Anger Is An Energy: Responding To Paul Greengrass’s 22 July

Anger is an energy sang PIL, and so the punk movement took flight. Behind the now cliché of a colourful mohican was a frantic energy to destroy the status-quo of the elites running culture and politics. This was a music that left everything out on stage – except, perhaps, the instruments themselves which were often thrashed past the point of breakage when the gig has reached its climax. A few bands still do this even now; it’s seen to be a signifier of having given so much to the performance that there’s nowhere left to go, a symbol of the destruction of the established order. It’s also quite good fun to watch. Like most musical genres, once punk muscled its way into deeper public consciousness it seemed to have less energy, and to be a bit tired. That’s not entirely fair, but the hardcore punk fans see neo-punk acts who remain commercially successful as bands who have sold out – many true punks look disdainfully on bands like Green Day and their fans as having somehow failed by virtue of their success. The baton of truth is held, it’s said, by bands most of us would never have heard of; in punk, and in other genres that once betokened rebellion but now command widespread attention – RnB, hip-hop, rap. And so on.

Anger isn’t wrong; it just seems to be something that can easily tip us over into wrong. One New Testament letter writer doesn’t say ‘Your anger is a sin’; it says, instead ‘In your anger, do not sin’. Anger is an energy, which left unchecked can lead us to dangerously lose control; which is why the same letter-writer also recommends that if  we find ourselves angry with someone we love, to sort it out before bedtime.

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

 

The truth is that there seems to be an awful lot of anger around at the moment. American conservatives are angry that under Obama their America was lost. American liberals are angry at the Conservatives for spreading hate and intolerance. Progressive Christians are angry at conservative ones for supporting Trump; conservative ones are angry with progressive ones for not doing so and for accusing them of selling out the gospel. Women are angry at men for the patriarchy and the abuse and the harassment; some men are angry at women for finding a voice, other men are angry at the rest of the men for speaking up or not speaking up. Brexit supporters are angry with Remainers for demanding a new vote and with their government for selling out the referendum; Remainers are angry with Brexiteers for being Brexiteers and with their government for an indecisive process. Here in South Africa … well, it feels to me as if everyone is angry with one group or another. Apply to your own country or context several times over.

Social media is often blamed for this; and it’s true that never having to see the person you’re typing at makes it easier to get angry and nasty; or at least not having to see them in that moment … a bit like over-spending on the credit-card because it doesn’t feel like real money. If anger is an energy, it’s often a destructive one, whether it’s musical instruments, people or political unity.

Anger was destructive on 22 July, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 young people attending a Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo after detonating a car bomb in the city. Paul Greengrass’s new film, titled 22 July tells this story. With his background in television journalism, British director Greengrass is attracted to stories like this; most powerfully in United 93 which told the story of the plane hijacked on 9/11/01 that never made it to its intended target. That he managed to tell that story without nationalistic fervour, hatred or voyeurism is one of the great cinematic achievements this century. A similar eye is there in his more action centred films – the Bourne movies (3 of which are his) may be fictional thrillers, but they are ones that seem to live in a nearly-real, believable world. If a film had to be made about Utøya Island (and as someone who knows what it’s like to lose someone to terrorist atrocities, I think that’s an open question) Paul Greengrass is the man to do it. He does so with a cinema release, but primarily on Netflix, to get what he sees as an important story into the medium most likely to reach younger people.

It’s a film with clear segments. The first 30 minutes or so portray the massacre itself – the families of victims asked him to neither sanitise nor exploit it, and he achieves that. It’s a devastating half-hour, shot in the eerie half-light of Scandinavian summer; deaths and injuries are real, but not lingered on. Its cinematography is a mixture of his trademark shaken, handheld cameras which deliberately jar with some powerful longer shots; one, of a group of teenagers huddled fearfully halfway down a cliff face, is especially memorable and moving. From there the film follows two paths – the recovery of one teenager badly injured, and the arrest and eventual trial of Brevik. Throughout nothing is soft-soaped, but neither is it milked; the teenager’s recovery is hard to watch (beyond a couple of scenes which feel a little contrived or clichéd; though I’m aware we can’t know the details of his recovery process). Brevik (brilliantly portrayed) is neither mad nor cartoonishly evil; he’s coldly rational, angry and aware. The moment we all know is coming – when he walks in to court and gives a long Nazi salute – is no less upsetting for it being predictable. That’s all in the brilliance of the direction and the performance.

None of these people are the central character, though. That’s Norway itself; the country Brevik insists is on trial. Greengrass said in his brilliant and eloquent interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo (Simon Mayo interviews Paul Greengrass) that he wanted to tell the story of how Norway wrestled with the issue of whether to let Brevik tell the court his reasons; should we listen to his anger, or should they deny him the oxygen of publicity? Is it ever right to listen to the people who do these things? Norway decided it was; and the result, Greengrass claims, is that anger is is dissipated. In that interview Greengrass cites the ongoing divisions over Brexit, the rise of the far-right in diverse countries and the political cauldron of the USA as contexts where a similar exercise in listening might be fruitful or even healing.

