The Revenant: awe-inspiring, brutal and spiritual

I’ve heard tell of children in the urban West who don’t know that milk comes from cows. They’ve never seen a cow; they just can’t see the connection. I don’t know if it’s an (urban) myth, but it makes a point about the increasingly urbanised nature of our lives. We’re cut loose from our roots and rhythms; we have established new ones in the urban contexts, but we’re no longer creatures of the earth and dust.

The Revenant is a counterpoint to this, a film more in touch with the nature of … nature … you could not expect to see. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar winning director of Birdman and staring Leo DiCaprio, it tells the story of an 1820s American frontiersman left for dead by his colleagues as he struggles to recover from a bear mauling. It’s a brutal, visceral tale of survival and, though this only really comes to the fore in the film’s final act, a quest for revenge.

Many have said it’s brutal – and it is. The Revenant’s portrayal of the natural world is of one red in tooth and claw; physical, weighty and oppressive. There are very few concessions to CGI  – apart from in the bear attack itself, which is understandable, but doesn’t detract from the sequence’s extraordinary impact. DiCaprio’s character – and the actor himself, presumably – really suffer here. Bones crack, joints grind; winds sweep and howl; cold seeps into every crevice; food is gleaned from the land and from dead animals. The cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary; the cold colours gleam with a tangible frozen bite; the takes are long and fluid, following the movie’s central character to emphasise that he’s stalked as much by the forces of the land as by his own mortality or people who would do him harm.

There’s a spirituality here. It’s a spirituality of the Native American cultures, one wedded deeply to the earth from which the people draw their life. Tellingly the only reference to Western spirituality is a ruined church being overrun by the elements; the only way DiCaprio’s character is going to survive his trial by snowbound fire is abandoning everything he knows – including any semblance of familiar faith – and embrace a mode of being that’s at once hostile and essential for survival.

Contemporary Christianity has much to learn here. As our planet becomes increasingly urbanised we lose our connection to the rhythms of the pastoral life from which we have drawn our roots. That’s not a bad thing – nor a good thing – in itself. It necessitates a reinvention, though; a rediscovery of theology, spirituality and worship that connects to the way we live and is true to who we are and who we find ourselves to be. Sections of the church are wrestling with this; but some still run, crying about heresy or lost tradition. All the while, people thirst for lack of vision.

Back to the movie. DiCaprio – for me one of the most underrated actors of his generation – is magnificent here. He’s as physical here as he was to very different ends in The Wolf Of Wall Street; long stretches of this film pass wordless, his body and face speaking volumes. He can be a remarkable actor, and his lack of major awards recognition demonstrates how conservative awards judges like to be. They do like their talent to suffer for their art, though, and that alone will probably ensure trophies on this occasion.

It’s a good, remarkable film. It’s not – I suspect – a great one. My sense is that it will not translate so powerfully to the myriad smaller screens on which films are now viewed post cinema release. I may be wrong, but it feels as if the film relies so much for its power on overwhelming you with the beauty and hardness of the environment that the small screen will shrink it in more ways than one. In this era, a great film needs to be great on screens big and small; I suppose we’ll all just have to watch it on our phones to answer that one.

There are other problems with this film – and the director’s work in general. The biggest of these is his treatment of women. Here the women are off-stage, in memory, or a victim of violent rape. They have precious few lines. In the context of a career thus far where his films largely focus on the masculine in different expressions, this gives cause for concern. The director has questions to answer, and they can’t simply be answered by saying that what he produces is very good in its own terms. It is; but in the era he’s working, he needs to do more with half the human race.

The Revenant is remarkable, thrilling, stimulating – and ultimately hard to love. For all that’s impressive and awe-inspiring about it (and I use the word awe in its religious context), it’s not going to lodge in the heart; it fed my soul, but if I tried to live on it I’d be in trouble.

I rated this film 8/10 on and 4/5 on


Injustice for whom? The unexplored link between #justpray and the sexuality of ministers-in-training

It’s sometimes said that the internet in general and social media in particular is nothing more than a vast echo-chamber where the user can find any personal nuance of prejudice or point of view confirmed and re-stated. If that’s the case, then the last couple of days give an alarming picture of just how off-message we Christians can become.

