#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

Have you ever watched someone you love barrel headlong into a potential life-ruining mistake and been powerless to do anything about it? If you have, you’ll know it’s an excruciating experience. Part of love and leadership and mentoring and training, of course, is allowing people to make mistakes and be there to pick them up afterwards, help them put themselves back together and make sure everything is manageable afterwards. As a parent, and as someone who has spent my whole working life thus far working with people, I spend a lot of time watching people I have varying degrees of responsibility for make mistakes and have to live with the consequences. Often I see the mistakes coming, and I’m a powerless to stop them – even if I’ve tried my best to help them see the potential consequences. It’s a strange, cringing, disempowering experience.

That’s what floated around my mind as I watched 2018’s American Animals, an at once thrilling and cringe-inducing heist-movie and documentary. It tells the true story of some bored young men in Kentucky, some of them college students, who tried to inject excitement in to their lives by attempting to steal some immensely valuable books; as the story is told, the drama is intercut with footage of the real people involved – the young men, parents and a few others, retelling their story, and their tragic, life-ruining mistakes.

American_Animals

The young men’s arrogance and self-importance seems staggering at times; the film follows some of the classic tropes of a heist movie, so when we see them assigning and arguing over the code names ‘Mr Pink’ and ‘Mr Brown’, and so on, in exactly the same way as Reservoir Dogs, we can only assume it’s a satirical invention of the film-maker. As one of the characters points out, that’s a film that didn’t end well for anyone involved. It’s jaw-dropping to discover, however, that this is no fictionalisation. They really did that; and we wonder that they ever thought they would do this.

The film builds relentlessly to the actual heist; one or two of the characters reflecting on the chances they had to walk away, but never took. But they were bored – so very bored with what they had, with what lay ahead of them and what was expected of them – that they felt this was something they had to do. As one of them says: “I realised I had to make something happen on my own.“; as another says to an authority figure “This whole place [college] and goddamned town is a disappointment.

So with the arrogant naivety of the young, the heist comes along, a lengthy sequence which, along with its aftermath, is as thrilling as it is painful and sometimes absurdly funny to watch. You’re watching people ruin their lives – and that of others – for a thrill, an experience, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Have they learned anything by the end? That’s unclear – but they’re certainly regretful.

It’s easy to criticise these young men; and they deserve it, of course. But we need a word of caution to ourselves. How many of us have ever placed expectations on ourselves or others, not allowing the people carrying those expectations to show doubt, fear, weakness or a desire to take a different path? These young men are crushed by the apparent safety and predictability of middle-class suburban niceness and predictability; there seems to be no-one, no parent, no teacher, no coach, no pastor, no friend to whom they can express doubt or a hint of darkness in themselves. No one will hear they want to do or be something or someone else. No one who will listen to their hints of darkness and rob that darkness of its power by confessing ‘Me as well’, before it erupts as it does in to something all together more dangerous.

Wanting to have it all together, to be seen to be becoming or to actually be ‘a success’ (as much for our children as ourselves) can kill people. Maybe it can literally kill them; or maybe just kill the light and life in them until they whither away in to quiet safety, never rocking a boat that may be heading for an iceberg. Churches are rife with it; schools; universities; and especially the crushingly predictable environments of polite white-collar jobs that keep everyone safe but many unsatisfied.

It’s ironic especially to find such crushing safety and hidden darkness in churches and Christ-followers; one of the few qualifications for following Jesus is to admit our helplessness over our own darknesses. Church communities should, then, be places where people know they’re all broken and can talk about our brokenness with one another; even, or especially, the pastor, But so often they’re not, despite a prayer of confession being a regular feature of many worship services, true weakness and darkness is rarely confessed by any  – and then when a pastor or a church member truly crashes or fails, there’s wide-spread shock and precious little grace to welcome back.

vincent-chin-325799-unsplash

Photo by Vincent Chin on Unsplash

 

On their album reflecting on the ennui and predictability of suburban life (The Suburbs), Arcade Fire sang “I need the darkness/Someone please cut the light.” It’s a plea to shut off the painful predictability of the suburban glow of artificial light, the better to see the stunning natural light of the stars against the night sky. It’s also a cry for something more; there’s darkness in me. Hear it, and own it, before it consumes me. What would have happened to these young men in American Animals if they – or someone around them – had the strength to allow them to voice their darkness and temptations, and rob them of their power? What would happen to you, our churches, to me, to our pastors, if we allowed confessions of weakness and fragility before they overwhelmed us? Are we strong enough to see we’re all jars of clay?