It sounds true and wise, and probably is. I’ve tried hard to listen over recent years, as best as I am able to practically, given my circumstances. But the thing is, I’m getting sick of it. I’m getting sick of being shouted at – metaphorically in text or in reality through someone’s voice. I’m sick of being told or thinking I might be intolerant on the one hand or racist on the other; of being theologically liberal or conservative or progressive; of being a toxic male or a weak one; of being a parent who’s too strict or too permissive. And so it goes on. If listening really does dissipate anger’s energy, or allow the wrongness of the ideas that drive it to be seen for all it is, then I’ve yet to really experience it. Maybe dealing with it once in Norway just caused it move and take root more deeply elsewhere, like some sick version of Whack-A-Mole.

What do we do with our anger, mine and yours? Unexpressed anger is a breeding ground for all sorts of darkness, of which others or the angry one themselves may both bear the brunt. There are plenty of places in the Bible, for example, where anger and lament is given a voice; but this is rare in our public worship. Saying or singing the psalms doesn’t seem to be something that works in many settings now – so maybe we need new expressions of these texts, or songs and hymns that give voice to very contemporary laments. Still, though, many Christians seems to feel that anger is inherently sinful, and that its very expression or acknowledgement will let the genie out of the bottle. What about the rest of us, though; the increasing majority who are ‘spiritual, but not religious’; atheist or agnostic? What are their options? How do we listen well, and express anger well without the cancer spreading or worsening? How do we find the strength to keep listening when we’re sick of it?

I don’t know.

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Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

About Time: Warmth and wit calling us to courageous honesty

Richard Curtis writes about people who don’t exist. Or, more precisely, he writes about the sort of people you can vaguely recognise but whom you know in reality are far less interesting than how they are made to appear on-screen. His films since 4 Weddings And A Funeral have created a kind of mass-market Britishness which feels comfy and cosy in the way of a hot chocolate on a rainy autumn night; people with impossibly high incomes who seem to do no work, people who fall in love with Americans, people who are politically conservative but morally liberal and able to take two months off in the summer to lie in the garden in Cornwall and drink tea. Rather than devolving into cliché, which is how its tempting to understand his work, what this kind of comfort-blanket film-making has allowed him to do (at his best) is to allow us to examine emotions with which we are all familiar, all in the context of a kind of only just out of reach fantasy setting.

About Time is for me his best film to date. This doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. It is. The characters are predictable in that the men can’t speak about feelings and the women are all gorgeous; it would be nice if someone in the film was a bit … well, not rich. Despite most of the film being set in London there’s none of the rich diversity that makes London a place I love to live in. All these flaws are present, and more. Despite that, the film works; deeply so.

Tim (Domhnall Glesson) reaches 21 years-old and discovers from his father (Bill Nighy, of course) that the men in his family can travel in time. They do so in a typically reserved way; they go into a dark room, close their eyes and clench fists, thinking hard about the time they want to be in. They can only go back to a point in their own lives, and when they do so there’s only one of them. So a typical Richard Curtis romantic comedy develops, complete with glamorous American woman in the form of Rachel McAdams and the usual eccentric uncles. The time travel has, as it needs to, its own rules and sticks to them, so the whole thing is narratively coherent in a way that such films often fail to be. With the time travel element this will be labelled as science fiction, which is misleading; it’s so lightly played that we never really feel snapped out of a world we think we recognise. It allows a new wrinkle on Curtis upper-class humour, a kind of ‘un-bumbling’ which allows the men to become more who they wish they were and the who their women want them to be.

The film takes wings in two places. One, in the form of Tom Hollander in a vital supporting role; his part as a self-important playwright is beautifully written and as anyone who watches British TV comedy knows, Hollander has almost supernatural levels of comic timing. He can reduce me to tears of laughter with a pause for breath.

The second, and more affecting, area in which the film succeeds abundantly is in Tim’s relationship with his father. Significant at the film’s start, almost disconcertingly absent in the middle section, it’s how the film is tied up and unified in the conclusion. It feels like an unfair caricature of Britishness  – and it is an unfair caricature – but what the cliché of pathologically emotionally inarticulate males allows us is a way into is a gracious but firm reminder to say what we need and want to say before it’s too late. This is the film’s emotional heart; it’s sentimental button-pushing which works perfectly; you’re left in no doubt what the film’s trying to do and it earns forgiveness for cliché and sentiment by the good-hearted wit of the whole piece. It’s also beautifully filmed; individual shots composed with a painterly eye, occasionally and powerfully switching to hand-held shaking cameras. Your eyes and your heart are fully engaged by a wealth of well-meaning intentions, so you’re in the mood to forgive flaws which would otherwise annoy.

