Image by Jennifer Allison – fineartamerica.com
In a piece titled Science fiction writers imagine the way out – in the May edition of The Christian Century, Melissa Florer-Bixler writes Jesus’ parables give us space to see that something else is possible. In her article she explores how sci-fi writers are putting flesh on the bones of Jesus teaching.
Florer-Bixler is clearly a devotee of science fiction writing. She cites one story in which a city is planted from seeds – buildings, people, and animals sprout like daffodils. In another – people bound together by their common fate, create a new life in a decimated land.
I have often referenced science fiction speaking more directly to our 21st century imagination – reimagining new approaches to faith – enriching our inherited biblical images.
Images from Biblical imagination were fashioned within a pre-modern worldview with quite a different sense of the relationship between cause and effect. The biblical and medieval pictures of a three-tiered universe still hold poetic charm. But in most cases they no longer inform our 21st-century worldview. The Biblical pre-modern imagination may continue to charm us – yet it’s now relegated to the category of ancient tales of implausibility if not downright impossibility; imaginative attempts to explain the workings of the universe before humanity learned better – or so we think.
Sci-fi imagination is a key that unlocks biblical imagination – opening it up for us as a space to imagine something else – the possibility of new worlds.
Florer-Bixler cites the renowned sci-fi writer, Walidah Imarisha, All organizing is science fiction. Florer-Bixler comments that the inverse is also true – our disorganizing, our entrenchment, and the intractability of our brokenness are a failure of imagination, a failure to believe in the possibility of new worlds.
Imarisha writes that whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. Florer-Bixler describes this as an invitation into an experience of dislocation and disruption – a process of transporting us into worlds that are strange – with their own distinctive language, unknown place names, and intricate histories patterning themselves in our brains. The sci-fi imagination invites us to move beyond the impoverished architecture of our modern materialist mindset – shaking loose expectations and assumptions that from a spiritual perspective – no longer serve us, or serve us poorly.
About this process of shaking loose, Florer-Bixler writes I’m familiar with this loosing as invitation, how it curves within me toward curiosity. In the New Testament Jesus turns my attention from endless cycles of harm toward seeds, pearls, and returning children. Jesus stretches me past the scraps of good life I’ve come to believe we can scratch out from the ruins. The reign of God is like yeast and weeds. It is fisherfolk with nets in flight.
Luke, having given us an account of Jesus Ascension in the first chapter of his Acts of the Apostles – the sequel to his story of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth – Son of God – his second chapter opens with the following description
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Our modern scientific imagination poorly equips us for taking this account seriously as an actual eyewitness account of events on the Day of Pentecost. Of course, we are charmed by its details. Luke’s account works for us as a series of narrative props. We are invited to wear red. Flame motifs abound in banner, balloons, and streamers. We love to mimic the polyglot experience as members of the congregation for whom English is a second language are invited to speak in their native tongue. But beyond enacting aspects of Luke’s story, what sense are we to make of it all?
We embrace the idea of receiving a double portion of the spirit of the risen Christ – the reciprocal movement to his Ascension. But as to the how and even the why of it all beyond the colorful details in Luke’s story – we adopt an attitude of indulgent agnosticism or even down right disbelief. Nice story we say – wish it were true.
Luke’s description of the event – wind and flame and an early form of instantaneous translation for the benefit of the international audience present – is followed by Peter’s long address in which he sets this pyrotechnic-poliglot event within the context of the unfolding of Israel’s longer story of relationship with God. Today’s portion ends with Peter citing the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
But remembering Joel’s prophecy of a people empowered to imagine new worlds is not where Luke ends chapter 2. Our current reading ends at verse 21 and if we had been able to jump from 21 to 43, we would see that Luke’s purpose is not to end with Joel’s poetic vision but to go on to describe what it looks like when – to paraphrase Florer-Bixler – a community moves beyond the impoverished architecture of conditioned imagination – to shake loose expectations and assumptions and believe in the possibility of new worlds.
From verse 42-47, Luke paints a compelling picture of what a community empowered by the Holy Spirit looks like. He writes:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. … All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Luke’s task in constructing his Day of Pentecost narrative is not to tell us about the amazing pyrotechnic-polyglot experience accompanying the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the witnesses – but to show the effects of the Spirit’s birthing of a new community capable of believing in the possibility of a different world.
Luke describes a community of folk transformed through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit where from all according to ability -to all according to need –became the central organizing principle. Talk about the courage to imagine new worlds. The pooling of resources is the foundation for the early Christian community’s experience of an empowered transformation into a truly magnetic community configuring itself for those who had yet to show up.
I’m not proposing a return to the early Christian model of resource sharing. It’s both attractive and also unappealing – conjuring for us unfortunate resonances to failed Communist experiments. What it highlights for us however, is the requirement for us to imagine new ways of sharing resources more equitably.
In terms of the use of resources the world today is facing a resources crisis – of which water is the number one resource in increasingly short supply. In a world of finite resource supply, Luke’s portrayal of the effects of the Spirit’s outpouring upon the first Christians points us to the question of equity – that is – how resources are to be shared. The many do not have enough for life – because the few have way more than we need.
Florer-Bixler writes: In the real world, the tethers of oppression are wrapped so tight. Corporate interests and monied developers curl their tentacles around hope. There isn’t enough air. Jesus loosens the grip as we are given space to see that something else is possible here. He refuses reforms that polish up our entrenched systems or policies that quibble over the structure of power. The reign of God sprouts and grows, wild and unruly.
The reign of God sprouts and grows, wild and unruly! Few of us are happy with the ways of our world today. But how might we imagine things to be better. Of course, imagining is the first step. But two additional steps are necessary – the will and the courage to believe in the urgency of our dreams becoming reality.
Pentecost is when we celebrate our receiving of a double share of Christ’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Son as we say in the Nicene Creed. Following the first day of Pentecost what exactly was the nature of the transformation of Christ’s followers? It seems that it was the transformation of imagination – the power to imagine living life differently empowered by Christ’s Spirit to continue the work he began.
At Pentecost the baton passes to us!
This is my prayer for us this Pentecost – to imagine the life we long to live; to postpone our dream no longer – and waste our hearts on fear no more (O’Donohue, Morning Offering).