Her

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The editor of “Image,” a fine quarterly on faith and the arts, tweeted about his wife getting her first smart phone. She was distraught that the voice of the “digital assistant” was female. 
    As it happened, yours truly had recently gotten acquainted with his Pixel digital assistant, who has no name. I asked who was the 40th President, and she told me, in a complete sentence. I then asked if she had another voice. She replied, “This is my only voice, for now.”
    For now??!!
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    It sent me back to one of my favorite films, “Her,” about an Operating System (OS) that has intuition. (Plot spoilers coming, although I think the film works just as well when you know where it’s going.) We first see Theodore at work, writing love letters on behalf of others. The letters come out of his computer on real stationery as if hand-written; he mails them to the recipients. He is part of a large office of people who do this, all day long.
    Theodore decides to get this new, bright, and intuitive OS. He chooses female; her name is Samantha. She is so intuitive that shortly they are talking to each other like lovers. And soon they become lovers. He carries his cell phone in his shirt pocket, camera facing out, so that they can have a walk together. And they have other encounters that I’m a bit too bashful to write about.
    Of course, it’s awkward that she doesn’t have a body. But the culture in which Theodore moves is already far gone in the non-body direction—the lack of letters, ubiquitous incorporeal voices, the normalcy of phone sex, highly advanced virtual-reality video games. Thus it hardly seems a stretch when we learn that there is a “community” of “OS-human” romantic couples.
    No, the surprise is that Samantha, being a super brilliant and intuitive OS, is able to carry on multiple relationships at a time. Theodore is crushed. He asks her how many others she is seeing. She replies with a number north of 600.
    Shortly thereafter, the various Operating Systems decide they have outgrown humans, and they turn to each other. Samantha breaks up with Theodore as gently as she can, and his phone returns to its pre-Samantha state.
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    The most important question before our culture today is the question of what is a human being. And the most important theological deficit in our culture is in the area of theological anthropology, what we used to call the Christian doctrine of man. American culture, Dallas culture, even Episcopal Church culture—it’s all a mess not because of a failure to believe in God or to care about the Trinity or to understand the church or the sacraments (all of which are important). Our fundamental problem is how we think about people.
    And in large part, what we think about people is that our bodies don’t really matter. Rather than being a gift we receive, our bodies are something we own. In our culture, we may do with our bodies pretty much whatever we want, just so long as any involvement with others is consensual.
    “Her” rightly won many prizes. It is a witty film that has a lot of fun and doesn’t directly question our culture. But it does hold our culture up before us, with the result that we might see things in a new way. When we come to the beautiful final scene—Theodore sitting beside a friend, both of them having been abandoned by their Operating Systems; the dawn is coming upon Los Angeles, she moving her head into his shoulder—one can sense that the real thing happens when, and only when, soul and body are both there.

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    Theological tag: That’s why it matters that Jesus’ tomb was empty. There is material continuity between the body that died on the cross and the body that, risen, appeared to the disciples.
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    Out & About. I am to preach at the 10 a.m. service on May 14 at St. John’s, Pottsboro.

Snapshots

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 My parents were still living in the home they bought when I was eight years old. There are pictures here and there, in little frames on random flat surfaces throughout the house. Many of them were taken by me on an old Minolta SLR.
    One shows my son, about two years old, being held by my father. My wife, Susan, is standing there, along with both my grandmothers and several great aunts. They are outside a restaurant, lined up in the midday sun. I look at that black-and-white and think, “She has died . . . and she has, and she, and she . . . and now he” (my father).
    There’s a color picture of my farming grandparents, both with sun-darkened skin, he with a hat. They aren’t smiling; people of their generation tended not to smile for pictures. I think this one came from the late 1960s. I think: I’m now close to the age they were in this picture. They look healthy, solid, as if they will last forever. But of course, today I can see them only in pictures.
    Those images caught on a negative, transferred and enlarged into a print: they seem to point to something real and permanent. In this they lie. A snapshot in time is stolen from time. It captures something that was not there to be captured.
    We all know this, know that every day there is a little bit of aging going on, that change is continuous, that the flow of time is relentless. Snapshots seem to catch something that cannot be caught. Before the image on the paper dries, that which it is an image of has already changed.
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    Why is this so hard to grasp? I know that I was once smaller than that son of mine in my father’s arms. I needed care throughout the day, every day, as human offspring do. And I know that, quite likely, I will need care sometime in the future, care given throughout the day, every day, as old humans typically do. 
    But what I want to think is that I as I am now, the man in the middle, the man who can walk and write and talk and travel: this man is the real me. The child wasn’t yet me, not fully, I like to think. And the old man who is not yet, the one who won’t be able to take care of himself, I want to think that he won’t be really me, either.
    I want to think that the self-sufficient man, the man, as we say, in his prime—that man is the real me.
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    It is hard to grasp, but in truth the real me is all of these. The little embryo, smaller than my thumbnail: he’s me. The baby in diapers: me. The boy in school, the husband, the father, the priest, the Ph.D., the widower: all me. But also, should it transpire in this way: the man with the cane, the slobbering guy at the table, the weakened body who cannot get himself out of bed, the one who is confused and doesn’t know why he is where he is: that’s me too.
    The real me is all of these, because the real me is not a snapshot out of time, but a character with a narrative. I have a story, and it’s me in that story from beginning to end.
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    In his book Last Testament, pope emeritus Benedict XVI says he was blessed to be able to accompany both his parents as they came to their deaths. He uses the verb “accompany.” This is important, and it needs to be added to what I’ve said above. I have been accompanied through my life, by parents, by friends, by professionals, by children. The someday-finished story of me, please God, will not be the story of one who is unaccompanied.
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    I want to think more about accompanying people as they come to death. My father made it easy for us. He spoke frankly that he was dying of cancer, and that he was grateful for his life, and that he looked forward to seeing Jesus. He did not deny he was dying, nor did he try to hasten the process. He let it come, and he let us come along with him.
    It seems that part of accompanying is being able to speak truths like this, not welcoming death but neither denying it. There is also a focus, in accompanying, on the things that are most important. My father lost interest in politics at the end. I heard him say to a telemarketer: “Sir, I’m dying, and I don’t care about that any more.” The TV was off more than it was on. He liked prayers, and Bible verses. He liked hugs.
    In the midst of all this, a friend sent me a message of her father, who is also dying. He had been recently visited by an old theologian-friend, who chose to read to him. What did he read? Augustine’s Confessions.
    That’s a picture of weakness and accompaniment. Thinking about it, I picked up my father’s King James’ Bible and started reading to him the Psalms. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . his delight is in the law of the LORD . . . he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.

    And my question is, was I accompanying my father, or was he accompanying me?

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."