Gun-play and good theology don’t have a happy history together. You can usually bet that if a theological viewpoint needs the reinforcement of heavy weaponry, it’s flawed. Just ask the Tea Party. Not so with South African film-maker Neil Blomkamp’s latest.

Let’s be clear from the start: this is no masterpiece; nor is it as good as his breakout first film District 9. But it is better than the confused surface-sheen of second feature Elysium. We’re in near-future Johannesburg, where crime is controlled by intelligent police-robots exclusively provided by one weapons-company. Dev Patel is the genius behind it, and it just so happens that in the shape of a reconstituted damaged robot that’s he cracked the problem of evolving artificial intelligence (the title character, in a brilliant motion-capture performance by Blomkamp stalwart Sharlto Copley). The picture is complicated by a team of gangsters (played terribly by South African music stars Die Antwoord) stealing Chappie and some internal company rivalry from Hugh Jackman and his really big robot Moose. So the story develops … sort of. Being kind, plot isn’t this film’s strong point. There are holes in the narrative that Moose could blunder through without noticing: conveniently non-existent security at a cutting edge arms-firm? Motive-less characters? Characters with no discernible need to appear in the story at all? All these more are present and incorrect.

Where it scores, though, is in some blistering but simply shot action scenes and an eye for the big issues. All three of Blomkamp’s features this far have had bigger dimensions than simply themselves at work, and here we’re in serious territory. The film asks and asks you to consider fundamental questions: what it means to be created, what it means to be human, the nature of consciousness and the purpose of the body. It’s this latest that’s perhaps the most interesting: just when you think it’s going to default into some vaguely spiritual nonsense about the body not really mattering, it goes somewhere really clever and suggests the body is so important that after death we have to get new ones. That’s orthodox-Christian theology, in case you didn’t spot it; we don’t leave bodies behind, we get remade ones. That’s why God came in a body, not just a spirit. It’s an unusual sci-fi action film the companion reading for which should be the New Testament and a Tom Wright primer.

It’s just a shame that the holes in the plot are so obvious that the performances are not consistent enough; better casting here, more care there and we’d have something at least as good as District 9 on our hands.  Neill Blomkamp’s next film seems likely to be the next in the Alien series. He’s clearly got the talent and the backing to do it; but on such hallowed ground he’ll need to take more care than this, and have patience to match his vision. If he can harness it, it’ll be something special.

I rated this film 3/5 on and 7/10 on

Lessons On The Way 9: The Beginning and Ending of Spiritual Warfare

I just spent a few minutes praying. That’s what I’m paid to do, right? Isn’t at least part of the point of a church pastor that he prays? I mean, if the pastor doesn’t, then what hope for the rest of us?

If only it were so simple. One of the most important lessons you learn when you’re in ‘the ministry’, leading a church, is that work is never done. There’s always another person you could be calling or visiting to see how they’re doing; there’s always emails you could be answering or composing; there’s always administration that could be being done. Church work is done at the interaction between the eternal and the temporal, so it’s never, ever finished. (Which is why I like cooking. Because it always reaches an end point.)

Add to that the fact that people always have an opinion on what you should be doing. More of the admin that you’re trying to hand-off to others (note: the fact that you’ve handed off admin to others doesn’t mean you have less admin to do as pastor, it just means you have different admin to do as pastor); serving; visiting; preparing a talk; cleaning; listening to someone; talking to someone; solving a problem; educating yourself about something. So virulent is this that one clergy person I worked with once told me that taking time out to pray and retreat regularly was a lazy excuse for non-productivity.

There are so many voices insisting on air time, so many of them claiming, usually not unreasonably, that what they have to say is good and important. That clergy person to whom I just referred was  – and despite the fact that it’s years since I’ve spoken with him, still is  – a loud and haunting voice in my ear. I get so much – I’m paid more than some in the congregation, I get a house with the job; I get a sabbatical; and other things I could (should?) mention. I should show I’m worth it. I should be a servant. I should produce. I should have something to justify it all. One of the areas I’m really wrestling with this in regard to is my upcoming sabbatical. It’s my first one, and it’s a hard battle to push back at the tide of inward noise that shouts I must having something to show for it at its end. No matter that by this stage of ordained life I should be onto at least my second, or possibly third. I should show I’m worth it and that it’s worthwhile.

