Give life to our vision
Lindsay Cullen considers Easter a time of transformation and renewal.
A raggedly dressed black man sits in an almost empty auditorium listening to an orchestra rehearsing. As his eyes close in delight, a vibrant landscape of moving colours and shapes opens up on the screen, moving sinuously and seductively in ways that seem to illustrate the movements of the music.
It’s a scene from the recent movie, The Soloist — based on the true story of a newspaper columnist who befriends a street person and discovers a musical talent hidden by the effects of mental illness.
The scene I have mentioned seems to suggest that, alongside whatever the mental disorders which have brought the protagonist, Nathaniel Ayers, to be unemployed and sleeping rough, he also has the neurological condition called synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is a condition which does not generally interfere with normal functioning but causes the stimulation of one sense to lead to experiences related to a different sense. So, for example, a synaesthete might “see” sounds or experience written words or numbers as having different colours or tastes.
Some synaesthetes find that their condition provides inspiration and creativity, which plays out in their artistic or academic endeavours. Famous synaesthetes include physicist Richard Feynman, author Vladimir Nabokov and composers such as Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky–Korsakov and Leonard Bernstein.
Just a couple of days after seeing The Soloist and having my interest in synaesthesia rekindled, I happened to listen to a podcast of the ABC radio show All in the Mind, which consisted of an interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman, who heads up a centre of synaesthesia research in Houston, Texas.
I was surprised to learn that about one per cent of the population is thought to have some form of synaesthesia and that the majority of synaesthetes go through their whole lives never suspecting that other people don’t experience the world as they do.
As David Eagleman says, “One of the great lessons of synaesthesia is that people’s realities can be quite different on the inside.” The same world, the same events, can be experienced in quite different ways according to our perspective.
A different perspective
At this Easter time, I’d like to take the chance to think a bit about the perspective from which we view the events of the familiar story.
Typically, and understandably, we think about the story from the perspective of what unfolded for Jesus: betrayal, trials and various kinds of torture, a horrific death and then the surprise ending of resurrection.
Of course, this narrative is key to our faith and it becomes a metaphor, a lens, a perspective on life for the person of faith. How many times in church circles do we hear about death and resurrection, not referring to a historical event but as a metaphor for some other situation?
We expect, or even hope for, some old program, event or institution to “die” so that it can be “resurrected” to new life. I know I’ve used that kind of language many times myself.
It’s a powerful image, a compelling metaphor. It speaks to us of hope from despair, the Phoenix from the ashes. However, central as this story and this metaphor are for our Christian faith, I’ve come to think that there can be a problem if this becomes the only motif we use in describing and thinking about the Easter story.
You see, the consequences of death are grim. It’s no mistake that the New Testament characterises death as an evil to be avoided (see, for example, Romans 8:6 or James 1:15) or as the “final enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
I thought about this recently in connection with the issue of environmental deterioration. Do I really want the earth’s fragile ecosystem to suffer death before coming to resurrection?
This in fact is close to the view of some apocalyptic doomsayers claiming to be environmentalists. In their view, the earth will suffer catastrophic environmental meltdown causing mass extinctions, especially perhaps of humanity, until eventually life emerges on the other side, purged of the pestilence forever.
This is not an outcome I would hope for, nor do I think it is good environmentalism, let alone matching God’s good plans for the creation.
I was reminded also of a conversation some years back with a friend who asked me why I would want to be part of a “dying church” like the Uniting Church.
My slightly flippant reply was that I was pleased to be part of a church which was nearer to death than others because I was excited to see the new life Christ would bring about after that death.
As I thought back to that conversation recently, I had to ask myself, “Do I really want the Uniting Church to die in order to be resurrected?” And the clear answer was “No.”
Sure, I hoped for radical change in the church. Yes, I wanted renewal and transformation. But I didn’t really want to see this movement, forged out of fervent hopes and sacrificial actions, die. I don’t want this institution, with all its faults, to be lost to a world which needs its emphasis on justice, its wrestling with issues of sexuality, or of reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
I don’t want to live in a Christian community which has lost the Uniting Church’s odd mix of conservatives, liberals and postmoderns, bound together in a polity and decision–making system that ensures that we have to work with one another relationally.
