Serious business

Published in Seven magazine June 2002

John Wallis has been pleading with me to write something for Seven magazine since before it started. I could have written you about networks and paradigms and youth culture and all my other current ecclesiastical itches. But there's something else that I want to talk about, something that I need to get back to, something that is not easily put into words. I think words might be the wrong language.

The other day I was in the newsagents, browsing through magazines. I was really there to research running shoes, but got distracted by dinosaurs and music, as you do. And then I picked out the latest issue of a snowboarding magazine I buy occasionally. I subscribe to a rival publication, but it's a long stretch between issues at this time of year and I was hungry.

And on flicking through the magazine I felt that old pang of joy that goes missing for so long. I was grinning, looking into this private heaven while people pushed past. Of course I bought it. And now I want to explain to you why, what I see, what this weight of light is.

There is something going on behind those photographs. Something in the pause before the snowboarder drops in. Something in the last run of the day, in the soft pink light of the setting sun. Something in the shared silence of friends taking in the view. Something in the photographer's eye, seeing the perfect composition that the rider, upside down, will not see till later. Something is happening, like the light through the crack in the door at night.

Something has touched many of those who write in these magazines, whose musings so often border on the spiritual, who reach for the language of they know not what, too far from Christianity to Name their experience and desire. I have heard words for what they're talking about. But not naming it is part of the game, would give the game away when playing not naming is the point. For them the old words will bring bad images. Perhaps one day the words will come clean, but for now we need to travel out before we can come back. And the unnamed one is with us as we travel, is whoever he is.

Those photographs, that writing, are icons, in the sense of windows onto heaven. They are haunted by glory.

One part of this glory is an intimation of limitlessness. No moralising imperative to constrain our desires, only the limits of desire itself, strength and mortality. Freedom.

But open-ended freedom is too easily co-opted by those organisers of fun, shoehorned into programmes and courses, monitored for results, rounded off with certificates certifying competence in spiritual lever-pulling. Maybe to call something church is to kill it. The very act of naming forces closure. In rushing to explain we lose sight of the unnameable. We crush the butterfly as we grasp it.

Or rather, we smother it and exhibit the pinned corpse. It looks as pretty but it doesn't fly. It's dead. We killed it to classify it, and to make sure it kept to its place. But God will not live in temples, and in heaven there is no church. It's probable that all our categories are redundant, all our boxes tipped in the snow.

So how do we speak of a new world, when to be understood means speaking within the old? Respeaking each new thing into the old language just perpetuates the belief that the old language is all-sufficient. The act of translation renders all other languages invisible. Imagine you had an automatic universal translator that rendered every other language, spoken or written, into English - you would be unaware that other languages, and therefore other worldviews, even existed. Not to speak the language is a duty.

Enough words. The pictures tell the story better.