Sunday, 29 November 2009

"Be very afraid?" An advent sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Do you like horror films? I do. Good ones I mean. (Angie doesn’t even like the good ones, so I have to watch them when she’s out or gone to bed. Then I turn the lights off and watch in the dark.) The first horror film I ever saw in the cinema was The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as the mad doctor and Christopher Lee as “the Creature”. The film was made in 1957, so I must have been about ten when I saw it. I’ll never forget the moment when the monster tore the bandage off his face, revealing his hideous features. That night my mother let me keep the light on and the door open in my bedroom. Still, I didn’t sleep a wink; I stayed up until sunrise leafing through a pile of comics and magazines. Even National Geographic couldn’t send me off.

A year or so later I saw another great horror film, The Fly (1958), starring Vincent Price. And then, almost twenty years on (1986), the remake, starring Jeff Goldblum, who plays a brilliant but eccentric scientist named Seth Brundle who is experimenting with teleportation. Naturally the experiments begin to go wrong, and before long Brundle starts turning into the eponymous insect. When he pleads with one of the characters not to be afraid, the reporter working on the teleportation story, Veronica Quaife, played by the gorgeous Geena Davies, delivers what has now become a classic line transcending cinema (I often hear it from Angie!): “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The phrase is always used humorously; in fact, however, it well and seriously describes the contemporary cultural mood. Constantly we are told by the movers and shakers to be afraid, to be very afraid. In the eighties, when The Fly was made, the Cold War hadn’t yet thawed and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was the thing to very afraid of. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the HIV virus and AIDS rushed into to fill the fear vacuum. As the millennium approached, behold, the apocalyptic nutters and doomsayers had a phobic field day. And then 9/11, and ever since, ebbing and flowing, the threat of a terrorist attack, from bombs to bio-chemicals.

But it’s tough to keep people terrified when the threat rarely materialises, so what next to keep us all afraid, very afraid? Have no fear (so to speak!), the pundits will always find something for us to fear in what has been dubbed our “culture of fear” (Frank Furedi). If you fly, DVT, deep vein thrombosis. If you have children, MMR immunization – or scarier still, “stranger danger”, the predatory paedophile lurking in the park, so keep the kids in the garden and lock the gates. If you live in a city, it’s the immigrants, stealing our jobs and houses, and if they’re Muslim, you’ve got a double danger – they might be making explosive devices in their basements.

And now, most recently, there’s been the panic over the illness – sorry, I mean the epidemic – no, check that, I mean pandemic – of swine flu. The term “at risk”, rare even in the mid-nineties, is now so commonplace in the media that it’s become a cliché. You could say that we are now afraid of not being afraid, of not being very afraid. In fact, in the US, “Be very afraid!” has become the shibboleth of the Republican Party.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things to be concerned about, very concerned about – global warming, in particular, which has huge implications for geopolitics: floods on the one hand and droughts on the other, major food shortages, massive population dislocations, and recently doctors have warned of a “global health catastrophe”. It is now essential that world governments take immediate and radical measures to reduce carbon emissions – the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit begins on December 7th. And it is a no-brainer that we should take reasonable safety precautions in our daily lives. Absolutely. But it’s a question of balance – and we have lost it.

The fact of the matter is that we are safer than we have ever been. And when fears are exaggerated, manipulated, and even manufactured – well, check this out. In 2003 the Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge University, Martin Rees, wrote a book about the threats facing humanity overt the next hundred years. I’ve read it: it’s called Our Final Century. Except that wasn’t the title Professor Rees submitted to the publisher. His working title was Our Final Century? – question mark. But that wasn’t sensationalist enough for Random House, so they turned the interrogative into a declarative. But even that wasn’t lurid enough for the American edition of the book, the title of which became – wait for it! – Our Final Hour – like sixty minutes and counting! I mean you couldn’t make it up. When fears threaten to turn paranoia into normality, when they threaten to undermine a basic sense of trust, which is absolutely essential to being psychologically healthy human beings, then it’s time to get a grip.

You want fear? Take a look at the ancient Middle East and the period of over a thousand years covered by the Bible. Read the stories. Floods, famines, and plagues; war, scorched earth, and exile: life, applying the memorable words of the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And you didn’t have to exaggerate, manipulate, or manufacture anxiety in the face of the ever-present threats to human well-being: they were in your face. As they are today (as we have just heard in painful detail from Aitemad Muhanna) for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

And yet what is the refrain that you hear again and again throughout the Bible? “Be afraid, be very afraid”? On the contrary! Without even a hint of denial of the daily struggle for survival, the Lord says to his people, “Do not be afraid.” In the very midst of big trouble, the Lord says, “Do not be anxious.” In the face of death itself, the Lord says, “Peace be with you.” On what grounds? Not because there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to make our stomachs sink and our knees knock. No, no whistling in the dark, not a bit of it. What then? “I am with you,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

It is that simple. Life is hard, but faith is that simple. “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Don’t be silly! The Lord is with me! The seas roar – the Lord is with me! The mountains tumble – the Lord is with me! The troops are breaching the city walls – the Lord is with me! The angel of death pounds at the door – the Lord is with me! Or: I’ve just been told I have cancer, my husband – it’s the Alzheimer’s – doesn’t recognise me anymore, we’ve missed our mortgage payments again – fill in the blank: at one time or another we’re all going to have a pack of troubles, and we’ll have two chances to get out of them – slim or none. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

Faith is fearless. Because faith trusts in God, the God Jesus discloses to us, whom he called Father, whom he invites us to call Father too. That is the gift and privilege of being a Christian. And no one and no thing can take that away from us. How can I be afraid when I am the child of the Father of Jesus?

