A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

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As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

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Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

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Game of Faiths

The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is  based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled,  A Song of Ice and Fire.

With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.

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Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.

‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!

To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.

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While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.

One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.

Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.

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History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.

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And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?

Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.

We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.

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It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.

In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of  The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki,  and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.

These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example,  Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.

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Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of  evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.

Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.

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This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate-  to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.

 

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George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.

Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.

On Suffering

Recently Stephen Fry created waves by declaring the Judeo-Christian  God to be capriciuos, mean minded and an “utter maniac”  for creating a world full of injustice and pain.

For him athiesm is a much more internally consistent belief system.

It avoids the prickly internal contradiction that maintains there is an all knowing , all good and all powerful God responsible for this world who is also desiring of our unending grattitude and praise.

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Cultural commentator Russell Brand, mouthpiece for the spiritual awakening pervasive in western culture , had his reply on The Trews.

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The debate is interesting because it drills down beyond dogma into the narrative of belief systems. Every world view has a story at its heart and from this core narrative we draw the meaning of our existence.

The narrative of Buddhism says suffering is an illusion tied to desire. If we achieve detachment from desire we can escape the world of suffering and so the world of rebirth.

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The narrative of Hinduism says suffering is merited, and karmic cycles deliver suffering upon us for past misdemeanours.

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The narrative of Islam says God is far greater than humanity, and God’s greater wisdom means humans cannot understand the meaning of their suffering.

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The narrative of athiesm says says suffering is entirely meaningless [as is joy or evil]. The locus of reality lies in existential being.

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What all these narratives agree on is that suffering incites in us a sense of justice. From it we gain a sense of meaning outside of our own experiences, a solidarity with others who suffer. Suffering gives us a  knowledge that all is not right with this world and that suffering is inherently wrong for the human condition.

The Hebrew understanding of suffering to me offers the most profound illustration in the Book of Job.

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The narrative of Job shows that suffering is real and it is often unmerited. Job choses not to resign himself to God’s mystery.

His suffering presses him to go beyond religion.

Job then has the choice to turn from God to nihilism but instead he turns TO God with a daring challenge. “Show yourself.”

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God created this mess and so only God can stand between an imperfect humanity and a perfect God and arbitrate.

In doing so, Job is declared righteous, as righteous as any of the covenant. It’s not blood sacrifice, circumcision, baptism, church attendance, meditation, renunciation, humility, pennance, piety or prayers that God smiles upon. From the very beginning it’s faith.

It’s the vision of God standing between us and Godself, a God-man ultimately carrying our suffering.

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This redemption gives ultimate meaning to our suffering, not removing it but bearing with us, walking with us, taking away our tears with a glorious future hope.

How Power Makes You Selfish

Power tends to corrupt and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

So goes the famous quote of British historian, politican and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton.

In this recent video, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that the frontal cortex of the brain is the area in which we detect other people’s pain. He shows how damage to the frontal lobe, limits empathy which in turn incites impulsivity, anger and disconnectedness.

In short, one can acquire sociopathy.

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The interesting twist is that giving people a little bit of power, creates the same affect on the brain as trauma. People doused with sudden power, lose touch, begin to act on whims and imulses and to fail to understand what others care and think.

It gives clarity to the story that a high proportion of CEOs show sociopathic tendencies.

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So what do we do?

The story cuts close to home when similar group studies show that the power differential created by socio-economic status will will create negative behaviour – dominance, entitlement and disregard.

What is curious, is that similar groups may champion a story or film about a disabled, foreign or poor protagonist.

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Why are we so schizophrenic?

Why do we marginalise those different to us at a party or in the workplace, but love and adore stories about mentally ill patients, artists suffering alzheimers, poor migrants and so forth?


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Is it simply a matter of stories and art, building neural pathways for us that need acting on?

A recent post, Mean Tweets, observed how bullying phrases can be turned into comedy gold by the simple act of reframing. The act of retelling creates space for objectivity and in turn humour, which builds empathy. This is art.

So art is redemptive and healing ? Art therapist believe so. I concur.

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If power negatively affects the frontal cortex in the same way that brain trauma does, stories and art can rebuild neural pathways and strengthen empathy.

I belive we all need more stories.

Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan

It’s an exciting day for Bear Skin Blog.  It’s the day of the first ever guest blog. Damien has been a reader and follower of Bear Skin for some months, offering feedback and suggestions which have led to this guest post. He introduces himself in his own words:

Damien Shalley is a highly caffeinated and totally overworked researcher for the Australian government. His artistic tastes lean toward the esoteric. His record collection includes Dean Martin and The Cramps. He is thinking about buying a sphynx cat and calling it “Geoff.” He lives near a store that sells three hundred varieties of cheese.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own article to share please submit to jennifer@bearskin.org.

Questions, comments and feedback always welcome.

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 Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan – by Damien Shalley

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Death: the ultimate negative.  No matter how magnificent one’s life was, death destroys it.  Prince or pauper, all men are equal when their memory fades.  Is it possible to salvage something from death?  Christian tradition tells us that faith in God will result in salvation.  But a sceptical, rational world isn’t always willing to accept this point of view.  That’s why the works of English taxidermist and art world sensation Polly Morgan are so intriguing.  Morgan creates unique pieces which seem to suggest that rebirth and resurrection are a true possibility, not simply the wish-fulfilment fantasy of deluded souls.
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Many people possess preconceived notions about taxidermy, due in large part to traditional manifestations of the process as represented by three primary examples.

  1. The preservation of beloved pets;
  2. Hunting trophies;
  3. Anthropomorphic dioramas of animals engaged in human activities.

Morgan subverted the conventions of all three and delivered genuine artfulness in her pieces, due in part to her professional skill and in equal part to her thematic constructs or “point of view”.  Her vivid and groundbreaking work – apparently inspired initially by her inability to find a suitable piece of taxidermy to decorate her flat with – caused a genuine sensation in the art world, the effects of which continue to reverberate.

The rebirth of doomed creatures into something beautiful and elegant has many parallels with spiritual concepts of resurrection.

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One such piece is “Morning”, a robin impacting a pane of glass but retaining its physical form and essence.   It has been noted by more than one observer that the scenario depicted by Morgan is not at all what happens when a robin crashes into a window pane.  That is exactly the point.  Morgan has presented something that suggests “breaking through” in a magnificent, glorious, ethereal way.  And in a nutshell, that may well be the precise point of Morgan’s work.

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Morgan’s ability to bestow dignity upon creatures that have died in ugly circumstances is a hallmark of her work.  Evocative and uncanny, her artistry seemingly possesses the power to instil new life into empty shells.  Cynics argue that this is purely superficial, but Morgan is genuinely capable of recreating the essence of a creature in her work – and instilling a sense of wonder into audiences.

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There is something very positive in her imagery.  Morgan’s “Fox and Chandelier “ bestows a quiet dignity and peaceful reverence upon a creature whose existence was unceremoniously obliterated.  A viewer of her work was quoted by as saying that the beauty of her “corpses” somehow transcends death to demonstrate the beauty of the animal…in life”.  This seems to be her motivation, so indeed she may be regarded as a success regardless of her “art world pop star” status and elevated public profile.

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Morgan famously created “Carrion Call” featuring chicks breaking free from a coffin.  Something universally associated with death becomes a vestibule or birthing place new life.  Morgan said of this piece “Coffins are fairly egg-shaped. It’s a symbol of life triumphing, emerging from death.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  Her reference to this work as an example of life emerging from death might be soundly criticised as counter intuitive.  Is she not in fact depicting death springing from death?  No, she is not.  She has spent her entire professional life drawing upon death to create something hopeful – transcendental – and her ultimate motivation is positive.  Life will ultimately triumph over all obstacles – even death.

Anthropologists often describe Western culture as death denying.  It is indeed quite uncommon for most people to see a deceased person in our society, or to engage with the often unpleasant realities of death.  Even departed loved ones are regularly farewelled without family members viewing the deceased.  We are interested in – some might say obsessed by – success, achievement, material wealth and the achievement of power.  But to some degree at least, these pursuits are ultimately hollow.  On an individual or personal level, they are all rendered void by our ultimate demise.  We “pass away” – die – and all is lost.

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Morgan puts all this before us too.  She does not soft sell death, nor does she promote a sentimental approach to the stark reality of extinction.  Death is often ugly, and many of her works present this ugliness in a very confronting manner.