Some of that is true. Much of it isn’t. But allowing those voices to be mastered, controlled and where necessary muted, is one of the most important tasks of Christian leadership. As a great writer once said, ‘my people’s [I don’t like that phrase, but you get the point] greatest need is my personal holiness’.

The demons of productivity and worthiness and proving myself are insistent ones. They will only come out through their opposite – prayer and fasting, about which you say little and to which you draw no attention. The problem is that they keep coming back to see if the house is empty.

Is there a more demonic voice than that – one that would draw me away from conversation with God to activity with a sheen of goodness?

Spiritual warfare starts, and (if it ever does) ends in my soul.

Also in this series:

1: I don’t have to do it all

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s probably me

8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

On un-prayed prayers being answered

Some revelations are dramatic and quiet at the same time. Sometimes we look so hard for solutions or healing that we almost miss the opportunity when it sidles up to us and walks with us rather than arriving with a trumpet blast. Think the after the event awareness of the road to Emmaus, Mary assuming he’s a gardener or the blind man seeing walking trees. Not all answers to prayer are even to ones we’re conscious of praying.

Late in the evening one night last week I was lying in bed reading a novel. It was the latest Shardlake novel, a series of Tudor-England set stories which are rightly praised as much for their psychological realism as their historical truthfulness and plot twists. They may wear the clothes of thrillers and crime, but underneath they are finely wrought character pieces about people you feel like you know and understand.

In the preceding novel the central character – Shardlake, a lawyer – found himself aboard the great Tudor ship the Mary Rose. This was a magnificent construction, by far the greatest English ship of its era and the pride of Henry VIII’s fleet. It sank in battle against the French, and this was where our hero found himself in the midst of one his typically brilliant stories, as personal as it was grand in scale.

The novel I was reading last week took place a year or so later. An incidental part of the narrative was that Shardlake was now clearly suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress (PTSD), though obviously that terminology wasn’t used in the book. This pricked up my ears as a medical professional I am seeing for treatment thinks I may be experiencing some PTSD in relation to a couple of things, not least the death of my friend and church member at the hands of terrorists in Nairobi a year and a half ago as well as being on the receiving end of an extended period of workplace bullying. I wondered if I might learn a thing or two.

Shardlake’s PTSD is quite different to mine; I primarily experience intense anxiety, he that (in stressful situations) the ground below him was pitching and yawing like the sinking ship had. At the point in the story I had reached, he was attending a ceremonial event at which ships were firing cannon in honour of a visitor; so intense were his flashbacks that he had to leave. On the way home he realised that so wound up had he been by the event and his flashbacks that he had never said a goodbye to the friends whom he had lost that day. The novel, in one simple paragraph, records Shardlake saying a simple goodbye in his mind, and seeing his symptoms instantly lift.

This rang an insistent, clear but gentle, bell. When our friend had died I had been necessarily busy – arranging, doing, pastoring, organising. Then I recovered. My position as pastor, as one of the ‘professionals’ at the funeral service meant that I simply never said goodbye.

So as I lay in bed, book in had, I breathed a simple goodbye in a house otherwise filled with sleep. The previously crushing anxiety didn’t completely disappear, but it did abate. A lot. A weight had lifted, and I continued with life. Which in this instant meant another couple of chapters, then sleep.

The next morning the anxiety remains, but it’s back in control, in its place.

I hadn’t been praying for release; I hadn’t been thinking about it or reading the Bible. God just graciously sidled up to me and spoke through an author who I suspect but don’t know for certain is an atheist – he’s certainly cynical and weary when it comes to religion. I, like everyone, need to say goodbye; so when the chance came when I was on one level unprepared but on another more ready than ever before.

Looking for something? Maybe you need to stop looking.

