From Chaos to Creation

A Christian Meditation
on the film Koyaanisqatsi

Godrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi takes us on a journey into unknown territory. Without language, plot or narrative, the film immerses us in images of humanity’s relationship to the earth. Manipulating time through rapidation and slow motion, punctuated with Philip Glass’s mesmerizing music, Koyaanisqatsi allows us to see the technological world we’ve built on nature’s shoulders, the world we take for granted. Without the comfort of language, we must grapple with the spectacle. Koyaanisqatsi asks us whether life lived out of balance with creation is ultimately tenable? Seen through a faith perspective, the movie evokes the question of whether life outside covenant with God is possible.

The timelessness of the desert is contrasted with shadows of clouds. The natural rhythm of clouds moving over mountains cuts to the frenetic pace of modern city life. Fast-forward images of sausages on the assembly line zip by at a frenetic pace, to the staccato rhythm of synthesizer music. Suddenly the scene shifts to a series of escalators carrying human cargo. The juxtaposition hits us; we are meat.

The images of being trapped and eaten by a technological beast brings to mind the Jewish understanding of Leviathan within covenantal theology. It comes from the understanding of suffering within a covenant, when neither we nor God seems to be honouring the covenant. There is Adam and Eve after the Fall, labouring with birth and toiling over the land. Then after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there is over 400 years of slavery. Then after entering the Promised Land there is the Exile. And by the time of Jesus there had been a string of occupations, compromising Israel’s ability to live their Jewishness. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” is the question that arises. Israel came to understand the forces of chaos as a monster on the loose, beyond human manipulation. In the midst of chaos, they told faith stories, and during the Exile they created the Genesis account. This creation story was a polemic against their captors’ creation myth, the Enuma Elish. God is victorious over the lesser Gods, over the “tohu-vah-bohu”. God didn’t destroy Leviathan but contained him, as a plaything, putting him in his place. It was no longer the monster who ruled the world, but the Lord who had tamed him.

Jewish history is full of times of oppression and apparent abandonment by God. Covenantal theology calls on God to remember creation through his covenant. God is always seeking ways to fulfill the covenant and redeem creation at the same time. There is a profound understanding here that God’s people are not able to live the law, except as God creates in us a new heart. So the covenant can only be honoured by absolute trust in God who then brings about a new creation.

The many-layered canyon cliffs were formed over eons of sedimentation and erosion. The once powerful water that carved the channel now meanders thousands of feet below as a mere trickle. The towers of the cityscape are reminiscent of the canyon, many-layered, reaching for the sky, reflecting the creation we evolved from. When the setting sun or rising moon are reflected in mirrored skyscraper windows, our frenetic mimicry of nature takes on a yearning. In repeating nature’s patterns, we’ve lost an essential rhythm.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21)

In Jesus, God does something radical. The covenant promises that God will be faithful and in response God’s people will be obedient. Not a dutiful obedience, but a recognition of necessity, and the deepest freedom (my yoke is easy, my burden light). But obedience is elusive for God’s people. In Jesus God first becomes human, and then learns obedience through suffering, resulting in his death. It’s like God split himself in half (reminiscent of the post-Flood covenant? I would rather split myself in half than abandon Israel) to save creation, not just for God’s honour, but because of a suffering love for creation. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God does what he promised. God keeps his promise of the covenant, without stinting on justice or mercy.

Humanity’s entry into the covenant is still obedience, but now it’s through the spirit of Christ that enables us. If we see the Law as a way of salvation, we are woefully aware of how we make it an idol. All our efforts to save the environment or live authentically or to live the Kingdom of God come to nothing. On our own effort, this is just more frenetic activity that feeds chaos; we focus on outward behaviour and forget about inward trust. To claim the new life in Christ, we must relinquish all claims of autonomy and control. If we rely instead on the Messiah, a new heart is created within us that allows us to live the covenant. We must submit absolutely in order for the New Life to be born.

In his “Abba Father” spirituality Jesus embodied this absolute dependence in a deep intimacy with God. Not in abject fear or humiliation but like playing in God’s presence (the lion lays down with the lamb). Jesus experienced God’s accompaniment, and not just in the good times either. There was probably much suffering, wandering around unsure of his mission or overwhelmed by the suffering he witnessed. Even here, Jesus communed with God. Even in Gethsemane, even on the cross, at the edge of faith, Jesus’ lament (why have you forsaken me?) reflects his relationship with God. God’s covenantal answer is heard most clearly through the cross, through suffering.

It isn’t our own suffering we enter when we look to the cross. We do feel the consequences of our sin and the “now and not yet” of God’s redemption. But if we focus on this suffering, we continue the perversion, because it’s still something we do, a subtle form of self-righteousness. The real suffering is that done by Christ in the sense that our sinfulness keeps Christ’s Spirit at bay. We come to say to Christ, “I’m not suffering. You are suffering because of me.” We are responsible for admitting fully our sinfulness, but we must relinquish any attempt to rectify it ourselves. This is the real wound to the ego, that it is Christ who suffers mysteriously, and mysteriously brings about new life in the midst of our sin.

Against a background of the rapid motion of humans on the streets, driving the freeways, working the factories, we see portraits in slow motion. These faces all seem out of place, uncomfortable in their own skin. An old man looks haunted, lost in the middle of a throng. Then, in a crowded hospital ER room, amidst a jumble of intravenous tubes a frail human hand taps on the bedside. In slow motion it is embraced by a younger hand, and for a moment the anxious tapping ceases.

This relinquishment seems so small compared to the monster our technology has helped loose. Whether through the impersonal ravaging of strip mining or the illusion of individualism, we keep making idols. It may seem the world is beyond saving, that we’ve passed the tipping point. But more of our self-important activity cannot save the world. Our legalism cannot address this monster, even though it helped create it. Our world can only be saved through God’s creative action/Word, which is always creating, always bringing something out of nothing. The cross seemed too small compared with the weight of expectation of the covenant. But God so loved the world that he became his only begotten son to bear the burden of our monsterliness. This is truly Koyaanisqatsi: a “life that calls forth another way of life”.

God’s work of salvation is in and through creation, which includes us. We are not idle, we are redeemed; our energy and technology is harnessed and tamed. The New Jerusalem isn’t a return to the garden. It is a city, with elegant, beautiful technology, that serves creation and Creator. Then our restless, promethean yearning, reflected in our mimicry of nature, will become a praise of God. And this future breaks into our present, not fully, but holographically. When we relinquish our life out of balance to Christ, we find another rhythm at work in us, one that reconciles all of creation.

"Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." (Revelation 21)

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