So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (The Bible)

There must be more to life than stereotypes. (Blur)

The great John Stott, one of the grandfather figures of Western evangelicalism, a man you couldn’t be in the same room as without being struck by his humility and graciousness, titled his brilliant book on the Sermon on the Mount ‘Christian Counter-Culture’. Those three words speak volumes about Stott’s prophetic vision for the church. One where church and Christians are so devoted to Christ’s call to a radical self-redefinition and compassion that a vision is painted of how life can be that’s compelling and luminous. It implies a way of living as Christians which calls us to something subversive, something liberating, something hard but offering eternal rewards. Stott was a man of conviction with whom you could disagree – which of course meant he was far more likely to win you over in the end.

This Christian faith to which Stott devoted his life takes as undergirding and forming it a book and as its object of worship a God who is so beyond us that He makes Himself accessible to us by living amongst us as a human being. It’s a journey of faith replete with revelation and mystery, with liberation to be who we are called to by our creator to be and of radical self-giving to neighbour and enemy. It’s what God’s done first for us, and it’s what He calls us to model towards others in His power.

It’s a majestic vision of life. It’s one I can’t live up to, but I love trying to because doing so sets me free. It’s tempting as one who’s been called by God through the church to exercise leadership within the church to simplify the call. At times, of course, it’s right to do so. Sometimes pretence and pomposity needs to be stripped away and unvarnished simplicity must shine through. God can do anything and often does; we are saved; Jesus is the Way. God forbid self-aggrandisement obscures the King of Kings from view, even if it is through a glass darkly. With that, there’s a temptation to strip mystery away and make it all easy. Do this and more people will be healed. Do this and you’ll have more Sunday School volunteers. Do this and you’ll have a better prayer life. Deep down we all know it can’t work the same way in every case, but it’s no less tempting to portray it as such.

Still, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of much of this over-simplification, of what should be a vision of counter-culture instead being a pale imitation of the sea we swim in. That takes many forms; for me, today, it’s about being reduced to archetypes and stereotypes.

There’s a few foundational truths about humanity in Scripture; the first is that we bear the stamp of the creator. His signature is written on our souls and bodies: on mine, on my wife’s and  on every last single snowflake unique human being ever to grace creation. It’s a signature that at times seems smudged and illegible; that’s my fault and our fault, not the artist’s. Why, then, do such vocal parts of what should be the Christian counter-culture persist in such a shrivelled vision of our mutual gendered image-bearing? Why do we shrink the culturally specific and historically located complex individuals like David, Moses, Sarah and Delilah into examples of what men and women should be thousands of years later? Biblical people are just that – people trying to figure out how to follow God in a specific place and time. They don’t show us that a man has to be a warrior or a woman must wait for a man to win her.

I’ve had enough of Christian books and talks and articles about men and women taking their templates from fairy tales and movies, then reading those back into scripture, shrinking God’s image-bearers into versions of pop-quiz pseudo-wisdom that belong more properly on the back of a cereal packet. I’ve had enough of marriage being reduced to who obeys whom, when Scripture frames it as mutual submission and leaves us to figure out the rest in the awkward ambiguity of squaring eternal words with two people living together in a time and a place. I’ve had enough of women being told they are all waiting to be rescued and men being convinced they are the ones who have to do the rescuing. I had enough of the unbearable pressure that puts on anyone who feels that somehow they don’t quite fit. I’ve had enough of lazy analogies about roses and thorns, of stereotypes about being passive or active, of big name preachers going on and on about sex and intimacy, about his role, her role. I’ve had enough of single women being told they are being prepared for something that may never come, so missing out on God’s rich and deep calling to them. I’ve had enough of men’s groups that always seem to revolve around curry or outdoors activities, alienating fifty per cent of men.

I’ve had enough of a reductionism in Christ’s name which bears no relation to the expansive new creation I read of God bringing about in the pages of Scripture. I’ve had enough of God’s mutual image bearers being reduced to seven quick tips for a peaceful marriage. I, you, we are graced by the image of God; we also obscure it. We’re preciously, dangerously unique. We’re called to express that and also hold back from expressing it in mutual submission to those with whom we live. We’re called to read the God-inspired words of Scripture with brains and hearts and bodies – all of which are alive now, so of course it will need some interpreting.

Yes, it’s hard being called to be part of bringing to birth a new creation which we only see fleetingly.

Who said that which is hard isn’t worthwhile, though? It’s easy to swap the words of eternity for glossy magazine-style quick tips. It’s tempting to trade wisdom for one word answers. Jesus is the Way. That’s a process, a journey, not a cop-out.

Enough, then. I’m trading in answers for wisdom, solutions for ways, archetypes for endless variety.


Gangster Squad

Went to see Gangster SquadIt’s like a whole bunch of stuff never happened – The SopranosThe UntouchablesThe Godfather films, Scarface … you name it. All these and more which have invented and reinvented one of the definitive genres of the last 50 years are just brushed over, ignored for an occasionally stylish, mostly forgettable, run of the mill gangster film which does an efficient job of wasting a good cast. It’s not a bad film. It’s just ignorant and forgettable.