Such questions are almost as hard to ask as they are to answer. Perhaps, however, in voicing them together we will find some the light we need.

Advertisements

#firsttimefriday Avengers: Endgame … Flawed, But Unforgettable

Has a mass-market blockbuster ever opened on such a downer as this one? Infinity War’s ending made anything else impossible, of course, but what one expects from such a major movie is not an hour or so of a whole set of characters learning to live with loss and grief. It’s to the movie’s immense credit that this is sustained for so long, and so well handled to the extent that the occasional flashes of Marvel humour in that segment of the film don’t seem out of place. Occasionally we pan out to the big picture and global scale of the loss. One character saying “I miss the Mets” brings you up short; so many have died that, even 5 years later, professional sports can not function. Another powerful moment is a scene that takes in a monument bearing the names of some of The Vanished – the monument seems endless.

null

As well as this is handled, this wasn’t my major concern ahead of the film. That revolved around what Endgame was going to do about the overwhelming loss of Infinity War. Science-fiction/fantasy stories run in to trouble, stretching credibility even in terms of their own worlds (which is the only credibility that really matters), when they get out of a narrative tight spot or emotional downbeat by pressing some kind of metaphorical ‘reset button’; what happened didn’t really happen, or is just undone. I feared even further when the proposed solution in Endgame started to be unpacked. In a manner of speaking, I was right to worry about this. A metaphorical reset button is pressed, but it’s done in a deft way; the journey to that point is fraught with real loss that can’t be undone, not to mention a bravura trip back through various points in some of the movies that have bought to this point, with scenes replayed from new angles (to say much more would be to risk too much of a spoiler). Both of these choices are well handled; as ever, this series mostly manages the dance between humour and sadness with great dexterity.

The major loss of the film was genuinely moving; other losses, less so. When you have a series of films that has (so far) lasted 11 years and 21 films, and introduced (according to Wikipedia) 226 characters, there’s only so much attachment one can build up to many of them. Plus I’m old, and I forget things. This is especially so in one key plot strand that ends with 2 characters having to resolve which of them will sacrifice for the other. It’s a powerful moment, but to be honest I just didn’t care enough about them to really be moved by what could have been a landmark moment.

Much has been made in the last year or so of Marvel introducing its first film led by a black character (the excellent Black Panther) and a woman (the good but not outstanding Captain Marvel); these were indeed significant cultural moments. Endgame undercuts them somewhat by disappointingly sidelining them both for most of the film; admittedly, in the case of Captain Marvel at least, this may be as much to do with working out a reason for her immense powers not to be the solution to every problem. Even so, it doesn’t really work for me; in the movie’s defence in this regard, however, my 10-year old, previously superhero averse, daughter sat through it all without a toilet break or complaint not once, but twice, because “The girls kick butt!”; which is certainly true of some less central female characters.

endgame 2

Two performances stand out for me: Josh Brolin as Thanos is brilliant, managing to imbue such a cosmic villain with pathos. Paul Rudd (Ant Man) is, for me, one of the least appreciated parts of the MCU, and his performance is superb here; great comic moments, and an occasional cypher for the more casual viewer who needs to be caught up to events. In addition, any moment in which Taika Waititi gets to give voice to his flawless comic timing as the voice of Korg is a good one; more of that, please.

It’s striking how little action there is for such a film; to be honest, this strained the running time for me. I think the middle third could have been contracted a little; it lagged at times. But I seem to be in a minority on that, as my daughter testifies above. For me it also suffers a little from ‘Return Of The King’ syndrome; there were several occasions when I thought it had finished (and wanted it to end), but another coda came along. Yes, there are a lot of character arcs to tie up; but this is a film where neither the big picture nor micro narrative arcs are entirely smooth or neat, and the last 30 minutes or so dragged. What should have been a touching final scene for one character (and indeed the film) felt like blessed relief; other narrative developments earlier in the film were all but accompanied with a knowing nod to camera. The latter would at least have felt more in tune with the series’ tone. The climactic battle isn’t handled brilliantly either; there’s too much going on with too many for me to really keep track of what’s happening; a common fault of superhero films (Black Panther being one of the notable exceptions). I’m thinking that in this regard the makers could have learned from the flawless execution of the massed battles in the Lord of The Rings films.

