Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Christian Boards

I have recently read through the blurbs on board members in a couple of Christian organisations. Small sample-size I know, but it is quite remarkable how eager the writers of these things are to point out the success which the board members have enjoyed in their professional lives. The hidden message appears to be: these people are clearly not poor, therefore they can be trusted to be on a board.

For Christians, while the poor will always be among us, it seems that they will have a difficult time getting onto our boards.

What a great reversal of the gospel's great reversal.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Boyhood Review (spoilers)

I've been working my way through the Oscar nominees for Best Picture these past few weeks. Last night came the turn of Boyhood, Richard Linklater's drama about growing up which was filmed over the course of twelve years. It begins with a boy of six and ends with the same boy at eighteen. In between we are treated to a two-and-a-half-hour version of these twelve years, during which the boy's single mother begins and ends some very bad relationships, while his biological father shows up on screen sporadically for some bonding time. The boy himself passes through some of the stages of childhood, like moving house and beginning at a new school and getting bullied and getting dodgy hair cuts.

If this all sounds a bit mundane then, well, it is. I will lay my cards on the table immediately and say that I did not enjoy this film. Its novel technique masks fundamental flaws, and it will almost certainly only be remembered for its twelve year production than for its interesting characters and ideas.

The boy of Boyhood is entirely unrelatable. Not once does he cry, he barely laughs, and seems to have nothing of that childhood innocence and vulnerability that quickly deserts us. In Linklater's version of boyhood, boy's don't cry. How utterly extraordinary and silly. One of the only times we see a reaction from Mason (the boy) is when his step-father forces him to get his hair cut. Indeed Mason's hair is probably his most interesting characteristic; it seems to be the only thing about him that has personality and life.

He says very little throughout the film, and when he does say something Linklater's dialogue is so contrived and bland that it is almost impossible for me, having just seen the film, to quote a single sentence of Mason's, or to tell you what Mason thinks about anything. Does he love his mother? I don't know. Nobody knows. Does he have a good relationship with his older sister? We can't say. What about his biological father? Again, we're given nothing really concrete. Does he have any friends, or childhood sweethearts? It would appear not.

Of course Mason's childhood wasn't exactly ideal. His mother is pathologically drawn to alcoholic men. This, at least, should make for interesting drama, but the relationship between mother and alcoholic man is given no air time, so the whole episode feels like a box for Linklater to tick rather than a genuine experience in Mason's life that requires exploration and reflection. Mason asks no questions about why his step-father does what he does. He shows no defiance, no hurt, no pain. We are left to think that growing up with an abusive step-father is a minor inconvenience. Nor do we see any confrontation between Mason's real father and his horrible step-fathers. Surely his father would hear about what was happening to his children and ex-wife? A dramatic punch up between the two fathers would have been silly, but at least it would have demonstrated that someone cared about something that happened.

Yet Linklater quickly moves us from one moment in Mason's life to the next, and there is no real sense that any of the previous moments matter, or have any relation to the present moment. This gets to the heart of the films ideology, which is revealed by an attractive girl who Mason meets ON HIS FIRST DAY OF COLLEGE. Come on. Up to this point, the film was at least plausible in the sense that it was as mundane of most of life. But on Mason's first day of college he discovers that his roomie is a quirky guy with big hair and a love of adventure. Within two minutes Mason is invited to go camping with this guy, his girlfriend, and their friend. (Why was this friend going in the first place? Talk about your third wheel.) It just so happens that the friend is an attractive girl. Because life is just that kind. (This reminded me of the end of (500) Days of Summer, when Gordon-Levitt manages to get over his relationship with Summer by meeting an attractive girl called Autumn. Really.) Mason is also given a pot cookie, just to complete his college experience.

