All he drew was Thunderbirds. During class times, he scratched them with a ball point pen on a piece of paper, like a bat symbol calling for Batman to come to the rescue. “Look Chief” said the teacher, “this may have passed as clever on the reserve, but here we want something original, not aboriginal. Something that tells us what YOU are about. You know, YOU, the one that is left over after all the Thunderbirds have gone home”.
The class laughed. The aboriginal student looked flummoxed like he did not really know what was beyond the Thunderbird. We were in art school first year, and cultural sensitivity was something none of us were getting the benefit of. We were trod on with some pretty hard criticisms designed to kill off naive kids and draw out something new. They were looking for us to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and present to them artwork which was raw, and truly expressive, which did not fall back on props and gimmicks from our past. Shortly thereafter the aboriginal student went back to the reserve, where I am sure he is making loads of money drawing Thunderbirds, and likely propped up with generous government cultural subsidies to boot.
Not so, us. We had to struggle on, our egos to be killed many times over. Their advice of course, flew in the face of the popular maxim for all artists, “draw from what you know”. They didn’t want that. They wanted us to be born again.
Born again means you have actually died and come back again, changed. Few people truly can attest to what this means. I have a grandmother who died birthing twins. She saw herself in an ocean of black swimming toward the light. As an act of will she turned around, and swam against the light instead. She came back, raised all of her kids and died at a ripe old age.
I am sure the situation changed her, and I would like to know how. I wonder if it factors into rumours that she was “fey”, that is that she could see things that other people could not see. She had some off notions that were informed by another world.
This cropped up when one of her sons was shot down over Germany in 1943. She sat up in bed and told her husband she had seen his plane go down in flames. “Go back to sleep” he said, “You were just having a bad dream. Stop worrying”. But then the letter came, tying the dream to that exact date.
It’s what Lazarus knew. Lazarus was the personal friend of Jesus in the Bible who famously died, and was dramatically raised to life again by Jesus as a portent to his own resurrection. His sisters Mary and Martha knew about the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus said they would see their brother again, they referred to it. They didn’t know he was talking about today. When they rolled the stone away from the tomb and Jesus called Lazarus forth, he walked out in his grave clothes and they had to unbind him, take him in, and feed him. He must have been famished from three days in the grave.
Twice alive is an odd thing. It also means you will be twice dead. You will come to your own end for a second time, knowing something which you were not aware of the first time. I bet Lararus’ friends had some questions for him. What did he see? What did he now know? How did it affect his life? Did he live differently? Was he more relaxed, less stressed by the day to day inconveniences? One would think. We would all like to know what Lazarus knew.
Born again is a phrase that is bandied about so much that it loses its meaning. It comes from John chapter three when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, visits Jesus under cover of night. He wanted to figure out Jesus’ secret, what it was that he knew, why his message was different. And this is what Jesus came to. “You must be born again”.
Nicodemus’ response was what our own might be. “How can a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born again?” he asked.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
John 3: 5-10
Jesus was talking about a new life… through association with his own death and resurrection.
Passing through life, you gain layers like an onion growing outward. And yet we also go through experiences which kill us many times over. We stop being one person and grow again into someone who tries things in a new way, driven by necessity. Life is lye soap and loofah on raw skin, not heeding your complaints when she scrubs.
We seem to be a vast collection of everything that has ever happened to us. You can be eighty years old and haunted in the night by slights and sadnesses you could not control, things which have killed you off at one time or another. Experiences you wish you never had. But you did. And you were born again into something more nuanced. You were a both/and. Both/and refers to Hegel’s famous dialectic which points out that at any given time you are already something at the same time you are becoming something else, a sum of your parts. You are becoming a synthesis, tying together what makes sense, and throwing off those things which have proven to not work. We live in a both/and kind of world because we only know how to go forward.
You likely don’t know how to come to a full stop any more than I do. You would have to block your mind from working. But that might be what being born again really means. Dying to one thing, and living to another. It is a hard imperative to follow. It is what Kierkegaard was referring to in his book Either/Or. His book was knocking Hegel who was popular at the time. Kierkegaard seemed to suggest that both/and was not good enough. That was for amateurs.
You had to be either/or. Poop or get off the pot. Make a decision. Change up your life. Kierkegaard’s big complaint, that people chose NOT to choose. They were willingly blind. Willingly ignorant, you might say, to things they could know if they wanted to. But they had to choose to die first.
It is a tall order. No wonder Jesus phrased it in a mystical way, that tied us to himself because it does not sound like the kind of thing people easily accomplish on their own. It would mean dying voluntarily. It would also mean outside intervention. In John chapter three, Jesus was referring to the typology of the Old Testament, the story where the recalcitrant children of Israel were cursed with poisonous snakes. Moses was instructed by God to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Those who gazed upon it, were healed. Jesus tied the matter of being born again, to such outside intervention - that it is not something coming from us, but from the one we gaze upon, the Son of Man lifted up.
How to die, is not something people easily comprehend. We would all like to know what it was that Lazarus knew. You might say that enquiring minds are dying to find out.