On fire

All photos from Charles Mercer

Some experiences have a habit of stripping my intellectual and spiritual pretensions away. Inescapably seared into my consciousness is the day as a young child I was watching a tense game of cricket and as the bowler approached the wicket I mouthed two simple and hope-filled words at the television: bowl him.

He did. He bowled him. You and I know that my words had nothing to do with what happened, but that doesn’t stop a little part of me thinking that it did; especially when I’m watching an event as a 40-something adult and my team need some inspiration. Bowl himScore. Save. Miss. I’ve mouthed or uttered or shouted all of these and more at the crucial moments in more recent years. I don’t really believe it, of course … but there I go, regressing to childhood innocence once again, offering my incantations to the implacable gods of sport, hoping they’ll remember mercy and act on my behalf.

Photo: Charles MercerI live in Cape Town, which recently experienced an especially severe summer fire. It bears repeating that the professional fire services acted with immense bravery and professionalism; they were ordinary people doing something amazing. So too did individuals faced with trying to save property, businesses or lives.

For some ordinary people this was a devastating experience despite the best efforts of those tasked to help. The natural local plant fynbos was the primary fuel of the fire, aided and abetted by alien plants which only made things worse. (Actually for fynbos, fire is a renewing and life-giving thing, but that’s another post.)

Wild fires like these do something to us as we watch. Personally we were unaffected; however friends were evacuated, and we’ve heard stories of others getting stuck in to rescue a farm or a house. It does something strange to our prayers and our faith and our view of God. The raw, seemingly unstoppable power we see laid bare takes us back to the basics. God, stop the fire. Save us. Send rain. We, with all our sophistication and theology and ideas and science are reduced to begging an invisible being to do something with a visible crisis. We have no power; someone must, though. Photo: Charles Mercer

Now we know that God is a perfect Father, so this stripping away is a good thing if it pushes us into a more childlike honesty with God. Dad, stop the fire please. Please. Pllllleeease.

 We all need to be a bit more like that and a little less reliant on our intellectualisation. However He’s a perfect Father who not only knows best but who exists in and over a complex world, and who does so whilst maintaining an attitude of grace towards His children. Search the Bible and you’ll see no one formula, set of words or system that’s going to get His attention and get Him to work in the way in which we want Him. We all know it’s not that simple; but that doesn’t stop us thinking that if we just pray like this or this hard or this long or with these words that we’ll get the healing/provision/direction/rain we need.

That’s the thing with grace, though. It means we already have his attention, his best intentions, his perfect focus. We don’t need to do or say anything; but like any father He’s desperate to hear from us. Do my words have any effect? I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen inexplicable things happen when we pray and I’ve also seen nothing happen when we pray. So if the fire or other crisis strips us back to a kind of Baal-like set of incantations and lever-pulling before an almighty slot machine then we’ve got a problem. We’ve allowed a most basic thing – fire, an elemental force – to rob of us intimacy and closeness and turn us into helpless subjects of a disapproving and distant taskmaster.

Dad, we need it stop.

I know, He says. Does He stop it, or does it just stop? Does He send the rain, or is it just weather?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t.

But how good is it to hear I know when we breathe out our most fervent and desperate prayers?

It hurts. 

I know.

I need a friend. 

I know.

I need rain. 

I know. 

I need to pay a bill. 

I know.

It does something to us deeper than solving a problem; it tells us we are not and never will be alone, unheard or unloved. It doesn’t solve everything; and some days it will be soul-deep frustrating. Instead of getting the right answer every time, we will get a friend, a father. Which lasts much longer.

Photo: Charles Mercer

… and Lent begins …

I’ve been musing for days – weeks, probably – for something to do on here for Lent. I thought about posting music; I thought about Bible studies: I thought perhaps another attempt at ‘poetry’. I thought about a film a week or so for Lent (I still might do that, actually, if I can get the time). I thought about reflections on giving things up or taking things on as a discipline for the period. I thought about my frustration with how far we seem to have drifted from Jesus’ instructions on fasting, especially when it comes to fasting from social media: advertising it rather it than hiding it (the latter being what Jesus explicitly prefers).

