Thursday, 23 December 2010

Recovering Realism and Optimism – inspired by Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights”

If the music industry is anything to go by, it seems that Christmas is the time of year for optimism, a kind of hope against the odds. We hear songs of peace and joy for those in need, songs proclaiming an end to war, songs about all our dreams coming true.

Which, in the UK, is quite an odd thing for us. We are used to brushing off any news of new education or health schemes with a good dose of cynicism; we are used to being sceptics that the wars we fight do any good or that they will end; we are used to accepting the prevailing attitude that “Life is a bitch and then you meet one”.

So how far do we accept all these songs of hope and joy and fulfilment? Do we let them wash over us and never get our hopes up too much? Or are we required to take some action to work at loving others and bringing peace?

And here’s the “heart issue”: For Christians, who have hope, how should my attitude be different to my cynical work colleagues?

Let me be clear – I’m not saying would should hold back when critically assessing politics or our leaders in war, or the messages of the media or entertainment industry. Far from it! I’m just saying: Shouldn’t the Christian’s attitude to life be distinctive? Shouldn’t our hope be evident, so people ask us for the reason for the hope that I have? And not just at Christmas!

What got me thinking about this again was Coldplay’s excellent new song “Christmas Lights”. The band can be incredibly soulful, but also very uplifting, and in the new song it’s the mix of realism and optimism that struck me.

Chris Martin paints the picture of a man alone, walking the streets at Christmas, with a longing for something better – his feelings don’t match up with his expectations: “You’re still waiting for the snow to fall/ it doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all”. The reason is a very down-to-earth one: Despite it being “Christmas night” he and his partner have had “another fight”.

The lyrics encompass the loneliness and the ache of fresh pain, and a sense of disorientation: What will Christmas mean for him now? He needs fresh markers, he needs new meaning and he seeks it in the streets of London (“I took my feet/ to Oxford Street”).

But the song turns to optimism as well, as the man sings to the Christmas lights “Keep shining on” and hopes that they will “bring her back to me”. There’s a sense of anticipation as if his longing and his singing will bring her back. They hold on to festive "chandeliers of hope".

A brief look elsewhere...

Other Coldplay tracks similarly show a strong hope amid the uncertainty of the ‘now’. In “X&Y” we hear that something’s broken and they are trying to repair it “any way they can”. Even though they are both floating “on a tidal wave”, they are there “together”, which seems to be the point of the song.

In “White Shadows” although even sound “is breaking up” – the song suggests “Maybe you’ll get what you wanted/ Maybe you’ll stumble upon it/ Everything you ever wanted/ In a permanent space” but it seems to depend on something: “Maybe if you say it you’ll mean it/ Maybe if you find it you’ll keep it”. A message about pursuing a dream and finding it can become a reality, if we really want it?

And one of the most positive songs they’ve written “Strawberry Swing” talks of not being able to wait for “tomorrow”, to be with someone, and that day being “a perfect day”. In the heady way of love, he proclaims “The sky could be blue/ I don’t mind/ Without you it’s a waste of time”. The joy he holds is completed and validated by his being able to share it. And in “Life in Technicolor II” the idea of being released from gravity is an expression, I think, of freedom. What a great track record of celebrating positive things in song!

What it all boils down to

This year I’ve read lots of articles and books (and heard plenty of opinions elsewhere) which are cynical about truth claims or religion, cynical about people or society changing, cynical about there being a purpose of life, or even fairly despairing about achieving a goal they have in mind. Some people look at the world and have a pretty gloomy view of where things are going.

But as Christians, there’s much more going on for us. There’s not just human things to be concerned about. There are the things of God, growing, often unseen, in this world. There is a realm of perfect peace which is coming which we get a taste of now. So let’s act like hope and joy are real things, that we can have in Christ and his Kingdom. It’s not something idyllic that will never happen. It’s not just a fairy tale – it’s real and so is our real Christmas Light – the light of the world.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Analysis of hell from Sandman issue 25 (part of graphic novel "Seasons of Mists")

I had the pleasure of borrowing two more volumes of The Sandman recently from the library and I want to talk a bit about Sandman #25 (which is Episode 4 of the storyline “Season of Mists”).

