For something that is, in reality, so important, and contains such a valuable truth, it’s frustrating for me that I so often find myself desensitised to, or unappreciative of, the message and actions of Jesus. I don’t know whether it’s because the story has become overly familiar over twenty years of hearing it, or whether it’s more just my own hardness of heart, but, whatever the reason, I find myself unmoved by gospels more far more often than I would like, and can find myself looking at others around me, who seem to get it so much more, and wondering where I’m going wrong.
But, thankfully, God is way more faithful than me, and one of the ways that I see that in my life is they ways that he surprises me and grabs my attention anew. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t enough, but I’m saying that God sometimes gives me a better appreciation of the Bible’s truth when my own complacency gets in the way.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I know that for some people, and for myself to some extent, the wonders of the world and the universe are sort of sign posts, that give them a sense of wonder and inspire them to worship. It’s that sort of thing that I’m talking about – where something not especially ‘Christian’ in nature is used by God to bring you to where he wants you to me. I experience some of the wonder at creation that I know others do, but for me, one of the most common sources of this kind of experiences is in the fiction that I read.
I suppose it’s not that surprising that an event as momentous as the death of Jesus should work its way into popular culture – its effects can be seen far and wide – but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful when God uses this. The rest of this post is given over to a recent example of this happening in my life.
Steven Eriksson is not, as far as I am aware, a Christian. Nonetheless, last week I found myself moved as one of the characters in his book, Memories of Ice, brought God’s truth home to me afresh. Memories is the third in Eriksson’s series, ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’, an epic fantasy series set in a different world to our own. It’s a world where humans live, but they share it with powerful gods, ascendants (somewhere between a mortal and a god), and other races, some human-like, some not. Where is Jesus in all this?
WARNING – SPOILES FOR MEMORIES OF ICE FROM HERE ON
Enter Itkovian, Shield Anvil of Fener. Itkovian is a mortal man in the service of Fener, one of the gods. As Shield Anvil, Itkovian is a warrior and a symbol of his god. However, the story progresses and it transpires that Fener is killed, and Itkovian is one of the few survivors of a band of warriors that was dedicated to the god, the Grey Swords. Prior to this, part of Itkovian’s duties had been to take the pain of those seeking absolution from their past, and, with the strength of Fener, give them a blessing in return. Pain in return for blessing? Hmm…
As a result of Fener’s death, Itkovian is left without that supernatural strength, but he can’t let go of his duties as Shield Anvil, and suddenly he is presented with a mammoth need. Thousands of T’lan Imass, who gave up mortal souls millennia ago in order to pursue a dangerous enemy, gathered at the command of the first living Imass to be born in millennia, expecting her to release their bodies to the dust and their souls to oblivion. The living Imass refused, trapping them again in living death.
Itkovian saw the failure of the living Imass to deliver, and realised that he could do something. Though severed from the strength of his god, he offers to take the pain of thousands onto himself, to free them from their tortured existence. Bombarded by their pain and memories, Itkovian nevertheless is able to take the souls of the Imass to a place that had been prepared for them, another reality where they can leave their living death behind and live a real life again. Despite the new future that Itkovian secures for the Imass, without the strength of Fener the pain eventually overcomes him, and he buys new life for the Imass at the cost of his own.
As he dies, the one thing the Imass want to know is why. This is his reply:
“We humans do not understand compassion. In each moment of our lives, we betray it. We know of it’s worth, yet in knowing we then attach to it a value, we guard the giving of it, believing it must be earned […] Compassion is priceless in the truest sense of the word. It must be given freely. In abundance.”
In that story – the story of a man who embraced death in order to save the lives of thousands, I saw an echo of Jesus. No, the story is not the same. Itkovian is not God, he’s not forgiving sins, he’s not creating an eternal relationship between the Imass and himself, but there are similarities that jumped out at me as I read.
One is the importance of pain. Just as Itkovian took the pain of the Imass’ living death, so too did Jesus take our pain on the cross, in return for eternal perfection with God. It is not a fair trade, but Itkovian’s response to the Imass on why he made that sacrifice tells us something about why God made that sacrifice. The fact is, it’s not about a good deal for Jesus, or us earning that sacrifice, because what Jesus did was an example of compassion given freely, in abundance. Jesus gave his life and his love simply because we needed saving, and he was capable of saving us. This is what we Christians call amazing grace.
I don’t think that Eriksson was trying to make a statement like this in the character of Itkovian, but what he was intending to do doesn’t really matter in light of what God is able to do through his words. This is not the only example I’ve got of God speaking to me through fiction like this, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but the closeness between the fictional sacrifice of Itkovian and the real sacrifice of Jesus makes a clear parallel that works well for the point I’m trying to make.
I just want to close this post by urging you all, Christian or not, to keep your eyes open. God can speak to us in all sorts of ways, so if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t hear him more, maybe you should consider how much chance you’re giving him. The Bible is, ultimately, the only definite, hands down word of God that we can reach out and touch right now, but I believe that Jesus is the living Word of God, and he can speak to us in all sorts of ways, if we let him.