Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

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#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

amy adams

A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while. 

 

Hope or despair: which do we choose?

This is the first in a what I hope will be a regular series where I rewatch a movie I’ve seen before and liked, and write about it from a personal perspecitve. I would give the series a cool name, but I haven’t come up with one yet … 

Jaws – a film that is often credited with launching what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon – is justly famous for many things. It’s a masterpiece of slowly building fear, in part because the shark itself is unseen by the viewer for a long, long time. David Fincher’s 1994 serial killer thriller Se7en (Seven) takes inspiration from Spielberg’s game-changer in that respect; we don’t see the face of the killer until 30 minutes before the film’s end, at a moment of revelation of his own choosing. Neither do we see the murders take place; in the film’s memorable rain-sodden foot chase we only see his back; his face remains out of focus even when he’s pointing a gun in Brad Pitt’s face, deciding his fate. David Fincher knows what most good horror films and thrillers have made apparent over the years: the unseen is more threatening and frightening than the known.

Rewatching this film for the first time in years in 2019, I’m struck especially by how normal the abnormal events it portrays are made to seem. A serial killer who bases his work on the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition is nothing especially original; religious references are a familiar serial killer trope. Fincher places this killing spree in the hands of an apparently ordinary figure – one who goes by the name of John Doe (the name given by American police to an unidentified deceased male). As John Doe himself says, as the film’s unforgettable ending hoves into view: “I’m not special; I’ve never been exceptional … it’s more comfortable for you to label me insane”.

seven poster

 

It’s dangerous to quote the words of a killer as if they contain some kind of truthfulness, but this is the heart of the film: that evil is ubiquitous; it’s in all of us. In each of the serial killer’s victims, in the police chasing him, in the killer himself. In an age where the mass shootings that still stalk America are so routinely passed off as committed by someone with ‘mental health problems’, personal responsibility is avoided. The truth is we’re all to blame; Se7en holds a mirror up to us, and it’s not a pleasant sight. To summarise what John Doe says near the conclusion, we tolerate sin in ourselves and others because it’s normal. It’s this, it seems, that as the credits roll and those involved are left to live with the terrible consequences of their actions, that drives Morgan Freeman to utter the film’s final words in voice over: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a brutal way to leave the story, and one which the makers of the film fought the studio to keep in, and no less powerful for it; though now, having seen many more films than I had on seeing Se7en in the cinema, it seemed a tad too much of tell as opposed to show.

This seems bleak – and it is, if we conclude that the fight of which Hemingway is speaking is fruitless. For those who believe following Jesus is worthwhile and eternally meaningful, it’s a profoundly hopeful place to be; the world may not be as fine a place, as was intended; but there is a better way; and that better way will, eventually, be seen by all.

It is a battle, though, and in the meantime many suffer. As long as any of us – like John Doe in this film – take matters in to our hands, take the judging as something for us to execute, then there will be casualties. Not least ourselves, but also those unfortunate enough to be in our orbit.

All of which leads us to the Kevin Spacey question. With the revelations about his alleged sexual harassments and assaults, the question remains: should we watch his films? I have no easy answer here. I have been bullied to the point of suicide by someone who used to speak on big conference stages; I know how painful it was to see that person lauded by thousands when I knew different; I have forgiven the person, but still my stomach lurches with nausea and I’m wracked with anxiety if I see his name alluded to in a social media feed. I was sexually and physically abused as an adult by an adult; if I were to see her in a public role, it would be very hard to take. So I argue that Spacey’s victims must be given much consideration here; I would want the same for myself. With that in mind, I rewatched Se7en for the first time since these allegations came out. As I reflected on the film’s themes of the ubiquity of evil I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. If Spacey’s past work is not to be considered any more; if my bully’s speaking is no longer to be listened to; if my abuser is never to have a relationship … then what of me? I have not done any of these things – but if I believe sin and evil are ubiquitous (and I do), then that means I’m as guilty of sin as anyone else. I hope I own my sins and seek forgiveness, in large part through the regular discipline of confession; but I also know I am prone to err. Let he who is without sin …

I do not have an answer, at least not yet. Certainly it seems to me that Spacey, and those like him, should not be widely spoken of or employed in the public eye – at the very least until fault has been admitted, responsibility taken and justice served. Fittingly for this film, for now I remain with this tension unresolved.