Make no mistake: as our so-called “final” century advances, our culture of fear will get more and more fearful still. And elites with power to keep and money to make will exploit our fears ruthlessly and even religiously. For Christians there will be times of great testing – and temptation. Keep the faith and keep your heads. Stand firm and fast. Do not be afraid. Even when terrible things threaten and happen, be very unafraid. Don’t take cover, Jesus said, but “up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” (Luke 21:28, The Message). Know the Lord is near. Feel the Lord is here. God is with us. God will always be with us.

35 Comments:

jockyboy said...

Thanks Ben. I'm glad a message like this was told in churches in many places today. I hope that we have the courage to share that message in whatever way we can with our local and global neighbours this Christmas.

As a side thing I've been thinking about, what are your thoughts on Christians who talk about the 'true meaning of Christmas'? To be fair, I think if we are going to do that then we need to revert to Pagan rituals of nature worship, etc., which the birth of Christ replaced (or so I've been told). Would it be more appropriate to refer to the Christian understanding of Christmas? Or is that too particularist?

Jock

Gunter Weltschmerz said...

Yes: popular media is mostly nothing but fear mongering. I work in Public Safety for a Jesuit College - the latest boogey man here has been H1N1. Can you name the horror movie where a Catholic Priest says his favorite movie is "The Fly"?

Gunter Weltschmerz said...

Just occurred to me, the religous aspect of the fear: creating a scapegoat we can project our fears onto. Oh yeah, thanks for the book recommendation - i love the apocalytpic stuff -

John Hartley said...

Dear Kim,

Great introduction. I remember watching "The Fly" too. It made a big impression. Mind you, I was one of those who crouched in terror behind the settee when Doctor Who first faced the WC plunger emerging from behind the door.

Great analysis of what drives modern media. And great illustrations of what you mean.

And I agree that one side of the bible's message is "Do not be afraid". In fact, I remember the devotional of the day, a few years ago, which said that the bible has the instruction "Fear not" 366 times - one for every day of the year ... including leap years! (I wonder if that only applies to Christians who read through the whole bible exactly once every year?)

But I can't help feeling that there is some "Be very afraid" stuff in the bible as well? This morning I preached on Revelation 1:4-20. To be sure it has all the reassurance about he "loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood" (v5), but it also has the "all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him" (v7). Certainly it has "Do not be afraid" (v17), but it does also have the definite reality of Hades (v18). And as you know, the existence of such a destination is not only in the apocalypse - we Christians believe in hell (however we describe it) because it appears on the lips of Jesus, lots of times.

Maybe my congregation isn't as Christian as yours? Or am I wrong to feel that I need to let them know that the invitation of Jesus is not only a carrot?

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

Where there is an other, fear spontaneously arises.

Western culture (in particular) is based on the presumption that we are inherently separate from The Divine, the world process altogether, and all other sentient beings.

It is thus a fear saturated culture, and we are all at war with quite literally everything.

The moment that you presume any one or thing to be other, you immediately objectify this presumed other, and then seek to control and encircle the other, and thus eventually destroy the presumed other.

This objectification and encircling (and thus scapegoat) culture has been going on for a very long time now, especially since the time of the Renaissance, and it has quite literally reached its inevitable terminal outcome.

The other "God" is therefore not your refuge or sustenance but your mortal enemy, with which you are always at war.

Anonymous said...

"The moment that you presume any one or thing to be other, you immediately objectify this presumed other, and then seek to control and encircle the other, and thus eventually destroy the presumed other."

lol

Ben Myers said...

Yes, don't forget that there is a still an enforced moratorium on all othering of the other.

tortoise said...

Kim, I'm re-reading the chronology at the beginning of your second paragraph and scratching my head. It looks to me as if you must have lost about ten years somewhere between the sixties and seventies.

But then, I suppose that's quite a common experience.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kim, for an excellent Advent message.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how all left-wing fears are legitimate and right-wing fears illegitimate.

I didn't know Christianity was so ideological.

Thanks. I'm converting to climate-change and the Democratic party.

What depressing ideological nonsense. Get some perspective.

Bunc said...

"Make no mistake: as our so-called “final” century advances, our culture of fear will get more and more fearful still. And elites with power to keep and money to make will exploit our fears ruthlessly and even religiously. For Christians there will be times of great testing – and temptation. Keep the faith and keep your heads."