Anyway, the film ends with this random girl telling Mason her philosophy on life, in what feels like a prequel to Linklater's Before Sunrise. She says that while most people go on about "seizing the moment," what really matters is that the moment seizes us. Mason adds to this by saying something to the effect of "all there is is now" or something like that. To get theological for one moment, Walter Brueggemann calls this the "eternal now." This is the philosophy of empires, who cannot imagine a future that is radically different from the present and who ignore the lessons of history. In other terms, this is the philosophy of a particularly western mind, a mind which thinks that the present is all that matters because the present is the time of consumption. This "letting the moment seize us" philosophy is all well and good when you're on a picturesque hill top conversing with a pretty lady. Who wouldn't want such a moment to seize them? But what will Mason do when the moments turn against him? What will he do when moments of sickness come? Linklater had this kid for twelve years, but he never gave him agency. That is to say, he never turned him into a person who could act as a moral agent. Will he act with virtue or vice? We don't know.

What we do know is that Mason's father claims to have paid no attention to Mason's soul. This is revealed during the films one and only treatment of Christianity (one would have thought it would have come up more, especially in Texas). Mason goes to his step-mother's (?) parents house. They are simple country folk, and they give Mason a bible and a gun for his birthday, which is pretty funny. Mason asks his father if he was baptised, and his father laughs at the thought, telling Mason that he couldn't have cared less about his son's soul. The same could be said of Linklater, who pays no attention to any religious or moral questions which Mason may or may not have had. Is Mason's mother an atheist? If so this would have been an interesting avenue to explore, and surely Mason would have wondered at an early age why other children prayed and went to church and he didn't. Princeses Rojas gives us a brief and wonderful scene involving a child of atheist parents conversing with a child of Evangelical parents. Boyhood gives us nothing of the sort. No interesting interactions, no conflicting worldviews, no genuine difference. Linklater´s world is the worst form of the liberal dream, where the only real tension is if we will get what we want and become whatever we want to become.

Perhaps it´s better he kept it this neat and tidy, because his one foray into foreign territory in the form of a Latino tradesman was a disaster. While working on the pipes around Mason´s house, unnamed Latino is told my Mason´s mother that he is smart and that he should go to night classes. That´s it. A passing remark. Years later, unnamed Latino meets Mason and his family in a restaurant. He approaches Mason´s mother and tells her that she changed his life! He is now assistant manager of the restaurant and about to get a degree. And to think that Linklater had about six years to rethink this plot point. I just can´t believe that any intelligent person would have no misgivings about the white woman saves poor Latino trope that Linklater dishes out.

In the end, I was unmoved by this movie. My reaction to it mirrored Mason´s reaction to life. Indifference. And apart from a couple of nice shots (one was, I think, in Austin, when Mason went to a concert with his girlfriend) there wasn´t even much that was aesthetically pleasing about the film. I would be lying if I said this didn´t make me think of the condition of my own soul, since so many who have seen this film have enjoyed it and found in it a wonderful portrayal of childhood. The only conclusion I can draw for now is the well worn cliche that the same thing can be seen in entirely different ways. Except for that dress, which is blue and black.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Over at Creideamh Kevin has written a good response to Stephen Fry's recent outburst at God, a response which brings the discussion back to Jesus of Nazareth.

In Stephen Fry's defence, however, I think it would be fair to say that his diatribe (as well as most theodicy-talk) has concerned itself, unwittingly or otherwise, more with the Father than the Son. As in the New Testament, when people say "God" (meaning the Christian god) they are usually talking about the Father to whom Jesus addressed his prayers.

This equation of God with the Father causes confusion, therefore describing the relationship between Father and Son becomes something of an apologetic argument, a way to approach the theodicy question in a distinctly Christian - which is to say Trinitarian - idiom. This is an apologetic argument very much in tune with the early church's theological work.

What I've noticed from thinkers such as Eagleton/Zizek/Rollins (not to roll all three into one), as well as in a recent article by Giles Fraser, is that God gets collapsed into Jesus. The Father (who is the one on the dock) simply disappears, and God becomes the human Jesus.

I heard Eagleton speak in Belfast last year. He was brilliant. But I was left with the question: how does the Jesus you have so wonderfully described relate to the Father who raised him from the dead? In fact, it seems to me that the only thing lacking from the theology of Eagleton is the resurrection, though perhaps his (forthcoming?) book on hope addresses this lack. The same could be said of Zizek's theology (and, by extension, that of Rollins).