I rated this film 5/10 on imdb.com and 2.5 out of 5 on rottentomatoes.com

Les Miserables

How to start? Much about this film you’ll already know … so, how to start?

The film begins by sweeping from distance into close-up on a gang of convicts manually hauling a ship into dock. Waves break and crash, an orchestral score swells and male voices break into the haunting chorus of ‘Look Down’. It’s an opening which sets the movie up appropriately. Transition from stage to screen is tackled through close-up and long-shot, wisely tending to avoid the more theatrical mid-shot. In turn this means that the artificiality of group songs on stage is largely circumvented; instead the camera homes in on individuals. We meet the chorus, but the chorus has an identity, a face. The film also achieves what the stage show only occasionally manages – there is real suffering on display here. Be it the poor, the prisoner or the persecuted, I can’t remember feeling suffering and poverty quite so acutely in many other films.

The film’s portrayal of suffering points out another strength – which for some will be a weakness. It’s is a film which makes no concessions to the casual viewer. If you don’t like musicals, this is unlikely to win you over. The artifice of a fully sung musical is embraced rather than edged around; whilst some musicals purists have baulked at this, I like that fact that director Tom Hopper (generally) decided to stick with screen actors. Acting for stage and acting for screen are two very different disciplines; of course there’s cross-over but being good at one doesn’t necessarily lead to being good at the other. Sticking with actors who understand how to act in close-up, who understand the breadth of facial acting which the screen requires and is largely unnecessary on stage lends intimacy and an intense brand of drama. The result is that some songs become fleetingly conversational or prayerful in tone, which is almost impossible in a theatrical setting where there’s a large auditorium to be filled. Russell Crowe, as the guilt-laden Javert has come in for most criticism. Singing may not be his strength, but physical acting is – so he simultaneously needs to cut himself loose as well as reign himself in. This is perfect for a character who, until late in the film, is in constant denial at his own conflicted nature. He was in some ways a counter-intuitive choice for such a key musical role, but for me it’s a choice that works.

Much has been and will be said about the role of grace in the story and the film. I’m not going to rehash here what others have said. The film is grace and emotion-soaked. Like the sea in the opening scene, waves of emotion and grace keep crashing and crashing over you. It took me several hours to achieve emotional equilibrium after seeing this – it’s exhausting and draining in all the ways it should be. Many have highlighted Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Rightly so. She takes about 20 minutes of screen time and gives us one of the most memorable and harrowing descents into near-oblivion as you’re likely to see. Her take on the key song ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is almost unwatchable in its brilliance, achieving all the things on the screen you can’t do onstage. At times it’s almost a half-whispered conversation; the transitions to louder passages carrying all the more power for it. Shot entirely in close-up it’s reminiscent and probably inspired by one of pop’s greatest vocal performances. Fantine’s story-line – from co-worker bullying, towards a traumatic descent into poverty and prostitution, culminating in a moment of grace and death-bed provision is the film’s highlight. It’s deeply disturbing, utterly entrancing and unforgettable.

There are many other strengths making this film such an all-engulfing experience. Those are well documented;  allow it to linger, however, in your thoughts as well as your emotions for a couple of days and a few weaknesses do emerge – and these are all as much faults of the source as this reading of it. The first is that whilst so much effort is made to give the story a definitively French context, it seems odd to leave so many of the poorer characters – especially Gavroche – with neo-cockney accents. At moments you half expect them to break into a number from Oliver. Another problem is the comic relief of the Thenardiers – the inkeeper and his wife. I understand this story needs some comic oxygen otherwise it would be suffocatingly grim, and these characters are for many reasons the logical ones to give it. There’s still something troubling in being asked to laugh at the rouge-ish antics of a couple who have effectively abused a child by way of neglect.

The biggest problem for me – and others – is in the way the story in this form (on stage and screen) portrays women. The simple fact is that we have no women here in their own right – they are all reacting to, under the control of or subservient to men. There are two possible responses here. Either it’s an accurate portrayal of the time, or it’s a problem. For me it’s a problem I can’t escape. How does one of the show’s foundational songs go? “Do you hear the people sing…“. That’s right. What comes next? “Singing a song of angry MEN“. So the song of the people is a song of the men? I understand the linguistic and poetic issues at work; it’s still a lazy and bizarre lyrical choice. The only woman we see on the barricades is one who has disguised herself as a man; the women’s suffering in the uprising is otherwise reduced to washing blood from the cobbles, cleaning up after men singing a song which in the film version is, I’m sure, at least 2 verses shorter than on stage. Hugo himself saw the liberation of women as one of the key social issues of the 19th century; in the story we get in the musical form (I’d need to revisit the book to be sure of the tone of the original text) the women are all reactive too, submissive to and in service of men. Women are wives, lovers (requited and unrequited), prostitutes and daughters – all of whom need to be rescued.