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Prior to her studies at Queen Mary College, London, Morgan struggled with the death of one her best friends from an accidental heroin overdose.  She viewed the body – the lifeless shell of a previously vibrant young woman with whom she had recently holidayed, laughed and loved.   Does this represent the genesis of her fascination – some might say determination – to rescue something positive from death?  Not according to Morgan herself, who is a resolutely practical woman unimpressed with psychological interpretations of her work and disinterested in self-analysis.   “It was upsetting mainly because it didn’t look like her: that’s not her. It’s surreal. Very hard for a human being to get their head around.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  It is very possible that this sad event did subconsciously inspire her artistic endeavours at least in some way, and it is certainly a pointer to where much of her work would lead.  Morgan goes to great lengths to create beautifully realistic taxidermy which captures the quintessential beauty her subjects possessed in life.

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Morgan has also previously spoken of her country upbringing in the Cotswolds, where she was regularly exposed to the realities of the natural world through her participation in agricultural life.  She observed the cycle of existence first-hand – both the confronting and the beautiful –.and developed a sensibility capable of recognising both the tragic and the redemptive.

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Morgan herself represents “life” in all its fullness.  She is young, attractive, intelligent, articulate, accomplished.  The juxtaposition of her beauty with the morbid subject matter of her work may well be part of her appeal.  She fits the “acceptable” pop culture celebrity model.  She is very much a member of the current coterie of English art stars, alongside Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Banksy. (Banksy invited her to exhibit in his Santa’s Ghetto gallery in 2006).  When the world’s most famous purveyor of street art thinks your work is worthy, you really have “arrived”.  She is unpretentious but self-assured, and her work possesses a strong ethical foundation.  She utilises only pre-deceased creatures – nothing is killed for her work.  She frequently uses donations from vets and pet owners as source material for her artworks.  Morgan has been quoted as saying that “…killing something and trying to make it look alive again is not a very natural thing to do.”  [Collinge, M. (2010)  Polly Morgan’s Wings of Desire, The Guardian].  Her underlying commitment to the ethical use of her animal subjects seems to inform her inherent confidence in her work, and also represents an effective repudiation of critics who might argue that her art is morbid or ghoulish.

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In recent times, Morgan’s work has become more expansive.  Her pieces are larger and some of the intimacy of her earlier work is – perhaps – missing.  This could reflect an artist’s response to the challenges of career evolution.  One cannot stand still in the art world, nor be a “one-trick pony”.  A rise in the popularity of taxidermy after Morgan’s well-publicised career success may have something to with this as well – there is nothing more pressing than the need for differentiation when one is facing persistent competition.  Regardless, Morgan does not appear to have lost sight of the essence of art, and even if she is no longer subverting conventions to quite the same degree, her work retains the power to inspire.

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It is often said that where there’s life, there’s hope.  Polly Morgan’s amazingly evocative work suggests that – perhaps – where there’s hope, there’s life.

Polly Morgan Exhibitions

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Got a Redemption Narrative?

This article by Drake Baer was published in Business Insider this week. It’s too good not to share.

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Psychologists say that happy, socially engaged people share a remarkably similar life story

Psychology research verifies that the stories we tell ourselves matter.

A new study from Northwestern University shows that folks who fit the classic mould of “good people” — those who care about others while also having high well-being and mental health — have life stories that share remarkably similar narrative arcs.

In two to three hour interviews, researchers Dan McAdams and Jen Guo asked 157 people between the ages of 55 and 57 to describe their lives as if they were novels, complete with main characters, recurring themes, and turning points.

According to McAdams and Guo, the people who cared the most for future generations all told their life stories as “redemption narratives.

From the study’s abstract:

The story’s protagonist

(a) enjoys an early advantage in life,

(b) exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of other people,

(c) develops a clear moral framework,

(d) repeatedly transforms negative scenes into positive outcomes, and

(e) pursues prosocial goals for the future.

In McAdams and Guo’s study, the adults who were the most generative — or socially engaged — acted out a similar story of redemption in their everyday lives.

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In “The Art and Science of Personality Development,” McAdams argues that there’s a link between the suffering felt early in life and the redemption that follows:

Failure may ultimately result in victory, deprivation may give way to abundance. Importantly, the narrator describes an explicit causal link between the prior negative event and the resultant enhancement…

For example, a woman is devastated by a romantic breakup, but then finds the partner of her dreams. A student flunks out of college, then finds a great job. A boy endures extreme poverty as a child, but when he grows up, he comes to believe that early suffering made him a better person.

