Death

Take a look at the photo closely.  You may have seen it in the papers over the past few days.  Take a look at the faces.  The fun.  The anticipation.  The freedom.  Within minutes, according to the caption, 89 people in this room will be dead.  Hundreds more will be injured.  More than one thousand will be traumatised. These are the fans at the ill-fated Bataclan the night of the Paris attack. And from this moment on their lives – if not ended – will never be the same again.

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The events of Paris have been pored over and commented on by thousands.  Millions of words and grisly, anguished photos. Photos of blood, and anguished faces.  Photos of corpses covered in blankets, abandoned shoes, roadblocks and flowery tributes.

Those photos are all shocking.  But not memorable.  Why not memorable? Are we incapable of being shocked?  No, but sadly, like the same old porn, the same old terror photos just aren’t doing it for our neural networks  anymore. We need to change up to keep the stimulation. To have the same impact. We know it, the terrorists know it, that’s why they’re looking for the next big thing.  Change up is inevitable. What it will look like we don’t know, but it will come.

No, it’s this photo – the happy one – this is the one that impacts me the most.

Why? Because of its sheer, downright, carefree happiness. It’s teetering obliviousness, right there on the window ledge of something literally goddamned awful. It’s the joi-de-vivre, the lust for life, the sheer carpe diem-ness of it all that gets to me.

This pre-concert photo highlights the one thing that all of the words and photos after the event do not – the proximity, inevitability and downright confronting awfulness of death to those who are unaware it is about to visit.

No one in this room was ready for death – at least not just then.  No one was thinking about death, ruminating on its impending burst through the door, its impacting burst of gunfire.  No one.

Which is strange at some level.  The band about to play to this happy crowd is, albeit ironically named, Eagles of Death Metal.  Ironic, not simply because of what happened that night, but because they are not a death metal band at all, but rather a bluesy, rocky combo of what they considered the rather more famous The Eagles (of Hotel California fame) would sound like if they were a death metal band.  Very meta.  Death kept at a post-modern distance.

And the song they were playing when it all went down? Their hit Kiss the Devil, the lyrics of which are none too complicated:

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll sing his song?
Who will love the Devil and his song?

I’ll love the Devil
I’ll sing his song
I will love the Devil and his song

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll kiss his tongue?
Who will kiss the Devil on his tongue?

I’ll love the Devil
I’ll kiss his tongue
I will kiss the Devil on his tongue

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll sing his song?
I will love the Devil and his song

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll kiss his tongue?
I will kiss the Devil on his tongue

Who’ll love the Devil?
Who’ll sing his song?
I will live the Devil and sing his song

 

Not exactly Bob Dylan. But truly a modern rock irony for an age of exhausted ironies. A whimsy following a generation of overblown anthems and indie introspection.  It’s nice and “up-yours” to the devil. Oh and it’s up-yours too to the offendable sensibilities of good middle class folk.  After all, that’s what rock music is supposed to do, right?

It’s a dare, a game, a game of chicken on a lonesome dead-end road.  Bands do it all the time.  No one means it of course, not even Rob Zombie.  Not even Iron Maiden with all their creepy skulls and skeletons and torture instruments and lyrics.  I mean, Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson is a commercial airline pilot for Iceland Express airlines for goodness sake!  If we were to take his credentials seriously he’d never get behind the joy stick of a Cessna, never mind a plane loaded with fuel and people. The guy at school voted most likely to lock the cockpit door and fly you all off into the side of a mountain. Except that award was taken by a mild mannered, depressed no-name (can you even remember his name?) German boy who did that. The tragic multi-lingual, muffled screams of “My God!!” heard on the cockpit recorders proof indeed that rock music plays a very poor second to ordinary people for pure shock value.  Rock music is just too obvious to take its death lust seriously.

Except of course, the devil decided to play game with a rock band in Paris last week.  The devil turned up that night, dressed in black with AK47s and suicide vests.  He stuck his face right into their hipster bearded faces that night, opened his dripping teeth and puckered up for a smooch.  And did they kiss his tongue? Not on your nelly. The moment the gunfire started the band saw what was happening and did the one thing everyone then tried to do – flee for their lives. It’s all their on video if you want to see it. Again.

Death.

It wipes the smile off our faces, or at least morphs it into a mortis grin a la Batman’s, The Joker.  The terrorists boast that they will win because the West loves life, whilst they – the terrorists – are not afraid of death.  Which they seem to prove time and time again.  This is a different terror to the Northern Ireland that I grew up in – everyone feared death there.  That’s why there were no IRA suicide bombers. That’s why you couldn’t park an unattended car in the middle of a town.  It might have a bomb in it if it doesn’t have a person in it.  It never occurred to anyone to have a bomb AND a person in it at the same time.  That’s crazy.  That would be suicide. That’s why the death toll was so low for a thirty year conflict – no one wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.  The Republicans were Marxists – death was the end of the line.

But even now, suicide bombers are becoming so yesterday.  It’s change up time, surely.  We’re getting used to it on the news.  What else does the devil have in his bag of tricks?  Wait and see.

