Vanity

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”

I never do. But let me explain something. Most people think that The Third Commandment means that they shouldn’t use his name as a swear word, e.g. shouting, “Oh God!” when they stub their toe instead of, “Oh Fuck!”

This is not the case (although I love the idea that God would rather them shout “Fuck” than “God”. That makes him cool in my book. But no.)

The commandment could equally be, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in ‘vanity’,” e.g. when your enemy is hurt or defeated saying, “that’s God’s wrath,” or when you win an award saying, “thank God.” This is using his name in vanity. It’s suggesting that you KNOW that God helped you win that award because you deserved it more, or because he was on your side. It’s always tickled me that God would have a favourite actor at The Golden Globes.”

Ricky Gervais theologising… I kind of like his interpretation, although I’m not sure I would have made the same call in the past. Yet there is something fitting here, even amongst the deliberate flippancy. I, like Ricky, have become very wary of people who say that they know what god does or doesn’t think on any matter. At the very least it’s arrogant. At worst it is putting your own opinions on a level (or above) that of god. And that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me…

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?

In the Beginning there was… Gravity?

Stephen Hawking is in the news today, apparently after claiming in a new book that spontaneous creation is possible within the existing laws of physics, and hence there is no need for God. He writes:

“…the coincidences of our planetary conditions — the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass — [are] far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

[Reuters and BBC News]

Now, I need to tread a little carefully here, as I cannot pretend to be a brain anywhere near as great as Dr Hawking. It is a good twelve years since I last studied physics, and I am keenly aware that a few sparse quotes on the newswire do not an argument make. But I have to say that I really don’t see the logic in this statement.

Isn’t Gravity a feature of the universe? It is a force, it is a law. It pervades the system and governs the bounds of how the system functions. But it’s a feature of the system, isn’t it? i.e. no universe, no gravity – just as there is no protons, neutrons, quarks etc.

My understanding of cosmological theories was that it was effectively impossible to know the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang. We can model all the way back to microseconds after – but other than suggesting it was in “a hot dense state” (as the song goes), there’s no real way of knowing what was there. So, is Hawking now suggesting that before the Big Bang there was gravity? That gravity is pre-existent?

I don’t understand how this answers the First Cause argument. Gravity, matter, energy etc are now pre-existent? Self-existent? Even if we could say that we knew enough about the nature of creation (for want of a better word) before the Big Bang brought our universe into existence, to say that gravity existed in creation then, and acted within it enough to bring about the Big Bang… Where’s the First Cause? What existed before the “hot, dense state”? Isn’t the question of where the something of creation came from still relevant?

There is a cyclical theory of cosmology that suggests that gravity will act on our expanding universe and (eventually) cause it to contract back to a singular point. From which it will in turn rapidly expand into a new universe in a second Big Bang. That theory argues that our current universe could be one of an infinite series of expansions and contractions, a cycle that runs on forever. Without being able to read the source of the above quotes, it seems like this is what Hawking is advocating, but it still leaves a problem: what is on the outside of that cyclical system? How did the cycle begin initially? And where does the necessary material, the fuel for the Bang(s) come from?

There may be millions of other Earth-like planets in the universe. We may be in no way unique. But I still don’t see why that means, definitively,  there is no need for a First Cause. On this evidence, I don’t think that Hawking has (yet) killed God.

Jesus is welcome at my party

The wonderful Phil Jackson has written an interesting (if very long) treatise on wine, starting with John 2:1-11 (The wedding in Cana).

Phil’s opening comment has prompted me to re-look at the passage in question:

150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess.

I did the Maths. Those six stone jars held a lot of water. Jesus made the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine. And that for a party that had been going on for a while already. And you wonder why Pharisees accused him of being a drunk and a sinner…

Still, anyone who comes to a party with 700 bottles of free (and good) wine would be very welcome at any party I hosted. I can’t quite imagine it becoming a regular “Christian” thing though – Christians in this country just don’t seem to throw that kind of party…

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?