In 1991, a new word entered our common lexicon. The term was the product of two events in pop culture that occurred almost simultaneously: the release of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Terminator 2.” The word was morphing.
Until 1991, any television or film special effect that involved something transforming from one state of being to another had a choppy and mechanical quality to it. Think of old movies like the “Wolfman,” in which the protagonist’s transition from person to feral creature was accomplished by a stop-and-start, chunky sequence of frames. “Black or White” and “Terminator 2” changed all that. With them came a new technology that allowed for fluid, almost miraculous transformation. At the end of the music video for “Black or White,” for instance, a sumo wrestler “morphs” into supermodel Tyra Banks seamlessly. In 2011 this technology is so ubiquitous that we scarcely notice it. It has been fine-tuned and is used in movies, television shows, and even commercials so often as to be mundane. But when I was a college student in 1991, this new morphing effect was enough to make me put down my Nintendo Gameboy (um…I mean my philosophy textbook) and pay attention.
It turns out, though, that the idea of morphing—of miraculously transforming from one thing into another—is not new at all. It is as old as the Christian Church. St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century speaks repeatedly of morphosis as the goal of Christian life. The very reason for being Christian, Gregory contends, is so that we can be morphed into new creatures, so that—as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount—we can “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Gregory is not so naïve as to think we will attain perfection fully in this life. But he does believe that Christians can—through humility, study, prayer, attention and accountability to one another, always assisted by the grace of God—experience a divine transformation. In fact, he dedicated his entire life to assisting his fellow Christians in this very endeavor. It’s crucial to note that, unlike the instantaneous special effects in our Hollywood films and music videos, true morphosis is the result of years of faithful practice. It takes time, and progress may be at any given moment imperceptible. (True morphosis is more akin to the stop-and-start, chunky experience of transformations in old movies!)
We most often obey the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (when we obey them at all) in apprehension that if we do not we ultimately will be punished by God. But Gregory’s idea of morphosis frees us from such a punitive understanding of faith. For Gregory, Jesus’ sacrifice of himself acquits us of guilt, and we are freed to live not to avoid divine punishment, but rather to enjoy the divine presence.
In other words, through the miraculous morphosis that grace accomplishes in us when we cooperate with it (we have to do our part!), we become more Christ-like and therefore able to cleave more closely to God. We actually begin to experience God’s presence more fully and more often in our daily lives. What an incredible gift! This is a transformation worth experiencing, for a life worth living.
By God’s grace, we can morph from being creatures mired in sin to being children in the embrace of a loving Father. Our morphosis can begin this very day. This can be our 1991, when something new and profound enters our lives.
St. John’s Episcopal Church is located in downtown Roanoke at the corner of Jefferson Street and Elm Avenue. The congregation gathers for Sunday worship at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 5 p.m. Visit St. John’s on the web at www.stjohnsroanoke.org.