For the early church, some of the key problems it faced were, how does the suffering Jesus reveal the impassible God? How does this powerless human reveal the omnipotent deity? How does the one who died reveal the One who is Life Itself? The early church never got rid of divine omnipotence and impassibility and aseity and immutability in order to solve these problems. The humanity of Christ never became divine, such that Christians actually worship a creature instead of the creator.

If Fry is as intelligent as he sounds, he will very much want to know how Christian theology does solve these problems. How, exactly, does the cross of Christ manifest the wisdom and power of God? How are the Father and Son related in the work of reconciliation? Why does the Father raise the Son from the dead? The answers may not satisfy Fry, but at least he will have a better idea of who Christians are talking about when they talk about God.

For Christians, what is perhaps needed today is a clearer understanding of the first person of the Trinity, the One to whom the Lord's Prayer is addressed. Such an understanding, so Barth would say, is our best apologetic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Captive to Christ - A Short Review

Captive to Christ, Open to the World by Brian Brock is not an ordinary theology book. The book, in fact, is not really "by" Brian Brock at all; instead it is a collection of interviews with Brock which are split up into eight chapters.

Film reviewer Roger Ebert once said that what matters in a film is not only what it is about but how it is about it. Something similar could be said for Brock's book. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about, other than merely repeating the title (which actually captures the essence of the book perfectly). But what is fascinating about the book is its unusual style and the way in which Brock thinks about various subject matters. More than most books I've read, Brock displays a mind which has learned to think theologically. His is a way of seeing the world that is illuminated by God's reconciling action through Christ. Moreover, the light of this reconciliation shines on all things great and small, so that it becomes possible and necessary to think theologically about architecture, city planning, water charges, and all the other stuff that makes up the life we live.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Brock finishes the book by citing Terence Malick's The Tree of Life as the best piece of theology he had "read" in the last month. Malick and Brock share not only a Texas childhood, but a vision of the world as the theatre of divine glory. They understand their vocation as a summons to make this world known, to show us a different (attentive) way of seeing what is staring us in the face. For Malick, this task is fulfilled using a camera and the images of nature and grace which it can capture. For Brock, it is Scripture which transforms our seeing. In his hands this "book" becomes like one of Malick's lenses, showing us a reality more real than our narrow vision will allow. Our response to this reality can only be wonder, awe, and praise.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Response to the Response to the Response

I came across an article linked on Facebook which was a response to the response to the murders in Paris last week. The author is concerned with the treatment doled out to Christianity in the wake of the massacre, and highlights a number of instances where Christianity is being lumped in with Islam as a religion which is dangerous to a humanistic society. Yet in the author's desire for others to exhibit a nuanced approach to the different religions he forgets to exhibit such an approach himself. He writes:

Many times I have been presented with the mantra of the New Fundamentalist Atheists, "Atheists don't fly planes into buildings". To which the obvious response is "Neither do Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics or charismatics – not even the most extremist wacko charismatics. When did you last hear of Benny Hinn suicide squads?" But those who don't think about the consequences and harm of their prejudices far too often rush into this demonization of all religious people.

This is a paragraph bereft of self-awareness. These words by another writer demonstrate why:

The Muslim world has suffered more casualties at the hands of the West in the name of "freedom" than the West has suffered at the hands of Muslims in the name of "Islam."
Moreover, it is precisely through the use of planes (remote control ones) that much of the damage to the Muslim world has been done by the West. Anglicans or charismatics or Presbyterians or Catholics may not fly planes into buildings, but we can be fairly certain that they fly them over the heads of Muslim men, women, and children with the intent to kill. There is no spectacle to this Western form of plane-based violence (mainly because it is done in relative secrecy and from a cold distance, and partly because the lives taken don't matter to us, as evidenced by our reaction to the tragedy in Nigeria), but is it any less cruel, any less fueled by "religious" belief?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Captive to Christ, Open to the World

I was given Brian Brock's Captive to Christ, Open to the World a few weeks ago and just got around to reading the first chapter/conversation. It is really a quite brilliant piece of theological reflection on the interaction between Scripture and Christian living. Out of the many insights on offer one in particular stood out the most.

Brock is critical of virtue ethics or an ethic of character. He thinks that this way of seeing the moral life easily leads to an obsession with the self and the self's moral progress. Indeed, Brock thinks that this is an unscriptural way of seeing the moral life. He says: "...I don't think Scripture allows us to frame Christian ethics as a matter of moral improvement" (10). According to Brock, "moral improvement is the result, not the aim of Christian ethics" (10). Brock goes on to cite Samson and David as examples of the kind of moral life that Scripture is interested in. This is a life which is at times obedient and disobedient to the divine claim, but a life which is never abandoned by God in virtue of his faithfulness. In the end, then, the aim of Christian ethics is not self-improvement, but a response of faith to the faithfulness of God.

I like this way of understanding things, though I think a focus on the New Testament would almost certainly bring character and virtue back into play. It is quite obvious that the stories of David and Samson were not told in order to convey the moral progress they made. Samson ended up getting his hair cut during one of his frequent visits to a prostitute, while David's last act was to give his son and successor Solomon a list of people who needed to get got. But as we move to the New Testament we are met by characters who, well, develop character. Peter is one such example, Paul another. Of course neither are immune to sin even as they progress, yet Paul is so confident in his character that he can say to the Corinthians "imitate me as I imitate Christ." Imitation as a form of moral training is very much at home in character/virtue ethics. Of course we cannot imagine David or Samson encouraging us to imitate them, and so Brock's model is appropriate within the context of their narratives. But my initial reaction to his insight is that it cannot be applied across the board.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interpretive Strategies

That the act of interpretation is inextricable from the social context of the interpreter is never more evident than when Jesus's sayings to and about the rich are expounded in churches in the West. When those who have are implored to give what they have to those who have not, we take this to mean that those who have are to offer up their possessions to Christ and proclaim that everything they have belongs to Christ. To expect anything else of those who have would be unreasonable, even immoral. After all, if those who have give everything away then what's left for them? In the zero-sum game of life those who have see no reason to switch places with those who have not.

But Luke will not let us get away with our cunning interpretive strategies. Notice the parallel between Luke 18:22 and Acts 4:34-5:

Luke 18.22: "Sell everything that you own and distribute it to the poor"

Acts 4.34-5 [those who owned land or houses] sold [them] ... [and the proceeds] were distributed to each according to his need.

Selling and distributing among the needy was not a unique, one-off mandate given to the rich young ruler. Luke presents this solidarity with the poor as a constituent of the early church. Furthermore, the early church here acts as both the faithful interpreter of Luke's story of the rich young ruler and as the judge over our unfaithful interpretations.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar (Spoiler warning)

Interstellar is one of those rare films that lays bare a director's vision not only for this particular work but for all of life. This is Christopher Nolan's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his The Tree of Life. When such a film comes around it demands our attention. But does Interstellar deserve it, and can it hold it beyond the three hours running time? The answer to these questions is yes and no, but more no than yes. Indeed, a lot more no than yes.

The yes of Interstellar is its commitment to the vision. This vision is signposted in the opening hour, with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) telling us that "We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it." Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) relates a similar aphorism:  mankind may have been born on earth, but we were not supposed to die on earth. The will to explore is at the centre of Nolan's vision, which means that the film is constantly moving toward new lands, hidden NASA headquarters, distant galaxies, and extra dimensions. It is hard to be bored given this relentless kinetic energy. This creates a problem, however, and is one reason why Interstellar is anti-Gravity: we are never in the same place long enough to care about it or the people who dwell there.

While Gravity did not spend much time on earth, earth was unquestionably "home." The only question was whether Dr Stone (Sandra Bullock) would make it back. Exploration was not the end, and (contrary to Professor Brand in Interstellar) leaving earth was the very opposite of what was required for human salvation. Dr Stone longed for the very mud and dust which Cooper raged against. In philosophical terms, Gravity depicted procession and return. Or in biblical parlance, it conveyed the Old Testament belief of coming from dust and returning to dust. Stone is then raised up from the dust and the mud a creature reborn. Interstellar is all procession, all progress. This in itself does not make for a bad film, though it perhaps makes for a theologically suspect one. Kubrick portrays the relentless journey toward progress stunning effect in 2001. But Kubrick's vision of life was cold, violent, and ultimately lonely. 2001 is deeply tragic and traumatic. Nolan tries to avoid this tragedy by making love the unifying factor in the universe. But in the words of Will.i.am and co, where is the love?