It’s a matter of well recorded fact now that 3 of the UK’s largest cinema chains have refused to screen a 60-second film that shows a variety of people saying the Lord’s Prayer before the forthcoming new Star Wars movie. This is because, its attested, of the relevant company’s policy in the wake of public reaction to the screening of political themed adverts in cinemas relating to the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign; though there’s a bit of confusion as to if this policy was only applied late in negotiations.

The reaction has been vociferous. The Church of England has talked of the ‘chilling’ implications for ‘freedom of speech’; Christians across social media have expressed bewilderment, offence at other cinema content, and anger; bizarrely, Richard Dawkins has given his support to the film being screened (though it’s not so bizarre if you consider the long-game he’s most likely playing); the word ‘banned’ has been thrown around. The ante has been well and truly upped.

Let’s all take a breath. What started as a campaign to get more people praying may have got itself some extra eyeballs as a result of the press coverage (or maybe that was the plan all along?); an unwelcome side-effect is the association, yet-again, of church and Christians with what we’re against … are anger, bewilderment, offence and so on. Nothing about Jesus; little about the Gospel; relationship with God missed in the quest for more youtube hits. All over a not so bad, but not so great 60 seconds of film.

Apparently all publicity is good publicity, but that seems a bit simplistic. I’m sure a few extra people will be prompted to pray as a result, which is clearly a good thing. I’m rather less clear what the resulting big picture is. Any takers? Maybe it will emerge in time, maybe it will be forgotten in the wake of another fresh and terrible genuine crisis.

All this time that Christians are complaining about injustice received (something Jesus seemed reluctant to complain about when He received it), the UK church continues to place itself in morally tricky water. There are now reports of (evangelical) colleges that train people for ordained ministry discouraging already accepted ordination candidates from training with them if they are in a celibate same-sex relationship.

Logs and specks, and all that. Be wary of crying victim. It could come back to haunt us one day, now or in eternity.

Movie Catch-Up

It’s been a long time since I blogged on films I’d seen. In part this was because of my sabbatical, during which I enforced a break on myself; in part because I was wondering if anybody was actually interested. Then I had a couple of conversations which made it clear people were bothered about this, so I’m going to get back into it. As regular readers will know, we’re about to become foster parents, and we’re not sure how this will impact important things like movie-watching. Time will tell. For now, here’s a brief catch-up on the main cinema visits of recent months, in no special order. Click the titles for a trailer. 


A blistering, visceral thriller about the drug war on the Mexican/American border that’s lifted into the stratosphere by an outstanding performance from Emily Blunt and some astonishing cinematography. It’s about more than drugs, too; it’s about how to stay clean in a dirty world, it’s about the politics of race, it’s about fear. There are some staggering action sequences, and the tensest traffic jam in movie history. I have a slight unease about how women are presented in the movie; though it’s hard to reach a conclusion on what, if anything, the film is saying on that. Otherwise, this remains one of the films of the year.


Spectacular and impressive true story about a group climbing, stranded and suffering on Everest. When it should be moving it perhaps isn’t moving enough, but there are moments of humanity amidst the spectacle.

Mr Holmes

A gentle, but deceptively weighty, drama about an aged Sherlock Holmes forming a friendship with his house-keeper’s son wrapped around the kernel of Holmsian mystery. Ian McKellan is excellent in the title role, a performance and a film which linger long in the air after viewing, like a fine cologne.

Mad Max: Fury Road

We saw this on what is allegedly the world’s largest cinema screen (Auckland), and what a visual treat it is. This is scorched-earth action cinema, throwing everything at the screen, most of which sticks for a long time. Tom Hardy is a good, almost wordless, reinvention of an iconic action hero; but the film’s central character is played by Charlize Theron in a plot which promises a proto-feminist perspective, marginally undermined by the costume design. You won’t get a more satisfying or artful action film this year.

