24 Frames per Second

I spent the last weekend at my third annual l’Abri Film Festival, the glorious 24 Frames per Second. This is basically a village film festival, but one that punches far above its weight, with serious debate of intelligent films in a friendly atmosphere. English l’Abri take over the village hall and invite locals, students and friends from far and wide to watch and discuss seven films over 1½ days. It is a real celebration of all things filmic, and of the value of a thoughtful approach to media and storytelling.

This year was particularly special, as the festival saw the UK ‘premier’ of Jaap van Heusden’s film Win/Win, complete with a Q&A with the director. It’s always a joy to hear a director’s perspective on their work, but even more so here, as Jaap talked on current projects, thoughts on film making and writing, and offered opinion on other films in the programme. Jaap came to this little village film festival instead of the Berlin Film Festival, where he was nominated for, and won, best screenplay. How amazing is that?!

Now, I don’t ordinarily review films, but I want to share a few thoughts on this year’s programme, while it’s still fresh in my mind. So, in the style of Mr Jackson

Win/Win

A light-hearted film about banking? An enjoyable exposition of the (un)realities of trading on futures? You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true…

Belgian émigré Ivan has a talent for numbers and a quirky, almost autistic savant personality. Working somewhere in the bowels of a financial firm he gets himself noticed by the traders by randomly placing tips on Post-It notes around the building. Elevated to the big leagues, Ivan soon becomes the firm’s Golden Boy, as it seems he just can’t lose…

A study of the dislocation and alienation of success and the hyper-unreality of financial trading. The pursuit of the abstract is dehumanising. Ivan’s gradual dislocation from reality brilliantly portrayed through some of the best sound editing I’ve heard in years. A beautifully shot and framed film, colours bleached out as he falls further into isolation. And the persistent questions throughout: what is the cost of success? Is there a value in losing?

Doubt

Accusations of child abuse within a catholic school in 60’s America. Politics, power-plays and varying understandings of what is ‘right’. Wonderful acting by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, but very ‘staged’ – the films roots as a play too obviously on display.

This is a film about contrasting views of righteousness – the conflict between moral regulation and compassion, between right action and right motivation. It’s about the doggedness of conviction and the persistence of praxis in the light of doubt and vanishing belief. The two lead roles have enough ambiguity and conviction to allow your own sympathies to come to the fore. Most people will find either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius a monster, but I wonder if they are not both… Different forms of evil wrapped up in conviction? Or just the impossibility of scrutinising another’s soul?

Anderman

A return to the festival, this short documentary by Jaap van Heusden is ostensibly about a man caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The reality is more about the infectiousness nature of madness, and the impossibility of holding on to reality in the face of another’s disbelief in it. Anderman is a fascinating character – brutally direct, somewhat unhinged, and yet captivated by beauty and finding solace in art. 15 mins is just not enough…

The Return

A man appears at the home of two young brothers, whose mother simply says, “your father is home”. Who is this stranger, and what is his motivation? Where has he been for the last twelve years? Father and sons set out on a camping trip with a mysterious purpose, and as time goes on the sons try to understand this stranger and his place in their lives…

The Return is traumatic film, showing a reality far more brutal than we are used to in the west. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, but thematically it weighs on your soul. The director’s very deliberate use of cryptic religious imagery at the start of the film suggests – on later analysis – that he intends for the Father to be seen as some sort of comment on the nature of God. But what a picture!

This man, a cipher, absent at the beginning and end of the story. An unknowable, confusing and seemingly arbitrary plan of action. Brutal and violently-given instruction, arbitrary and extreme punishment. A stream of criticism and dismissive distancing. The only expression of affection too little, two late… I have to say that this is a picture of god I can identify with. It might not be yours, but it does seem consistent.

The film weighs on you. You search for positives, for resolution, for a sense of ‘plan’ to the man’s actions. The sons do learn from the father, they are changed by their experience. But they are equipped by him for a brutal and harsh life that they must live on their own. The father remains throughout unknown and unknowable, and the children unaware that they are loved.

What message should we take from this?

Lourdes

A mess. This pseudo-documentary does not have the courage of its convictions. Supposedly an ‘open’ approach to satire, creating space for the viewer to decide, it is instead muddy, boring and clichéd. There is no bite for the satire, and no miracle for the faithful. I’m amazed this film won awards, and surprised that it ended up on this programme. One to avoid.

Lars and the Real Girl

An extreme introvert, unable to properly interact with society, uses a ‘fake’ girlfriend – a sex doll bought over the internet – to help him transition into the world. Giving every impression that he sees ‘Bianca’ as real, Lars’ family, church and co-workers are forced to treat her as such. And beautiful things happen as a result.

