Oblivion wants to a big science-fiction epic with things to say about the human condition. Whilst it does have that – the film touches on some very contemporary fears in the shape of drones, genetics, artificial intelligence, the trustworthiness of God and the ubiquity of Morgan Freeman – it’s let down by one big problem. I call it the Return Of The King problemPrecisely: the film appears to end at least three times before it actually does. In the case of the third film in the Lord Of The Rings, I was able to forgive that because I’d been so richly entertained over the previous two and half films. Peter Jackson had by then earned some self-indulgence (someone tell him, by the way, that he has to earn that all over again now). By the time Oblivion tricks you into thinking it’s ending for the third time, it hasn’t done quite enough to buy you off. Nearly, but not quite.

It’s a Tom Cruise film. I’m not averse to him as a leading man and with the right director or the right material he can be really good (Mission Impossible franchise, Magnolia are my first exhibits for the defence); he doesn’t have enough direction or material to do that here. What he does have is a plot twist which buys him and the under-used Olga Kurylenko out of what could be thought of as some lazy acting. Halfway decent genre-films like this need to demonstrate an awareness of the genre’s classics first, and Oblivion does that. It’s a science-fiction movie set on a ravaged earth in a future where earth’s inhabitants have won the war but lost the planet. Tom Cruise and his partner are on clean-up and security duty. So, duly invoked we have – in no order – Moon, Forbidden PlanetSilent RunningTerminator and a whole load more. Unfortunately it pales by comparison because there’s no energy to the direction, no shock, no fear, no convincing self-doubt when it’s needed. The big twists may be fairly unexpected, but they’re also unconvincing; all shown up, and not in a good way, by the problem of the three endings. By then, two hours had felt like a lot more.

This is not a bad film; there’s enough in here to divert, provoke and entertain (and, if you’re a preacher, provide a handful of illustrations). It’s just not good enough to really stay in the memory and let you explore those thoughts more deeply. Which makes your realise, ironically, that Prometheus was a much better film than many realised.

I rated this film 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes

I finished reading this in the week of the Boston Marathon, a week which highlighted that for all the shock and outrage which following an attack, terror has become everyday. There were other bomb explosions around the globe  that day – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Boston bomb, as outrageous and disturbing as it was, remained the least effectual terror attack of the day … if you measure these things with the awful and simple matrix of lives lost. The shock of so many at one attack when terrorism remains a daily reality for so many suggests we’ve lost perspective, that fear and cruelty have numbed us. We have to shut it out; when it comes close to home, we allow it fill our consciousness for a few days, for as long as the news channels keep it front and centre.

This is another effect of what charity fundraisers can call ‘compassion fatigue’; you grow tired and immune to the suffering of those who aren’t right in front of you. It’s only when suffering gets right in our faces that we’re forced to pay it closer attention; the logic goes that it’s the job of the fundraiser to keep the suffering front and centre and thus to ensure the funds keep flowing.

The Compassion Quest, the wonderful new book from Trystan Owain Hughes, suggests an alternative, a way to keep compassion alive. The reason is not so much to raise more funds for charity, though if we all paid attention to the book’s suggestion that may be a positive side-effect, so much as to awake us all to life as we are meant to live it. In his first book – the concise, brilliant Finding Hope And Meaning In Suffering, Trystan Owain Hughes didn’t seek to explain suffering, but to offer us a map through it. If you we’re to summarise its endpoint – and you really shouldn’t settle for just a summary – you’d say that the book called for mindfulness. Mindfulness of who we are and the world God’s placed us in, and a resultant thankfulness and appreciation; these are things which equip us to live through suffering. This book builds on that; to take us beyond ‘just’ surviving difficulties and pain, to living well in the world around us, building good and life-giving relationships with other people, the world and the things in the world.

This, like the first book, is brilliant and accessible theology for real people. Owain Hughes, in little over 100 pages peppered with insights from all manner of books and films and music, suggests seeking and embracing a sense of our mutual interconnectedness. Relationship – with people, with the created order – leads to stability and a recognition of yourself in the other. There’s something important to grasp here – some will see in this pseudo-spiritual new age inflected tree-hugging. That would be to do this a grave disservice. The author’s orthodox (in the best sense of that word) theology of creation and the incarnation of Jesus rescues us from those to skewed theologies which sees men (humans) and men (males) as there to lord themselves over the rest. This is a theology of humble awe at the breadth of what God has made; a theology which invites us to love with a thankful awareness of everything that’s around us; a theology which sees God-reflecting life everywhere; a theology that recognises the thin margins separating us, against which we are usually more wont to build draw-bridges and moats.