The Martian

Ridley Scott’s latest is warm, witty and exciting; far more of all those three than you expect a man-stranded-somewhere-inhospitable movie to be. It’s totally implausible yet somehow convincing on its own terms, packed with generous performances and held together by fine direction from one of cinema’s great creators of worlds.

Testament Of Youth

A true and should be significant story is less than the sum of its parts. Good performances, understated direction, a decent script … all somehow doesn’t quite add up to the moving and ethically stimulating whole this should be. In part that’s because the big plot developments feel somewhat telegraphed; or maybe it’s just because I saw this in one of those cinemas with nice beanbags and good beer and I was a little distracted. It’s not bad; it’s decent, just not great.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

This series is still better than it has a right to be, primarily because director Joss Whedon knows how to entertain and the cast are completely committed to making this fun. You can’t shake the feeling, however, that Marvel’s big project is starting to fray at its ever expanding edges. It’s all very impressive and it’s an engaging watch, but maybe everyone needs to take a break now. They won’t, though.

Pitch Perfect 2

The first movie was a grin-inducing out of nowhere hit that left you with a warm glow. The inevitable sequel has lost some of the charm and under-the-radar quality that made the original so appealing, and some of the jokes really miss the mark here, but this is still funnier than most comedies doing the rounds (not a high goal to aim for, admittedly). Even in an inferior sequel, the world is still a better place with these characters and films in it.

Bridge Of Spies

Steven Spielberg’s true-life cold war thriller is beautiful to look at and engagingly acted by Tom Hanks and especially Mark Rylance; but the script passed through too many hands to feel coherent and the result is a very enjoyable film that still slightly disappoints in not delivering the food for the mind its really aiming for.


Too much reality

I need to tell you how I’m feeling today. I should warn you that some of you will not like it. Some of you will think I need to get some perspective. Some of you will tilt your head to the side and lower your eyes. Some of you will get angry. A few may find common ground with me. I will speak with unvarnished truth about how I feel today, and if it angers you … well, maybe you need to get angry.

I will not stay feeling the way I am about to describe forever. At least I don’t think I will. It is where I was yesterday, am today and probably will be for a few more days. And that is the last qualification that I will make. If you are worried for your sensitive eyes or ears, then look away now.

I am boiling with anger. You know, most of you, that over two years ago my friend was murdered by terrorists in Kenya. In the course of doing my job (a church leader), I had to put my own grief on hold; the result of this is a series of symptoms with which I still live, which I’m told add up to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t think you could get that if you weren’t present, but it turns out you can. I jump out of my skin if someone kicks the dog bowl. A word, a phrase, a weather pattern, a noise, a story can send me spiralling into anxiety and grief. It can not affect me for weeks or months and then it will besiege me until my resources are starved.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was starved. I woke to news of the Paris terror attacks; within an hour my heart and soul were back where I was two years ago, receiving details from inside a besieged shopping centre, comforting a fearful widow-to-be, getting fateful news. Eventually, like many others, I took to social media to both express myself and see if I could find some solace. I found some; I also found people asking why we weren’t grieving also for the many killed in attacks elsewhere – Beirut, for example. And on it went; apparently we who were moved – moved by people slaughtered doing what I like doing, going to rock concerts and football matches – especially by this, don’t care for Arab lives. Apparently we’re over Westernised. Apparently, one person told me, I shouldn’t bring my grief to social media.

The truth is I can’t take it. I have my limits. If I processed all the death and destruction in the world the same way, I would not be able function. I would sit and shake and cry and shout and scream until I couldn’t any longer. Yesterday was almost unbearable at times; I only got going when a 6-year old insisted on a cuddle … now. Today was better because it had to be – I had a job to do.

T S Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. How right he was. I can’t. You can’t either; you who sanctimoniously and self-righteously tell me I should be moved in the same way about everything. You can’t take it. If you felt like I felt yesterday for even an hour you would cease to meaningfully function. Have you tossed and turned overnight, wondering if your friend is safe, or a hostage or lying blood-strewn on a shopping mall floor? Have you been in the room when that phone call has been taken? Have you had to lead people on a journey of forgiving this?

