviled because we’ve become poor facsimiles of Christ’s humanity and yet present ourselves as if we got it all together?

How’s that for a double-tap?

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.