Sunday, September 24, 2017

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: Zadok column

I have been asked to be a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Having read my film reviews for Touchstone, they requested a 860 word column every 3 months. I see is as an opportunity to write a lay focused piece of theology. They are happy for me to blog the columns I write, which makes them accessible not only on paper in Australia but digitally for everywhere. Here is my second article, for the Spring 2017 edition:

Revelation’s Dawn Chorus
By Steve Taylor

The huia is a bird, native to New Zealand, with long black feathers and a white-tipped tail. Thousands of huia were exported overseas after becoming fashionable in Britain following a presentation of tail feathers to the Duke of York when he visited New Zealand in 1901. Within six years, the huia had disappeared. Since then, New Zealand’s dawn chorus has lacked the huia’s smooth distinctive whistle.

We as humans take a strange attitude towards those with whom we share this fragile earth. We are born into gift, yet we grow with a seemingly inbuilt desire to possess rather than share. The legacy of social Darwinism is competitive acquisition in which the strongest survive. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson tells repeated stories of this human desire to possess. The Bachman’s warbler had vanished from the southern United States by 1930. Then, in 1939, two separate birding enthusiasts, in two different locations, came across lone survivors within the space of two days. Both birds were shot. ‘I and me’ trumps ‘we and us’.

I think of the huia and Bachman’s warbler when I hear Revelation 7:9-10 read aloud in church: the news of every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, declaring God’s salvation. This dream of the new heaven and new earth makes me wonder about tongues and nations that no longer speak. Could they also be redeemed? Could resurrection and redemption be so complete that what we know as extinct will be resurrected to sing in praise of Christ?
The Hebrew language was once like this. After exile, by 400 CE, the language of King David was lost from everyday spoken use. Yet in the 19th century, through adapted new tools and modern words, Hebrew was reborn. It is a tongue, once extinct, that will now be part of Revelation’s Dawn Chorus.

Let me push my redemptive wondering one step further. What if the Revelation dream of every tongue singing in praise also included bird song? What if God’s salvation included the huia’s whistle and the Bachman’s warble?

Sometimes I dismiss my Revelation wonderings as romantic nonsense. We live in a world of science and reason. What is dead is dead. Jurassic Park is simply childhood make-believe.

Yet in the New Testament I keep hearing hints. In Luke 19:40, Jesus reminds all those listening that, if humans fall silent, then stones will sing. If dead rocks can praise their Creator, why not birdsong?

In Colossians 1:19-20 we find (in The Message translation) that Jesus is so spacious and roomy that everything of God finds a proper place. This includes all the ‘broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms’. All of creation gets properly fixed together in vibrant harmonies. It is a wonderful picture of creation redeemed and restored. Perhaps the harmonies are poetic rather than literal. And yet I wonder. Might not animals and atoms, huia and Bachman’s, find voice in Revelation’s Dawn Chorus?

In a world of science, flattened by reason, I need to keep hitting refresh on my theological vision and Revelation dreams. For me, one essential resource is Rowan Williams’ The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (2003). Williams, one of our finest contemporary living theologians, ponders the icons of the church. The icons of the church are theology. They were ‘written’ and are to be ‘read’ as carefully as any theology textbook.

Every Easter, in order to keep my theological song lines in harmony, I retrace a resurrection vision. In the classical Orthodox Resurrection icon, the Risen Christ stands on a narrow bridge of rock spanning a dark pit. Christ is grasping Adam with one hand and Eve with the other. He is restoring relationships – between men and women, between humanity and creation, between the mind’s knowledge and the body’s experience.

Williams also notes the presence in this icon of characters from the Jewish Scriptures, including David, Abraham, Moses. The resurrection becomes the moment in which a new human community is born. Williams then draws on Maximus the Confessor and his explanation of Christ as overcoming all the great separations that humans suffer. This is God as spacious and roomy, all of creation found together in vibrant harmonies.

Reading Williams, I look more carefully at that classical Orthodox Resurrection icon. Surely all this talk of creation will include animals and atoms. Can huia and Bachman’s be etched into these Resurrection writings? What birds did join the Dawn Chorus on Resurrection Day?

Talk of social Darwinism stands in stark contrast to Revelation’s Dawn Chorus: dreaming of an earth of caring humans committed to redemption of all that is weak and frail, marginal and close to extinction. We need to keep drawing those theological song lines between Christ in death, Christ in resurrection and Christ in final return. If the stones sing praise as Jesus walks toward death and atoms harmonise in resurrection, then why not at the Great Dawn Chorus foretold in Revelation?

My first Zadok article, on sacred welfare, on the interplay between community engagement and congregational mission, for the Winter 2017 edition is here.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

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