We can’t take it all. We just can’t. We have our limits.

And don’t you dare, don’t you even think of citing Jesus. Even He, faced with the full weight of every moment of suffering, every evil deed, every murder and angry word; even He cried out in fear, asked for another way, sweat blood and asked why God had abandoned Him.

Of course Arab lives matter, the same as French or British or Kenyan or Burundian or Rwandan or Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian or Israeli. But I can’t take it all, and if you say you can then you’re self-deceiving liar. You need to go to some war zones, some terror attack malls, some grieving families to get some perspective on yourself. Then tell me how much reality I should be able to take.

Paris moves me because I’ve walked its streets. Because I’ve been to more rock concerts than I can count and more football matches than I can remember. I can imagine myself there, in the midst of a carnage I can imagine only too well because of what I know from the inside.

So when you tell me, and people like me, that I must care equally … you do not know what you ask.

For the love of Christ, let us shake, mourn, grieve, cry, grow angry for a while. In time we will return to something resembling equilibrium.

We couldn’t do this every time, because we are human.

And if that’s such a sin, then we’re in more trouble than we know.

Towards Another Future, Part 4

Catch up on the story so far here: 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In one sense an update on this story seems to be long overdue. It’s some months since I last posted about it, and I feel like I owe you some news. In another sense, however, there’s been little to report. There was the initial flurry of thoughts and feelings reflected in the original posts – and then there was little we could do.

First there was our sabbatical – three months abroad – during which the desire for and conviction that we should foster took root and became established as something deeper than a whim. It felt like something right. Obviously whilst away for three months there was little we could do about it. We also needed to address our living arrangements – our previous house had no spare space on it,  and for a while we had no idea where we’d be moving to so we couldn’t make any plans. Then, in what felt like something of a rush, we’d moved house to somewhere bigger. Objectively we’d acknowledged to ourselves that fostering could now be front and centre of our agenda, but we did little about it.

Hence the lack of updates. It’s hard to update when there’s little to say. Then, a couple of speculative conversations last week later, and we find ourselves with some concrete possibilities. Actual children we need to think about. We find ourselves in a space where we need to discern whether to move forward with discussions about this child. Suddenly the future has a possible face and name.

It feels strange to have moved from the conscious disempowerment of which I spoke in a previous post to a position of unmerited power: is this child going to be part of our future, for however long? Even with speculative conversations it feels a little cruel, even though at this stages the children concerned know nothing of even the possibility. We’re talking about talking, and even at this stage it feels like one almighty responsiblity. We don’t know how long this phase will last, how many of these possibilities we’ll weigh up until we move further forward. But we have moved forward, and the future is more tangible.

I’ll post more as and when I’m able to in this public forum.

Pain’s Pained Choices

Chronic illnesses constantly ask the sufferer to make choices which inevitably seem like lose-lose. If you live with chronic illness, you know that well. If you don’t, then even at your most well-intentioned you live with ignorance as to what people like with on a daily basis. We are not brave, really. I certainly don’t feel brave today.

Today I woke up in pain. Ankylosing Spondylitis is a rare, potentially degenerative, unpredictable arthritic condition which affects primarily the spine but also other joints. It’s normal for me to wake up in pain, but today the levels were higher than usual and, as usual, for no discernible reason. Tight hamstrings, pain all the way through my back and neck. About 6/10 on my scale; on a normal person’s (apparently AS sufferers by necessity develop an unusually high tolerance for pain) it’s probably around 8/10. Apparently what I rank as north of 10/10 is worse than an especially painful childbirth.

I had planned to go to the gym today – I’ve put on weight and need to keep up the momentum on my new regime. Going to the gym will probably loosen me up a bit , but high pain brings with it a willpower melting emotional low. I lie in bed before the alarm sounds (pain always wakes me up) and wrestle with the trip to the gym. I eventually give in and doze fitfully through waves of pain and comfort myself that I’ve already been to the gym twice this week and it’s only Wednesday.