What remains true is that it’s still a beautifully constructed, chilling and gripping thriller that haunts and shocks even after all these years; even when I know the point to which the story is heading. More culturally significant films still lay ahead of Fincher, not least Fight Club; many would cite Zodiac (2006) as his best film; The Social Network (2010) tells at least part of the story of one of the era’s dominant themes. Of course, we don’t know what more is to come from him. Se7en sets the template for his best work: morally complex, darkly thrilling, and directed with a flair that fits the story and the theme. If not quite as dynamic as I remember, it’s still a film to be reckoned with, that ultimately asks us to choose between despair and hope.

Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

It’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently. In late December 2011, British television aired a new show called Black Mirror. The publicity promised something dark, possibly comic, with a plot revolving around a pig. It was to be an anthology series – meaning that each episode was unconnected (narratively speaking) to others. When episode one aired, what unfolded was a story about a British Prime Minister blackmailed in to a sex act with a pig which was to be broadcast live on television, in order to save a popular member of the Royal Family who had been kidnapped. It’s had to watch, simultaneously horrifying and funny with a plot twist in the conclusion. The series gained some traction, and two short seasons were made. Then, in 2015, a story broke about real life British Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly doing something similar involving a pig’s head at university – and though there’s little in the way to establish the truth of the story, Black Mirror‘s prophetic legend was established. Netflix picked up the series, and now it’s a genuine cultural force; it’s become something of a tired cliché to wearily sigh that a news story is ‘like something out of Black Mirror‘; but the tiredness of the cliché doesn’t stop people saying it, of course.

So it was that a one-off new, 90 minute episode of the show arrived on Netflix over Christmas. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has its own unique hook; it’s an interactive film. Throughout the narrative, the viewer is invited to choose one of two courses of action by clicking the trackpad. Technically it’s brilliant; there’s only occasionally a slightly discernible jump in the edit when the choice is made, and buffering never rears its head. The plot itself is, well, somewhat meta: it’s set in the mid-1980s. A young man is writing a computer game called Bandersnatch, based on an epic Choose Your Own Adventure book of the same name, a book which drove its author into dark, paranoid places. This being Black Mirror, the narrative doesn’t stint on shock value. Initially the choices the viewer is presented with seem insignificant  – what sort of breakfast cereal should he eat?; what music should he listen to?. By the time the central character starts holding a conversation with you and directly posing the viewer a question, you’re in a much stranger, more ostensibly troubling place.

BlackMirrorTitleCard.jpg

The performances are all fine; though slightly hindered by the format – it’s hard, after all, to act a scene when you don’t know how the scene is going to conclude. But that’s a small gripe, which the viewer learns to let slide; by the time you reach one of the five or so main endings, you’re given the choice of exiting to the credits or returning to certain points in the story to try again. It’s addictive, fun, and has obvious rewatch value. For me, though, despite its many strengths, it left me cold. Yes it’s fun; yes, I even tried to place myself in the narrative (by choosing my own favourite cereal or music or even express mental health issues the way I do in real life), but I still felt strangely distanced from it. This isn’t a unique problem for Black Mirror; for all the show’s cleverness, capacity to shock and undeniable entertainment value, it’s one of those shows that tries hard to be about something without actually having much to say about the thing it’s about. That thing often happens to be free will and/or the effect of technology on the user – but too often interesting ideas are left dangling like that wire behind the television that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Writer Charlie Brooker rarely seems able to make a coherent blend out of big themes and the desire to shock or horrify; the results are too often a stone-in-the-shoe sort of lack of satisfaction, for all the cleverness and gripping material that has gone before.

When it comes to the big question of free will, with which this episode is so clearly concerned, there is much that could have been said that wasn’t. Free will has always been a thorny issue for the Christian; are we puppets on God’s strings, and if so, is He kind or cruel? Do we have the capacity to say no to God? What does ‘predestined’ mean? Poles of interpretation  – as in so many areas – are rarely satisfying or logically coherent. To take the one view, God orders and wills and causes everything – in which case it’s almost a logical impossibility to see Him as good; and you end with such a delicately constructed theological system that if one part is troubled, the whole edifice shakes and threatens to fall apart. Surely God’s more intellectually secure than that? The other pole is to suggest that either we’re in charge of everything – which might explain the messes we’re always in, but rather makes a mockery of God’s wisdom and our need of Him at all; or He doesn’t know and can’t foresee everything. Which is certainly interesting, but makes him somewhat hard to trust.