These are small complaints in context. We do need to take a moment to acknowledge the Marvel achievement here; when the first Iron Man movie kicked this all off 11 years ago, none of us really knew what would happen. None of us expected what has transpired; a multi-stranded, complex, overlapping set of blockbusters that (largely) standalone for the causal viewer, bring in new fans with no loyalty to the comic books (like me) and serve the hardcore fans also. To reach this point of the project and to do so as one of the biggest films of all time, with the confidence to inflict real loss on its characters and audience, is a unique cinematic achievement which, for all the faults in this film or any others in the series, is something likely to never be equalled. If anyone ever says again that modern attention spans are too short and people don’t really like complex stories any more, that conversation can be ended with the sample of the Marvel films (and Game of Thrones); all we need is characters we care about, and we remain capable of following even the most complex of plots. Remember these films are serious hits amongst people much younger than me, with a far greater grasp of the narrative complexities spread over all the films. In that respect little has changed since story-telling began.

There are themes and ideas to mine from this movies, and all that’s gone before. Some of them will sit long in the mind, some of them give merely a fleeting suggestion. In all honesty, to really mine and understand those I’ll need to revisit them all over a more condensed period of time; Endgame is certainly a film that you can enjoy with a relatively limited engagement of the preceding films, but the experience will be all the richer in relation to the viewer’s familiarity with the breadth of the context. For now, we come to an end that is also a rest, and a pause. We all need to take a breath.

Personal Jesus: The Dangers Of A Systematic Faith

“What’s the worst thing about this college?”.

This was a question I asked at each of the three theological colleges which I was considering for my three years of study prior to being ordained in the Church of England. One particular college, the third of the three, was the one I would almost certainly attend. This wasn’t because it was my natural favourite (it wasn’t), but because it would enable me to be near my fiancée and her family as we prepared for marriage, whilst supporting her mother who was suffering from what proved to be terminal cancer. Everyone I met on the day I spent there was lovely. Especially the students. Most of them. Some of them were a tad on the over-zealous side. They were loudly talking up the benefits of the college whilst we played table-tennis. After the game concluded, I found myself in a group of (all men – not a surprise, all the would be priests here were men), continuing the conversation. As we talked, needlessly loudly given we were within a few feet of each other, I realised I was being quite literally backed into a physical corner; this probably wasn’t deliberate on the part of the students, but it felt like an apt representation of the hard-sell I received. As I found myself with nowhere left to go, I asked that question – I had a very good idea by now what the college’s perceived strong points were. I wanted to know what was wrong with it. A moment of silence: “I suppose it can be a bit intense occasionally.”, came the reply. No kidding.

I ended up studying there, mainly for the practical reasons I mentioned. I made some good friends, enjoyed some of the study because I like study and reading, and harbour a few (very few) good memories; but yes, it was intense. Theologically most of what was promoted  – by many staff and the most vocal students – was of one particular system. The system was Calvinism, most specifically what’s known as 5-point Calvinism. Now theology has exercised some of humanity’s greatest minds over the last 2,000 or so years, so it’s impossible to do justice to such an intellectually complex system as Calvinism in a few sentences. Suffice to say it covers issues like the free-will of humans to respond to God’s (irresistable) grace, and suggests (depending on quite where on a spectrum you sit), that God has chosen before time who will be saved and who won’t be. When I expressed to someone at college that I didn’t agree with these ideas I was, told that to believe otherwise was “sub-Christian”. Not everyone went that far, of course, but the message was clear; there was only one theological system to which we should adhere.