Nowhere is this lack of love more evident than in the film's final moments. A middle-aged Coop is reunited with his long lost daughter on her death bed. She is over one hundred years old due to some time lapse stuff that doesn't make sense. Does he stay by her side to be there when she takes her final breath, or even to mingle with his grandchildren? No. She tells him that no father should have to see his child die, so he quickly departs in order to explore the United States colony which is being established on another planet. For a film which unashamedly preaches the virtues (and science!) of love it has remarkably little time for the actual practice of love. This is because love is bound up with place, and Interstellar has no sense of place. Unlike with Gravity (and also The Tree of Life), earth sure as hell isn't good enough. It is portrayed with wonder and longing by Alfonso Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick's cinematographer for The New World and The Tree of Life). It is portrayed by Nolan as arid, unfruitful, and irredeemable.

Where Interstellar also differs from Gravity as well as 2001 is in its unquestioning trust in technology. As far as I can remember nothing ever goes wrong from a technological point of view. Technology can be relied upon absolutely. Hell, even drones become the play things of children! This causes the film to suffer both as a drama and as a meaningful commentary on the human condition. In Gravity the whole drama centres around the limits and vulnerability of technology. 2001 portrays technology ("embodied" by HAL 9000) as being as devious and untrustworthy as the humans which create it. Nolan's Interstellar exhibits no such skepticism. Technology does not fail, it does not disobey, it does not change the humans who use it (at least not for the worse); it simply carries us into a glorious future.

Nolan's faith is admirable. He sees in humans an incredible and complex ability to survive and adapt. But what is the price of this kind of survival? And more crucially, what does it look like for humans to flourish as humans? Nolan's answers to these questions are suspect and superficial. The message Interstellar delivers to humanity is "trust yourself." Gravity, on the other hand, ends in a "thank you" which addresses a reality beyond the limits of human power and which bespeaks a more disciplined and peaceful way of seeing the world. Karl Barth would argue that love is only possible when these limits are acknowledged on the side of humans and broken into on the side of the "beyond" or the "other". For Nolan this "other" is other humans from the future. For Barth this is not other enough.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and History

Anyone with two hours to spare and who is interested in questions of historicity, theology, and biblical interpretation should watch the following video:

On a recent the only blog post which sparked a conversation, the question of whether Paul had an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity popped up. While apparently not far from "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" it is a question which does have a bearing on how the Bible is viewed and interpreted. Do we require Paul to have an orthodox account of the immanent Trinity if he is to be considered a trustworthy writer? And if Paul does not have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity what does that make him? A heretic!?
I came down on the side which thinks that Paul neither had nor needs to have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I don't think theology works that way, with everything the church teaches being simply lifted from the Bible (here I said with Barth in his suspicion of biblical theology as any kind of substitute for dogmatics). There is, to be sure, the beginnings of Trinitarian orthodoxy in Paul's corpus (as well as John's), but Paul himself lacked what the church in the second, third, and fourth centuries supplied. This means that we do not believe exactly what Paul believed. But if we believe that the Spirit leads the church into truth then that should not be cause for concern.
This video addresses an even trickier question: did Jesus of Nazareth believe he was divine?
What I find most interesting about the video is that the opposing speakers are both orthodox Christians, yet they arrive at orthodoxy from very different starting points. Licona grounds his orthodoxy in history. Martin grounds his orthodoxy in the church. This raises a key question: to what extent is the church's orthodoxy dependent on historical factuality? Does Christianity ultimately "appeal to history", as N.T. Wright is fond of saying?
This video won't answer all the questions, but it does a good job of raising them. Noteworthy also is Martin's "explanation" of his faith at the end. For someone who appears to identify himself with the liberal strand of Christianity it is curiously Barthian.