This film is an absolute delight. By far the highlight of the festival. It is at points profound and side-splittingly hilarious, and throughout remains deeply touching. This is a picture of real community in action – surrounding, accommodating and loving others’ brokenness. It is collective acceptance and healing. The need for help in overcoming our fears and stepping out into the world. It is everything I hope for for the future.

Wonderful.

A Serious Man

A cruel, cruel end to the film festival. Our 7th film was just too strange for us to make sense of  – we were too tired, too over-stimulated. My second encounter with the Cohen Brother’s latest, I found it just as confusing the second time round. It is at points very funny, but just too frustrating, as you cannot make sense of all the pieces.

“Embrac(ing) the mystery” is dissatisfying – even if it is the point of the film – as you identify with the lead character too much.

Jim Paul, the l’Abriite who puts the film festival together, always swears that there is no intended theme. But strong thematic elements flow through the seven films: absent fathers/parents and the consequences of such; the struggle to find your place in the world and to deal with your brokenness; madness in the face of complexity; the inability to find satisfying answers. And most powerful of all, doubt and faith.

All the protagonists have some reason to (come to) doubt the narrative of their tradition. They all struggle with questions of identity in the face of challenging circumstances. Arguably, they all have a different worldview by the end of their stories.

The frustration is, of course, that these stories rarely share a comforting resolution. Worldviews are challenged, but ‘answers’ are not forthcoming. I wonder what it says about me that Win/Win and Lars, the two stories with genuine resolution, are the ones I found satisfying? And The Return and A Serious Man, the films with the least resolution, the most questions, the ones that trouble me and weigh on my mind? Perhaps I just have enough ambiguity in my life as it is right now…

Anyway, this post is now quite long enough. The l’Abri Film Festival is to be heartily recommended. It is fun, intelligent, challenging and moving, in a great setting and with some amazing people. Next year I’d like to get a gang of folks together to go down from London. Anyone interested?

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Quote

I’ve just finished Terry Pratchett’s latest Unseen Academicals. Not his best, but rather engaging and very funny in places. A welcome return to Discworld after the slight distraction that was Nation.

This isn’t a post about wizards and football (the “subject” of the book) though. Among the moments of humour, telling comment on modern times, the human condition and some downright hilarity a single paragraph punched me squarely between the eyes. I thought I’d share it with you:

“The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the banks of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining on mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’”

Discuss.

A better word

Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s outgoing Religious Affairs correspondent, has written a piece for the Comment Is Free site about his journey from faith to agnosticism. Except that he doesn’t.

It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 60 seconds of your life it will take to read it, but the journey he describes is really the beginnings of a gradual slide from Theism to Atheism. Stephen is mired in increasing doubts, and has come to the conclusion that his historical faith is untenable. Which is all well and good, and all-too familiar.

The problem I have is that he implies that this state of affairs is best described by the term Agnostic (or agnosticism, if we’re getting our tenses right). And that isn’t what agnostic means. As I’ve said before, the definition of agnostic is thus:

agnostic |agˈnɒstɪk|

noun

a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Now, the second part of that definition is actually quite new. It’s the unfortunate common usage. The technical definition is the first part: someone who believes the answer to the question is unknowable.

This is a useful label, because it is a real philosophical position. The problem is that this isn’t the position that Stephen Bates has arrived at. Or my current position. Or that of the majority of the country.

So what word is appropriate? What word best fits the position of the multitude, who either doubt, are uncertain, or have just not given it much thought? Most people seem to live their lives without having settled on a theological or philosophical definition of their beliefs, unable to firmly adhere to the tenants of any particular camp. Some minds might find this situation intellectually untenable, but the reality is that the deep rigour of thought and debate necessary to come to a resolved position escapes so many of us, at least for large portions of our lives.

We need another word. But while that is easy to say, a solution is not easy to find. One might suggest the term “irreligious” but this is both a horrible word, and altogether inaccurate. Very few are irreligious, in two primary senses. First, it is rare that an individual does not have some sense of interest in spiritual concepts, or some (perhaps semi-conscious) understanding of forces greater than themselves, be that a theistic god or the forces of the market. It seems that the default position in many of us is somewhat superstitious; looking for reason and explanation for events beyond ourselves. This cannot therefore be described as an irreligious tendency.

