Friday, April 18, 2014

The True Measure of Secularisation

I have devised a fool-proof measure for secularisation levels across Europe. All you have to do is look at the football fixture list, and see how many games are scheduled in the Easter period. The results are as follows:

England, despite Cameron's recent nonsense, comes out looking quite secular. Most of the lower league games are being played on Good Friday at 3pm. Presumably they act as the fixtures that TV producers would like to wash their hands of. Easter Saturday brings in over half the Premier League games, but none of these games are really very alive. West Ham v Crystal Palace? Newcastle v Swansea? They are almost respectfully downbeat. Easter Sunday, however, is yet another Sky Sports Super Sunday. The joy of resurrection can now be celebrated with the weekend's most intriguing fixtures. They can be feasted on one after the other, staring at midday and ending at 6pm. The new liturgy.

By contrast, Serie A has scheduled all its games for Easter Saturday, leaving Italians free to go about their Good Fridays and Easter Sundays in more traditional ways.

It should come as no surprise that France is the most godless country, with the majority of games taking place on Easter Sunday...or just Sunday, to the French. Good Friday also gets a game, although curiously there is nothing scheduled for Easter Saturday. Perhaps that in-between day doesn't have enough iconoclastic potential for the French. Although the fixtures could also be construed as a sort of dramatisation of the Easter story. The one fixture on Friday falls to the ground and dies. Saturday is a non-event. But Sunday! Sunday brings Ligue 1 back to life!

The fixture list for this weekend in the Bundesliga looks exactly like the fixture list for the previous 30 weeks of the Bundesliga. Typical Germans, Alex Ferguson would say. Their league runs like clockwork. A fixture amendment would mean that the system is flawed, but the system is flawless. A sign of secularity, or a sign of German efficiency? It's too hard to tell.

Most surprising to me at least is Spain. Spain, that most Catholic of countries for so many years, has not escaped the fate of other European nations. France, it seems, is contagious. One survey from 10 years ago reveals that only 14% of young people in Spain describe themselves as "religious." But more scientific than such surveys is the fixture schedule for La Liga this weekend. Good Friday sees Atletico Madrid take on Elche. This is especially odd, since La Liga games are almost never on Fridays. Easter Saturday contains only three games, each as exciting as West Ham v Crystal Palace. Easter Sunday then witnesses four games, with one kicking off at 12pm local time.

One other country of note is Scotland. Rather curiously, all of the league games in Scotland, like in Italy, are being played on Easter Saturday. Except for one. Inverness play Aberdeen on Good Friday. Do one of those two have a European engagement next week that I'm unaware of?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bible and Colonialism

What would it mean to read some of the biblical narratives from the point of view of a Canaanite?

That is one of several questions that has emerged in my study of narrative criticism. My supervisor pointed me in the direction of Michael Prior's book The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, which offers a somewhat scathing assessment of both the interpretation of the conquest narratives and the narratives themselves. Prior speaks of "racist, xenophobic, and militaristic" traditions within Israel's scripture that, unsurprisingly, lead to racist, xenophobic, and militaristic applications by later readers. Due to the problematic nature of these traditions - which for Prior have no historical merit, but reflect perhaps a post-exilic attempt to reconstitute national and religious identity - it is up to civilised, morally sensitive readers to subject some portions of the Bible to ethical critique.

There are numerous problems with Prior's book, not least its theological and moral shallowness. But it nevertheless addresses a topic in need of addressing. If scripture as the norma normans non normata (the unnormed norm of norms) cannot be subject to "moral critique," then what must give way - the understanding of scripture, or the moral critique? By what "norm" might scripture be tested against? Prior's "civilised" individual? Other competing traditions in scripture? Prior gives a couple of examples of scripture being used as a form of encouragement for both colonizers and those colonized. (Interestingly, Noah actually picks up on this phenomenon, with the good character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes creation care, and the bad character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes human dominion.)

The church, it should be noted, has undertaken a de facto moral critique of scripture by leaving morally dubious passages out of the lectionary. Even those churches that eschew a lectionary tend to steer clear of the difficult passages when they prepare their preaching calendars. Most Christians, then, are semi-Marcionites in practice if not in theory. The passages are there, and unlike Marcion we will not remove them, but we will do our best to ignore them into theological irrelevance.

Prior notices this pick and choose mentality among liberation theologians. The Exodus narrative is taken to be paradigmatic for the likes of Gutierrez. Here God's action on behalf of the oppressed is displayed. But Prior asks: what about the Eisodus? That is to say, what about the violent movement from Egypt and into the territory of another people? The Exodus paved the way for a conquest, with Canaanites on the receiving end. Surely South Americans, while identifying with the experience of Israelites in one movement of the narrative, will identify more with the experience of the Canaanites in the next? Where, morally speaking, does that leave ancient Israel?

If only I was well acquainted with a Latin American who could give me the answers I seek...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Meant to Preach

NOAH FEATURETTE with Quotes from Cooke Pictures on Vimeo.

Here are some people talking about Noah. I disagree with all of them, but I disagree with Karen Covell, founder of "Hollywood Prayer Network", the most. She says:

Movies aren't meant to preach. Movies aren't sermons.

First, she (implicitly) propagates the tired, old trope that sermons are bad. A bad sermon is bad. A good sermon is spine-tinglingly good. A good sermon may be much rarer than a bad sermon, but it is still a sermon. It is still preaching.

Second, movies are meant to preach! Cinema, for better or worse, has always been a medium that conveys a message. To be sure, the stories are stories, and should not be reduced to a few didactic point. But the stories are ideological all the way down. The question is therefore not whether a film is "preachy" or not. The question is how and what the film preaches.

In the end, Covell's statement actually contradicts the agenda of HPN, which speaks of Hollywood as "the world's most influential mission field." That's a bonkers description, of course, but it does at least acknowledge the reality that films, just like sermons, are intended to influence.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Noah: A Review

One of the first films I remember watching was a biblical epic. It was The Ten Commandments, and it was around four days long. For some reason, I was able to watch it again and again and again. Probably because Moses was a hero of mine. I would always get my dad to read the Moses story from the children's story bible just one more time. I couldn't get enough of it. I watched The Ten Commandments again a few years ago, and it remains the quintessential biblical epic, containing one of the finest pieces of narration committed to the big screen:

Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God's great purpose, until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker's hand.

All of this is by way of saying that I approached Noah with some anticipation. Darren Aronofsky has artistic credibility, so I expected an intelligent, imaginative, and engaging rendering of the biblical story. I got the other rendering, and was bitterly disappointed, almost from the get go.

I wasn't disappointed because Noah didn't stick to the biblical account of the story. If it had done so, the film would have been over in fifteen minutes. (Though, with hindsight, that might not have been such a bad thing.) Furthermore, the biblical story - and I say this with all due deference - isn't particularly interesting. If there is an interesting dimension to it, it is the proper theological dimension. The story begins with a God who "repents." That in itself might have made for an interesting theme to explore. Indeed, it would have created a beautiful, poetic irony. Those Christians who denounce the film for not being true to the biblical text would perhaps be left uncomfortable if confronted by the text's own theology on a big screen. We actually had one of these Christians in our screening. How do I know? Because as the credits rolled, a voice from the back told us that "This is not a true representation of the Bible. If you want the truth, read Genesis 5 and 6." "Get a life," was one of the replies. My thought was that that was the least of the films problems. But get a life works, too.

Anyway, I can forgive Aronofsky for not focussing on the character of God, even if God is the most interesting character in the Noah narrative. Or at least I could have forgiven him if he gave us some interesting humans. That he didn't is my biggest criticism. I'll admit, he came close a couple of times. There is an Augustinian tension between sin and grace that plays out in the life of Noah, but the sin never really gets concrete form (apart from a few stock villains) and therefore the grace amounts to little more than sentimentality. Ethically/existentially/spiritually [delete as appropriate] it is profoundly shallow. The other characters aren't even worth talking about, because they are not really characters at all. They are plot devices, not people.

The film does raise some good questions, but it has no idea how to answer them. The vision of the film is blurred, lacking the conviction of another recent biblical epic, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. One scene in Noah was like the creation sequence of ToL  in fast forward, and therefore lacked any of its breadth or majesty. In fact, it was probably closer to the opening of The Big Bang Theory, minus the Barenaked Ladies. As far as criticism goes, it doesn't get much worse than that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sources of the Secular

John Milbank, with typical diffidence, says that there are no secular sources for proper ethical thinking. Hobbs tries to employ Plato for secular ends, but Milbank is having none of it.

Listen to these "public" philosophers (as with "social" justice, is there any other kind?) talk Plato and politics below:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

True Detective Revisited

Those planning to watch True Detective may want to stop reading now, although I will speak in the broadest terms possible and very briefly at that.

I have likened True Detective to several films and shows: The Wire, Heat, and Se7en. Okay, three films/shows. But I missed one. The similarities were there from the very beginning, but like a true detective I failed to spot the clue that was right under my nose.

True Detective is televisions answer to The Tree of Life, at least on a metaphysical level. Of course the visions of these two pieces of art are, at times, miles apart, as well as the nuts and bolts of the respective the extent that The Tree of Life has a plot. Yet even these dissimilarities produce interesting juxtapositions. For example, the tree in Malick's film is a sign of growth, of reaching towards the heavens, of the reception of light. The tree in True Detective is a place of death, a place were the flames of hell have scorched the earth. All this is in fact illustrated in the very first scene.

But more than these two works having trees in them, it is Rust Cohle that provides the real point of contact. Cohle speaks like he sneaked his way into a Malick script, but instead of gushing about the glory that surrounds us, the light that shines through all things, he has scribbled out Malick's doxological flourishes and replaced them with what he himself calls "philosophical pessimism." If Malick is Heideggerian, Pizzolatto (the writer of True Detective) is self-consciously Nietzschean. Or at least Cohle is.

As I noted already, the stories told by Malick and Pizzolatto go in completely different directions. Yet there is one crucial narrative strand that makes seeing them together an entirely justifiable and fruitful endeavour. In True Detective, we learn very quickly one of the reasons behind Cohle's bleak outlook: his daughter died when she was four. Indeed, the day that kicks off this 17-year case is the anniversary of his daughter's death. The same narrative strand runs through The Tree of Life. Much of what we see occurs because Jack O'Brien (JOB) is meditating on his past on the day of his dead brother's anniversary.

The questions that undergird these works are therefore remarkably similar: How do humans deal with tragedy, with unbearable loss? What is the true nature of a world in which tragedies like this happen? And what story or stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of the whole?

You will be hard pressed to find more honest and compelling answers to these questions than those offered by The Tree of Life and True Detective. I say answers; what we get instead are poetic visions that linger on in the lives of anyone willing to do what is almost impossible in this age of ours: to contemplate.

Friday, March 7, 2014

One Big Soul

Does our dedication to mission and evangelism derive from the theology that those who are not Christians are "enemies of the gospel"?

If it does, then, according to the late missiologist Kosuke Koyama, we have based evangelism on a faulty theology. This raises a question:

How can we appeal to Christian congregations for support of "overseas mission/evangelism work" if we do not tell them that "people over there" are living in darkness, and need their help?
Koyama's answer is as follows:

Our appeal to congregations for support of mission/evangelism work must be presented in terms of the theology of "extending hospitality to strangers," which is the essence of the gospel, and not in terms of the damnation of the heathens who are seen as the "enemies to the gospel."

So beings my next piece of work on inter-religious dialogue, paying particular attention to Christian-Buddhist relations as understood by Koyama, and relating all of this to a quote from Lindbeck, which, for better or worse, has stayed with me since I first read it nearly three years ago: can be argued in a variety of ways that Christian churches are called upon to imitate their Lord by selfless service to neighbours quite apart from the question whether this promotes conversions. They also have scriptural authorization in passages such as Amos 9:7-8 for holding that nations other than Israel -- and, by extension, religions other than the biblical ones -- are peoples elected (and failing) to carry out their distinctive tasks within God's world. If so, not everything that pertains to the coming of the kingdom has been entrusted to that people of explicit witness which knows what and where Jerusalem is and (as believers hope) marches toward it, if only in fits and starts. It follows from these considerations that Christians may have a responsibility to help other movements and other religions make their own contributions, which may be quite distinct from the Christian one, to the preparation of the Consummation. The missionary task of Christians may at times be to encourage Marxists to become better Marxists, Jews and Muslims to become better Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists to become better Buddhists (although admittedly their notion of what a "better" Marxist," etc., is will be influenced by Christian norms). Obviously this cannot be done without the most intensive and arduous conversation and cooperation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

True Detective: A Recommendation

They say that television is the new cinema. They're wrong, but True Detective is just about the best piece of evidence they have in their favour.