McAdams notes that while not everybody identifies with every turn of the redemption narrative, adults who are more generative conform to the narrative arc than those who are less so.

If the story of redemption sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a narrative arc that you can spot again and again in our mythological and literary traditions.

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One of the most notable accounts is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The traditional account is that he was born into a sheltered royal life, but when he witnessed the way people were getting old, sick, and dying outside of the palace, he resolved to figure out how to deal with the problem of suffering. This motivated him to study the mechanics of the mind in meditation, yielding the foundational insights of what we today call Buddhism, a system of understanding that’s helped people for generations.

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The Jungian psychologist and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that historical, mythological, and literary narratives show up in our everyday lives. We find ourselves called to go on quests like Joan of Arc did when she united France; are filled with righteous anger like when Jesus threw the merchants out of the temple; or get caught up in star-crossed love affairs like Romeo and Juliet.

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What’s fascinating about McAdams and Guo’s study is that it evidences how the narrative arcs that we know so well from our various cultural traditions animate our lives.

It seems that the most pro-social people — the Nelson Mandelas and Aung San Suu Kyis of the world — embody these redemption narratives.

The good news is if you’re not happy with your life story, the research shows that you can edit it, too.

One Thousand and One Nights – (Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah)

One Thousand and One Nights  is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic golden age, 7th – 13th century AD. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.  I detect some parallels with the Hebrew and Biblical account of the book of Esther and the origins of the Feast of Purim.

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The versions of One Thousand and One Nights vary, but what is common throughout all the editions is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: شهريار‎, meaning “king” or “sovereign”) and his wife Schehrezade (from Persian: شهرزاد‎, possibly meaning “of noble lineage”).  The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his shock to discover his wife’s infidelity. He has her executed and in his bitterness and grief, decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Schehrezade, the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. It ends with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.

The biblical account of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahaserus [Xerxes, 5th C. BC] and  the story was likely composed sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. It tells of the King of Persia whose wife refuses his command to appear before his banquet of noblemen and so he deposes her for fear that women throughout the kingdom would disobey their husbands. Not long after Xerxes seeks for a new wife by bringing virgins from all around the kingdom into the palace. The girls are prepared for the Royal House over one year and then are brought to the king for one night. After one night they are moved into the royal harem and not called again unless by name.  The story tells of an orphaned Jewish girl in the kingdom, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who was brought in before the king. She is favoured her among all the virgins and chosen to be his bride.

1001 Nights Esther

Not long after this Haman, the vizier [Prime Minister] brings charges against the Jewish people for not honouring the customs of the nation. Haman requests the King decree the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin,  passes news of the decree to Esther in the palace and urges her that she will not be spared by the decree and must intercede for her people. She tells him that anyone who comes to the king unbidden will be executed, except those he extends his golden scepter to. She resolves to fast and pray and then approach the king without invitation. After three days, she approaches the king, who extends his sceptre to her and asks her what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Instead of laying her case before the king, she instead invites him and Haman to attend a banquet. During the banquet again the king asks what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Again instead of laying forth her request, Esther invites them both to a second banquet.

The next day at the second banquet the king again asks what Esther’s petition may be up to half the kingdom. This time she asks for the lives of herself and her people be spared. The king seeing that it was Haman who had established the decree, is furious and he walks out onto the balcony. In the meantime Haman pleads with Esther by falling upon her couch. When the king returns he perceives  Haman to be molesting the queen and immediately orders his execution.  Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, is given Haman’s place as vizier and he promptly writes another decree for the Jews to defend themselves. The occasion is celebrated to the present day in the feast of Purim, the day the Jews were spared anhialation by a faithful womans’ courage and her ability to artfully delay the king.

1001 Nights

While elements are conflated and details changed, in both stories, the clever queen saves her own life and the lives of others by knowing how to go about matters of national and international diplomacy with subtle grace. Both women engage in theatrical delays across a series of nights, creating intrigue and enticing the King to change policies and preserve lives.

 

A Christmas Carol

scrooge

Who doesn’t love a good story of Scrooge at Christmas? The miserly man who hates the holiday cheer, is reformed through a series of rather confronting dreams and wakes to a new lease on life, love and generosity.