Maybe this is a portrait of the times. It probably is. If, though, it’s possible to produce a feminist production of Shakespeare then surely it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch here? Anne Hathaway’s character is probably the strongest woman on show – despite circumstances, always actively trying to take a choice of her own will as best she can, no matter how terrible the options. Is she the feminist flag-bearer here? Maybe. The fact a man rescues her either undermines that or points up the crisis she faced. Construct your own answer. It’s a question Hugo would want us ask, I suspect.

In the end emotion soaked grace wins. It’s a draining, brilliant and exhaustive achievement. It deserves to be seen widely and celebrated. Grace would suggest we see past some of the criticisms, which are inherent in the source as much as in the film itself. It’s as good a film as we could hope under the circumstances.

Can grace ask hard questions and still be grace? Yes, because only grace earns the right to truly do so from a pure heart. Love the film, maybe, but don’t let waves of grace drown out the questions. Instead, let it baptise them.

I rated this film 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

The Way Back

Christians sometimes talk about the life of faith in terms of journey, of walking, of traveling. It’s a helpful and Biblical image. From Adam and Eve walking in the garden in the cool of the day, to the desert wanderings of a whole nation, to a man who embodies God walking amongst us, to the missionary journeys of Paul, and on into the centuries of Christian spirituality writing, the image of the Christian life as a long walk with a faithful and sometimes mysterious and companion is a fruitful one. Walk with God, and in doing so learn more of Him and His ways.

The Way Back, released in 2010 and directed by Australia’s Peter Weir (amongst his other work: The Truman ShowDead Poets SocietyMaster And Commander) is a film about a long walk. A very long walk, in fact – from Siberia to India. In telling a simple story, it entertains and provokes – as well as informing the Christian imagery of the journey in helpful ways. Christian imagery is not unusual in Weir’s films – watch Gallipoli or the brilliant Witness if you don’t believe me. The latter is a perceptively intelligent examination of a belief system that initially looks so culturally alien and distant, all wrapped around the kernel of a gripping murder-mystery/thriller. Then there’s The Truman Show, replete with religious overtones if you choose to see them. Maybe they’re subconscious, maybe not – personally I think there’s just too much of it in Weir’s work to suggest that it’s accidental.

The Way Back is taken from a true story; it’s 1941, and we follow a group of escapees from a Russian gulag whose long journey (Siberia to India, remember…that’s 4000 miles) on foot takes them through all manner of terrain and up against all sorts of difficulties. Given that we know from on-screen narration at the start of the film how many will make it to journey’s end alive, there’s not a great deal of suspense here. Instead it’s more of a question of who will make it and how the journey will proceed. That could make for a dull if worthy film – but it’s helped by two things. The first is a fine cast  – Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris all turning in performances which are less about stealing a scene and more about building a believable group dynamic. Secondly, Weir is an intelligent director; though not a flashy one. He tells his story with an appealing simplicity and a sure touch in when to apply something more showy. Here that’s limited to moments of water-deprived hallucination (or is it reality masquerading as hallucination?); and the rest of the time allowing the unselfish performances and beautifully coloured cinematography to do the heavy lifting.

We’re left with a group-oriented character study. Their journey has conscious and deliberate spiritual overtones. One character is seeking forgiveness; another is desperate to get to his wife to tell her of his forgiveness of her for implicating him as disloyal to Stalin’s regime and hence provoking his imprisonment in the gulag. He’s convinced she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, though he knows well the pressure she was under. We all know the journey to forgive or know forgiveness is one taking us through some difficult terrain. Even those of us who say we know we’re forgiven find it hard to believe or live sometimes, and even harder to express to others. As we hear from the lips of one of the pilgrims (a label the travellers appropriate willingly when they find themselves in a moment of danger) “You pray too much for an innocent man”.  Yes indeed. We know it’s true, and often it is too good for us to live as if it is true. So we keep praying when in fact we should just keep walking, the source of forgiveness faithfully at our side.

The pilgrims/escapees/travellers know they’re free when they reach a mountain-top bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags, signalling a freedom they can’t quite believe is theirs. It only sinks in as they sit together in a barn that night: “Only a few mountains to go, and we’re there”. A few mountains indeed. The Buddhist flags redolent of a belief and life system which depends on work and achievement. Left to our own devices and acheivements, forgiveness is daunting mountain-range indeed. The journey has taught them much, but not yet do they know if the forgiveness they long to receive or express will make any difference.

We never find out for certain if the one was able to be convinced of his own forgiveness, if his long walk showed him truth; we see glimpses of the reunited husband and wife – and implications of forgiveness understood there. Or is it a hallucination? We’re not quite sure; as if to reinforce that human forgiveness is never quite enough to be sure of, that there’s a need for something else. The film loses the courage of its convictions in its final frames with a brief overview of European Communism’s growth and downfall, lending an unnecessary wider perspective clearly lacking in the rest of the film. It would have been better, and braver, to trust in the power of the simple story.

Given what’s gone before, we can forgive the director that. True forgiveness, after all, doesn’t wait for us to get there. It travels with us in the form of a sometimes hard to recognise fellow traveller.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com