Synthetic Lives

It is always amusing to watch the squabbles of pop stars and entertainment icons. The latest is the one between the pop singer Elton John and the fashion icons Dolce & Gabbana. Of course it’s hypocritical of D&G to use words like ‘synthetic’ when everything they stand for is synthetic. High fashion is synthetic; the models D&G use to sell their products are synthetic. And Elton John is quite right: the children he and his husband are raising are not synthetic. However, Elton John’s reaction raises some questions of its own. Let’s face it, hypocrisy and irony are built into the very world of pop and entertainment icons. Elton’s children are not ‘synthetic’ – but they are being raised in the synthetic world of celebrities, where image is everything.

For their first child in 2010, Elton John and David Furnish used two women as ‘mothers’  (so to speak) – one to provide the egg and the other to carry the baby. I don’t know if the same arrangement was made for the birth of their second son two years later. It was publicized, however, that the birth certificate showed Elton John as father and David Furnish as mother. So the inevitable question arises: Are the two boys ever going to know where half of their genetic makeup comes from?

So, with all due respect to Elton John and D&G, I can only laugh at the controversy that this fight between superficial and self-important pop icons has stirred up. The two boys that Elton and David are raising are not synthetic; but ‘Synthetic’ describes the lives that the people in this controversy live – not because they are gay (gay people are no more or less ‘synthetic’ than non-gays); but because they live in a world that is artificial and remote from the daily lives of their fans and consumers. Which raises another whole set of troubling questions about fans and consumers. It’s an endless chain of artificiality, isn’t it?!

Can you imagine how the Book of Genesis would read if it had been written today by a celebrity author? There are a lot of things I don’t like in the Book of Genesis as it has been handed down, but I’m grateful it wasn’t written yesterday. I thank God for the anonymous author who gave us the story of the flood and Noah. The story of the flood makes me very uncomfortable, but that’s why I prefer it to the empty, commercial prettiness of pop culture.

Today’s reading, Genesis 8:21-9:7, brings to a preliminary conclusion the story of Noah and the flood and a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, I’m relieved that God promises not to do it again (a promise that seems to be unknown to the authors of some other biblical texts). I’m glad that God renews his command to humans to “be fruitful and multiply” and informs Noah that he and all humans are made in the image of God (9:6).

But some new elements are added not previously stated: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered” (Genesis 9:2). This seems to be an extension of the curse placed upon the serpent in Genesis 3:15I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Is all harmony between man and beast now dispelled? Is this the final break from the unity of creation in mythical Eden? Is the myth of the fall now complete, despite the regeneration of the earth after the flood?

vanuatuWith the promise to Noah, God it seems finished dealing with the earth. The earth has taken all the punishment it needs to take. From God, that is, because for some time now human beings have been doing the job of destroying the earth. Another ‘natural’ disaster is in the news today, the deadly cyclone Pam that hit the island nation of Vanuatu. It is one of the strongest storms in history, and it has once again raised the question of climate change and how much it is caused by human activity. By a twist of irony, the President of Vanuatu was attending a climate change conference in Japan when the deadly cyclone hit his nation.

By chapter 9 of Genesis, God is finished with the flood; but God has not even begun to deal with the works of man – the actual constructions of human civilization. That is pretty much the story of the rest of the Bible, and it begins in chapter 11 of Genesis. Earth itself will henceforth stand as witness to what God will do. This is how Isaiah began his book: Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken.” And in today’s reading, Isaiah 14:24-32, the earth again is witness: “This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”

God judges the nations and the peoples of the earth. God judges the indifference and cruelty of people and nations, but God’s purpose is that “the first-born of the poor will feed, and the needy lie down in safety” (Isaiah 14:30). What else does God judge that is not named in the Bible? How about the destruction human beings have brought on the planet? How about our refusal to recognize our impact on climate change? And how about the superficial lives created by marketing and pop culture? How should we read the Tower of Babel story but as God’s judgment on artificial and superficial lives?

Synthetic lives are becoming the reality for more and more people – and not just pop stars – as more and more of us are living lives removed from contact with God’s creation. As we continue to destroy the natural world, we are creating synthetic lives for ourselves, virtual lives even. Dolce & Gabbana should not point fingers at the ‘synthetic’ lives that their brand is helping create! Lent is an invitation to fight against the synthetic in our lives.

One Reply to “Synthetic Lives”

  1. I shared your amusement at Elton’s hissy fit against D &G whose use of ‘synthetic’ as a term of abuse seemed a bit questionable to me. As opposed to everything that is simply natural all human activity is synthetic, I guess. Your use of Genesis is helpful, and your link to the disaster at Vanuatu is illuminating. I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s splendid new book ‘ This changes everything’ which reminds us that the planet itself is our ark.

    Thanks for another good blog.

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