#firstimefriday Bill Murray and Embracing The Transcendence Of The Ordinary

In the dark, strange days after 9/11, when the skies over London were still eerily empty of the planes that would on a normal day noisily criss-cross their white plumes overhead, a story spread across the city. There were, it turned out, variations on it, but it went something like this. A Muslim man had unknowingly dropped his obviously full wallet on public transport somewhere in the city; a fellow passenger saw this, picked up the wallet and handed it to its owner. He was very grateful, and as he thanked the person in question, he would lean forward and whisper to him or her “Stay out of [names part of London] on [names a day/date].”

It’s a classic urban myth; it plays on fear and prejudice; it’s always ‘a friend’ or a friend of a friend’ to whom it happened; the actual people involved are always just one remove away. These myths spread like wildfire across cities – even before the internet and social media were in wide use – and become accepted truths. Of course, these days one can find few people who actually believed this myth; but back in the day when most of us heard it most of us believed it, at least for a few minutes. For some of us, such stories become a prism through which we view an issue; the more light-hearted ones become shared jokes which bind groups together. In many cases the truthfulness of these myths isn’t what’s most important; it’s what they mean at a deeper level that matters, the way they shape us and define our views of people or things. Urban myths are in that respect a close relative of what we now call fake news.

Bill Murray is an actor around whom a series of what appear to be urban myths have grown up, and the 70 minute documentary The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man  (available on Netflix in some countries) is the story of a film-maker trying to get to the bottom of them, establish their truthfulness and meaning. It turns out that the myths around Bill Murray are mostly true – he really did turn up to a student party and do the washing up; he did join the engagement photo-shoot of a random couple; he did play kickball with some people in a park that one time; he did turn up at a bar and start serving drinks behind it.

Bill Murray 2

On they go. The documentary is intoxicatingly cheerful; it’s the good-natured story of a global star, blessed with magical comic timing, who has appeared in some of our best-loved movies, doing nice things for ordinary people. What does it all mean, the film-maker wants to know?

I remember Bono once being quoted as saying ‘I see fame as a calling’. It’s one of those Bono-isms that winds a lot of people up: I understand that, but I couldn’t help thinking of those words when I was watching this film. It seems that Bill Murray sees fame in a similar way; if one has this ridiculous thing called a celebrity, one might as well do something useful with it, the logic goes. Bono takes that in one direction; Bill Murray in another. The roots of this seem to be in his improvisational comedy background; as the film explains, in improv the artist has to say ‘yes, and … ‘ then move further down the road. Fear must drive you to new things in improv, not weigh one down the way it does so many of us. He has no entourage to bring with him, no PR people to spin. He’s just himself, improvising outside the performance space.

What’s interesting is what this all means to the people Murray meets. One of his directors says ‘he shows up not to take over, but to be present’. One person who testified to one myth’s truthfulness first-hand said ‘He made feel like a bigger person than I am … I’m not part of his story, he’s part of my story.’ Another says ‘By action, if not by word, he’s teaching us how to live.’ It’s an invitation not to live on autopilot, but rather to live wherever the wind blows.

For the follower of Jesus, this all sounds a little like Jesus speaking of how the Holy Spirit, the essence of God, guides us and works. It sounds a lot like an invitation to embrace the opportunity to see transcendence and holiness and opportunity in the ordinary stuff of the day to day, for ourselves and for those standing in queues with us, at the next table, in the car beside us. What if we Jesus followers saw those moments as chances to bring transcendence to others and ourselves in those ordinary moments; what if we did so in such a way so as to not draw attention to ourselves with a lecture or sermon or the like? But something more simple – quietly paying for someone else’s coffee, for example.

I don’t know how all this works. Bill Murray is no Jesus – a quick read around online relates that many have found him hard to work with and that one ex-wife mentioned abuse and addiction as a cause for her seeking divorce (though these claims were later withdrawn). In these true myths, is Murray somehow seeking atonement for all that too? We can but guess. But it all seems to be the sort of gentle, grace-giving, enlightening thing Jesus to which Jesus might call us.

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Personal Jesus: The Dangers Of A Systematic Faith

“What’s the worst thing about this college?”.

This was a question I asked at each of the three theological colleges which I was considering for my three years of study prior to being ordained in the Church of England. One particular college, the third of the three, was the one I would almost certainly attend. This wasn’t because it was my natural favourite (it wasn’t), but because it would enable me to be near my fiancée and her family as we prepared for marriage, whilst supporting her mother who was suffering from what proved to be terminal cancer. Everyone I met on the day I spent there was lovely. Especially the students. Most of them. Some of them were a tad on the over-zealous side. They were loudly talking up the benefits of the college whilst we played table-tennis. After the game concluded, I found myself in a group of (all men – not a surprise, all the would be priests here were men), continuing the conversation. As we talked, needlessly loudly given we were within a few feet of each other, I realised I was being quite literally backed into a physical corner; this probably wasn’t deliberate on the part of the students, but it felt like an apt representation of the hard-sell I received. As I found myself with nowhere left to go, I asked that question – I had a very good idea by now what the college’s perceived strong points were. I wanted to know what was wrong with it. A moment of silence: “I suppose it can be a bit intense occasionally.”, came the reply. No kidding.