 

book cover 2

That all came back to my mind when I was reading Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed“. I don’t know much about the author, but the book stood out from the crowd as conservative reformed (in this case meaning Calvinist) theology has become a louder, richer and well-publicised force in some more westernised countries. It’s a short book – 136 pages – so I wasn’t expecting much heavy theology. I was expecting a narrative reflection on the author’s experience. I did get the latter, but it surprised me how much of the former I also got, given the book’s brevity. The author describes his own experience of growing up and being trained in Calvinist/Reformed theology, and then his gradual departing from it towards something rather different. He uses logic, reason, personal and pastoral experience, the Bible and theology to do this; and he does it accessibly.

He doesn’t pretend at any point in this book that what he’s saying is the whole story. He doesn’t dismiss Calvinism (though reading some online reviews, some feel he does). True, the version he was taught is very extreme; but the issue is that many people do actually take this theology to those extremes. He is also at pains to point out that he remains grateful for what Calvinism has given him, can see why some interpret Scripture in this way and lauds the intellectual integrity of those fully committed to it. The theological landing place he finds himself in is one he feels works, but he is clear it is not the finished article, and suggests that there should be no theological worldview that is complete and unassailable. God is other and holy; infinite and ineffable; and many other things besides. To suggest we can describe him fully would be folly; humility, says Fischer, should be the theologian’s and disciple’s ultimate posture. The God revealed to us in Jesus that the author paints for us is a loving, intoxicating and attractive one. I think I agree with Fischer more than I disagree with him.

There’s the rub. Increasingly there is no one theological system I can call my own. The other day I was trying to articulate this and said I might be ‘theologically homeless’. I wondered if that might be somewhat tactless; but then a friend pointed out that maybe it was apt – accepting nourishment and provision wherever I find it. Not a perfect image, but a striking one; and one I suspect many of my homeless friends might resonate with. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fixed points – Jesus’ divinity, the resurrection, historic creeds. But these describe rather than systematise; they give parameters within which to explore. These parameters, it turns out, are surprisingly spacious, far more so than the suffocating control I found Calvinism to be (and which other people experience of other closed theological systems). Yes, I have certainties; but there’s much I don’t know. It’s a city the streets of which I’m still walking; alleys, byways and major roads which I’m still discovering; working out where the refreshing parks and coffee shops are. Is it pushing it too far to state here that Jesus said he that had nowhere to lay his head? Maybe; but the most pure revelation of God humanity has received is a person, who for three years roamed from place to place, doing what he sensed God was guiding him to do. That’s not so much a system as it is a discovery of a map, a city, a region.

If you have a theological system to defend you always have to be on the look out. You sense someone probing away at one part of is, so you have to scramble to keep it intact. If one part disappears, the whole will go with it. Such a system may look attractive, and appear safe and secure, but as soon as you find one part doesn’t work, then it all comes crashing down. For me, as for so many others, that collapse can come around God’s ‘control’ or sovereignty or whatever you want to call it. Extreme Calvinists – who take it to its logical conclusions – decide that God is in control of everything. We sort of have free will; but nothing happens to which God doesn’t say yes. And still he remains perfectly good.

Rachel

Rachel Held Evans

Many believe this with confidence and integrity; I never have. A few days ago the hugely influential Christian writer Rachel Held Evans died, painfully young, of a sudden illness, leaving behind a husband and young children. Her writing nourished many  – including me – and painted a way back to a Jesus-centred faith that many who had given up on it all could embrace. She grew up in a theological environment similar to Fischer’s, and ended up in landing place that may be a little different to his, but also has many overlaps. In the wake of her death, many are mourning. Some of my more Calvinist friends, whilst sincerely lamenting the sadness of this loss, stated her final blog post on the subject of death and loss on Ash Wednesday showed ‘God was in control’.

I admire them, but wonder if that could be said to her family. I shudder at the idea that some may say God was in the control of the terrorist’s bullet which killed my friend in Nairobi one day. I think I couldn’t worship such a God. Rachel Held Evans, Austin Fischer, and others like them provide for me and many others a picture of a Jesus-like God whom I find mysterious and other and holy and majestic; yet still truthful, kind, good and impossible to systematise or fill in all the blanks of, at least this side of the new creation. Humans aren’t made in the image of a system; we’re made in the image of a God of three persons, all in perfect relationship, all-loving, all-good. I don’t need a system to draw close to that God – much as many seem to think I do. After all, when Jesus died, a curtain that preserved a system was torn in two.