For one, it stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two actors best known for their big screen appearances. The latter is enjoying something of a renaissance, what with The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club as recent stellar additions to a chequered filmography. This is in fact one renaissance I fully believe in, unlike that Affleckian one that has the world hoodwinked. (The Town was rubbish, people, rubbish!)

For another, it looks like a film. Some of the landscape shots are glorious, as if they were lifted from the cutting room floor of The New World.

None of this is too surprising, mind you, given that the show is an HBO production. Cinematic television is the name of their game. But this feels like a raising of the stakes.

If I was to compare True Detective to anything, I would compare it to my two favourite creations for the screen, big and small: Heat and The Wire. Indeed it is something of a mash up of the two. That said, True Detective is not as good as either, insofar as it's fair to compare a television show with a film, and another television show with The Wire. But seeing it in the light of these two giants does not diminish it. It is well capable of having its say, and with a rural setting and multiple time periods it adds a different dimension to what has gone before. Moreover, in McConaughey it has an actor at the top of his game playing a character that is as mysterious as he is compelling. He appears deeply odd, yet somehow in line with the grain of the universe. Or at least the grain as it is depicted in the show. IT is worth tuning for him alone.

The story itself is based around a serial killer, and the two detectives who are tasked with finding him. This is no ordinary, run of the mill serial killer, however, but a highly liturgical one. The initial murder scene is like a form of iconography, with various religious symbols and artefacts making their presence felt. In this way the hunt for the killer is as much a hunt for meaning as it is justice. As the show delves into the depths of its characters, it is not only the whodunnit, but the why that matters. Is there meaning in this world? Or should we all just walk hand in hand off the face of the cliff, as Rust (McConaughey) suggests, sparing any future generation the misery of humanness?

The dialogue, I should warn you, often moves into this heavy terrain, and it times it is overbearing. But the more you learn about the characters, the more organic the heaviness feels, and the more you feel it too. This is not just a clever novelist (Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and sole writer of the show) showing us how much he knows about nihilism, though there is a touch of that. This is the expression of tortured souls who live in the what Flannery O'Connor termed the "Christ-haunted" South. Indeed it comes as no surprise that Pizzolatto was born in Louisiana, where the action is both set and filmed.

To sum, if you are looking for a TV show, and haven't watched The Wire for a second time, then I recommend giving True Detective a go, provided you have the stomach for it.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Run, Florist, Run

In Arizona, there are bills in the pipeline that, if passed, will ensure, among other things, that Christian florists can refuse to sell flowers intended for use at a same-sex wedding. Here is a quote from the piece in which I read about this:

The backers of these laws claim that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, provide a good or service for a same-sex wedding because it violates the teachings of Christianity.

This mode of thinking is an abomination, and represents a failure to witness to the God who causes the sun to shine on homosexual weddings and heterosexual weddings. These Christians are obviously worried about being guilty by facilitation, but they would only be as guilty as God was when he created the world and thus "facilitated" sin, or as the father was when he gave the prodigal son all that money to spend on prostitutes and heroin. Did he not know what was going to happen, and could therefore plead innocent to any charges of facilitation?

That defence reminds me of the funniest 6 minutes of stand-up comedy I've seen. You can check it out by typing "Bill Hicks military industrial complex" into YouTube. Hicks riffs on America's claim that it sold "farming equipment" to Iraq, impersonating one of the sales people:

One of the things we gave them was a new thing we came up with, called a, the a, ahem, flame-throwing rake. No, it was for the farmer. See, he would rake the leaves, and then just turn around and *makes flame-throwing noise** 
But you know what the Iraqis did with that?