It's an interesting episode in a series that isn't afraid of tackling such subjects as
  • what is really real and what is imaginary
  • the various prisons we make for ourselves, especially through fear about our appearance
  • the perversions that, say, greedy men, serial killers or ancient faeries or forgotten Greek gods enjoy
  • where real genius comes from
  • and, here, the nature of hell.

Sandman 25 is a story which stands apart from the main storyline about Morpheus, otherwise known as Dream, or the King of Dreams. Instead, it's a parable about letting go of an evil past, which follows a English school-boy who is unwanted by his teachers, left behind at his boarding school by his only surviving parent. This character comes to epitomise the unwanted person who is oppressed and made to fit into boxes for convenience, or bullied for the pleasure of evil-doers.
As he meets the ghosts of past students and teachers he sees them meaninglessly reliving their past unhappy lives, and his eventual “escape” from the school seems to me to be an exploration of leaving behind a history of psychologically damaging abuse.

Wonderfully, in the end, the pattern of others' damaging behaviour does not have to control this boy; he is individual – in a sense, when he leaves the school, he triumphs over the system. Although they have taken a lot from him, the boy is still able to become a man, responsible and engaging in the world more-or-less in a way of his choosing.

The story cleverly shows us the implication of what has recently happened to Dream, who has been duped by Lucifer, the king of hell – because it shows the reversal of nature as the dead haunt the living as damned (or unlucky?) souls are released from hell. As the school-boy and his oppressed (un?)dead companion leave, they talk about whether hell is something we make for ourselves and whether hell is a place or not. They conclude by suggesting that hell is a place (ie. the school) but “you don't have to stay anywhere for ever”.

The positive event of the two companions leaving the evil characters in the school behind faintly recalls the unsettling events of Sandman 23. Here, the Sandman version of Lucifer shows he can leave hell, turfing the demons and evil men and women out into limbo or the world, saying they have suffered enough in hell. This kind of liberation seems wonderful at first, but appears sinister when souls start returning to haunt the world and proud psychopaths, who know they should be punished, are freed.

The role of God in people's lives

The school-boy, Charles Rowland, teaches us about experiencing life and taking action to prevent falling into becoming a victim of depraved patterns of living. But where is God in this story? He acts at points later on to deal with the problems caused by Lucifer. But he isn't shown to take care of the victims, to care for people's souls, to care for the individuals in the story. Here, he is less than invisible: he is absent from the lives of ordinary people!

Instead we have the liberal myth rearing its head saying that expressing oneself and defying authority brings true liberation in life. OK, so I agree that where authority groups are evil they need to be opposed fiercely, and the comic is right that liberation is needed, and broken lives can really be helped by others' love and care and a good environment for healing.

But as a Christian I know that God's role is more. He loves us! And he is good. And we are to mimic and follow him. It's his role to oppose evil, to liberate people from evil through his Son, to work in power to bring justice one day by judging the living and the dead. God holds the key to hell and God says who goes there because of their sin. God goes out of his way to call people into his kingdom of light, to be able to enjoy eternity with him in heaven and ultimately in a new perfect, brilliant creation. God loves the marvellous people he has made and acts in the lives of the broken or oppressed people who make up his church – granting true comfort, peace, joy, relief, material help and a caring community which becomes a family and a help to those who are lost.

People do evil things and that's a problem. But God cares about us and brings help and freedom from sin for those who ask. Amen to that.

My painting - in progress

Here's a taster of a painting (in acrylics) I'm working on - I was determined to at least START something creative during the week I have given myself off "between jobs" (more on the publishing job search another time). What do you think so far? Below are some images I created for reference from a picture I took in a summer of mixed weather.