I ended up studying there, mainly for the practical reasons I mentioned. I made some good friends, enjoyed some of the study because I like study and reading, and harbour a few (very few) good memories; but yes, it was intense. Theologically most of what was promoted  – by many staff and the most vocal students – was of one particular system. The system was Calvinism, most specifically what’s known as 5-point Calvinism. Now theology has exercised some of humanity’s greatest minds over the last 2,000 or so years, so it’s impossible to do justice to such an intellectually complex system as Calvinism in a few sentences. Suffice to say it covers issues like the free-will of humans to respond to God’s (irresistable) grace, and suggests (depending on quite where on a spectrum you sit), that God has chosen before time who will be saved and who won’t be. When I expressed to someone at college that I didn’t agree with these ideas I was, told that to believe otherwise was “sub-Christian”. Not everyone went that far, of course, but the message was clear; there was only one theological system to which we should adhere.

 

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That all came back to my mind when I was reading Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed“. I don’t know much about the author, but the book stood out from the crowd as conservative reformed (in this case meaning Calvinist) theology has become a louder, richer and well-publicised force in some more westernised countries. It’s a short book – 136 pages – so I wasn’t expecting much heavy theology. I was expecting a narrative reflection on the author’s experience. I did get the latter, but it surprised me how much of the former I also got, given the book’s brevity. The author describes his own experience of growing up and being trained in Calvinist/Reformed theology, and then his gradual departing from it towards something rather different. He uses logic, reason, personal and pastoral experience, the Bible and theology to do this; and he does it accessibly.

He doesn’t pretend at any point in this book that what he’s saying is the whole story. He doesn’t dismiss Calvinism (though reading some online reviews, some feel he does). True, the version he was taught is very extreme; but the issue is that many people do actually take this theology to those extremes. He is also at pains to point out that he remains grateful for what Calvinism has given him, can see why some interpret Scripture in this way and lauds the intellectual integrity of those fully committed to it. The theological landing place he finds himself in is one he feels works, but he is clear it is not the finished article, and suggests that there should be no theological worldview that is complete and unassailable. God is other and holy; infinite and ineffable; and many other things besides. To suggest we can describe him fully would be folly; humility, says Fischer, should be the theologian’s and disciple’s ultimate posture. The God revealed to us in Jesus that the author paints for us is a loving, intoxicating and attractive one. I think I agree with Fischer more than I disagree with him.

There’s the rub. Increasingly there is no one theological system I can call my own. The other day I was trying to articulate this and said I might be ‘theologically homeless’. I wondered if that might be somewhat tactless; but then a friend pointed out that maybe it was apt – accepting nourishment and provision wherever I find it. Not a perfect image, but a striking one; and one I suspect many of my homeless friends might resonate with. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fixed points – Jesus’ divinity, the resurrection, historic creeds. But these describe rather than systematise; they give parameters within which to explore. These parameters, it turns out, are surprisingly spacious, far more so than the suffocating control I found Calvinism to be (and which other people experience of other closed theological systems). Yes, I have certainties; but there’s much I don’t know. It’s a city the streets of which I’m still walking; alleys, byways and major roads which I’m still discovering; working out where the refreshing parks and coffee shops are. Is it pushing it too far to state here that Jesus said he that had nowhere to lay his head? Maybe; but the most pure revelation of God humanity has received is a person, who for three years roamed from place to place, doing what he sensed God was guiding him to do. That’s not so much a system as it is a discovery of a map, a city, a region.

If you have a theological system to defend you always have to be on the look out. You sense someone probing away at one part of is, so you have to scramble to keep it intact. If one part disappears, the whole will go with it. Such a system may look attractive, and appear safe and secure, but as soon as you find one part doesn’t work, then it all comes crashing down. For me, as for so many others, that collapse can come around God’s ‘control’ or sovereignty or whatever you want to call it. Extreme Calvinists – who take it to its logical conclusions – decide that God is in control of everything. We sort of have free will; but nothing happens to which God doesn’t say yes. And still he remains perfectly good.

Rachel

Rachel Held Evans

Many believe this with confidence and integrity; I never have. A few days ago the hugely influential Christian writer Rachel Held Evans died, painfully young, of a sudden illness, leaving behind a husband and young children. Her writing nourished many  – including me – and painted a way back to a Jesus-centred faith that many who had given up on it all could embrace. She grew up in a theological environment similar to Fischer’s, and ended up in landing place that may be a little different to his, but also has many overlaps. In the wake of her death, many are mourning. Some of my more Calvinist friends, whilst sincerely lamenting the sadness of this loss, stated her final blog post on the subject of death and loss on Ash Wednesday showed ‘God was in control’.

I admire them, but wonder if that could be said to her family. I shudder at the idea that some may say God was in the control of the terrorist’s bullet which killed my friend in Nairobi one day. I think I couldn’t worship such a God. Rachel Held Evans, Austin Fischer, and others like them provide for me and many others a picture of a Jesus-like God whom I find mysterious and other and holy and majestic; yet still truthful, kind, good and impossible to systematise or fill in all the blanks of, at least this side of the new creation. Humans aren’t made in the image of a system; we’re made in the image of a God of three persons, all in perfect relationship, all-loving, all-good. I don’t need a system to draw close to that God – much as many seem to think I do. After all, when Jesus died, a curtain that preserved a system was torn in two.

No. I don’t think that I need a system. I need a person, one whom I can know even as I am known.

#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).

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It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

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.

#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.

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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.