The second reason that the term “irreligious” does not seem appropriate is that the word literally means an indifference or hostility to religion. Now, I am sure that there are many people who are profoundly hostile to organised religion, and for whom this is an accurate moniker. It would certainly fit someone like the good Mr Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is an avowed Atheist, so this really doesn’t help us. And the rest of us are unfortunately neither hostile nor indifferent. People like Mr Bates and myself have a religious heritage, religious friends and family, and a history of wrestling with the questions of faith. None of that is indifference, and the result is not hostility. We still sympathise with religious figures, and love our religious families and communities, even though we may find much we disagree with. Even much that is deplorable.

So I’m stuck. I’m tired of fudging my answers to this question. The phrase “doubter” seems clunky and non-specific. “Agnostic” is, as we have discussed, inappropriate. As is “irreligious”. What does that leave us with then? Any ideas?

Ministry

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is slowly making there way through the application process to train for the Anglican ministry. I have been very supportive to this friend over the last sixth months or so, encouraging and cajoling them through the various steps of the process. The friend raised the question yesterday as to why I was being so supportive to someone wanting to become a vicar, when I am so uncertain about the existence of god, never mind the truth and validity of the Christian faith?

It’s an interesting question. I mean, leaving aside the fact that I think my friend would make a good vicar, why be supportive of someone trying to dedicate their life to something which I doubt the fundamental basis of? Is that inconsistent? Or even intellectually bankrupt?

I can excuse myself somewhat on the fact that I doubt, rather than disbelieve. I freely admit that I don’t know what the truth is, so how can I say that someone is doing something wrong? But then, as my friend pointed out, I am not standing impartially on the sidelines, but metaphorically at least cheering them on. How can I justify being supportive of this career choice?

I don’t really have much of an answer for this, at least not necessarily a satisfying one. On the one hand I can admit that, despite my doubts, Christianity could be true. If it has the possibility of truth, then why not let people dedicate their lives to that possibility, if they themselves are convinced? I think I can also see a benefit to the church, even if the underlying assumptions are false: faith provides a solace for many a hurting soul, and Christian ministers are often (but by no means always) some of the most selfless and caring people in our society. If a friend wants to support the hurting and downtrodden in our society, why not encourage that?

I know that some people who reject the premises of faith believe that ministers are liars and deliberate deceivers, who are actively misleading their congregants by peddling a false doctrine. I don’t think that I could claim that, even if I became convinced that the Christian faith was untrue. I have met too many Christian leaders, and most of them are very sincere in their commitment to the gospel. They believe it is true and live their life by that belief. I think that is honourable.

That is not to say that there aren’t bad apples. Being a paid minister of a congregation is a position of power and influence, and I am convinced that some people in those roles are more interested in that personal influence than they are in ideas of service or truth. Some expressions of ‘Christian’ leadership are manipulative, self-serving and damaging. But I don’t in any means believe that is true for the majority, or that the roles in themselves are negative. Too many people use those positions to serve their parishioners, to play genuinely caring and comforting roles.

I don’t know if Christianity is true. There is much that I question. But it could be true, and if it is that truth is important. And even if it is not, it is a doctrine that inspires a lot of charity in its adherents, so why shouldn’t people who are seeking to go into ministry for the right reasons be encouraged? Especially if you think they’d be good at it?

What do you think? Is this an intellectually bankrupt position? Should I refrain from supporting my friend until I’ve thought this faith thing through some more? Or is this just a throwback to my previous years of faith?

A Sense of Injustice

One of the features of being in a place of doubt, is that while there are things that I find make it hard for me to believe in the existence of god, there are other things that I find equally hard to rationalise away. Some of these things are harder to define, somewhat more esoteric, perhaps, than specific doctrines, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to elucidate them a little.

Somewhat related to the last post is the problem of our sense of injustice. As I said in the last post, it seems that a natural and somewhat universal human response to tragedy is to shake our fists at the heavens and shout “WHY?!” We experience a profound sense of injustice to situations of death, sickness and suffering – as if deep down within us somewhere we believe these situations to be fundamentally wrong. The question I have though, is why is this true? Why is this the most common human reaction to tragedy?

If you look at the question in Theistic terms (believing in the existence of god), then it is relatively easy to explain. Either, as discussed in the last post, the tragedy is caused or ‘ordained’ by the deity – in which case there is someone/something to be genuinely angry with. Or it is caused by the consequences of evil or sin in the world – in which case, there is again a force to be angry with, or else a right sense that the world was not meant to be this way, and therefore the situation is genuinely wrong.

It is more difficult trying to explain this sense of injustice from an atheistic (belief that there is no god) standpoint. In fact, I’m struggling now even to frame an argument for this side.