However, on closer inspection,  the story may have sinister 19th century overtones.  Ebenezer [Hebrew for “help of God”] Scrooge,  owns a counting house and is a notoriously miserly business man. He has no love for Christmas, and hates the very sentiment. However, three spirits appear to him in dreams and show him Christmases past and present, recounting life events including his own future death. This is enough to inspire in him a love of the Christmas and good cheer to all.

Does anyone else notice something suspicious about a cold hearted, money hungry, eccentric old man, with a Jewish name in London, chief of a counting house who hates the very idea of Christian holiday ? Faced with his own imminent cold grave, his own selfishness is illuminated, he repents and becomes joyful and generous.

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The story moves from a tale of human redemption to something dated by racial overtones. While the story of restoration through a realisation of Christ’s birth is joyful, unfortunately Dickens tale errs to moralism – Scrooge is Jewish and selfish and should become Christian and generous.  I’m not the only one who thinks so:

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/dailyrft/2010/12/dickens_christmas_carol_anti-s.php

If Christians are to tell stories of redemption, we are better to take a biblical [and indeed Hebrew] perspective of how the narrative plays out. The protagonist is always the common one, always flawed. One does not become a follower of Christ by accepting the holidays and charitable ways – but by radically being confronted by the grace given.

 

Joseph and Judah – the story of redemption

Since the very popular ‘Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat’ stage musical was released in the 1970s, the story of Joseph has held fascination for a new generation. A farmer boy is betrayed by his family and  brought into the heart of the Egyptian empire as a slave, he is imprisoned, he serves in two noble households rising to highest rank in the nation besides the King, there he encounters his murderous brothers again and saves them fulfilling the very dream they sought to murder him for. It’s high drama.

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It’s a narrative that forms over 25% of the book of Genesis, yet some scholars and theologians assume it is  simply a transitional story between the patriarchs and the Exodus. Some questions its significance to the progression of ‘salvation history’. Others have written about Joseph as a story in relation to wisdom literature, outlining godly character and courage under fire.  However, this doesn’t accord with the fact that the story has more in common with tragedy or high drama and the characters of the narrative are profoundly flawed: Reuben is ineffectual, Joseph bratty and immature, Judah cold and spiritually insensitive.

In line with earlier posts, I want to examine the story of Joseph from a literary perspective. It’s evident to me that while the Bible shows historical interests, the interests of the text are presented in an artistic and theological way.

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  • The cycles of the Pentateuch

Genesis is comprised of ten ‘toledoth’ sections which function as cycles marking the book’s major divisions. Each account is not in fact about the ‘ancestor’ but rather about his descendants [Gen 2:4]. These cycles recount God’s covenant dealings with the patriarchs and look forward to the establishment of His plans. Thus, the Joseph narrative is seen as part of the larger historical narrative of Genesis which “repeatedly and emphatically explains that Israel’s God, the God of creation and the Lord of history has called Israel to take possession of Canaan and from that basis to bless the nations [12:1-3, 15, 17].”

Since it connects the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-36 to the account of the Exodus and since the brothers enter Egypt “as an embryonic nation” and leave it as a powerful nation, scholars have labelled the narrative, in fact a story of the birth of the nation of Israel. While the story transitions us from the fracture between Jacob and Esau, and ends with the family united in Egypt looking towards Canaan, however, it also closes with a question mark over the nature of the ‘reconciliation’ achieved. Gen 50:15-21, after the death of Jacob, has the brothers again begging for mercy of Joseph and facing years of exile in Egypt. A British scholar called David Clines has argued that the theme of the Pentateuch is “the partial fulfilment – which implies the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise or blessing of the patriarchs’. The book of Genesis ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.

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  • Salvation through Judgment. 

Hamilton suggest another pattern emerging through the bible, that salvation comes to the nation of Israel through the form of judgment. Evident in the Flood Narrative and later exile, this pattern shows how Israel is in fact preserved through hardship. Early in the narrative, [Gen 38:1-30] Judah threatens the family by intermarrying with the Canaanites.  Some scholars believe that the Egyptian pilgrimage is brought about by God to prevent their assimilation with the Canaanites, lest they lose their purpose to bless the earth [12:3; 24:3, 26:34-35; 27:46; 34:2]. To achieve this, God sends Joseph ahead into segregated Egypt [43:32; 46:34] a place where Hebrew distinctives will be fostered and not removed. The protagonist is here both enslaved and exalted at the right time, to bring about salvation for the people. The subsequent years of exile and slavery that proceed, forges a national identity and upon return to Canaan, the Israelites number over a million people.