Death.  It’s the one thing our bureaucratic, economic, entertainment culture that has dropped all its taboos, still can’t deal with face to face, still won’t pucker up and kiss.  And our fear of death in the late-modern west, despite the fact that we happily abort thousands; euthanise at a rate of knots; watch more death on TV in a lifetime than can be counted, never seems to abate to the stage that we can talk about it.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope”, we say, never realising that where there’s life, there’s death – waiting, lurking, for its turn. Death’s like that pesky kid waiting for their turn on the Playstation – it’s my turn, it’s my turn, it’s my turn, he whines. Until you hand the controls over and all bets are off  The little beast finally gets the controls and won’t give them up.  Their turn lasts for ages. For the ages. Life isn’t getting the controls back – ever.

As Christians we have a duty to respond publicly to this atrocity.  And we have.  We have spoken of forgiveness. We have spoken of peace.  We have spoken of not demonising an entire people or religious grouping for the actions of a few.  All good stuff.

But we need to start talking about death.  We need to talk about death in sober tones. Publicly breaking its taboo and asking people to face up to its reality.  We need to talk about death in sorrowful tones.  That it’s the result of human rebellion and a decision – either active or passive – to cut ourselves off from the source of life – the God who created us.  We need to talk about death as the deserving penalty, rather than simply the rude, uninvited visitor.  We need to talk about death as theological thinkers, part of that long line of theologians who once kept a skull on their study tables to remind them of their mortality.  We need to write about death (Your Best Death Now – on the back shelf at your local bookshop, just next to Osteen’s Your Best Life Now).

Why?  One word: Resurrection.

Here’s the great irony.  The culture that fears death the most talks about it the least.  To avoid it, shy away from it, ignore it, is the very power that terrorists have over us as a culture.  We”re like deer caught in the headlights, transfixed by its awful inevitability.  Keep it ironic.  Keep it distant, we’ll be ok.

But Resurrection communities need not fear.  We eat bread and drink wine – symbols of death – because death has been defeated by Resurrection life.  And what we are offered in Resurrection life leaves the promise of 70 hot virgins in the shade.  We are awaiting the feast with the bridegroom in the new creation.  The devil will not be kissed, the Son will be, and we will sing his song forever.  Death and hell are devoid of music.

Let’s leave the final word to John Donne in his mighty poem:

“Holy Sonnet X”
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Death be not proud though men will fear you. and think you grave when they draw near you. you take us down. we can’t escape the fact. but i’ve learned by now your rite is just an act. so lay my bones inside the hearse. take me in and do your worst. but tell me why you choose to boast. you’re just a shadow and a ghost. i’ll breathe again – you’ll be surprised. when you’re the only one who dies. death be not proud. you’ll soon find out.

    you’re not the end. you’re just the start of me. beneath my skin is the real heart of me. so don’t pretend that you can keep me locked forever in your grasp. you’re just a ship sunk on the Ocean floor. your flag was stripped when you hit Heaven’s shore. so close your grip. but the only thing you’ll ever hold is dust and ash. death be not proud of that.

    dates on a stone – they’re just an alibi. a simple line cannot sum up my life. beneath the tears. the wreathes. the letters. and the roses. God composes a new life as the old one decomposes.
    so come on death i’ve got your dues. take them anyway you choose. and shake the heavens with your smile if my bones are worth your while. but this coffin’s just a womb thanks to the cross and empty tomb. God will get the final laugh. death here He comes – your epitaph.

    i lay down my life to find it again. dust turns to dust but my heart and soul ascend. God bless the path that leads me through life’s shallow end. i lay down my life to find it at last. dust turns to dust but I escape this shipwrecked mast. God bless the calm that drowns the voices from my past. i lay down my life and find it anew. joy turns to joy at the thought of breaking through. God bless the pain that makes me desperate for the view. death be not proud. what are you boasting for? thanks be to God your walls are just an open door. God bless the place where you can’t haunt me anymore. you can’t haunt me anymore.

    -Attalus

      1. 1 Corinthians 15:57
        But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

  2. No great thinker, or poet am I. I have to say I can hardly understand many of the great poets! 🙂 The good news is however that the Bible was written for dullards like me so that whilst its deep mysteries remain just that for me, it’s Good News has taken from me the fear of death.
    It’s a favourite saying of mine that “all Christians want to go to heaven but few wish to die”. I agree with your commentary yet again Stephen, and share the anguish that the world by and large felt at the awful news of the Paris massacre.
    Yes, youngsters all of them, filled with hope and expectations of a good night out, could hardly have grasped the shocking events going on around them, let alone acted in anyway to avoid/impede the carnage.
    Having lived a full and satisfying life for the most part, it’s easy for me to say I do not fear death, but it is the Christian in me I believe speaking such words, not the aged and frail man. I have frequently been humbled by stories of Christians offering to take the place of others when death stalked. I have resolved I would do this too, ever since I understood the certainty of a Heavenly home waiting for me. Will I have the courage should the opportunity present itself? I hardly know for sure, yet I really hope I will.
    Having always been something of a Good Samaritan, I am constantly warned that death or injury could well be my portion should I pursue such charity to another, yet I am resolved, for reasons discussed here, to stand fast against my human fear, as death has no hold on me.
    I’ll let God worry about any potential serious injury 🙂

    Thank you Stephen for your thought inspiring commentaries. Rod G

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