What purpose does a sense of injustice towards tragedy and dire circumstances serve? Does it somehow help us heal from the pain, to be able to have something to blame? Does having an outside cause stop us feeling so tiny, powerless and insignificant in the face of the vastness and complexity of the universe, and hence stop us going insane?

You could perhaps argue that a sense of injustice is simply an inherited characteristic from our more ignorant, superstitious pasts. But that doesn’t help much, because you then have to ask why such a superstition would evolve in the first place? What purpose does it serve? And why is it that, even the most committed atheists and agnostics seem to fall back to pain and anger in the face of personal suffering?

I guess my question is this: is it possible that a sense of injustice is inbuilt, inherent in all of humankind? And if so, how do we explain the existence of this response? It isn’t simply biological, because it isn’t something we see reflected in the animal kingdom – even the most ‘emotional’ animals grieve, and then get up and get on with their lives – they seem more able to accept death than humans are.

Humans are dumbfounded and full of rage and injustice in the face of death – as if we were never meant to die. A Christian will tell you that this is because we never were meant to die. But what explanation can the atheist give? The best I can come up with is that this is an inherited response from a more superstitious age, intended to protect us somehow from… and then I get lost.

In and of itself, this isn’t compelling enough to justify a theistic position for me. But there are other parts of our humanness that I can’t easily explain in evolutionary terms. Hopefully I’ll get on to those here in time.

Doubt

A friend said to me the other day that they were “99.99% sure [God] exists”. They went on to say that “…i have no peace in that knowledge. not because i don’t think it matters… i just don’t want to have anything to do with him right now.” This is a friend with whom I have spent a good deal of time talking about the existence or lack thereof of god, over the last few months. It heartens me to know that they have come to at least some sense of surety on this, but it emphasises to me just quite how much has changed in my own life over the last few years.

I empathise. You see, I don’t want anything to do with god either. I don’t know how to reconcile all my experiences over the last few years with the understanding of god, of faith, that I developed in my young adulthood. I am left hurt and angry by the failure of my marriage, and the part that faith and organised religion played in that. If the god of my prior understanding exists, then I’m pretty pissed off at him…

But, unlike my friend, I can’t claim any surety on the existence of the Divine. Either way in fact.

When I arrived at l’Abri, back in September, I was simply hurt and angry. In many ways, I still am. But over time that hurt and anger has developed into a profound uncertainty. The question of the existence or non-existence of god is one that is ever-present at l’Abri, in lectures and lunch discussions, and late-night conversations. As my weeks there turned into months, I found myself doubting and questioning things I had never questioned before.

I am not at all sure that god exists. All of my prior faith and certainty has boiled away. The structure of my religion was shaken, and the foundations cracked and brought the whole edifice tumbling down. I find it hard to believe in a loving and present God that you can hear and follow, when hearing and following what I believed to be god led me into such a painful mess. It kinda raises some fundamental questions.

But then, I am not at all convinced that god doesn’t exist. The counter arguments, the explanations to our existence that don’t involve some form of Creator, just don’t seem very satisfying. They seem to leave us purposeless, pointless. A statistical aberration, a cosmic accident. They leave real questions when it comes to questions beauty or thankfulness or morality.

So I find myself stuck in the middle. Lost. The compass I used in the past to help me discern the way forward has shattered. I can claim to be neither a purposed created being following an ordained path, nor an animal following nothing but genetic urges. I have to confess that on that most fundamental of philosophic underpinnings I just don’t know

I am sure many people somehow live their lives without ever considering metaphysics, without ever forming an opinion of the basic question of life: why are we here? For many people I am sure it is simply a matter of ‘I exist; the world exists; I have to live in it’. But I don’t find it so easy to know how to live in the world without some sense of the consequences of actions, and the rationality behind decisions. I still think that what we believe about the nature of existence affects, has to affect, the way we chose to live our lives consciously or unconsciously.

I have tried to start series on this blog several times in the past, and to limited success. So, to long-term readers this may seem like another foolish exercise. But I genuinely want to work through some of the questions and uncertainties I have, and these pages seem to be as good a place as any to do so. Time will tell as to whether I am remotely successful at it.

I was going to use the word Agnosticism to head this post, but the mac dictionary defines an agnostic as: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena” and that definitely does not describe me at the moment. Instead, I have used the word Doubt, which the almighty Wikipedia describes as “a status between belief and disbelief”. I remain truly uncertain as to the nature of reality and the existence of a supreme being. But I don’t think that, at this stage, I feel that the truth cannot be known. Or at least, not known in part.

I am going to journey in uncertainty a while, and explore the way-markers of my doubt – on both sides of this issue. I hope that you will humour me in this, and maybe journey with me for a while.