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  • Salvation through ‘the lesser born”

The very potent image of Genesis is of the ‘seed’ or the emerging Royal dynasty promised through Eve, down to Abraham and ending Genesis with Perez, Judah’s son [Gen 49:8-12]. However, a nuance to the dynastic line  is the motif of the election of the ‘younger son’ or the reversal of seniority.  Without exception, this election creates jealousy, strife and even murder. This conflict’ first manifests itself when Cain kills Abel in Genesis 4:8. The conflict continues; Isaac, the son of promise is hated by his older sibling Ishmael; Esau hates Jacob and Joseph’s brothers want to kill him [Gen 37: 4-5, 18-19]. Within the Joseph narrative, his dreams and paternal favouritism elicit murderous intent within his brothers. What is of particular interest to the Joseph narrative is the fact not that he is not the literal promised ‘seed’ of the patriarchal promises, in fact Judah is and from thenceforth, the line is carried through the first born. I believe the significance of this motif is not capricious election on behalf of a sovereign God, but has more to do with the motif of ‘salvation through judgement’. The election of the lesser born in these narratives subverts convention and so draws attention to a particular points about the type of servant God chooses. This servant is consistently one who suffers at the hands of a dominant and threatened “older sibling”.

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  •  Character change, reconciliation and chiastic structures 

A curious element of Hebrew literature is the prevalence of chiastic structures creating parallel stanzas in poems or narratives. Elements at the beginning and end reflect each other and do so in increasing frequency to a point on which the narrative pivots – revealing a significant theological or artistic point. Within the Joseph narrative pivots are identified around the double centre on verses [44:1-34] in which the brothers pass the test of love for their brother and  [45:1-28] in which Joseph gives up his power over his brother.  Further parallels exist between ch. 37 and 50 in the chiasmus: Joseph’s dream is fulfilled when his brothers bow before him, and he is able to assuage their fears that God “intended it for good” [50:20].

In addition, ch 38 which interrupts the Joseph narrative to show Judah’s failure as a father-in-law and consequent conception of twins stands in direct opposition to ch 49 which contains Jacob’s prophecy of the royal line to continue through Judah.  Ch 38, while placed out of step with the chronological nature of the narrative, contains Judah’s confession of wrong against Tamar which occurs at a similar time chronologically to when all the brothers confess their wrong against Joseph [38:26; 42:21]. “This scene provides an essential piece in the characterisation of Judah, whose greater Son will rule the universe.”  His confessions of wrongs against Tamar and Joseph [38:26; 42:21] begin his faith journey peaking when the once callous slave trader of his young half-brother, offers himself as a slave in the stead of his youngest half-brother [44:18-33].

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  • Emergence of a king

The notion of ‘kingship’ is mentioned throughout Genesis in relation to the main line of descent, the ‘seed’. Both Abraham [17:6] and Sarah [17:16] are promised that kings will come from them. In the Joseph narrative the brothers interpret Joseph’s dream as implying he will be king over them [37:8-11] aggravating their already potent hatred. It is the ‘seed’ however of the main family lineage which is associated with the divine promises which feature in the patriarchal narratives and by Gen 50 it is clear the ‘seed’ descends through Judah. As noted above, character change is what Genesis is all about.” As noted above, Judah emerges as the hero of the tale. While at the outset of the narrative, Judah along with his brothers conspires to kill Joseph, his transformation by chapter 44 shows he now accepts the painful reality of Joseph’s role in saving their lives without rancour.  “Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship – that the king serves the people, not vice versa.”  Judah is transformed from one who sought in hatred to kill the ‘lesser born’ for his prophesied ‘rule’ to one who sees with eyes of faith, one who exemplifies Israel’s kingship.