No. I don’t think that I need a system. I need a person, one whom I can know even as I am known.

#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).

attack-the-block-2011-003-medium-shot-boys-in-hoods

It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

#firsttimefriday John Wick: Chapter 2

Sorry it’s late. Kids and stuff.

JohnWickChapter2Poster2

 

There’s not much to say about John Wick: Chapter 2; it’s everything I needed it be when I couldn’t get to see Avengers: Endgame because an extra kid turned up so I gave up my ticket. I enjoyed this more than the first film; it’s a deliciously, deliriously entertaining two hour long gun fight set (with occasional other stuff) in the bizarre nether world of hitmen with a code of honour. Keanu Reeves is a brilliant tightly wound coil of grief-fuelled anger. Very violent, of course, but I suspect you knew that. Sometimes, you just want to drink beer, eat Mexican food and watch Keanu shoot people with stylised direction.

#haveseenmonday Brilliance but little wisdom in Reservoir Dogs

When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.

Reservoir dogs

During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.

Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.

It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.

What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.

#firstimefriday: What Beyoncé, the Boss and Taylor Swift might have to teach church leaders about vulnerability

“He likes you because you’re really … real.” This was said to me about 20 years ago, not long before or after I was ordained to ministry in the Anglican church. I’d been at some party with family, and my brother-in-law fed the comment back to me about a non-Christian friend of his. It might seem like an odd turn of phrase, but it’s meant positively. He had expected a priest to be distant, removed, somehow inaccessible. He seemed to appreciate sharing a beer with a priest at a party, shouting a conversation over the loud (almost certainly Britpop) music, about football, life, death and other things. It’s a phrase and an idea that has kept coming back to me at different points over the last 20 years or so. How ‘real’ am I supposed to be? How vulnerable? How much of myself do I share in sermon and other ministry? How should I dress? Some people seem to think pastors are battery-farmed; should we be organic? Free-range?

Which brings me to this week’s #firsttimefriday (the viral sensation where I write about films I’ve seen for the first time). 3 films this week. Specifically, Netflix’s trio of exclusive concert films released over the last 6 months or so – Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Yes, dear reader; I watched all 3 of them in the space of 24 hours. Unashamedly, I had a blast.

erin-biafore-660296-unsplash

Photo by Erin Biafore on Unsplash

On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Springsteen’s is one of his nights of residency at a Broadway theatre; him and an acoustic guitar and occasionally a piano. He gives a long, rambling, funny, moving spoken word autobiographical introduction to a song; which he then plays. It’s stark, intimate, brilliant and compulsively vulnerable; the nature of the show, and the idea of a long residency of Broadway shows, seems to be quite unlike anything such an artist has attempted before. He’s in his late 60’s, and never sounded better. The Taylor Swift film is at the other end of the live music spectrum. A solo female pop star, on the closing night of her tour, in her home territory of Texas. Her music is the sort I would have dismissed; but now I have a 10-year old daughter and I’m forced to pay attention. I don’t think Swift has the greatest voice, but when she gets a song right, she gets it very right. Some of her best songs are borderline perfect pop songs, with a gift for melody and lyric-writing that many artists would sell their souls for. She also shows an admirable ability to challenge herself musically, flitting between genres. The show filmed here is the classic big pop production; about a million costume changes; big screen videos; a band that manages to keep up (although it took me most of the film for me to realise that the keyboard player was not actually in a dark underground lair). It’s not a brilliantly shot or directed film; but you get a sense of what Taylor Swift means to her fans; and as I said, at her best the songs are irresistable. Then we come to Beyoncé’s film, Homecoming; a film of her already legendary show at American music festival Coachella in 2018. It’s frankly staggering. Laced with behind the scenes footage of rehearsals – it took 8 months to rehearse for one show  – this is an adrenalised jet pack of energy, celebration and empowerment that leads to an inevitable sense that this show has changed something in the air. Beyoncé’s voice could be one of the natural wonders of the world; if weaponised, it could cause the planet to spin off its axis or bring about world peace. Or both. She’s backed by a brilliant band of percussionists and brass instrument players in a pyramid-shaped bleachers behind her; she also has a troupe of frankly astonishing dancers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and manages one head-spinning visual trick which convinces you her costume is magically changing colour (it isn’t – Google it). 