Perhaps I’m short-sighted, but I want the Uniting Church to live, to grow, to flourish!
That we may live
When I look at the Easter story and focus not on the road Christ trod but instead at the experience of the disciples, a fascinating thing strikes me: none of the disciples died.
Their hopes and dreams may have died. A friend, mentor and Lord, died. But the disciples didn’t die.
Instead, through the Easter event, their lives were renewed, transformed. Indeed one common way of expressing the Easter hope is found in the phrase, “He died, that we might live.”
What happens if we consider this image of transformation and renewal as well as that of death and resurrection? Now of course it might be argued that I am simply playing language games; that to talk of resurrection and new life in a metaphorical sense means exactly the same as transformation and renewal.
But language and the metaphors we use do make a difference. They have impact. Sometimes the destruction of death is an evil to be avoided, regardless of our faith in God’s ability to bring new life.
The cost of the Phoenix rising is a heap of ashes.
On the other hand, let us return to the issues I mentioned earlier, in the light of this image of transformed and renewed life, rather than that of death and resurrection.
I don’t wish the death of the environment, but environmental renewal is something I can fervently hope for and commit myself to achieving. I don’t want to see the Uniting Church die, but transformation of the life of the Uniting Church is a goal I can both advocate in prayer and will work toward in practice.
In these examples, and perhaps for many other issues in our world, the theme of renewal and transformation is a useful addition to the motif of death and resurrection.
Turning full circle, to where I began this piece with the unusual condition of synaesthesia and to the truth that the same world can be experienced in wildly different ways: I wonder if a part of the renewal, the transformation that is offered by the Easter story, is actually an ability to see the world in a new and creative light.
It’s not that we are suddenly removed to another world but that we experience the world in which we live in radically different ways that others might not suspect.
We are both called and empowered to see humans as Jesus did: to see the potential in the social outcast; to recognise the face of Christ in the stranger, the needy or the prisoner. We are invited and enabled to see our world as Jesus did — a place where the Kingdom of God has come among us and where God’s rule can spread like a wild mustard bush or rise up like yeast in dough.
We are called to be people who see life where others might see death, who know hope while others fall into despair.
And this is not simply a spiritualised view of the world. We are not imagining some fairy story world of joy and peace to replace the pain and turmoil in our own world. Nor are we overlaying a layer of spiritual happiness over the top of real physical and emotional struggles, sorrow and angst.
Rather, we are enabled to see the vision of the God who was in Christ for our own physical world; to see the justice, reconciliation and peace which can be a reality. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
But the people of Christ are also unlike the synaesthete in clear and important ways. Our condition comes not from some as yet unknown blending of genetics and environment, entirely intransmissible. Our experience of the world is not a subjective thing, forever unique and forever trapped within our own skulls. Our vision of the future does not have to remain a private one.
Instead, through the power of the Easter Christ and the Spirit sent from God, we are gifted with a vision which may be, which must be, shared with others.
Our faith communities are to be places where this odd way of understanding the world is nurtured and developed. Unlike the solitary figure in The Soloist, seeing the colours and shapes of the music in the isolation of his own head, we are called to paint, sing, sculpt, dance and cook our new experience!
We are called to live changed and renewed lives so that others may also experience transformation.
Most importantly of all, we are called not just to hold a different perspective but to give life to our new creative vision. We are to put flesh on our hope, to transform the very world into our Easter imagination of what might be.
The final scene of The Soloist shows an auditorium full of people listening to an orchestra perform. Nathaniel sits alongside the three other people whose lives have entwined with his. But they are not alone. The entire audience is being taken on a journey by the beauty of the music. Each one may be experiencing the sounds in different ways.
But they are travelling together.
Lindsay Cullen is an adult education consultant at the ELM Centre.