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  • Contemporary Significance 

One of the most interesting sermons in the New Testament is given by Stephen at his execution. He neatly summarises stories from Joseph, Moses, the Prophets and the law to show the Jews how they are rejecting Christ [Acts 7:9; Acts 7:23-29].  Despite the persecution of their own people, both men brought deliverance for God’s people. Stephen’s argument is that the law typologically foreshadows Christ as the rejected prophet; thus those who reject him are also typologically foreshadowed by those who rejected Joseph, Moses and the prophets [Acts 17:2-3]. It’s a powerful case study.

In the same way, this pattern is fulfilled in Jesus, and it is a pattern of salvation that comes through judgement for God’s glory. God judged Joseph’s bothers [Gen 42:21-22;44:16], exalted Joseph [45:9] and through judgement brought the brothers to repentance [44:16, 18-34; 50:15-18] and all along what they meant for evil he meant for good [50:20]. Jesus is depicted as ‘Israel son-of-God,’ when as an infant he descends to Egypt, and back fulfils the words of the prophet Hosea 11:1. The events of Jesus’ life are the ‘recapitulation’ of Israel’s history.  Jesus and his family flee from Herod who is seeking to destroy him, a particularly potent example hatred on behalf of the “rightful ruler” to the “elect lesser born” prophesied to save and to rule. 

Jesus

Conclusion:

To sum up, the ‘Joseph narrative’ is rich with covenantal themes that resonate throughout Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch. From the ‘seed conflict’ established in Gen 3, to the patriarchal promises of Gen 12, the narrative does more than bridge to the Exodus, and more than simply preserving the nation of Israel from assimilation and destruction. The Joseph narrative sets up paradigmatic ‘salvation’ themes of ‘election of the lesser born’ and ‘salvation through judgement.’

Noah and the quest for Immortality

The Legend of the animals going in two by two into the ark is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim of humanity, so he [with the exception of one family] drowned the lot of them including children, and also for good measure the rest of the [presumably blameless] animals as well.

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion, p 279. 2006.

When the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe was released early 2014, many Christians cried foul. It was an incorrect rendition of the biblical account, God was mean, Noah was homicidal ! It did not align with the Sunday renditions they were accustomed to – a God of grace saving a family and the animals through extraordinary circumstances.

I however, loved it.

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Aronovsky has taken a biblical tale and created a rendition to appeal to a mass audience. However, interestingly the biblical tale itself is a rendition taken from popular literature of its day. Each version has its focus and each focus has an interesting comment to make.

The earliest version of the Flood narrative is the Babylonian epic dating back to 18th C BC. known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Epic of Atrahasis.  The story recounts an ancient king Uruk or Gilgamesh, living c. 2700 BC,  part divine part human, who finds himself on a quest to find the secret to immortal life.

epic of gilgamesh

 

Not unlike the Greek epic, The Odyssey, the hero embarks on a long journey across the ancient world encountering gods and beasts.  In his quest he discovers Utpnapishtim, or Atrahasis,  the surviver of the Great Flood, a human granted immortality. Utnapishtim recounts his story as one who built a boat, took his family, some craftsmen, two of every beast and survived the cataclysmic flood sent by the gods as punishment upon humanity. Upon landing on a mountain top, Upnapishtim releases a dove, a raven and a swallow. When the raven fails to return, he opens the doors to the boat and releases all the animals. He sacrifices to the gods who in turn lament ever destroying the human race and vow never to do so again. Utnapishtim reward is immortality. This gift is unique, however he shares with Gilgamesh the secret that at the bottom of the sea lies a boxthorn plant that will restore youth. Gilgamesh journeys again and acquires the plant but before he can eat it, it is stolen from him by a serpent. Gilgamesh weeps at the futility of his search for immortality, learning that “For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.” Having failed both chances, he returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls provokes him to praise this enduring work of mortal men. He understands that mortals can achieve immortality only through lasting works of civilization and culture.

So the story of Noah is a tragedy, which ever way one looks at it. It bears more in common with apocalyptic than with adventure genres and holds profounds questions up for consideration – what is the destiny of humanity? what is the consequence of human evil? how do righteous men and women find immortality or favour with the gods? what is the meaning of our mortal existence?