Maybe I’m just at a place in my life where I was ready for this. The still recent and fresh loss of a good friend in violent, tragic and public circumstances has rammed to the unwilling front of my consciousness the need for the sort of courageous honesty which allows us to keep short accounts with people; to not let the sun go down on our anger, as the Bible beautifully puts it. There’s more to open accounts in relationships than anger, of course; there’s the expression of deep love and appreciation and admiration; there’s forgiveness; there’s praise; there’s so much more. The anger can be the urgent one because it can so easily get in the way of the others; unexpressed and unworked through (those two must go together) it can asphyxiate a relationship with alarming speed. It’s hard to say what we really think and feel to people – positive or negative – because we’re so habitually afraid of rejection, of looking foolish or of getting the words wrong. Appropriately enough, then, the circumstances of our lives may mean that About Time is a (yes) timely reminder that these are things worth risking.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Ordinary People + Angry Music = joy

I think I was unique among the tens of thousands present in being able to say that the last thing I did before leaving for the gig was take a communion service in a home for the elderly. American rap-rock group Linkin Park played their first South African concert at Cape Town stadium on Wednesday November 7th. It was a fierce, gale-force wind-swept early summer’s day. That carried a high price – before the concert a sponsor’s branded scaffolding tower fell (outside the stadium), injuring several people and killing one. It was a tragic accident, and as the exact facts are still (at the time of writing) being ascertained it’s best to comment no further. Thoughts and prayers remain, of course, with those affected.

Linkin Park were born in 1996, a furious blend of aggressive guitar based rock and electronically backed rap, they’re one of the few bands who have survived that music sub-set’s brief moment in the sun of chart success; achieving significant and long-lasting global success. This is a sort of music that’s often dismissed quickly by those who don’t get it – making a sound like this work in a live environment is a huge musical challenge, one to which the band rise. Battling against some of the worst sound I’ve heard at a gig (strong winds are a PA person’s nightmare at an outdoors gig), the band are in the musical equivalent of some sort of high-wire act to make it all work, harnessing the different sounds and images to at times brilliant effect. In fact, I preferred them live to on record; recorded I find the sound (with the exception of the first album) too clean, too produced. They are, after all, singing angry songs about fear, self-loathing and alienation; so the slick production that’s come to mark their sound since the early days has always felt to me a little at odds with the music itself.

This was a crowd which had waited a long time – 18 years – for the band to make it to South Africa; the set, front-loaded with older hits worked brilliantly.There’s an inherent irony here that must be touched on. Cape Town is often referred to as the most unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. So for a stadium full of the statistically richest people in the city being sung to and singing out about alienation and pain is slightly surreal. That, and this is a manufactured, slick set-up – just how angry can a band really be when they find themselves soundtracking video games and movie franchises?

But still. As I’ve alluded, this is angry, loud music about difficult emotions. (If you’re new to their music, go to their You Tube Channel to sample; I suggest starting with the exhaustingly brilliant One Step Closer from the first album, then the haunting and oddly beautiful much later The Catalyst – a prayer for God to draw close; after that, hunt around and see what you find). People, who for all the world look healthy and happy, spent an evening joyfully engaging with anger and suffering. I say joyfully deliberately. I have a memory of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke being asked about his band’s concerts – aren’t they miserable because your music is about such painful emotions and dark subjects? No, he replied – joy is shared truth, so the band’s concerts are oddly joyful. That’s not the whole of a Christian understanding of joy, but it’s certainly part of it – the catharsis of sharing, of acknowledging together dark places, shining the light on the them and so removing the fear.

The Bible does similar things. The Psalms are often referred to the church’s first prayer book or collection of hymns. It contains ecstatic shouts of praise – and not a little anger too. Psalm 139 is mostly a prayer of awe at God’s power and creativity, but in verse 19 it has an alarming turn of phrase: If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!.

Or take Psalm 116, verses 10 and 11 I believed; therefore I said ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said ‘all men are liars’.

There’s a whole book called Lamentations. The title fits well.

There are many other places in the Bible we could continue with this; there’s a consistent pattern in scripture of the expression of these emotions of anger and fear and pain leading a person closer to God, not further away. So, as a stadium full of people sang “God bless us, every one, we’re broken people living under a loaded gun”; as angry music allowed 90 minutes of joyful shared experience, I wondered … how does this translate? How do we take these emotions, in the Bible expressed towards God, into our contemporary worship? It’s a challenge – and it’s one, as I’ve touched on before, that the writers of worship songs are tentatively taking up. There is further to go, though. Which is why a lot of us – Christians or not – still need bands like Linkin Park to fill the gaps for us.

That, and they’re great live.