This sounds like a bad dose of Millenialism. Folk have been preaching the end is nigh ever since things began. Of course someday one of them will be right - stands to reason. As for the rest it's all just variations on the Rev Jim Jones / Jonestown madness isnt it? At Jonestown he preached to his flock that the end was nigh and lo! they made it so. Listening to Christianms in the US sometimes it makes one wonder if they are all touched with that same kind of madness - the only difference being that they are operating on a longer timescale.

Anonymous said...

"What depressing ideological nonsense. Get some perspective."

Alternatively, you could learn to read.

roger flyer said...

Annoymouses Anonymous! What the...? Who's who?

Anonymous said...

I'm the angry anonymous a-hole you will see lol'ing at ridiculous posts

-AAA

Ian said...

Oh, that's good, I didn't like the other Anonymous... I'm gettin' ready to encircle that bastard!

Ian said...

Thanks for that sermon, Kim!

Gunter Weltschmerz said...

I guess no one cares but the answer is "Legion - The Exorcist 3".

Erin said...

Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't trying to get me!

As always, I love seeing pithy theology preached by you, Kim. Thanks!

roger flyer said...

Kim is the Lord of Pith.
-anonymous

kim fabricius said...

Someone's got a lisp.

byron smith said...

Amen. Thanks Kim.

Anonymous said...

my name is Jo

great sermon. i like horror movies too but only with one hand over my eyes (with little slits between fingers).

Ken said...

Too much political messaging, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Proverbs 2:5
Matthew 10:27-29

roger flyer said...

Dang it anonymous. You killed the thread with the scripture quotes.

kim fabricius said...

Karl Barth resurrects the thread:

The "content [of the knowledge of God] is the existence of Him whom we must fear above all things because we may love Him above all things..."

"....[Contra Luther in the Smaller Catechism on the first commandment] Fear has to follow love, and not conversely. Love has to be named and understood as the basis of fear. Fear has to be explained from love - not any sort of fear from any sort of love, but the fear of God from the love of God. It is only then that we understand the fact and reason why there has to be fear of God. It is only then that we understand the fact and reason why in the whole of Scripture (yes, in the New Testament too!) the fear of God keeps its place alongside the love of God, and that it is this place. Not an independent place. Not one from which love can again be threatened. Not one from which anxiety can again break into the life of him who trusts God above all things according to the first commandment.... It will be genuine and strong love by remaining in the truth - that is, by driving out all false fear and persisting in loving God above all things...."

CD II/1, pp. 3, 35-36.

roger flyer said...

Kim-
Thanks for this post. It has been a great encouragement to me in a very difficult holiday season as we are on a death watch with my beloved mother-in-law, struggling to make a profit in our little coffee house, and wrestling with late middle age inner 'monsters' as they say in Northumbria.

I appreciate you and your hard earned wisdom.

Blessings,
Roger

roger flyer said...

Kim-
I was referring to your post, not Barth's.

kim fabricius said...

I e-love you dearly, Roger. You and yours are in my prayers.

Btw, in my early days as a Christian, as I was emerging from Behemoth, I was much impressed and encouraged - as I continue to be - by a famous saying of Staretz Silouan: "Keep your mind in hell, and fear/despair not."

roger flyer said...

Not sure that I understand Silouan's famous saying. Could you homilize it for me from your 'youthful emergent' experience ?

I've been so stuffed with toxic repressed grief and anxiety (re: fear), and so I chose to watch Schindler's List to get a grip on my pain.

Is this a picture of what you mean?

kim fabricius said...

I guess the basic point is that courage and hope and love are possible within, and emerge from, the most morally hostile and spiritually desolate environments, because the one sure thing we can know about hell is that the Christ whose we are has been there and done that. Romans 8:37-39 really.

Ben Myers said...

Kim and Roger: just last week I read Gillian Rose's extraordinary memoir, Love's Work, where she also discusses that Silouan saying.

roger flyer said...

It is good to have companions on the journey.
Thank you cyberspace brothers Ben and Kim.
I would love to share a Scotch with you one day on this side of the veil...

kim fabricius said...

Yes, Ben. The Silouan saying is, in fact, the epigraph of Love's Work (1995), in which it recurs three times. One occurs in connection with Rose's own ovarian cancer (which finally killed her), against the nostrums of "alternative healing". Rose writes:

"A crisis of illness, bereavement, separation, natural disaster, could be the opportunity to make contact with deeper levels of the terrors of the soul... To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love" (p. 98).

Rowan Williams, on whom Rose had a huge impact, both intellectually (her take on Hegel) and spiritually (her lapidary postcards from hell), wrote a poem in her honour, "Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995" (the day of her death), which contains the lines:

Still, where you were concerned, we always
arived too late; too late, myopic, short of sleep,
with fingers stumbling to decipher messages
you left for us, engraved in a hard surface.

roger flyer said...

I love you guys.

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