There’s much more to be said about this deep and rich book, but really you should read it for yourself. Like my favourite spiritual theologian, Eugene Peterson, reading this book you feel in the company of quietly content, confident, humble wisdom grounded in good scholarship and expressed in beautiful, accessible prose. When’s all said and done, this is theology for the everyday.

I rated this book 5/5 on GoodReads.com

Outside the walls

This week is Depression Awareness Week in the UK.

I know a man who had to take some time off from his job in a church. A working relationship had broken down to the point of him becoming ill, experiencing a serious bout of depression. Relationship break-downs are complex affairs and as a result the church as a whole wasn’t told why he was absent. Complex as it was, this was a mistake; rumours started to circulate of absence from work for reasons of illegality or immorality, none of which were fully denied by those who had the power to do so. When some of those aspects of the truth which were appropriate for the public domain were allowed into the open, it was too late for some relationships. By then the man was within minutes of suicide.

What’s at the heart of that? A lot, to be sure. There’s a much longer story to be told. Maybe one day it can be revisited; maybe not. There’s explanations, qualifications and different sides of the truth which would doubtless have to be explored and explained. What can be said is that there’s something at play here which speaks to a wider truth; that many of us Christians – and especially we charismatic-evangelical ones, for this was in a charismatic church – are scared to bring issues of mental illness in our communities into the light. Some of us are scared; and when we’re scared of something because we don’t fully understand it, it’s easy to end up with stigma. We keep the thing we’re scared of at arm’s length, away in a locked room, unspoken of and unnamed; or given a different, more comfortable, more morally quantifiable name. We prefer explanations that are easier to explain – illegality  or immorality, in the case of this man. That’s much easier than naming it depression, mental health problems; we know where we stand on pastors who have affairs or who break the law. We’re less certain when it comes to Christians (and especially Christian leaders) with depression. Christians are meant to rejoice and walk in victory, so depression doesn’t fit. So some of us push it away and give it another name, find a different box to put it in. Very few, if any, of the people involved in that story I told are likely to articulate it thus; but it’s there in the subtle ways we find to come up with alternative narratives. It’s a human reflex, a knee-jerk reaction which can seem as inbuilt as hair colour or height.

Stigma. The hiding of the dirty secret which may not actually be that dirty, but can make you feel soiled. It alienates, distances, lies, covers-ups … and depends on a lot of other factors to be maintained. It springs from fear that others will see us differently, fear of something we can’t quite understand or explain, something which once it’s out of the box can’t be controlled and can’t be put back in. Stigma stains, soaks into the fabric and can’t be washed out.

That’s understandable – we believe God heals and we want to see that happen. We don’t know, though, how to pray when confronted by some things. Does a person need deliverance or healing? Does he need love or medicating? Des she need prayer or a professional practioner? The question really should be: why do we have to choose?

Here’s the breaking news: the box is open. The tragic death of Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son who took his own life after a long battle with depression, has lifted the lid. If ever it was really securely on in the first place. Now there’s no hint or suggestion that he was stigmatised for his illness. Everything we’ve seen suggests he was held with love, compassion, dignity and grace. But the public stage of this sad story has taken the issue of depression, mental health and suicide in evangelical christianity and thrust it blinking into the spotlight. A perfect storm of stigma, circumstances, panic attacks and depression nearly killed the man of whom I spoke. He didn’t take his own life, but he was mighty close to it. He felt so trapped, so locked away, that for a while only one way out made sense. It’s hard to argue with that dark logic.

I know another man. A man who was stigmatised. Rumour, spite, manipulation, violence, cowardice and religion led him to be tortured and to hang bleeding and suffocating and dying naked on a cursed cross outside a wall, mocked and sneered at, his clothes won and lost by his executioners on the rolls of dice.

Stigma borne. Stigma owned by the one who shouldn’t have to hold it.

There’s a lid to be thrown away, questions to be asked, conversations to be had. It should start with the consideration of a man who chose stigma and let it lead Him to glory. Then it must move to those forced by omission or commission to carry stigma; it must continue with sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and understanding. It must continue thus until we’re left together at the foot of the stigmatised cross, with an ear open to the one we mistake for a gardener, calling us by name.

I have the man’s full permission to share what I did of his story. I also checked this post out with a handful of independent advisers to comment on appropriateness before finalising and posting.

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com