I slowly work my way into the day at my desk. The pain doesn’t go anywhere, and I’m tired. Pain is tiring, and I’m wrestling my mood. A while into the morning and it’s felt fairly productive. My concentration is all over the place, though. Pain does that. I have some top-up pain killers for days like this. If I take them, the pain will ebb somewhat and in theory I should be able to work more. However pain killers would mean more drowsiness on top of my tiredness. Stick or twist? I stick, for the time being. The rheumatologist has told me that topping up with the pain killers could affect my liver.

It would be good for me and the dogs out for a walk later, but the very thought of controlling them on the lead ratchets the pain still further. I put off the decision for now. I feel like I’ve lived a whole day of choices and pain and wrestling. I’m emotionally and physically shot. It’s only 12:30 p.m. Suddenly even the thought of what to have for lunch utterly overwhelms me.

Brave? Most certainly not.

Trauma, two years on

It’s now 2 years since our friend and deeply committed member of the church I lead was murdered in Nairobi by terrorists at the Westgate mall attack. I’m not one of those people for whom birthdays and anniversaries and birthdays are a big deal; I understand that for other people they can be significant, but for me they tend not to be. The anniversary of my mother’s death, for instance, is one that makes little impact on me. I check in with my family to see how they are doing – but for me it’s not a big emotional occasion. Anniversaries do however make useful markers as to how we are doing on the never-ending journey of grief; they can help us to see not so much how life has gone on without the person we’re missing, but rather they can show how our life has reshaped and maybe even enlarged itself to encompass the griefs with which we live.

The anniversary fell on a Monday. Last year – the first anniversary – fell on a Sunday. At our church we used the opportunity to remember not only James, but all whom we’ve lost and for whom we wish to give thanks to God. We developed a simple process of each person taking a flower and placing it in a vase at the front of church as a symbol of our cumulative memories, grief and thankfulness. It was a moving and helpful process, which we undertook again this year on Sunday. Although I was aware of the emotion around the service, it wasn’t something I found personally difficult; it wasn’t until lunchtime on the Monday that I tuned into the fact that irritability, jumpiness, tears close to the surface but never actually happening and anxiety were all part of my reality. By the evening I was fully on edge, manifesting many of the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress I’m told by an expert I experience as a result of my leadership calling and work two years ago. My wife went out to run a brief errand, and I was a mess of anxiety until she was safely back home; three good friends had been away all weekend and I couldn’t rest until I found social media evidence of their safe return (I was too self-conscious to actually check in with them directly); sleep was a distant hope, so I read and listened to music until well into the night.

Acceptance is a part of any healing process. You can’t get healed of a medical condition unless you accept you have it in the first place and seek the prayer or treatment you need; it’s also a well-recorded part of the grieving process. For me, the 2 year anniversary marks a point of acceptance. Not so much of James’ death – I’m pretty sure I’ve accepted that – but of my response. When it was first mooted by someone who knows about these things that I was experiencing some PTSD, I was hesitant and resistant. It’s not as if I was in the mall when he died; he may have been a good friend, but he wasn’t family. But  – and this is important – what I’m learning to accept is that the role I was called to play at the time placed me in a vulnerable position. It meant I was, amongst those who are not family, in an almost unique position of living through the events with the family but unable to process my own emotional reactions to events concerning my friend. I was living it, but needing to put parts of myself ‘on hold’. Part of me had to pause, the other part had to run. I was involved, privy to much private information and some intimate, precious moments. I was in the story, deeply. Two years on I’m accepting that this PTSD is a normal reaction to the abnormal events in which I was caught up; apparently it’s not unusual for people in jobs like mine in situations like this one.

As a result I found this anniversary harder than the first one; a friend pointed out that this may because there are fewer socially normal rituals associated with it. Last year the anniversary was a draining but helpful flurry of events and conversations; this year ‘normalised’ it all more, which may be part of the difficulty. I don’t want to accept that the new normal; but I must, and I am. It’s a constant, tidal ebb and flow of acceptance and rebellion, of remembering and forgetting; but acceptance is now at least in the frame.

That, then, is where I find myself two years on. The same place; somehow more painful, but healthier.

Related to this post

Trauma, one year on

Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend