Be praised, Lord — even in a virus

21 July 2010

Until we come to terms with death, we will always be fearful, says Peter Graystone

AN ART exhibition that attracted modest but appreciative interest in the UK has been greeted with outrage in New York. The Heller Gallery is displaying sculptures by the artist Luke Jerram, who lives in south-west England.

They are models, ren­dered in glass, of viruses that are among the most voracious killers on the planet. They demand that we come face to face with the shape of HIV, E.coli, smallpox, swine flu, and SARS. Displayed sparkling on mirrors, they are about 20 centimetres wide. They are utterly beautiful. That is where the problem lies.

Last year, they were on show in the Smithfield Gallery in London, then in Bristol, and were pur­chased by the Wellcome Collection (the founda­tion that explores the connection between medi­cine and art). They can be seen by following the links to “Glass microbiology” at the artist’s web­site: Witnessing them in three dimensions, however, with their fragile and exquisite spikes, twists, and gleams, reveals the unsettling fact of the matter. Aesthetically, these lethally infectious agents are gorgeous.

The New York Times led the protest that dis­playing these objects as works of art is offensive. “I’ve watched people dying of these things now rendered as $10,000 paperweights,” raged Donald McNeil, one of its journalists.

Christians ought to be able to offer an altern­ative point of view. Viruses, after all, do not know that they are evil. Like every other being in God’s creation, they are just trying to make a living. A Christian world-view recognises a planet that is ecologically poised, and in which each part contributes to the delicate balance through which God is working out his plan for the cosmos.

Every aspect of God’s creation worships him by doing what he created it to do: “All that hath life and breath come now with praises before him.” The viruses are praising God in their multi­plying as surely as the butterflies are praising God in their fluttering.

A realisation such as this challenges Christians about whether they truly believe that they are living their earthly lives in the context of eternity. If we have a God who has found his way out of a tomb, then the way we think about death should be transformed. A good God has ordered human experience so that earthly life and earthly death are part of a rich rhythm of endless engagement with him. So might it be possible to consider the things that will one day take our breath away with a different kind of acceptance?

In the “Canticle of the Sun”, St Francis of Assisi was able to contemplate the prospect that even the end of life is praising God in its finality: “Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.” Mr Jerram, in inviting us to find loveli­ness in something that we are naturally inclined to find repellent, is exploring the same trust that Francis was able to find in the rightness of a pat­tern of existence and passing.

Until we come to terms with death and the process of dying, we will always be driven by fear, not by love. Is it possible that Christians can see in death something that allows them to stand distinct from others? Tragedy: yes; rage: yes; an­guished and aching sadness: yes. But also, in the grace of God that is unfolding through eternity, a kind of beauty.

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for the Church Army.

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