I thought about advertising a just cause every so often for Lent. I thought about green issues, carbon fasting or recycling more. I thoughts about reading book for Lent – a Bible book or something else. I thought about using the period more intentionally to get to the gym. I thought about dieting. I thought about fasting from food once or twice a week.

I thought about chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, shaving, not shaving, my language, my thought life, television, social media, music, films. I thought about dog walks, about cooking, cleaning, saving, giving, buying presents, doing favours, being more welcoming, being more generous, being kinder.

In sum, I thought about a lot.

Then I realised that Lent had actually started, and I hadn’t noticed.

As far as I could tell, God didn’t seem to mind.

On her birthday

It was my wife’s birthday this week, so I wrote this. 

uslondon2012Happy Birthday to Bev, my favourite human being.

42 years of fun, championing the poor, challenging others to be more, courageous honesty, beauty, fearlessness, wisdom, and changing hair colours.

She’s even better than you think she is. After all she’s still married to me despite being on the other end of the bullying, rumours, scheming against us and general nastiness that comes along with the good parts of my calling.

She supports me through Ankylosing Spondylitis, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, two learning disabilities and inspires me to keep going.

She always sees and expects the best of people even if they can’t see it themselves.

She dreams impossible dreams and makes them happen.

She drags the future into the present.

She defends those who won’t or can’t defend themselves.

She’s not worried about reputation or approval or being good by the standards of a broken world.

She’s always learning.

She’s a brilliant photographer.

She’s an organiser.

She’s kind and good and true.

Some seem to insist on believing the worst of her and still she keeps going and keeps being who God calls her to be.

She’s a blessing in the truest sense of the word.

If you don’t know her, or don’t believe me, it’s your loss.


It’s disconcerting when the news of your childhood becomes the historical movies of your adulthood. Pride did nothing if not confirm for me that I have officially hit middle-age.

It’s a British comedic-drama about events during the Miners Strike in the UK of 1984 (I was 11, just about aware of what was going on in the wider-world). It focuses on two small communities: one is a small mining town in Wales of the sort that suffered most during that time. The other is a London-based group of gay and lesbian people who form LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). They take on the small Welsh community as a project for which to fundraise. The film is that story, of unlikely friendships and culture-clashes. In tone it is closes to British comedies like The Full Monty or Brassed Off; an edge of social realism and a triumph of underdogs storyline.

There’s some fine performances – Bill Nighy is at his understated best, drawing laughs at times without uttering a word; the comedic tone sits well with some serious themes of social distress and prejudice and it’s hard not to leave the cinema without at least a small air-punch of satisfaction at the film’s feel good narrative arc.

It’s not without flaws though. Some things just seem a little too easy to be true; did they really, for instance, break into singing that easily in the minibus? At times the adventures of the London-based characters come off too much like a school outing rather than engaging with one of the biggest social issues of the day. More seriously is an overly romantic view of history. The miners’ strike was a brutal and painful period of British history for all sorts of reasons, not least because it fractured families and communities. The film presents to us a picture of communities and towns united in their stand; I can’t speak for the individual town in question, but the brutal reality of the strike is that it was opposed from within the community of miners as well as by the government. Members of families fell into bitter, lifelong dispute; strike-breakers were, and maybe still are, ‘scabs’. All this because some felt they and their families couldn’t pay the price of their families’ well-being. It’s tempting to, as the film does, to play the strike as a unified struggle; but it wasn’t and it does a grave injustice to the complexity of real people in unimaginably difficult situations to pretend otherwise.

None of this detracts from the joy of the film; it should also be noted, though, that the nature of the film means that the humour is broader than The Full Monty (it really is); and sometimes that too (especially towards the end) seems a bit too easy to be true. The film also suffers slightly from Return Of The King-itis in that seems to have about three endings. By the time the last one rolled around I was ready for the film to actually end.

It doesn’t out-stay its welcome, though. The reservations are real, but not major problems.

I rated this film 4/5 on and 8/10 on