There are moments in Bandersnatch when the central character is railing at whoever is controlling him, asking for a sign, questioning the choices he’s presented with and wrestling with the situations in which he finds himself. In that sense, he reminds me of Job; but unlike Job, the man at the heart of Bandersnatch can hardly be called blameless. What we can’t criticise him for – because God doesn’t rebuke Job for it either – is his raging or questioning. God seems to positively encourage that. The issue is what we do it when the raging is done; Bandersnatch offers few answers because the writer doesn’t seem able to – and as viewers, picking one of two options, we make for awfully limited gods. Ultimately this may lead to a new kind of visual storytelling; or it may go the way of Betamax video. Who can say yet what the divine storyteller has in mind for interactive film-making?

In the endings I came to in the film, the central character never seems to find peace; every ending leads to question, a self-doubt, a cause for anger or fear or guilt. That’s not how Job ends; at the end of Job’s questioning, he’s met with few answers. He’s not rebuked for asking them, but he is asked by God to accept his place, to learn who’s God and who’s man, and to understand that there are limits to his understandings. It’s not wrong to want to know why things are happening; but he must accept that in the end he will not know  – other than that he is known by the one who knows.

Bandersnatch is, for now, an example of a young art form, testing technology to see where it will bend or break; there may yet be much to come from this format, or there may not. But for now the choices it offers remain strictly binary; even that can send us down potentially mind-bending roads of multiple possibilities which soon fracture under our limited capacities. When we create, we create out of what already exists, with limited possibilities and conclusions available to us; even that is too . The God who invites our questions is big enough to hold our questions and allow us peace in both the asking and the lack of answering. There’s courage in our asking and freedom to be embraced in our unknowing; our divine storyteller comes to se us free, not to control, manipulate and abuse. Bandersnatch gives us a fun, pale imitation of our futile and cruel capacity to play at being god. We’d do well to address our questions to a better writer.

It’s Time To Save Marriage – By Dethroning It From Its Place As An Idol

It’s tempting to think that we learn from history; we all like to think we’re wise and reflective and willing to learn. The truth is many of us don’t learn the lessons we need to; history repeats, as the poet Steve Turner wrote, because no one listens. It may not repeat with exactly the same words, but recognisable rhythms and cadences are there.

For example, there are Christian perspectives on sex, relationships, marriage and dating. In 1997 Christian writer and speaker Joshua Harris published the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which advocated not dating to preserve emotional purity before marriage and a variety of steps which he at the time believed would lead to good marriage and a good sex life within marriage. No one doubted his intentions – and the book sold in vast quantities, becoming hugely influential in (evangelical) Christian culture. The problem is that it didn’t work; people became paralysed be fear of making mistakes in their relationships and they found that taking the steps he prescribed didn’t always have the promised outcome. One size, it turns out, does not fit all. This has led to a two-year process of listening, thinking and reassessing from Joshua Harris, which has resulted in him apologising for hurt caused and the book being withdrawn from publication. There’s much else to say, of course; and whilst his diligence is to be applauded, it’s true that apologies don’t necessarily fix what’s broken. However it would be hoped that we – the church  – had learned something important here.

In the last week a high-profile pastor from a high-profile American church published a blog about why people ‘put off’ marriage, and what they should do about. He (of course, he’s a he; and of course, he’s married) will follow this up with “practical steps for catching your man or woman“. He promises “God’s power will deliver you from any pain” and puts masturbation in the same (no-doubt) sinful category as co-habiting. We are made for marriage he says, paying-lip service to the possibility of a ‘supernatural gift from God’ of singleness. It all boils down to this; do this, get that. Do this and you’ll get a (very good) marriage. Do this and you’ll get the partner you dream of.

Again, no one doubts the intentions here, but let’s attempt to examine where this leaves people. It leaves the single with a set of things to do in order to guarantee a good marriage; the post may be replete with Biblical references, but there’s precious little reference to the gracious gifts of grace (not in response to works) God gives. And none of how life just happens; life getting in the way. Sin, sickness, failure. None of that – even people’s ‘blemishes are beautiful’; which they may be, of course, but it’s a somewhat romanticised way of describing someone with an anger problem or who habitually spends too much money.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The fundamental problem comes, it seems to me, with describing people (apart from the ‘supernaturally gifted for singleness’) as ‘made for marriage’. It sees marriage as something we have to do unless we have a clear calling otherwise. Amongst much else, it misunderstands the order of creation in the Genesis picture; God makes people, then He institutes marriage as a gift to them. Marriage is given by God to people, made to serve them; in that sense, it’s like the Sabbath, a similar misunderstanding of which Jesus had to tidy up. Marriage, like the Sabbath, is created by God to help and serve people in all manner of ways. It’s different from Sabbath in terms of where it stands in the 10 Commandments – Sabbath observance is a requirement from God (because we have a tendency to think work is ours to keep on doing and that our work earns us something from God); marriage is to be honoured by not committing adultery – but nowhere are we told we must get married. Just that if we’re married, we’re not to undermine it (through abuse, adultery or the like).

Two or three clicks away from the marriage blog post, I find a ministry founded by the author which seeks to be ” a company of radicals helping to define healthy sexuality”. It’s all well-intentioned; some of it may even contain good advice (I haven’t read anything like all the content on the site). The problem stems, though, from setting marriage as the goal we’re made for, and that we must have a special calling to not be married. This immediately suggests that the unmarried who have not received that ‘special calling’ are broken or in error or sinful in some way. The fault must lie with them; and God forbid they masturbate, or even think about sex in the mean time. It also says to the married couple struggling to keep the flame alive in the midst of children, bills to pay, ill-health or just the pressures of life that they too are broken and wrong, somehow short of God’s plan. The whole enterprise of human relationships and sexuality reduced to a slot-machine, a formula, a puzzle where you just have to put the right pieces in the right places.

Marriage (and the perfect, nuclear family) have become, in attitudes like these, the great evangelical Christian idol. I speak as a minister, much of whose theology might be defined as evangelical. I’m also married with (foster) children. Here’s the truth from that perspective. God doesn’t free us from all pain – I’m still chronically ill; my marriage is not perfect; every need can not be met by one relationship. I adore my wife and kids. But it’s very, very hard work. God will free us from all pain – in the new creation. For now, we all struggle and fight and sometimes get healed and sometimes don’t. I know from 19 years of pastoral ministry that many wonderful Christian people do all the things they’re told are ‘right’  – ‘guard the  heart’, keep a ‘pure thought life’, trust Jesus completely, do all the right things to catch a spouse. But they find it doesn’t work; unless they’re unusually well supported, loved and cared for, cynicism grows, love for God hardens and they drift away or tune out. Of course they do – wouldn’t you, if you gradually discover that the grace gift you thought you were looking at, made for, designed for, was in fact a carefully constructed golden calf?

To better preserve the gift of marriage and family that God has given us, it’s time for the church to dethrone it. To talk openly and freely about lust not being slaked by saying ‘I do’; by admitting that many who are married are lonely; that there’s no formula to finding the right person; that any area of our life is far more complex than the blueprint formula suggests. The longer I go on in this work, the more I find broken, hurt, saddened people fearing they are somehow incomplete without a spouse, fearing they are missing God’s ‘best for their lives’; laden with shame and fear for a sexual thought or deed because they are told that these are the worst possible sins (by men who consume far more than they need, lash out in angry words and thoughts, hold to casual racism or so much else – but remain curiously unchallenged).

Sin is sin. It’s a problem for us all; but in Jesus it’s dealt with. In Him there is no shame or guilt; yet our idolising of marriage and family and the sex we claim goes with it, leaves a trail of that shame and guilt that is rarely voiced and seldom heard. Let’s step away from the slot-machine systematisation of relationships with God and people; let’s listen to the still, small voice of God in and to those broken beneath the wheels of the Golden Calves the evangelical church loves to erect in the place of cross and empty tomb.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.

This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.

Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.

If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know –  directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.

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Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.

The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.

It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.

We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.

Remembering  – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection  – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.

It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.

Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.

In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

woman playing ukulele

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God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?