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In the Babylonian account, the survivor of the Flood, Utnapishtim has been granted immortality, but Gilgamesh cannot attain it. He can only preserve it through human civilisation and culture. However, the story curls back on itself, for it is human civilisation and culture which brought on the wrath of the gods and the cataclysm in the first place – giving humanity a very tenuous place in the world. The Hebrew version, rather presents Noah [“he who finds rest”] as a mortal, saved due to his righteousness but not granted immortality. However, the very seeds of evil that caused the flood in his generation rear their head in his own behaviour upon disembarking and in his sons’ behaviour after him. He again the story curls back in on itself and begs the question – is history repeating ? and what is the ultimate solution if Noah and his family are ultimately just the same broken and flawed beings?

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These things considered, the Aronovsky version of the Flood narrative seems more palatable. For a modern audience I can see the film makers isolating a few clear points:

  1. In our culture, we can strongly identify with a narrative which embodies mother nature as a wrathful being, willing to destroy all traces of human existence with a shrug. Meteors, ice-ages, flooding – many apocalyptic tales tell of the end of humanity at the hands of nature. Something within us understands that there are imminent consequences for our actions towards the planet we inhabit. While some Christians object to the overtly environmentalist agenda to such story, they must not forget that this is about as close to a sense of guilt and acknowledgement of sin as many in our culture can relate to.  It is not a far stretch to tell the story not from Mother Nature’s perspective, but from the creator’s perspective. Human actions poison our world and there are consequences from an otherwise loving and “parental” deity.  Humans can both trust God but must fear God’s wrath. This consciousness can only be a good thing when Christians interact with their fellow men and women.
  2. In the film, God is silent or distant, unlike the above accounts in which Enlil or the Hebrew YHWH interact personally with the protagonists. However, presenting the story as history, the story-tellers seek to give us a more “in time” version of events. How do you or I act or decide? Do we have strong intuition? do we perhaps dream or have premonitions and so act and in retrospect see destiny weaving our path? I believe the filmmakers sought credibility in their story telling and so rather than have an audible voice or visible being, represented Noah as behaving as anyone of us would do in such a case, alone with a more modern, internalised relationship with God.
  3. Noah really struggles with what is going on. The biblical account is spare and does not give much insight into the personal journey of the protagonists.  Aronovsky’s film version seeks to get inside the mind and heart of a man who understands that humanity is deeply and darkly affected by a moral illness, including himself, including his descendants. Maddened and saddened by the destruction of humanity and the planet around him, Noah goes through a Shakespearean struggle to understand God’s will in all of this. Why save him and his sons when they too carry the seeds of evil within them? Should he exterminate any living descendants to spare the new world of the weight they will bring upon it? Should he and his sons live out their lives and die leaving the earth to peace and longevity? When Noah stays his hand from acting this judgement he simply suspends judgement for another to make. God will determine with the solution is for humanity. God saved a remnant, who themselves carry the line of sin. But through their faith to obey God, no matter the cost to themselves, He will bring about redemption.

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What is of interest to me in the biblical epic is the notion of “judgement”. The world is declared so terribly evil in the time of Noah, that “every thought in the heart of man was evil and destruction” [Gen 9].  Aronovsky’s film seeks to capture that with cannibalistic society, full of slavery and darkness.  Indeed the blood of innocents, falls to the earth and is absorbed there.  Genesis 9 talks of the “curse on the ground” and I suspect that there is some merit in seeing that the injustice of the old world was literally absorbed by the earth and it imploded. While the narrative says “God was grieved and caused a flood” in fact this is simply a way of saying, “the earth was overwhelmed with evil and collapsed taking with it all forms of life.”

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With the remade world, God makes a promise through the rainbow to never again bring destruction on the earth through a flood. Yet evil lives on and blood is spilled into the earth? So what happens to all the injustice in the world now? what bears the burden of the blood of the innocent? Here we have God change the narrative radically by presenting an alternative solution. It is through a descendant of Noah that the redemption will come. But this descendant will be no normal human being – God himself will take on human form and through the destruction of him body and soul, will bear the weight of the blood of the innocent and all the curses of evil we humans create.

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So the biblical story of Noah was in fact a reframing of a popular tale of it’s time. It reframed a quest for immortality which ended in acceptance that humans live but once and can only build great buildings to remember their lives. It re-injected into the story the hope for immortality, for life beyond death for human beings – but not through eating a plant – through surviving the flood, in an ark afloat on the cataclysmic waters of destruction. Jesus’ death and resurrection carries us through the storm to life on the other side, to a place where we can find life and rest.