Which of these you enjoy the most is really down to what your musical poison is. But I would suggest giving all three a go, the better to get a sense of how different artists and types of music function live. What links the three is, for me, a sense of what is real – and searching to make that available. On the face of it, Springsteen’s performance is the most ‘real’ because … well, he tells his story, there’s no big production. But from early on, Springsteen is keen to point out that, in his words, he’s fraud; he’s built his career on a magic trick. He’s seen as the great poet of the American working-class male, and yet he’s never worked a day in a factory. So is he really a fraud? I would argue not. In the story-telling, artistic business, truth is rarely literal. Springsteen connects because people see themselves in his songs. Take The Rising, a song and album written and released as a response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. The title track is performed here; written from the point of view of a firefighter killed in the attempt to rescue people inside the Twin Towers. Clearly Springsteen hasn’t experienced this; but is it truthful? Listen to it here, and judge for yourself.  

Taylor Swift’s show is covered in performance and production, so she can’t be truthful, right? Well, not so fast. At one point she says to the crowd that what connects them all is that ‘we all like the feeling of something real’. This is, of course, to an extent part of the performance. But not completely. Listen to Shake It Off or Blank Space; watch a young girl respond to them, and you start to see that along with the melody and pop sensibilities there’s an invitation to something truthful and in some songs, a neat subversion of the expectations layered on women. If she’s a fraud, then so is Springsteen. But they’re both connecting with people who find something real in them both.

So to Beyoncé. In part this concert was significant even before it happened; the first black woman to headline one of America’s biggest festivals. But in conception and performance, from the way cultural tropes and traditions are appropriated in to the show, to the choreography and musical arrangements, to the songs themselves, everything is about celebrating black (female) American culture in the days a white supremacist sits in the White House. At one point I found myself thinking that some of the dancers looked to be far more ‘normal’ and varied body shapes than I am used to seeing on a stage like this; then in one of the interludes we hear Beyoncé say ‘I want every person who has ever been dismissed because of how they look to feel like they’re on that stage.’ For all the dazzling production, that’s real; I found it so refreshing to see people with normal bodies on stage. Why does it all matter? Because here, on one of the biggest stages in the nation, a black woman was taking control and making things bend to her will; not being who people think a black woman should be. Her lyrics and choreography are at times explicitly sexual; she is often criticised for this (usually by white men) and told she can’t therefore be a feminist. Which, as far as I can tell, is to miss the point. For myself, I didn’t find it erotic; the whole show was just a joyous, intoxicating sense of someone being only who she wants be, not defining herself by what others tell her that her sexuality, her politics, her anger, her relationships, her art should be. Take the remarkable Formation (with ‘adult’ lyrics), a highlight of the show for an example.

beychella

All three of these concert films present us with performers who are in different ways a layered in artifice and production; yet each of them are their own kind of ‘real’, connecting with people who see themselves in the show in front of them. Back to being a real pastor; what do people want in pastor? In my experience, it’s someone who’s both real and yet not; strong and weak; vulnerable and strong. I don’t really have an answer; I do know that when I am open with my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some people are helped, and some are troubled. In recent weeks I have done some of my preaching from a sitting position due to elevated levels of my chronic pain, and it changes something in the room. No doubt it’s good for some, not so good for others, neutral for still more. Ultimately, our example is one who is profoundly real; who takes on flesh and moves in to the neighbourhood, as one New Testament translation puts it, that God may have a body that sweats and bleeds and smells and everything else normal human bodies do. I’m no Jesus, and neither is any other pastor; and whilst there must be an appropriate awareness of context and self-care of keeping some things for just a few to know, the example of Jesus – and these 3 performers – is to allow myself to be seen for who I am, not project a version of who I’m not or would like to be.

For me that involves little in the way of singing, absolutely no dancing, very few costume changes; but the simple reminder that I am here to help people Jesus, and that it’s promised that happens best through weaknesses rather than strengths and successes. It’s likely to attract far fewer crowds and rather less money; but the ripples will run longer and further and deeper, and are gloriously independent of my skills and abilities.